On Honesty

On Honesty

by Sali Hughes

This is an extraordinarily long post. Dynamic, pacey journalism, it is not. My apologies in advance. It’s not what I fancied on Mother’s Day either, but I have written it for two reasons: firstly, I’ve found the past few weeks a frustrating time to be on Instagram. I’ve seen many posts failing to declare what I believe to be a commercial interest. It’s been frustrating to me and I know, to a great many journalists and bloggers, the vast majority of whom are honest and passionate about their jobs. Secondly, and quite separately, a few readers made me aware today of a Mumsnet thread that contains many accusations about various bloggers and journalists, myself included. While I completely understand the wider concerns expressed by Mumsnet users who may have lost faith in beauty coverage across the board (many content providers, myself included, feel very similarly and share their frustrations), I am appalled by some blatant untruths stated as fact by a small handful of Mumsnet posters. The nature of any forum as large as Mumsnet means that a small number will always be dishonest, speculative or vindictive, but it also means that many hundreds of thousands of women will take their posts as fact and understandably be influenced by them. So while I cannot speak specifically for other writers, I felt it utterly essential to give a detailed description of how we at SHB operate, for the avoidance of any doubt. I have headed each paragraph according to constantly recurring themes on Mumsnet, some of which have been mentioned in relation to me, some of which have not. In any case, I am more than happy to share my own views and policies on all of them.

Commercial Partnerships
salihughesbeauty.com occasionally produces sponsored content. Our free-to-all-users forum costs a lot each year to host, our contributors need to be paid, our videos cost money and so on, and so commercial partnerships are essential in keeping us going. I cannot stress enough how absolutely fanatical we are in running a clean ship on this front – it’s a big reason we started the site in the first place. We turn things down constantly for all manner of reasons, even when that means a huge financial sacrifice. If a mascara smudges, we’re not prepared to say it doesn’t. If I don’t rate a brand’s skincare, I’ll never say I do. I can honestly and genuinely say I have never said I love a product if I don’t. That policy is not hard for us, we don’t feel in the least bit resentful or compromised. It’s easy when you take the longterm view that a dishonest commercial decision will ultimately cost you. We’d just be really, really stupid to do things any other way. Furthermore, if we have taken the very careful decision to partner with a brand commercially, we will always, always make that clear. The brands we’ve worked with (Lancôme and La Roche Posay, for example) have always been as passionate as we are about that transparency, and have also positively demanded it. Any brand asking for a less transparent transaction would immediately be shown the door. If my commercial involvement is of a much more prominent nature – for example, when I presented a nationwide corporate video for Philips, I would take the decision to avoid that product in an editorial context just because that wouldn’t sit right for me personally. Again, the brand involved here felt as strongly about this as I do. My reason for signing with Arlington Talent was in no small part owing to their being utterly respectful and supportive of my principles on all these matters.

Many senior bloggers and journalists take on consulting work with brands. I made a point of stating this in the biog section of my book, for the avoidance of doubt. I assume expertise is sought in many areas but as I can only speak for myself, the consulting work I occasionally do tends to take the form of advising brands on how their written communication could improve, their own social media presence could be more appealing and effective (less common now most brands are up and running on social), or where their products are going wrong for me. I haven’t actually taken on any consulting in 2016 so far because I’m knee-deep in book and can’t commit to anything extra-curricular, but last year I did one afternoon with one department store brand (in which we discussed which products were coming up), a large written project for a supermarket brand (in which product didn’t even feature once), and a two-hour session with a toiletries brand, in which I spoke bluntly about why they weren’t currently my cup of tea. I would very happily name all three here but I’d be in breach of their standard non-disclosure agreements. Suffice to say, none of these brands got anything whatsoever beyond my opinion, which I’m told they found valuable. If I was involved in the conception of a product (I never have been), then I would certainly not write about it without full and frank disclosure of my involvement. Contrary to what one contributor on the Mumsnet thread states, I don’t court consultancy at all. I usually turn it down because I don’t have the time.

I’m invited on around one trip a month and am notorious for turning them down (I went on one – in the UK – last year. I must’ve turned down well over a dozen since then, including two last week). To be clear, I have no issue with them in principle – if a brand has the research & development team, spokesperson and other VIPs all gathered in one place to talk about a new product, then I can see why they try and get everyone there for a big-bang launch. The reason I almost always say no, though, is that my work means I don’t see the people I love enough. The last thing I want to do is take five days out of my family and work to sit in the sun with a load of people I’d never choose to holiday with, all so I can see a new bottle of self tan. It feels to me like a spectacular waste of money, earnings (I’m self employed. I‘m not covered for trips by a salary), time I could spend on the sofa with my kids. I don’t judge those who choose to go at all – people on glossy mags are under pressure to maintain relationships that I’m just not. But I just couldn’t do it. I’m too busy, too unsociable, too crap at mixing and my family are too reliant on me to pay the bills.
What I will generally consider, is a trip that will yield good content. For example, in 2014, I accepted the offer of a trip to NYC with Estee Lauder to do an In The Bathroom With Aerin Lauder. I did this because I really wanted to make the video. They paid for the trip because they also wanted to make the video. I received not a penny in payment. Likewise, if I am already planning a trip somewhere and there’s a way of doing a day’s work, then it’s a no-brainer. This is true of last summer, when I had already booked and paid for a 6-day holiday with girlfriends in NYC, and mentioned it to Bumble & Bumble to see if I could do some filming in their amazing studio when out there. They were delighted and facilitated a day’s filming. Again, I received not a penny’s payment for this, but I did get a load of good content in return for giving up a day of my holiday.

I have never, ever agreed to provide editorial coverage in return for a trip. On the odd occasion it’s been asked of me, I’ve flatly refused. Only last week, I declined an invitation to a press trip because I can’t spare the time, and I can’t see me ever writing about the product, so it would seem ill mannered to go.

I go to so few launches that I think my reputation among PRs is poor. Perhaps I should go to more, but for me they are not a cost effective use of my time. I don’t live in London, I’m a single mother with no paid childcare, and so to travel there in order to see a moisturiser or lipstick seems wasteful – in terms of time and money (I could have written a feature in the same time and unlike salaried journalists, I am not paid for attending launches, only for writing words). I have several branches to my job and I can’t justify going to a launch when there’s always something I should be writing at home. I also prefer not to attend functions where every journalist hears the same presentation, sees the same demonstration etc. This frustrates some brands and PRs, and I understand why. But what I tend to do instead is sit at a table in a London cafe or bar for a whole day, and have PRs drop in one after the other to discuss which products they have coming up. This way I can pack in much more information and product, have unique, tailored and more insightful conversations, and can manage my own schedule. It’s a much better way of working for me, and yields better content from my perspective.

Like The Guardian column, my books are untouchable. The contents of Pretty Honest was written entirely by me, with zero commercial consideration. The only brand with whom I came to any agreement was Whistles, who offered to supply many of the clothes for the book, non-exclusively (I publicly thanked them in the back of the book to make this absolutely clear). No money whatsoever changed hands, but I was delighted since I always knew I wanted non-professional models of different sizes in the book. Borrowed press samples are generally only available in a size 8, but our models went from a 6 to 16, and so Whistles’ offer of help across the board was invaluable. All clothes were returned to Whistles after the shoots and since Pretty Honest wasn’t about clothes – the fashion was very much a prop – I felt, and still feel, that the partnership was a wholly positive thing. All beauty products in the book were either free press samples or from my own private collection (eg. the vintage perfume bottles).

I am now working on my second book, which is much more product-heavy than Pretty Honest. Around half of brands have been extremely co-operative, around half of them a little reluctant and unhelpful. A couple of brands with whom I have no existing relationship, have asked if they can buy a place in the book. After 20 years in the industry, I am completely shocked about this. It’s quite telling to me that a brand would even think this a possibility in 2016. Needless to say, the answer was a pretty appalled NO.

Press samples
99% of the products I write about anywhere are free press samples, just as literary critics get free books, film critics see press screenings and motoring columnists get to borrow cars for free. I have referred to this on many occasions, in my Guardian column, at events, on my forum etc. I make no attempt to hide it and more importantly, feel absolutely no shame about it. There is simply no way I could do my job fairly, objectively and comprehensively, if every product I tried had to be bought with my own money. I could afford to buy only a minuscule fraction of the number of products I try now, I would buy only things designed for my skin type, my skin tone, sold within my price range by brands I already liked. I would never find anything by accident (which happens constantly with free samples), I’d never be brave enough to potentially waste my money on something that didn’t instinctively feel promising. It is completely naïve to think that press samples make coverage less reliable – they make it more thorough. They level the playing field – everyone sends their products, everyone gets the same consideration – regardless of cost or brand. The tester has no vested interest in favouring one over the other – believe me when I say I have no personal need for any more free samples. I can absolutely see why blogs by women who’ve bought product themselves are interesting, refreshing and valuable. Absolutely. There is room for both. But to self-fund a beauty column in a national newspaper supplement would make for an extremely narrow, uninformative and skewed coverage.

We run competitions on SHB purely in exchange for good prizes. The only time money would change hands is if the competition came as part of a bigger sponsored post, which would always be declared. Winners are chosen using an online random numbers generator. Debra, my business partner, screengrabs this process for authentication for the brands involved.

Journalists (and I assume, bloggers) get sent lots of presents – maybe 2-3 a month, more at Christmas. From my point of view, they are obviously nice but wholly unnecessary. I usually give them away. I do this not on principle, but because I have neither the space nor the need for more stuff. Gifts very often come in the form of bracelets, which I never wear, clothing (like T shirts and sweatshirts, which always seem to come in medium), trainers (I don’t work out), instant cameras (no idea why), or monogrammed items, which I sometimes very happily keep (towels, for example), but mainly put on a pile for the three people I know with the same initials as me. I tend to only keep booze, flowers, food and other perishables. I generally find journalists and bloggers posting pictures on Instagram of their press gifts a bit nauseating and naff, so I don’t do it. But if the gift is particularly unique, interesting or quirky in itself, I might post it for interest. If so, I would always say “Thank you, XX brand….’ to make it clear it was sent as a gift. One Christmas, a brand sent me a baby blanket then emailed me a week later to ask why I hadn’t Instagrammed it. I was shocked at the shamelessness of it and offered to return it. In recent years, brands have really scaled down their gift giving, which I think a very positive thing. Clinique always donates money, iPads or DVD players to Great Ormond Street hospital in the name of each journalist, for example. Estee Lauder gifted me a mammogram last year. L’Occitane donated money to my friend Carey’s charity in lieu of a Christmas gift. This sort of gifting is becoming more common and while it is still unnecessary and unrequested (I have never asked for a gift in my life and on occasion, when a brand has asked me what I’d like, I’ve always said I don’t need anything and am just doing my job), it reflects a move in a positive direction.

I have never in my life worked commercially with Guerlain in any capacity. I have never received a single penny of their money. I adore their new foundation and as a makeup obsessive, I raved about it widely. I can’t help myself and I see that as my job. I would never, ever rave about a product I didn’t love and I would never, ever not declare a commercial interest. There is none here.

I have done one fully declared sponsored post with Lancôme on SHB. I may do another in the future, but there are currently no plans in that direction. It is absolutely not true that I am a spokesperson, or an employee for Lancôme or any other brand.

Forum “plants”
I have heard this today and I have absolutely no idea what it even means. While I understand the very real and valid concerns surrounding financial and promotional transparency in beauty coverage and am very happy to discuss it here, this sort of thing is just out and out paranoia and conspiracy theorising. I’ve never heard the like. My forum is made up of thousands of women who met on my former Facebook group. I have met many of them at reader events and am endlessly grateful for their support of my work and of each other. I also have admins and moderators, all of whom applied after I publicly appealed for volunteers on Facebook. They were given mod rights based on their general availability, engagement with the community, and their geographical timezone. Some of my friends are also forum members, though the closest friend I had on the forum has since passed away. SHB has no employees at all and the only people who receive any payment are the writers who contribute, and Nat Saunders, who directs the bathroom videos. The forum has been so harmonious, so mutually supportive and generally nice that we’ve barely had to address any issues in three years. I think we’ve asked fewer than five people to leave after they broke the rules (I have never, contrary to one Mumsnet post, asked someone to leave on grounds of personal politics – that would be insane). Of those five, I think only two have caused me any personal concern, in terms of their communications with me via other platforms, and their apparent motives in posting frankly insane accusations and insults online. I think those are pretty good numbers, on the whole. All that said, I have literally no idea what possible use I would have for a “plant” (I can access my own forum at any time, delete what I like, remove who I like, and yet I practically never do), what their function would be, why on earth anyone would think I’d feel the need or find the time. It’s absolutely bonkers and completely and utterly untrue.

Another thing I only heard about today. Apparently, journalists and bloggers post on one another’s Instagram posts to “bump” them up the feed. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I had literally no idea “bumping” was a thing on Instagram. As far as I knew, “bumping” was what everyone I know – readers, forum members, friends – did on salihughesbeauty.com or Facebook, in order to keep a specific thread active. For example, if someone had a pressing question, or was raising money for charity, or was organising a meet-up, they would post “Bump” on a thread to keep it near the top of the page. I had no idea one could do this on Instagram – my feed comes through chronologically and I still have no idea if that is changeable. So no, I have never done this on Instagram in my life and to the best of my knowledge, no one has used my Insta feed to do it themselves.

I have only once in my life exchanged an Instagram post for money. It was this last Christmas, as part of a deal between Bailey’s and The Pool, to which I contribute on a purely freelance basis. They asked me to post a Bailey’s cocktail, I bloody live on the stuff over Christmas anyway, and so I said I would do it in return for a £500 donation in my name to Carey Lander’s Just Giving page in aid of Sarcoma UK. The donation, along with several others of mine, can be seen publicly, and I fully disclosed the commercial element on my Instagram post. I have never exchanged goods for an Instagram post and never would.
Occasionally, if I’m hosting an event for which I am being paid, I might Instagram from the event because I tend to post whatever I’m doing that may be of interest. However, if an Instagram post is a required part of my wider contract with that brand, I would use #Ad or #Sp or both.

Bathroom videos
I am fiercely protective of my In The Bathroom series. They will never, ever receive commercial funding for product placement. We are asked often to visit the bathroom of a brand ambassador, but with the exception of Charlotte Tilbury, Bobbi Brown and Aerin Lauder (all of whom I felt were interesting enough women in their own right), I’ve always said no because really, who wants to see an unknown business woman quacking on about nothing but her own products? In The Bathroom is not a corporate video, it’s for entertainment. Moreover, when interesting women have asked if they can do the video in a posh hotel bathroom (because they are embarrassed of their own), I’ve said no because it’s dishonest and not in keeping with the ethos of the In The Bathroom series. I’m afraid I laughed out loud at the implication by one Mumsnet poster that In The Bathroom is some big budget production with the cast of thousands. We have one camera, one director (my old friend, the non-professional director Nat) holding it. Usually it’s just me and him with no lighting at all. Sometimes my assistant Lauren comes. We’ve never had hair or makeup people there, with the exception of Charlotte Tilbury and Bobbi Brown’s videos, hired by them, not us (my assistant Lauren powdered Ruth’s nose at her shoot). I’ve done my own hair and makeup in every video but Bobbi’s. Not that I even understand why it would be a problem to have a proper crew. Likewise, if I was as fiercely chasing YouTube figures as the poster suggests, the videos would be about 50 minutes shorter (long videos are commercial suicide, I’m always told, but I don’t care because I prefer a proper interview). I’m still not sure why being slicker and more professional would be so terrible and lacking in integrity. It’s just not true, is all.

Incidentally, of course it is “no coincidence” that my bathroom videos appear when they do. They take weeks of planning, usually because they are reliant on finding a gap in three very busy schedules. And of course the video in my own bathroom was timed. The Pool contacted Harper Collins direct and asked if they could make a film in my bathroom to coincide with the paperback launch of Pretty Honest. That’s how all book (and film and TV programme) promotion works – TV shows, lit festivals, newspapers, and all other publications identify some time-relevant content and the author provides it, usually for free, to increase awareness of the publication and ultimately help the book. I cannot imagine this is scandalous, or even new, information to anyone.

No participant has ever been paid for appearing in an In The Bathroom video.
No one has ever paid to appear in an In The Bathroom video.

Product placement
There is no undeclared product placement anywhere on salihughesbeauty.com, including our videos and forum. If we are helping to promote a product, we will always tell you. No exceptions.

Guardian Weekend
The Guardian has never, ever asked me to mention a product for any reason, commercial or otherwise. I believe they never would, but if they did, I would refuse to cooperate. Likewise, I would never, ever accept any money, work, or product in return for coverage. Honesty is absolutely integral to that column and I take it extremely, extremely seriously. Anyone who genuinely knows me in this industry will tell you the same.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far. I realise it’s quite a marathon but this stuff is immensely important to me.

Sali x

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