Declaration: Somebody does pay me for this, but has no idea what I'm going to write about or what I'm going to say!
Another declaration: I'm not going to name names in this post. I'm not interested in going to war with, or praising individual publishers, but rather I'm interested in the travel media industry's approach to this subject collectively.
A month or so ago I had an interesting social media exchange with the travel editor of one of the UK's best known national newspapers.
I was curious to see what my followers thought of an enthusastically positive destination feature about a family holiday on a luxury tropical island resort - was it a 'sponsored/hosted' trip or not? For the most part they thought it was, but that is not the point. The point was, we couldn't know because there was no declaration.
Stung by the implied criticism, the travel editor joined the thread explaining that they always declared hosted trips, and told me in a PM that the writer had been visiting friends and asked the editor on her return if she might write the resort up.
"Then why don't you explain that to your readers?" I asked. "It would stop any criticism and earn trust."
"It's not our policy," she said.
'How quaint!' I thought.
She is rightly proud of her newspaper's ethics on this; they do acknowledge when a travel piece has been supported, usually with a "xxx (writer) was a guest of yyy" statement in the factbox.
And in her sector - national newspapers - she's not alone. There are at least two competitors who are equally scrupulous about declaring hosted trips, and also marking paid-for advertorial, AKA "native advertising".
Equally there is at least one national newspaper that never declares the background to travel articles, and you can see the negative assumptions made by their readers in the comments on their online version (eg "Got a free holiday for your review did we?" & "Makes me want to puke reading about 'famous' people and their free holidays"). Sometimes I think this particular paper is just taking the piss!
But my travel editor interlocuter's parting shot was: "Would be nice if bloggers would do the same - few say their copy is sponsored".
Ouch! She's right on that too! Among travel bloggers in general there is a widespread lack of transparency, and surprisingly among pro-bloggers too, there are quite a few who don't bother. I used to think pro-bloggers were pretty good at this but I've begun to notice even some well-known 'Premier Division' travel bloggers writing undeclared 'sponsored' posts. I don't think it's deliberately devious. Usually it's 'cock-up' rather than conspiracy. Only yesterday, two of the best known bloggers in the business, who always declare any commercial interest, started a new video series with affiliated product links and then realised they'd left off the declaration.
How do I know?
Here comes THE POINT... I/we don't know.
I know about the last example because I asked, but unless you ask, you have to apply the Duck Rule - if it looks like a duck, floats like a duck and quacks like a duck.... it's probably a duck. If it looks and reads like a hosted/sponsored post... it probably is.
Sometimes there are clues. Sometimes I'm alerted to a hosted travel feature because a PR company has proudly Tweeted about the coverage they've got for their client in xxx magazine, but when you read it, there's no mention of the writer being a guest.
When readers read a travel post/feature, or watch a travel video, that clearly states the author was hosted by xxx hotel, flown by xxx airline, driving a car supplied by xxx rental company, or given a piece of equipment to test by xxx, they know the background and can judge how reliable the piece is.
When readers don't see a declaration, they have no idea whether to trust it.
The New World
In the old days, the trust element was provided by the overall level of trust in the publisher. When travel videos were only produced by television companies, and destination articles were only published in newspapers and magazines under the watchful control of editors whose function was to independently protect the output from the corrupting influence of the publisher & sales team... readers/viewers trusted what they were reading/viewing... mostly.
But along came the pesky Internet thing and blew all that away, because now anyone can be a publisher or broadcaster.
The guardians of ethical publishing now, are watchdogs like the Federal Trade Commission (USA), the Advertising Standards Authority (UK), the Competitions & Markets Authority (UK) and similar organisations around the world, but they are only interested in infringements when reported to them. They are not monitoring travel blogs, Instagram posts, Youtube videos, or magazine/newspaper articles, on the look out for undeclared commercial adverts marsquarading as independent editorial copy. Nobody is doing that.
Also, of course, in the pervasive new alt-media landscape of Breitbart & Trump, any residual trust enjoyed by traditional media publishers is seeping away like gas out of a leaky balloon.
So all generations, from W to Z, are having to challenge what they see, hear and read, and decide for themselves what and who they trust. It's why there has been an explosion in peer review sites from Trip Advisor & Trustpilot to Facebook (page likes) & FEEFO, and it's why marketers are puppy-dog crazy about influencers!
The need for full transparency in the future.
Readers place trust where trust is earned.
The relationship between readers and bloggers is a personal one. Readers follow bloggers because they like and trust them, and that trust is grown when readers feel themselves included. When a blogger explains that they are (e.g.) on Tahiti as part of a marketing campaign, they are treating their readers with respect. If they don't explain how/why they are on Tahiti, they leave their readers shut out. Their mum knows they are on a fam trip or on a paid-for vacation, their friends know, "but you, Dear Reader, are not a friend. You're just a reader".
The same holds true for other publishers - for Instagramers, YouTubers, Snapchatters - and without any other trust building attributes, the same will hold true for traditional media publishers.
... which is why I thought "how quaint" the travel editor's policy was. Sooner or later she will have to join the modern world and treat her readers as friends. I think she'll be invigorated and energised by the response she gets.