Monday, 3 September 2012

Blogging and Why There Shouldn't be Awkwardness Over 'Bad' Reviews

My children watch a lot of Disney movies. And, usually, when they get up half way through to play, I'm normally left on the sofa by myself watching them. But one day, alone in front of the television, something caught my attention. The film was Ratatouille. The character: Restaurant Critic Anton Ego.

In his big speech at the end of the film, he says: "In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and theirselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read."

And it is. Giles Coren didn't become one of Britain's best-known restaurant critics for nodding enthusiastically at everything he was offered and praising it all joyously afterwards. When you search for reviews on Google you'll often find the more negative reviews at the top of the page - the most viewed. And whenever I've said I don't much like something, that post always got many more page views than anything else.

The thing is, many of us just don't like giving bad reviews. Chefs can spend their whole lives training professionally - we're talking decades of training and perfecting their dishes. Then someone sets up a blog, traipses on down to their restaurant and finds fault with something they've served (justifiably or not) and tells the world. You can see why some chefs have had a hard time with some bloggers in the past.

PR companies can also contact you and offer a free product, sample, free 3-course meal or even a weekend away for you to write about on your blog. If you've had a bad experience there it can lead to some kind of awkwardness, especially if it was complimentary. It shouldn't have to. We all are reviewing a product or service, not just agreeing to write an advert for it.

Readers come to blogs for honest opinion. They don't come to be fed padded-out reviews that praise a company that didn't deliver the best they could just because the blogger writing it felt 'awkward.' And, as I've learned over the last few years blogging, there really is no need for any of that awkwardness anyway. Here's why:

The company offering the review product knows they are taking a risk
When a company decides to send out samples or offer restaurant dishes they know they are taking a risk. Sometimes they'll email you and stress that they want you to write up an honest review. You would hope that by the time they get reviewers involved, they would have polished their product or service enough that they would expect a good write up about it. This could also work in the opposite way for restaurants, where sometimes you find you're being offered top up drinks, extra bowls of olives and the like, while the diners around you sit there, twiddling their thumbs with their tummies rumbling. (Tip: go anonymous).

Most companies don't mind that you've written a bad review
See? There's no need to feel awkward. But there's a way to go about it. When I've had a bad experience, I haven't just written up the blog post and published it, full of negative comments. First, I've contacted the company to explain the reasons why I didn't like what they sent. Then, they have a chance to either put it right, or at least state their reply. Then, you can go ahead and publish what you thought about the product, along with their response. And anyway, so the saying goes: 'There's no such thing as bad publicity'. All (bad and good) reviews spark conversation and might even get someone to try the product for themselves to see what they think.

For a product to do well, they need good and bad feedback
Very often, review samples are sent out so that companies can receive feedback before officially launching their product. They'll often ask bloggers to write reviews or sometimes just give their opinions to them directly so that they can make sure the product is ready for the mass market. If you thank them for what they sent, and just tell them it was great (and it wasn't) you're not helping anything move forward. Be honest, but also stay professional and constructive. 

Just make sure you're justified
There have been so many instances in the world's news about bloggers being punished or publicly thrashed for wrongly criticising a restaurant and its food. There was the case in Taiwan where a blogger was imprisoned for wrongly saying that a restaurant's noodles were too salty. Extreme, yes. But just because we shouldn't feel bad about writing negative (but constructive) reviews, it doesn't mean you can go and slag off everything you eat. You'll most likely annoy the restaurant owner and chef (especially if you don't give them a chance to reply in the first place). As the wrongly-criticised chef in Taiwan said, bloggers should be "objective and fair" in their writing.

So. If you try a product that really wasn't up to scratch, don't just sit there and say it was great for an easy life. Most companies will be pleased with the feedback and your recommendations might even result in long-term changes - for the better - to the product on sale. You'll win the respect of your readers who will come to you for an honest (but constructive) opinion, too. Just remember that you are responsible for your comments - write fairly and constructively.

Have you ever felt pressured into giving a good review of something when it wasn't that good, especially if the product or meal was complimentary? Is it important for bloggers to be honest when writing up reviews? Tell me what you think...