Tweeting on hosted trips: When does it become shilling?  

David Whitley July 31, 2014 Comments Off on Tweeting on hosted trips: When does it become shilling?  

I’ve just got back from what was quite possibly the most fantastic holiday of my life. After picking up a car in Las Vegas airport, my wife and I drove through Utah, then Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks into Montana, before finishing with a few days in Seattle and Vancouver.

I’m not generally prone to hyperbole, but I didn’t exactly hold back with my enthusiasm for the journey on Twitter. Witness:

 

 

And so on…

In retrospect, this poses (at least for me), an interesting conundrum, as I’m a fairly vocal critic of travel writers who use Twitter to pump out a stream of unerringly promotional tweets about the destination or hotel that is currently hosting them on a freebie trip. Said tweets usually come with a hashtag (such as #GoPlaceX2014) that has no benefit to anyone but the hosting PR. It’s a wearingly prevalent practice, and I’ve ended up unfollowing the worst culprits.

To me, this crosses the line between journalism and being an unthinking marketing tool – and it does no favours to people (such as myself) who believe there’s nothing wrong with travel writers/ journalists/ bloggers accepting hosting, as long as it is used in the right way.

The thing is, I was hosted in Utah (and Seattle and Vancouver, though not Grand Teton and Yellowstone). Was I guilty of the same thing? Coming back and reading through the tweets from that trip has made me think about the issue. How do you tweet positively about a place where you’re receiving freebies, without sounding like you’re shilling for whoever’s hosting you?

Utah really was pretty bloody brilliant, you know.

Utah really was pretty bloody brilliant, you know.

First up, a bit of background. My wife and I visited Zion National Park on our road-trip through the US South-West in September last year. We were rather taken with it, and decided to come back to cover more of Utah. The trip was designed as a holiday – something we unquestioningly wanted to do. The work aspect came later – I pitched out various aspects of the trip and got a few commissions (although, hi editors, I’ve got plenty more material if you’d like a story or three). The Utah Office of Tourism later offered to host accommodation and a few activities/ meals while we were there, which is something I took as a handy bonus*. It’s stuff I’d be doing anyway in places I was already going to – this was just a handy bonus in terms of keeping the costs down.

But did accepting the hosting mean I should have cut back on the gushing tweets? It’s an interesting dilemma.

I’ve come to the conclusion, however, that the answer is no. There’s nothing inherently wrong about expressing genuine enthusiasm for something on Twitter. If I hadn’t been hosted, I’d have been tweeting the same things. And that, for me, is the key factor.

If what you’re saying broadly fits into your existing rules of what to tweet and what not to tweet (my philosophy essentially boils down to “don’t be boring”), I’d say that’s fine.  Tweeting about hosted trips only becomes a problem if you change what you’re tweeting because of it. If you’re tweeting things purely for the benefit of the host (and I include those press trip hashtags in this), that’s when you’re crossing the line into shilling.

I’d also argue that, if you are going to be prone to bouts of enthusiasm about hosted trips, it should be contained within normal service. When every tweet is glowingly complimentary, it starts to look suspicious. I’m somewhat relieved to find that mine were interspersed with some that are not exactly what the tourist board would want.

 

There is also the issue of disclosure. I didn’t declare on Twitter that I was being hosted, and perhaps I should have done. Some people argue that using a hashtag such as #spon after every tweet on a hosted trip is necessary. I disagree on that – first of all, it contravenes the “don’t be boring” rule – no-one really cares about such tedious inside baseball sticklerism. It also introduces confusion about whether the trip or the tweet itself has been sponsored.

But should I have occasionally tweeted something along the lines of “BTW, I am being hosted by the Utah Office of Tourism on this trip”? Perhaps I should have (although it skirts worryingly close to being plain boring). In my mind, accepting freebies doesn’t matter if you write about them honestly (and tweeting is incorporated under “write about them”). But others may have a different view, and perhaps such disclosures are necessary for the reader to be able to assess for themselves whether what is being written is honest?

This issue is one I haven’t fully made my mind up on. Openness can often cross the line into yawnsome, unnecessary earnestness, and I don’t want my Twitter feed to turn into the New York Times ethical policy statement. But when so many writers (in whatever format) flagrantly cross the line into shameless promotion of free stuff, perhaps a little disclosure is required to allow readers to make their own minds up.

 

*Post-publication edit: They actually offered to host a lot more than they eventually did – I turned a lot of things that weren’t relevant to the commissioned articles down.

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