The question of freebies given to journalists and editors is one that comes up frequently. When is it OK to accept a freebie? When is it not? Under what circumstances is it acceptable? Government’s antipathy towards the media has thrown newspaper ethics into the spotlight. And freebies, as they are known in the industry, are a key part of those codes.
Women’s magazines, for example, receive tons of beauty products annually. They test and review the products, and give their readers insight into whether the products live up to their promise.
Newspapers do too. From cellphones to free dinners, travel offers to tickets, journalists and editors are often inundated with ‘gifts’.
In July last year, the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) held its AGM in Johannesburg. CellC was one of the sponsors. CellC CEO, Lars P Reichelt, promised editors a new USB Speedstick and later that year, the gadgets arrived.
It threw into sharp relief the questions of freebies, and when it’s acceptable, or not, to accept them.
The editors attending the AGM received a letter from Reichelt:
Dear SANEF member
Your Cell C USB Speedstick is here! At SANEF’s AGM in July, I promised to deliver a USB Speedstick to each of you once our new network was up and running. I’m pleased to inform you that we are making good progress and have already switched on our new network in seven cities, including Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, East London, Cape Town, Durban, Pietermaritzburg and George, with the aim of switching on Gauteng in mid November.
I am also proud to announce that in the two months since we launched the first city, our new network has attracted much acclaim. At the 2010 Broadband Conference hosted by MyBroadband.co.za yesterday, Cell C was awarded the 2010 Mobile Broadband Service of the Year award for its new HSPA+ 900/2100 network and “the best ever broadband pricing in South Africa.” In addition, Cell C was also voted as “the broadband provider which did the most in 2010 to improve the state of broadband in South Africa” by more than 1900 participants in the 2010 Broadband Survey. Applauded for slashing mobile broadband prices from “the usual R200 per GB to as low as R33 per GB”, MyBroadband accredits the drop in prices as a “move which is likely to change the local broadband environment for good.”
All this comes at a time when Cell C has been confirmed as the fastest ISP (Internet Service Provider) in South Africa according to Netindex from Ookla.
A Cell C crew member will be in contact with you very shortly to arrange delivery of our premium data product – the 21.6Mbps USB speed stick, SIM card and 60GB of data (5GB per month for one year).
I trust that you will enjoy our new data offer and that you will not hesitate to contact us should you have any problems or queries. I would also love to hear how you are experiencing our new network and data offer.
Lars P. Reichelt
Cell C’s Karin Fourie says that it is not standard practice to give editors gifts of such value – the speedstick retails for around R2999.00.
“Cell C launched its new network towards the end of last year and Cell C offered editors that attended SANEF’s AGM an opportunity to experience the new network. Some accepted, others declined. The speedstick retails at R2999, but it is not the cost price. It is also important to note that Cell C was one of the sponsors of SANEF’s AGM so the gift was not given in isolation,” Fourie said.
She said the marketing strategy in this case was to “gain users to test the network and provide us with feedback (both positive and negative in order to improve overall service)”.
“We have issued speedsticks for review to various publications when and where we launched our network. To date we have launched our network in 13 cities across the country (Providing HSPA+ coverage to 40% of the country’s population). We are expanding our rollout and aim to reach 67% of SA’s population by mid 2011,” she said in response to questions from TheMediaOnline.
The offer of the speedstick was left to individuals and the publications themselves to accept, or not.
Mondli Makhanya, chairperson of Sanef and editor in chief of Avusa Media, said he received calls from various editors to ask if it was acceptable to take advantage of the offer.
“We left it to the individual editors to apply their own codes of ethics to the question,” said Makhanya. “We did receive calls from people to ask if Sanef sanctioned the idea, but at Sanef, we believed that it was up to the individuals concerned to balance accepting the offer against their codes regarding freebies.”
Gasant Abarder, executive editor of the Cape Argus and Sanef representative in Cape Town, said that no editors from Independent newspapers took the speedstick as to have done so would have contravened the group’s code on freebies.
Abarder said all gifts, from pens to cellphones, had to be handed in. The gifts were then auctioned off to staff and the money donated to charity.
Di Bayley, editor of MarketingWeb, accepted a speedstick from CellC.
“I was unaware that Cell C had given speedsticks to many journalists. I happened to meet a Cell C staff member at a charity function, after Marketingweb had run some reasonably disparaging articles about the company’s advertising. He said he’d read them and would I be prepared just to try their service (the Whooosh dongle) and see if, indeed, their speeds were as good as they claimed. I agreed, on the proviso that whatever my findings were would be published – good or bad. He was happy with that.”
Asked under what circumstances she thought editors should accept articles such as these, which aren’t cheap, Bayley said that “just as companies give editors/bloggers PCs, laptops etc to try out and write consumer reports, I felt that this was a ‘trial’ and – because I had clarified that I would write the truth about my experience with the speedstick – it appears to me not to be a ‘gift’, but a genuine attempt at showing the market unbiased opinions of the product.
“After the issues regarding Cell C’s less-than-upfront ads (remember 4Gs?), I do feel that this is a good marketing move. In my case, the reception in my area is not good at all. When I can actually access the internet using the speedstick, the speeds certainly outdo Telkom’s ADSL offering. In writing my views on the stick, this will be included. I did contact Cell C about the problem and they sent someone to see me immediately.
“We were unable to resolve the issue and I made a note of it on the Cell C Facebook page. That, too, was dealt with extremely efficiently – and I got a personal message – online for everyone to read – from Lars P. Reichelt. So – regardless of whether the product works as per their claims, their brand building and reputation management can’t be faulted. Excellent marketing, I’d say – especially as Telkom does not have a Facebook presence and there really is no way of getting much assistance when you need it.”
Janet Heard, assistant editor: head of news of the Cape Times, said: “The Cape Times and sister newspapers have recently been involved in the process of drawing up a new code of ethics for the group. The code had become outdated in the wake of shifts in new media, but the entire profession’s code of conduct has been under the spotlight amid the threat of government censorship.
“One aspect of the group’s code, the freebie code, has been circulated to all staff already. A copy is posted up in the Cape Times newsroom. The release of a comprehensive code of ethics is expected soon. In the meantime, the old one stands.
Heard added “Trustworthiness, credibility, independence and integrity are everything to a newspaper. Although any good journalist instinctively knows the basic principles to be followed and there is also a Press Code of conduct and SANEF guidelines to follow, a code for titles is important as it leaves no grey areas. It also makes everyone – at all levels – accountable. There is no point pussy-footing around these basic principles. If you don’t have a clear code, it is easy to turn a blind eye and standards can slip. For instance, press releases become news reports and single-sourced political agendas become fact. I think it is also important for the code of ethics to be transparent and available to our readers.”
She said freebies are not a common feature in the Cape Times newsroom. “Perhaps because the paper takes great pride in upholding traditional journalistic principles. But we are certainly not immune to the trappings of the freebie culture which has proliferated over the years. Freebies now go into a cupboard to be auctioned among staff for charity. The auction – combined with the Cape Argus – is ongoing at the moment, and there is quite a substantial list, from memory sticks to bracelets and cases of beer.”
Ray Hartley, editor of the Sunday Times, said the paper has a policy that gifts have to be handed in.
“They are then auctioned off to staff once or twice a year with the proceeds going to charity. We have generated tens of thousands of rands for charity over the years.
“Gifts of travel and accommodation may be accepted but only if they are not offered to the newspaper to allocate at its discretion and not to a particular staff member and there is no way we could fund the travel ourselves. All articles written on such trips must clearly state that the travel was paid for and mention the name of the third party,” Hartley said.