When does a gift become a bribe?

A product I've never reviewed
The other day I got an email from a PR agency that was more like the sort of scam that originates from Nigeria. The email (I won't name the agency to spare their blushes) said:

I’m updating the finance database to ensure any future payments will not be delayed. Could you provide me your banking details, please?
Although I've had information from this agency plenty of times, I've never done any work for them. Scamming apart, my immediate thought when putting 'PR agency' alongside 'payment' was around the area of bribery. It wouldn't surprise me if those who read reviews suspect that reviewers are being given lots of goodies, if not downright cash payments, to write good things.

Now I've been writing reviews since the 1990s - it's how I started in professional writing - and I have to say that, on the whole it is all squeaky clean and above board. If the product has a low production cost (software, for example, only has the incremental cost of the medium it is distributed on), then chances are you will be allowed to keep it. And I admit this used to be quite good when I was reviewing business software costing £200 a pop. But in my experience hardware manfacturers hardly ever let you keep anything. Even getting your hands on a review product can be quite difficult, and then it's only for a limited time period.

Similarly I've never been sent nice Christmas presents by PR companies or manufacturers. (Hint.) Not that it would make any difference. It's true that when I did a lot of IT journalism, we often got given some goodies for attending a product launch or briefing (I still use my Windows 95 bag), but this seemed much more a thank-you for your time, rather than anything to influence what you wrote.

I'm not saying it never happens. When I was reviewing business software I did get one blatent attempt at bribery. Someone from a PR agency (I genuinely can't remember which) rang and said that they would like me to write an open review of a new product (i.e. not for a specific magazine) and as long as I made sure it was very positive they would pay me a four figure sum. I told the PR where to stick it, and he sounded genuinely offended and shocked that I would turn down what could only be seen as a bribe. He didn't quite say 'You'll never work in this business again,' but there was a hint of it.

That, though, was a one-off with what I assume was a bad penny. On the whole the only inducement to write something nice is the urge to please the nice PR people (or in the case of a book, the author). So I'm sure that the PR agency asking for my bank details wasn't intending to slip me a little something. Professional reviews are, on the whole, pretty upright things in the UK - and that can't be bad.


  1. Summary: Apple's pdf renderer is a bit crap :-)


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