I’ve wormed my way into trade shows as “press” before, on the strength of my blogging empire (as one friend calls it), but this week I was actually treated like press at the Independent Garden Center (IGC) show in Chicago. And some of what I’ve seen confuses, or disturbs me.

Before I get into my rant, many many kudos to the IGC for understanding the importance of social media, and especially to blogger and photographer Bren Haas, who did an amazing job of reaching out to her blogger network through the Twitter phenomenon #gardenchat, and arranging for a large presence of well-known and lesser known (like me) garden tweeters and bloggers to have access to this industry event, which they might normally not be able to attend.

Having not been treated like legit press at other events (i.e. you get a badge and they wave you in, but press room has no wifi or press releases, there’s no official pep talk or guide, and they limit access in various ways), I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

Now, this is okay, I don’t consider myself press, but rather a consumer, and a member of the industry through my client The Peterson Garden Project. So I’m always a little apologetic about that press pass and like to make sure I “pay” for it by putting out information about whatever event it is, trying to stay positive and upbeat, promoting at least the event itself.

This time, we were pretty much told to sell not just the industry, or the event, but even specific products and vendors (by which I mean they said, “go to this booth and tweet about this specific product, it’s going to be hot” Really? I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to work.). They gave us a schedule of when to talk about what items or types of items, and certain vendors and product lines were specifically touted as things to talk about. I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean for any of us to be posting negative reviews.

I drank a little of the Kool-Aid, and played along a bit. But after I got home, I started thinking about what event organizers can ask, and what they can reasonably expect. They are not “clients” inasmuch as they aren’t paying me. If they were paying me, I would be obligated, by my personal standards if not by general ethical forthrightness, to reveal this, and could no longer consider myself “press” of any kind. There is really no way, following along with the hashtag they’re using, to tell who is a vendor, who a retailer. There’s no way to spot the bloggers/tweeters from whatever traditional press might be there.  Some of the media are actually Media Stars, not reporters or magazines or news outlets, or even industry publications. And there’s just no way to differenciate.

I saw a lot of things at this show which, as an issue-activist, I would take exception to. I saw products that are harmful, wasteful, or misleading. I saw famously unsustainable companies slapping on the “greenwash” with a liberal hand.

And as an issue-activist, it’s also my obligation to call these companies on it, and not to hold back because the event organizers are, legitimately, trying to tout the industry.

You don’t control social (or any) media. You ride the wave and it takes you to amazing places–as a consumer, an activist, a fan, or a business person. Telling bloggers and tweeters what they are expected to contribute to an event entirely misses the point, and misunderstands social media culture.

What are your obligations or rights as “press” at an event? What can the organizers reasonably request, demand, or control?

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