‘Cakegate’ poses an important PR question

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Our Managing Director Ellen Widdup has been pondering something. Is it wrong for a PR firm to ask for a freebie for a client in exchange for some media coverage? Here she explores the correct etiquette for asking for services and products in return for exposure.

Last week a baker got caught in an online row over free cakes calling out the PR company who asked for the buns in exchange for media coverage.


Rebecca Severs, from Keighley in Yorkshire, sells cakes through her Three Little Birds Bakery which she founded seven years ago.

The baker went viral after she was applauded for exposing a PR firm who asked her company to provide free cakes for their celebrity client’s 40th birthday in return for “exposure”.


“I’m so sorry to hear that your client has fallen on such hard times they can’t afford to pay small businesses for their products,” she wrote in reply (and shared online).


“Unfortunately as my mortgage provider doesn’t take payment ‘in the form of promotion on their socials’, and my staff can’t feed their kids with exposure on Instagram, I’ll have to decline your very generous offer.”


It was later revealed that the celebrity in question was Corrie star Catherine Tyldesley, who then hit back on Wednesday morning in a video posted to Facebook.


The ex-soap star, 39, referred to the matter as “cakegate” and had a dig at the bakery, saying: “I hope the cake lady got the exposure she was craving.”


She had a point. Because the ironic thing is the baker and the soap star got a huge amount of media exposure out of the argument with the story hitting all the major news outsets. Not all of it positive.


People were divided. Some in the bakers corner – why should she give out cakes for free just because the customer was a famous face? Others backed the PR firm and it’s client – why was the baker so offended when the payoff could massively outweigh the cost of ingredients and labour? Surely she could have politely said no and not turned it into a public fight?


Either way, it’s certainly got people asking if this good PR etiquette?


So let’s go back to the PR firm in question who expanded on what they offered the bakery in exchange for the cakes.


They said: “In return for being a supplier for the event, payment would be made in the form of promotion on their socials with over 700K followers, as well as promoted in OK Magazine. They will be crediting all the suppliers on these platforms. The party has a guest list full of celebrities and industry people from tv/film and music, so loads of work would come from it.”


Gee whizz. That’s quite an offer.


But, the problem I think, lies with the assumption made by some celebrities, influencers and businesses alike that the ‘power’ they wield on the internet is fair exchange for labour, no questions asked.


And that’s unreasonable. Especially in light of the cost of living crisis.


At Satsuma, we know that working with celebrities and influencers can be advantageous and the press interest can lead to success.


But we are also in tune with what is appropriate and what is not.


More often than not we are the ones approaching celebs from endorsement than asking businesses for freebies for the celeb to benefit from. And if we were seeking partnership or services and products non gratis this would be in the form of a partnership with both parties able to negotiate on what they want from the deal.


There are also times that we find that simply paying for a service or product on behalf of a celeb or big brand and sharing the publicity love regardless can lead to a more beneficial partnership and return on investment.


Take Matt Kirkby for example.


I was thrilled to write and pitch the story about this Suffolk-based Oscar-winning director in 2015 after he scooped the gong for his short film The Phone Call which stars Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent.


But what ended up making the most impact with the segment was Matt’s spontaneous mention of his favourite bakery in his home town in his speech.


The director name checked Orford’s Pump Street Bakery during the ceremony in Los Angeles to all the stars present after being fuelled by the sweet treats while he worked.


And so I rang the bakery to give them the good news to ask for comment and, capitalising perfectly on the gesture, they responded by offering the director free doughnuts for life.


And guess what? The story made headlines again.


Like I said, generally speaking celebrities and big name brands do not need freebies.


But what if you are a charity?


Well here, I think asking for freebies is a given. And if you can share the publicity it generates, then everyone’s a winner.


We work with several charities including the amazing Dora Brown, which asks people to volunteer their time and businesses to donate furniture and money to help people who are living with furniture poverty.


Then there’s our client Will Aid that asks solicitors to donate their time for free to write wills for people during the month of November, waiving their fee in exchange for a donation to nine Will Aid charities.


And finally let me tell you about the incredible work of our client Something To Look Forward To.


They ask for donations of restaurant vouchers, hotel stays, holidays, beauty treatments and more from businesses big and small and gift them to people who are living with a cancer diagnosis.


No business being approached to help brands like these could possibly see that as wrong. They may not be able to help but they can surely see the merit of getting involved.


What’s more, our job as their PR firm is to then promote the partnerships, encouraging the media to help us celebrate this incredible generosity and work.


And what happens then, is that the freebie is then rewarded with something else of value.


So let’s return to the question – is it wrong for PR firms to ask for freebies for clients?


The truth is, there’s no clear cut answer here. But PR agencies – and their clients – need to think very carefully about what they are asking for, why they are asking for it and what they are offering in return.


If they can afford to pay, the brand is small and the payoff is not worth the effort, it’s unlikely to work out well.


But if the cause is a good one, the brand can afford it and the benefits are outlined well and good for both parties, it could be a media hit.


We take every situation on its own merit. So if you are a company looking for ways to amplify your brand, or an organisation looking for celeb endorsement or just putting on an event and trying to get freebies for an auction or sponsorship, talk to us. We will devise the best approach to make sure nobody gets offended and everyone gets the best outcome possible.

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