I’m at TBEX – one of the largest travel blogging conferences in the world – and this year the main theme of the event in Cancun, Mexico is ‘professionalism.’
I settle back into my seat and smile. ‘This should be good,’ I think and smile.
Tell people that you blog professionally and you often get raised eyebrows that either mean ‘that’s a job?’ or ‘you can’t be serious, my aunty blogs about cupcakes, that’s not a job.’
Rewind the tape five years and travel blogging was very much on the edge of things.
But right now travel blogging is hot – there are tens of thousands of blogs written by talented and dedicated people and they are giving traditional media outlets a hell of a run for their money and eyeball traffic – even if lots of people still consider it a mad hobby.
The evolution of travel blogging
So just like the settlement of a frontier, first comes the covered wagon pioneers like Dave and Deb from The Planet D and Gary Arndt. They fight the bears and cross the swamps to reach the Promised Land then send reports back about what they find. They inspire people like us to get involved and soon a new world is established – the travel blogging community.
But unlike established industries with rules and standards and procedures like journalism, medicine and waste disposal, travel blogging is still a wild land. The rub with blogging is that unlike regular journalism, which is governed by the need for balance and objectivity, is that blogs are for the most part opinion – a far freer form that means you can largely say what you want.
There are a few industry bodies like the Professional Travel Bloggers Association working to help promote and foster the interests of bloggers, but nothing universal – no single industry standard. So as a blogger, how can I put on a suit and tie and join the ranks of the ruled without losing my punk appeal?
For me, I look to the industry blogging often rebels against – regular old school journalism.
Making sure you’re a professional travel blogger
Years ago Carmen and I met a Cambridge professor who told us there was no such thing as a profession, only an agreed set of standards by which you can be judged by your peers.
For us, as trained journalists, that set of standards hangs on the wall of every decent media organisation in Australia – the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance code of ethics.
And these are the basic principles: Honesty, fairness, independence and respect for the rights of others
From the day I first stepped into the Perth newsroom of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a pup reporter, to the day I left the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London as a Senior Broadcast Journalist, my working life was governed utterly by industry codes of ethics like the MEAA’s.
Sure, there were laws like libel, defamation, freedom of information and morality and decency to contend with, but that’s for the lawyers to sort out. My day-to-day professionalism as a journalist was measured through ethics.
Carmen and I wanted to take those ethics through to our blog and I wrote up an editorial policy based on the MEAA’s that we strictly comply with. So I feel we have always been professional travel bloggers because we have a set of ethics that govern our work and are open for all to see.
The main points are that we always disclose the relationship we have with a destination, company or tour. We promise to rectify any factual mistakes, do no harm to the vulnerable, comply with copyright laws and be accountable for all our actions and content.
Having this front and centre is very valuable and ensures that our mindset as bloggers is pro – not amateur making it up as we go along.
So that’s how we do it.
The interesting thing will be to see if the travel blogging community develops its own code of ethics and professional standards – and if it catches on widely. It’s certainly a talking point, so here are few pointers for professionalism, from my own personal views and from what I heard spoken about at TBEX Cancun:
Have high standards – and enforce them
Matt Villano is a freelance writer who spoke at TBEX about getting corporate writing gigs. His talk was a 100km an hour kick in the pants for bloggers who want this form of paid freelance work that actually pays well.
Over and over again he emphasised that companies will only work with you if your writing conforms to their standards for accuracy, voice and above all consistency.
A great editor I once had told me that good journalists are like winning sports people – win or lose every game or race they compete in, they play for keeps. You can’t play one great game and coast the rest. Consistency is the measure of a professional, not an occasional flash of brilliance.
Spelling, grammar, article research, factual accuracy, writing style, the way you approach and interact with clients – make every move you make the best you can and maintain that level. On your brilliant days you will shine even more, and on your worst day you’ll still meet a high standard.
Keep your word
Dave and Deb from The Planet D are personal heroes of mine. The very first travel blogging conference I attended was in Porto, Portugal three years ago and their keynote address on why they quit their jobs to travel and blog changed my life.
Two days after the talk I had a job interview for a promotion at the BBC – but I didn’t want the job anymore and said so. Six months later I was on the road with Carmen, living the dream. I had the chance to tell Dave and Deb this at TBEX Cancun and they were blown away.
I also had the chance to see them in action again in a talk about developing commercial relationships with brands and companies.
Their main message was to be as upfront as possible in what you want and what you can deliver. If you pitch a tour company and say that in return for an agreed payment you will write three blogs and produce two videos about their services then you damn well better deliver what you promise.
They emphasised that relationships drive business and that honesty is the foundation of every successful connection they have.
A professional’s word is their bond – you will only be taken seriously if you take yourself and what you do seriously.
Carmen told me recently that she was speaking to a travel blogger who said that they never tell companies what they plan on writing about them. Then if they can’t be bothered, they don’t feel committed to publishing anything after working with the business. I was shocked.
It’s people like these who are giving us bloggers a bad name – don’t be one of them.
In Australia we have an acronym insult for someone who’s full of themselves – FIGJAM – F%$k I’m Good, Just Ask Me.
I’ve met some people – journalists and bloggers – who fit the bill of that one and the thing I’ve found they usually have in common is that bragging masks an almost bare cupboard of achievement.
I tend to think that if you’re a big success, like a fine suit, your reputation is bespoken ahead of your arrival. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to act like the boss of the universe.
At the end of the day, you’re writing about travelling… not saving lives.
A speaker I was blown away with at TBEX was Don George, the man who has indeed written the seminal book on travel writing for Lonely Planet and is Editor at Large for National Geographic. His achievements are so impressive I wouldn’t have begrudged him a bit of swagger and maybe even a funky theme song as he enters every room.
Instead I found him to be the epitome of the humble pro. He shared his method of travel writing where he imagines himself as a vessel taking his reader on a journey through sight, sound, taste and travel. He seemed to be like a guy who is always listening, always willing to try new things and never demanding to be treated like a star.
Travel blogging is a very public thing and you may be tempted to think you are some kind of star.
But I think while a true professional knows their worth, they should also bear in mind that their behaviour is what the people who actually work with them will remember.
Word gets around, and if you act like an idiot then no one will want to work with you. So be humble and enjoy the privilege of being able to do what you love for a living. After all, there are plenty of others desperate to take your place these days. You’re not irreplaceable.
My last words on professionalism
I always go back to that that Cambridge professor told me – there are no professions, only agreed standards.
With that in mind, if you want to call yourself a professional travel blogger then do it by developing your own standards, maintaining them and enforcing them. Maybe one day we will see an all-powerful travel bogging body rise up – but I actually hope that doesn’t happen.
The power of blogging is its independence. The best way to protect that independence is do things right and don’t give people the excuse to come in and interfere too much with what we do.
Freedom of the press is a right, not a privilege, so be a pro and do it right.