In Public Relations, It’s a Fine Line Between Gift and Bribe

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There is nothing wrong with giving gifts–unless you work in public relations and your recipient is a journalist. There is a very fine line between a token of appreciation and a bribe. It is a line that once crossed can cause problems not easily rectified, problems that go beyond a public relations snafu. So when I received the following email, I had to do some serious thinking.

“Dear Journalist Friends: Thanks for giving [company name removed] your kind attention. In return, I hope you will enjoy the discount below. Please feel free to forward along to others, and I look forward to talking with you in the near future.” (Note: The rest of the email contained information on how to use the discount while ordering.)

The email was very surprising. As a journalist, I covered hundreds of companies, big and small, ranging from retailers to airlines. I’d never been offered a discount on merchandise or services. I was actually a bit disturbed by the email, which came from the company’s Director of Public Relations. What I found most disturbing is that the company is public and had just released its quarterly earnings report. The offer smacked of an ethical breach in my estimation, but I had to put some things in perspective.

There are some situations where free merchandise or services come with the public relations/journalist territory. Music reviewers get free CDs and concert tickets almost daily. Throwing in a T-shirt or some stickers is normal. Restaurant reviewers often eat for free. Travel writers are often given free or discounted accommodations or travel. Movie and television reviewers receive free tapes and DVDs. And then there are press junkets for almost every industry, where someone is paying for everything. There are press conferences and trade shows where journalists are enticed by free food and alcohol. And in the fashion industry, it’s par for the course that scribes get free merchandise.

In the case of this email, however, the company in question is an online retailer that produces no goods of its own. With that said, the discount offer must be seen as nothing more than a gift. I’ve decided to withhold the company’s name to avoid causing them further embarrassment, but the damage had been done when it came to my relationship with this particular company.

“That’s just obnoxious and the flack really should know better,” says Ryan Naraine, a veteran tech reporter. “It’s sad that the email comes from the company’s in-house director of PR. I’d expect that from an aggressive outside firm.”

Naraine says he’s dealt with the company before; the email doesn’t change his opinion.

“However, if my first introduction to a new company comes in that form, it sets the relationship off on the wrong foot,” Naraine cautions.

Further, the discount offer would constitute an ethical breach if Naraine took advantage of it.

“Our employee handbook includes a detailed section that deals with accepting gifts. We subscribe to the Policies and Procedures for Worldwide Business Conduct, which is updated occasionally. I just signed an updated version that strictly prohibits the acceptance of any payment that could be considered a bribe. I think it’s pretty clear when a company is trying to induce ‘friendships’ by offering discounts or bribes.”

Media outlets generally have ethics policies and journalists who find themselves in breach of ethical guidelines will soon find themselves out of jobs. And public relations firms that try to entice journalists with gifts may find themselves in trouble.

“I think it doesn’t show the best judgment. Ultimately you don’t know what the intention is. There are plenty of news organizations that strictly prohibit any gift,” says Lloyd Trufelman, President of New York-based Trylon Communications.

Trufelman says if a client wanted to offer such a “gift” to journalists, he would suggest they not do it.

“I would say to them it’s not worth it. On one hand you can send it out and if [the journalist doesn’t] want to use it, that’s their problem. But you also want to make sure the journalist doesn’t misinterpret the gesture. Why send it out knowing full well that legitimate journalism organizations have strict prohibitions of receiving gifts of any kind?”

Gifts of any kind could include food and drinks. Many media organizations prohibit journalists from receiving anything, including food, worth over $50. Trufelman and Naraine both suggest a coffee meet and greet as a way to get to know a journalist. But you also have to consider the time involved, for both parties.

“The truth of the matter is, with our deadlines, getting out for lunches are a luxury. Most of the time, I’d just as well invite them to my office where I can slip into the conference room for 15 minutes,” Naraine says.

Anyone working in the public relations industry should be aware of the fine line between token of appreciation and bribe. A simple “thank you” is enough of a gift for most journalists. And if they ask more, you may want to suggest that they look at their ethics handbook.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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