Whisky Advocate

My new policy on company-sponsored press trips

May 21st, 2010

I have made the decision to no longer accept “expenses paid” press trip invites by individual whisky companies. If there’s a distillery I want to visit, I’ll pay for the trip myself.

I actually started this policy effective January 1st of this year (I have turned down several invites already to Kentucky and to Scotland), but I haven’t told anyone about it publicly until now.

I think it goes without saying, if a whisky company invites a journalist on an all expense paid press trip to their distillery, they’re hoping the journalist will write about them. In the past, they way I dealt with this was that I would only accept an invite from a company if I truly felt there was something noteworthy to write about. And I always made it clear that I wasn’t promising editorial exposure in exchange for the free trip.

I decided at the beginning of the year to take this one step further and eliminate any gray area. This is my “coming out” blog post.

In actuality, I haven’t accepted any press trip invitations “across the pond” (which are the expensive ones) for almost two years. My only trips last year were to nearby Kentucky for special occasions.

I think that I might be the first professional whisky writer to take this position, so maybe I am setting some sort of precedence here? I don’t know, and it’s not important.

What is important is that paying my own way will ensure that I only visit distilleries where there is a legitimate reason for doing so for Malt Advocate–and with no expectations by the whisky companies.

No Responses to “My new policy on company-sponsored press trips”

  1. Dan T. says:

    Thanks for your post and your continued professionalism. I’ll continue to spread the word about Malt Advocate and WhiskyFest. (I’m taking a friend to WF in San Francisco in October). Cheers!

  2. mongo says:

    good on you, john.

  3. Red_Arremer says:

    Excellent decision. People who write in industry journals can always make an easier dollar writing fake news and editorials, which participate seemlessly in the PR of the companies they report on than they can writing real news and editorials, which don’t.

    In the long run setting limits like this will make you expert opinion worth more to more people– but only if you publicize it. It does matter that you’re setting a precedent. It matters both to your readers and to your business.

  4. Sku says:

    Kudos to you John! I think it is an important step and I’m glad you are able to do it. Independence is the keystone of journalistic integrity. I doubly respect this news as I know it’s hard to make a living as a whiskey writer.

  5. Sokojoe says:

    Honestly, it wouldn’t bother me if you wrote about an all expense paid trip as long as you were clear that it was company sponsored but I trust if you feel it’s for the better. However, does this mean that you will stop accepting free whisk(e)y samples as isn’t the rationale for not accepting trips the same just on a smaller scale. I mean if a whisk(e)y company sends a journalist a free sample , they’re hoping the journalist will write about them and I would think you let them know about the same points that while you’ll take the samples you’ll only write if it’s noteworthy and make it clear that you weren’t promising editorial exposure in exchange for the free sample. Not trying to give you a hard time regarding your decision, I’m just curious about your rationale. I guess I could accept the reasoning that the cost between a sample and a trip is so big that they can’t be compared but it still seems inconsistent.

    • two-bit cowboy says:

      Not inconsistant at all Soko. Take a look at John’s list of whisk(e)y reviews. If every one of them got a 90, maybe I’d question his ethic. Talk to an industry rep of a bottle John gave a 72. They’ll whine some, but they know before they send it that he’s not biased by the free (if that’s the right word) sample.

      Good on ya, John.

      • sokojoe says:

        Hey two-bit, I’m not implying John is biased or inconsistent. Love John’s reviews and consult his opinion before every purchase, in fact, I’m almost leery of buying bottles that he has not reviewed. My question is more regarding if this policy is going to carryover to samples as the rationale for declining sponsored press trips is basically the same (imo) with regards to samples. I’m not saying John should do this (as far less whisk(e)y will be reviewed) but, like I said, it just seems a bit inconsistent to me.

        • two-bit cowboy says:

          Hear hear on relying on John’s thoughts. But I believe we’ll simply have to agree to disagree on the similarities between an all-expenses-paid trip and a 50ml (or even a 750ml) sample.

          The trip, I have no doubt, comes with the baggage filled with high expectations. The sample has no such baggage, and might in fact, carry quite a lot of trepidation on the distillery’s part. I firmly believe the distillers know whether they have a 75 or a 95 whisk(e)y when they send John a sample, and they know, too, that he probably isn’t going to slip up and grace a mediocre expression with a high mark. If their baby is ugly, he’ll call it ugly. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t love their baby; it’s just ugly.

          The flip side of all this is the distillery NOT sending John a sample at all becasue they know he’s going to call their baby ugly.

          • Neil Fusillo says:

            I think the main difference I see is that, with an all-expenses-paid trip, not only is there a heap more money involved, but there’s also not much opportunity to escape the PR machine into which you’re strapped for the journey. Constant bombardment of that sort of PR either leaves you incredibly cynical about the experience, or half-believing it. Neither extreme is good for journalism.

  6. JC Skinner says:

    Journalistic integrity is a rare and much needed commodity in this day and age.
    Well done, John.

  7. Paul M says:

    Could you convince those either in office or those running for office to adopt a similar policy with regard to lobbyist. (Sorry, I had to say it.)

    I am aware that several magazines in various industries do make certain products “The product of the year” only because of advertising dollars spent or perks like the ones that you had mentioned. I certainly appreciate that you try not to be influenced by these things. I feel that your review are more forthcoming and trustworthy because of this policy. Thank you.

  8. Mark Davis says:

    This goes beyond the pale in editorial ethical decisions. It’s really impressive. I agree that I wouldn’t have a problem if you took the trips but gave full disclosure.

  9. Joe M says:

    Smart. Way to go. Building the Malt Advocate brand, not someone else’s.

  10. Nabil Mailloux says:

    I have only one word:

    CREDIBILITY.

    Nah, I have more than one word…Jon in a business where you depend on advertising, it is a tightrope you walk. However, by stating this policy publicly, and hopefully sticking to it, you are building credibility. The only other thing you might do, above and beyond this, is to arrange for tasting flights to be blind…though that is hard to do in your line of work.

    Hats off to you.

    Nabil

  11. Steffen Bräuner says:

    Great. Feel free to forward free trips to me :-)

    /Macdeffe

  12. Joshua_Bacarolle says:

    This decision is really at the heart of staying true to your original goals you have for your place in the industry. You face a lot of industry pressure, but instead of opting for short-term benefits, you’re making decisions that solidify your current position, ensuring your longterm success as an impartial whiskey reviewer.

    A all-expenses-paid trip is a much more extravagant gesture than samples of free whiskey and so I think the difference is that there is a much greater implicit expectation for “something in return” (PR, in this case). In other words, by not accepting payment for these trips, John doesn’t have to deal with the nagging feeling that he might “owe” the distillery something. The feeling would probably still be there, even if John made it explicit beforehand that the distillery couldn’t expect exposure. By refusing this gift, John won’t have to deal with this.

  13. Rick Duff says:

    Great move John…
    however I’d love to see you offer the trips to readers in a sweepstakes (I know like that’s possible.)
    FYI.. all Whisky/Whiskey folks offering free trips… my opinions are open for bribing.

  14. Ryan says:

    I’m against the idea. I’d be accepting it, however just declaring your paid trips.

    You never know what you may discover on these “expenses paid” trips. You’re not going to gain any extra readers for taking this virtuous step. Sure, those you have may be a touch more loyal until they forget about it. But as I see it, the opportunity to discover something you might not have otherwise, far outweighs an extra pinch of loyalty from those that already understand and appreciate your style and ethics.

    I reckon you’re preaching to the converted. That’s just my 2 cents. Keep up the great work John.

  15. H.Diaz says:

    If needed, I will “donate” to the cause so that free samples are no longer needed. Off the shelf samples/reviews are the way to go. On the other hand, those multi-thousand dollar bottles may have to wait their turn, if reviewed at all.

    The white and black Bowmore’s of the world come to mind. Which reminds me, I have hardly seen the name Bowmore mentioned much the last few years on this blog or anywhere else. Other Islay brands it seems have kicked Bowmore to the curb. Bowmore, my first taste of Islay years ago, where o where have you gone?

  16. bgulien says:

    A good, solid decision.
    As MA is steadily rising in relevancy and status in the whisky world (even in Europe), this is a wise decision.

  17. B.J. Reed says:

    Ethical behavior and conflicts of interest are not always easy to define. There is the appearance issue and their is the legal requirements. Clearly this is not a question of legality so it is both a question of appearance and how one personally feels about the action.

    I congratulate John on his decision because it goes beyond what is required to fit his own moral compass and to eliminate the appearance of a conflict of interest. As noted by Sokojoe I think disclosure would have been all I would have asked taking the extra step sends messages to both the industry and the consumer of the Malt Advocate’s products and services that decisions are made as objectively as possible.

  18. sam k says:

    I’m not aware of any other publisher of a consumer products publication that has ever expressed this type of policy, though there may be some lurking out there. I’ll go so far as to say that this moves Malt Advocate closer (though certainly not equal) to Consumer Reports in the “can’t be bought” category than any other magazine I know of.

    Stand tall, Mr. Hansell.

  19. Patrick says:

    In the scientfic world, disclaimers and conflicts of interests have to be mentioned.
    I applause your decision and I hope that many others will follow that path.
    Congratulations

  20. lucky says:

    HUZZA! Well done John! Most sippers have long been aware that a large number of reviewers were in it for the trips and perks. And it wasn’t coincidence their favorite distilleries were also the most generous with both. I will be curious to see how many others join with you. Not even one I expect.

  21. John Hansell says:

    I just want follow up on some of your comments.

    Addressing Ryan’s comment: yes Ryan, one of the advantages of press trips is that it opens doors, creates opportunities to go behind the scenes and learn some cool stuff. My new policy won’t preclude me from participating in these opportunities. I can still go, but I will just pay my way.

    Sokojoe: about accepting review samples. This is not the same as going on press trips. When I receive samples, the companies know that I will give it a rating I feel it deserves. There is no bias here. They actually take a risk sending me review samples, because I usually get review samples before a product comes on the market. If I give it a bad review (which I have done many times), it could impact their sales from the onset.

    One of the biggest advantage (to you) of my receiving review samples is that I get them BEFORE the whisky comes on the market. This is a HUGE advantage to my readers. The whiskies aren’t even for sale yet. (My review of Ardbeg Supernova is a good example.) I couldn’t buy them even if I wanted to. Plus, if I went and purchased a review sample at a retailer, it introduces several new variables. The wholesaler or retailer could mishandle the bottle (excessive heat for example), which could make the whisky worse and give it an unfair rating.

    Finally, I want you to know that this policy applies only to me. I am not asking this of my writers.

    • Sokojoe says:

      Thank you for the reply John. And lest I misunderstood, I really appreciate your work. I’m a younger whisky drinker and using your work as a go to resource has not only taught me a great deal but also saved me a lot of money by avoiding bottles that wouldn’t have been worth it.

  22. Mark says:

    Just chiming in here, John, along with the others to commend your decision. What specifically impresses is the way you think as a business person. There’s no question but that you are running a business. Decisions like this one indicate you are willing to run it only within certain carefully adopted bounds of integrity. I find this encouraging and relatively rare. Thanks for caring about the work in ways that go beyond how much money it makes. Here’s to both financial success and a good life. Seems that decisions like this one fit into achieving that combo.

  23. Greg G says:

    John – as a consumer of MA and other trade publications as well as various web sites, I say thank you for taking an independent (and costly) position. My hats off to ya……

  24. smsmmns says:

    An interesting decision, John. Congrats; although no doubt easier to make at this point in your career than, say, 20 years ago.
    I am curious as I have no idea how it works for you, but in the past, have you felt obligated to feature distilleries or products of distillers who invited you to dinner, the distillery, launches, etc.? Do companies force you to write about them or is the agreement to do so implicit in accepting the free flight, accommodation, food, drink, etc?
    Although far smaller scale than your enterprise, when I lived in the UK I too accepted samples, dinners, and trips as Dr. Whisky, but never felt pushed to promote, or punished for not promoting, the given host/distiller. I can certainly say however that the comany’s investments in entertaining me have afforded me a richer appreciation for their operations and a living breathing context for subsequent press releases, whiskies, and the like.
    Anyways, a bold move. Do you know any examples of others in other industries/media taking such a pubilc stance?
    Maybe soon you will stop accepting advertising on the blog and magazine, stop charging for stands or masterclasses at WhiskyFEST? heh…

    • sam k says:

      Not sure if this post is tongue-in-cheek or serious, but I’m pretty sure you already know the answers to all your questions, so why ask, Doc?

      Advertising on the blog? Don’t see any, myself.

    • John Hansell says:

      Please re-read paragraph three in my post. And, like Sam K notes, I think you already know the answers.

      A whisky company (like the one you work for) advertises in Malt Advocate because the readers of Malt Advocate will read the ad and (hopefully) try the product. In all the many years your company has advertised in Malt Advocate, we have never promised to write about your brands as a condition of advertising. And we never will.

      A whisky company pays for a booth (or a master class) at WhiskyFest because they have the potential of exposing their brand to the roughly 2000 whisky lovers attending the event.

      The above two items are not the same as paid press trips and it’s not fair to lump them together. A whisky company organizes all expenses paid press trips for one reason: they are hoping that the writers will write nice things about their brands. That’s why they’re called press trips!

      I’m just trying to do what I feel is the right thing here.

  25. I can appreciate your intent, but I think this is erring too far on the side of acceptable ethical behavior – a concept I never actually thought I’d hear myself say… that one can be too ethical.

    There are those that may abuse the system, and they will eventually get found out for that and people will react how they will. Accepting an expense paid trip, though, really isn’t a big deal, and if you set the distillery manager/owner’s expectations according to yours as a reporter, there should be no regrets should their operations not provide what you are looking for in terms of providing entertainment to your audience.

    It would be unrealistic to expect the average traveling professional to come out of pocket for all travel expenses. As you responded to Ryan, sure – you can pay your way. Not all reporters/consultants/managers/salesmen/etc. can do that, and I wouldn’t hold the trip against them. Like I said, if bias permeates the results, it will get found out.

    Just my $0.02. Keep up the good work!

    • John Hansell says:

      There is no such thing as being too ethical.

      And you are correct: it is “unrealistic to expect the average traveling professional to come out of pocket for all travel expenses.” BUT, if they could, I’d be willing to wager that they would.

      I’m not asking my writers to stop taking paid press trips. I know that they are trying to make a living doing what they love, and it isn’t easy. This is just my own personal decision.

      • Red_Arremer says:

        John, aren’t aware of how threatened many are by the prospect of ethics– the prospect of a universal ground for judgement and action? Don’t you know that it’s right up there with sex and politics as another thing you shouldn’t talk about at the dinner table? But carrying on about it at the whisky table– That’s even worse… How arrogant! For shame. ;)
        Of coursen that’s just parody– I think what you’re doing is great. :)

        Dr. Whisky, if your point is that the freedom act more ethically in the whisky game is something that must be earned by long years of less ethical behavior, you’re right. But if you’re saying that this paradox undermines the value of ethics in the whisky game, you’re wrong.

  26. Yang Wang says:

    Good on you John

  27. John:

    I am relatively new to the whiskey world. This is my first post on your blog. I attended the Chicago Whiskey Fest and subscribe to the Malt Advocate. I know that this is a great time to be a whiskey drinker. BTW – my experience has been top notch with the webiste, magazine and Whiskey Fest.

    I appreciate your candor. I do rely on your ratings for potential purchases. Obviously, a whiskey company could influence your decisions based on gifts, expense reimbursements or other gratuities.

    I am a CPA and have ethical standards that I must uphold. In my industry, if you lose your credibility, you lose everything.

    Lastly, thanks for the post on the Washington Post article. I find the business side to the whiskey industry to be very interesting. I’ve had clients on the distribution side, but never the production side.

    Jeff

  28. Louis says:

    Hi John,

    I too would like to applaud your bold move, not that I ever thought for a moment that the Malt Advocate took its cue from the industry. The specialy whisk(e)y world is different from other consumer products, in that we are very much interested in the history of the distilleries, the people involved in creating the whisky, etc. I centainly could not care less about who designed my cell phone or notebook computer, not so for the latest bottle to walk in the door.

    So balance is necessary. Just buying a review bottle off the shelf deprives the readership of information that we consider part of our own acquisition process. But this is a delicate balance. There are some hobbyist magazines that I know of that are more like cheerleaders for the companies who’s products they cover. So John, I think that you are making a statement, that while the Malt Advocate welcomes the relationship angle, it will not be the overriding influence to how the product is reported to the readership.

    Slainte.

    Louis

  29. Neil Fusillo says:

    Good on you, John! Not an easy decision, to be sure, and certainly not a cheap one. But I can completely understand the impetus behind it. It places you in a difficult position of wondering whether or not you’re enjoying the full experience as any other would, or if you’re locked into the PR machine ‘demo’ that isn’t quite the same as it is for everyone in the outside world.

    Still… it can’t have been easy to give up free trips to the places you love to visit. I applaud your commitment to journalistic ethics.

  30. Gary says:

    Commendable indeed. John your actions are indeed to be admired.

  31. [...] now moving on to something less serious (but no less significant) than my post this past Friday. Yes, it’s true. I’m hitting the big 5-0 on June 7th. I’m going to be pulling out [...]

  32. Hats off to that decision, John! Credibility in journalism is a merit that can’t be valued to highly.

    I would be interested to know how many invitations for paid trips you get per year. Just to get a feeling how big the temptations are in your job ;)

  33. Alex says:

    John, nicely stated and good for you – I applaud your decision. Unfortunately, the majority will still accept paid trips, events & outings without it even being on their radar as an issue to be concerned over.

  34. John Hansell says:

    I also want to add, for the record, that I will still plan on attending business lunches and dinners, as I consider it a normal part of doing business as a magazine Publisher & Editor. They are not sponsored press trips. Sometimes I pay (as I did with a lunch a few months back with Bruichladdich distillery reps and their importer’s rep), and sometimes they pay.

    I also want to note that I will still consider invites that are not from individual whisky companies (trade associations, for example), depending on the situation.

  35. Tim M says:

    Hey John.

    Just curious, when you have accepted paid trips in the past and have written about those trips in any way related to your sponsors, have you disclosed this? Will you require your writers to do this?

    Keep up the good work.

    • John Hansell says:

      I have always tried disclose. I can’t confirm I did all the time, though. Most of our writers are pretty open about this in their writing, but it will be something I will continue to recommend.

  36. Jason Debly says:

    John, I congratulate you for taking this measure. All the readers will benefit from an unbiased reviews and observations. Unfortunately, there are too many other bloggers and ‘critics’ who take the freebies and then write positive product reviews. Good for you! Maybe you will start a trend.

  37. John, I agree with your decision on this, and I’m writing this while in Islay on a trip that would probably qualify under your standards. While I haven’t had the opportunity for as many expenses-paid trips, I’ve always tried to disclose that when I do take them.

    For the record, I’ve never been pressured to write about anything, but I’ve always approached trips from the point of view that there’s something that I would have wanted to cover anyway for WhiskyCast.

    In the interests of transparency, the current Feis Ile series of shows that I’m doing was my idea. I proposed it to the distilleries earlier this year as a way to give people a sense of life on Islay, but have retained complete editorial control over the entire project. It would not have been possible for me to make the trip had the distilleries not agreed to cover an equal share of the costs.

    Mark

  38. Serge says:

    I’ve never accepted any paid trips (just refused a great one to Jerez last month) and always paid for any I took but I also do that because I can. Not sure I’d follow the same ‘policy’, were I not able to pay for them, so nothing to brag about at my end. I fully trust the opinions of guys such as Mark or John (before his new policy ;-)) because any bias could be felt ‘between the lines’ anyway, should there be any (and there aren’t).
    Whisky samples is something completely different in my opinion. I wouldn’t qualify them as ‘freebies’, they have no intrinsic value and many bottlers send some anyway, so should there be any bias, it would be a bias towards the whole category ;-). Let’s be honest, ‘serious’ (?) whisky writers and bloggers have more whisky in their houses than they could ever bathe in anyway.

    • Red_Arremer says:

      Serge, Dr Whisky, Wolf and Whisky, and others,

      Whisky writers’ ethical responsibilities simply vary according to their resources and capabilities– Just as Children have different ethical responsibilities than adults– And the rich have different ethical responsibilities than the poor.

      All this back peddling about ethics in the whisky game is pathological. One who makes his or her community more ethical is usually one who has at some point benefited from that community’s unethicality. How does this negate the value of one’s actions? Not at all– Because ethical behavior is not something “to brag about.” It is plain and simple, something which is good for oneself and others and coheres with other understandings and actions, which are likewise.

      • Serge says:

        Fully agreed with Red. As I wrote, nothing to brag about – and I didn’t use the words ethics or ethical anyway. I was only answering John and Mark’s points about ‘policies’. More globally, I believe some of us are maybe getting a little nervous indeed, since ‘hidden advertising’ is literally invading the digital space these days (not always easy to detect plain advertising in a tweet, a facebook message or a blog entry). That, indeed, may lead some of us – probably yours truly – to old skool pathological behaviours. Paranoia?

        • John Hansell says:

          I empathize with you Serge.

        • Red_Arremer says:

          No you didn’t say the “e” word Serge, but you were politely modest about the ethical issue at hand– the issue of whether or not folks like you and John are setting an example to some others in the whisky game. Fact is, you are and that is exactly how should be regarded. Most of us here feel that way.

          There’s no need for apologetics. For who’s benefit are they anyways? Some other writer who’s on a paid trip right now? John, before he made this decision? There’s no need to let anyone off the hook, when the hook is just the matter of ethics in the whisky game. It’s not life and death. It’s just saying “Things would be better for the whisky game if I could…” and “Things were worse in the whisky game when I couldn’t…”

  39. whiskeyminis says:

    If you are an integer journalist you would still write what you want nomatter if the expenses were paid or not. If you wrote an negative piece on a distillery and they didn’t like it they stop inviting you or accept that fact and maybe make some improvements.
    So , i don’t see the big issue.

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