Do mommy bloggers need to grow up?

A community site encourages going a full week without any contact with the PR industry. But the problem isn't freebies and press releases--it's what bloggers do with them.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read
I can has free stuff in the mail? Caroline McCarthy/CNET News

How acceptable is it for independent bloggers to accept free products and other giveaways? It's been a heated discussion of late.

Now MomDot, a community site for the ever-expanding corps of "mommy bloggers," has decided to encourage its followers to spend a week ignoring the PR and marketing industries altogether.

"MomDot is challenging bloggers to participate for one week in August in a 'PR Blackout' challenge where you do not blog any giveaways, any reviews, and zero press releases," the post on Monday announced. "In fact, we don't want you to talk to PR at all that whole week. We want to see your blog naked, raw, and back to basics. Talk about your kids, your marriage, your college, your hopes, your dreams, your house and whatever you can come up with for one week."

A week. A whole week that they can't write about PR pitches and stuff that's been sent to them for free. Quel horreur, right?

It's suggested as a solution to "bloggy burnout," or the notion that "mom bloggers are simply doing too much," but it's impossible to take a "PR Blackout" out of the context of the controversy over blogger freebies. This has all been front and center for a few weeks, once it was revealed that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was considering including bloggers under guidelines that ban deceptive or unfair business practices. Basically, this means that if a blogger writes about a product that was given away for free or with any added compensation, that must be disclosed. "Mommy blogs," written by and catering to a demographic that's an obvious marketer's paradise, have found themselves in the crosshairs.

I don't have kids, and even if I did I don't think I'd blog much about them out of the concern that their future sixth-grade classmates would find a way to use it as blackmail, so maybe I'm not at liberty to judge. But I think MomDot is sort of missing the point. Working with the public relations industry is core to any journalist's (and now blogger's) job, as is the use of press releases and in some cases review products. What MomDot is assuming is that "mommy bloggers" are simply rehashing press releases and posting photos of stuff they got for free, turning less into independent bloggers and more into PR mouthpieces.

That's a little bit insulting, in my opinion, to the scores of smart, funny, and critical bloggers who happen to write about their lifestyles as mothers. Many of these women are blogging as a side project while they take time off from very successful corporate careers to focus on raising their kids. I'm not all that well schooled in which mommy blogs are worth reading, but I'm willing to bet that plenty of them are willing to read a press release or play with a new product and promptly write about how stupid they think it is.

It seems like this is a case where a few bad eggs are spoiling the omelet, or however that old saying goes. The problem isn't PR, but bloggers who are working with it in a less-than-sincere way.

The FTC's proposed new rule, and MomDot's reaction to all the buzz about it, does highlight some real problems (never mind how difficult it'll be to police thousands of blogs). It can be a very questionable marketing strategy to offer bloggers free stuff simply so that they'll write about it, but with the digital age offering anyone a mouthpiece and an audience, I'm afraid it's a strategy that's here to stay. But I don't think the real problem is the giveaways themselves, although some of the reports of free Caribbean cruise vacations are worth raising a few eyebrows over. The issue is which of the recipients of everything from e-mailed press releases to movie tickets to kiddie-toy test products are really just acting as marketing outlets, and which ones aren't.

It's not restricted to moms who blog. Tech bloggers have often been accused of doing the same thing with regard to free gadgets--as when Microsoft courted bloggers with copies of Windows Vista that just happened to be loaded on souped-up Acer Ferrari laptops. I don't get a whole lot of review products here at CNET since I cover the Web and media rather than hardware, but our gadget reviewers have a policy of packaging everything back up and shipping it back once their reviews are complete.

Beyond my own industry, I see posts and Twitter tweets about trips, free gadgets, and other giveaways coming from prominent folk in social media, with the obvious intent that the company or agency behind it simply wants them to write about it and have their digital reach act as an advertising outlet, and I tend to think less of their blogging prowess when they don't seem willing to turn a critical eye to any of it.

Izea, for example, the marketing company that's become one of the most prominent faces of blogger giveaways, says it supports the FTC investigation and requires all bloggers to disclose compensation and freebies, but has also acknowledged that for at least one giveaway it avoided including bloggers who might have given the client negative press. Disclosure in these situations is obviously important. So is a general, blogosphere-wide awareness that marketers are chomping at the bit for their audiences. Some bloggers will be fine with this. Others will rightly see this as a need for some sort of community-wide guidelines to be put in place. I know there's been talk of this.

The encouragement to "write about your family, not giveaways" is admirable. But the reality is that many of these bloggers have turned anecdotes about parenting into a full-fledged business, and working with PR is part of the game. The likes of MomDot should be encouraging quality content, media savviness, and best practices, rather than a "PR blackout" that misses the point.

And--just a thought--maybe the real solution to "bloggy burnout" is taking a few days away from the keyboard and spending a little bit of extra time with your kids.