The Philadelphia influencer scene erupted in controversy recently after a popular local food blogger said she felt pressured by a public relations (PR) company to create content about a complimentary meal she did not like at a new restaurant.
The incident opened up a broader discussion about the relationship between influencers and PR companies. Some creators expressed that they shouldn’t feel pressured into making unpaid content that’s inauthentic or untrue to their experiences.
Last week, Philadelphia-based TikToker Brandon Edelman (@bran__flakezzz) was sent an early access copy of a Philadelphia magazine article about the city’s food influencers from his friend. While he wasn’t featured in the piece, he was struck by a blurb about an influencer who was taken off a PR agency’s events invitation list for not making content about a free meal she received.
Edelman decided to speak publicly about the story in a recent viral TikTok video—which now has over 110,000 views. He discussed the “Philly influencer drama” stemming from the article and shared his own experience working with local PR companies. Edelman said he appreciates complimentary meals and early access to restaurants; however, he gets annoyed when PR companies expect unpaid, positive content in return.
“I’m not confirming that what [the influencer in the article] said is true, but in the general PR and influencer scene, that does happen. Influencers are kind of scared to say certain things or do certain things in fear the PR companies will react in a certain way and then limit the opportunities for the influencer,” Edelman told Passionfruit in an interview.
The article was published on the Philadelphia magazine website on Sept. 6 but was circulated among local influencers earlier via an early access copy of the magazine’s September issue. It showcases an interview with Kory Aversa, the CEO of Aversa PR, a Philadelphia-based public relations company. In the article, Aversa—who is an influencer himself with over 175,900 followers on TikTok and Instagram—said he invites other TikTok and Instagram influencers to attend early restaurant openings with the expectation they will provide one grid post and three stories—without pay beyond a gratis meal.
Cassandra Matthews (@cass_andthecity), an influencer with over 268,800 followers on TikTok and Instagram, told Philadelphia she had a negative experience at one of the restaurants Aversa PR invited her to. She said she felt “uncomfortable” creating positive content about the experience, and was consequently taken off of Aversa PR’s invitation list for new events until she eventually agreed to post content about the restaurant. Soon after Edelman’s TikTok was posted, Matthews created her own TikTok video, which received over 59,500 views, expanding on her side of the Aversa PR story.
“I said, look, I guess I’ll still post but here’s a whole list of reasons why I don’t feel comfortable. … My concerns kind of weren’t really addressed, and it was just like, alright well we still need the posts to go up. In the meantime, until that post went up, I was taken off of their PR list and not invited to any of their events. Mind you, I have already bent over backwards for this PR company never getting a dime and have posted multiple other restaurants immediately. … I took my time, holding off on posting about this restaurant. And then eventually, I just posted something. It was nothing like any of my normal videos where I hype up the food and the whole experience,” Matthews said in the video.
In an interview with Passionfruit, Matthews said she has been an influencer for almost two years. She claims she has worked with Aversa PR in the past, attending restaurant openings for free and posting content in return. She was initially OK with the arrangement; however, after being invited to Olde Stone, a steakhouse built in an old church which opened earlier in the year, she was disappointed with the quality of the food she received. She said the meal was expensive and likely would have cost around $400 due to high prices, with some dishes at the restaurant which she said she was encouraged to try by restaurant staff being around $100 for two people. Even though the meal was comped by the restaurant, Matthews said she simply did not feel comfortable recommending the food to her followers.
Michael Sklar, a co-owner of Olde Stone, told Passionfruit his restaurant is new to the world of influencers and said he continues to work with Aversa PR.
“With rising food costs, staffing and supply shortages, and other challenges during the pandemic, we take very seriously what expenses are approved, which includes free media and influencer dines. The pandemic hurt the restaurant community very hard—fortunately, we work with a PR firm that takes every penny we send on direct and indirect costs very seriously, as if it were money out of their own pocket. Our region has a wealth of talented influencers and content creators and as a new restaurant we look forward to getting to know this world and connecting with those that are a fit for us and our audience,” Skylar said.
Matthews told Passionfruit that Aversa reached out a few days after she attended Olde Stone because she had not yet posted any content about her experience. She said she responded describing her poor experience and said she could not recommend the food to her followers in good faith. However, she said she knew she had likely been taken off the company’s invitation list, and because of that, she agreed to post a video. Rather than speaking about the food, she talked about the cool element of the restaurant being built in an old church.
Aversa told Passionfruit he does not remove influencers from PR invitation lists because they do not post after a bad experience. Regardless, Matthews said she felt pressured to post in order to remain on the Aversa PR list. In hindsight, she told Passionfruit she believed it was wrong to post content about a restaurant she did not like simply to remain in a PR company’s good graces.
“It is an expensive restaurant, I don’t want my viewers to [rack up] a $300 bill there and not like their food,” Matthews told Passionfruit. “I completely acknowledge that I told [Aversa] I would post about it. That’s not up for debate. I said I would post about it. I just thought, it still is the principle that we should not have to be inauthentic to our audience.”
Aversa said he did collaborate with Matthews on a partnership, however he disputed certain aspects of the timeline initially provided to Passionfruit by Matthews.
“In terms of Cass, we have not known each other for ‘years’ as stated on her social channels. My first email and text with her is from 2021. We have not worked on ‘years and so many projects’ as she has stated on her social [media] but [on] about 6-7—and we are thankful for each of them. … We collaborated with her on a partnership. I had not heard from her after she enjoyed a free dinner for two at one of our restaurants. After giving her a few weeks to return from being out of town, I reached out again. She shared some balanced feedback and she provided an angle idea for the post. In writing, she confirmed she would be posting and that it was coming down the road. We paused invites to her again while we waited as we again didn’t hear from her. However, weeks later as soon as the partnership was finished and the content she proposed posted, we regrouped and moved forward with opportunities that were a fit for her and our clients,” Aversa told Passionfruit.
In response to Aversa’s allegations of timeline errors in her story, Matthews said she thinks Aversa “wants to gaslight and not see any fault in his actions.”
“As for working with each other, 2021 and 2022 makes it over 1 year of working with each other. No discrepancy there. We have worked with each other numerous times on multiple different occasions for over a year, hence [me] saying ‘I’ve worked with him for years and never received a dime’ is accurate. The first invitation was February of 2021 … I’d say it’s safe to say we’ve worked with each other for years as it’s now August 2022. I’m a ballpark person not a let me get my receipts person … I’m not denying it could’ve been weeks he reached out, I really don’t know because I don’t care enough to look that information up because it more so emphasizes how silly he looks to not have followed up right away,” Matthews said.
Aversa also disputed Matthews’ claims around the price of food at the restaurant.
“I have the receipt and that is not factual—she didn’t order any dish over $100. I was told she did tip her server. It is our policy for seated free meals for any of our clients to tip your server. When she agreed to the partnership she was aware of our tip policy and in fact she had copies of the menu I had emailed her for price reference—so she could [decide] if this partnership was a fit for her. Servers are an important part of the restaurant experience and need to be taken care of especially after all they have endured during the pandemic,” Aversa said.
Matthews responded to Aversa’s allegations regarding the meal’s price by saying the following: “As for the bill total again—everything at the restaurant is super expensive. No, I didn’t fact check prior but I know it first hand. Whether items are over $100 or not, maybe they’re $75/$60/$80 I know it’s categorized in the [four dollar signs] listings online. I asked my server for multiple recommendations too so I also went based on their suggestions. … I’m not denying that the bill was expensive, I’m saying there’s a reason for it as it’s an expensive restaurant. … That’s all there is to it. He doesn’t compensate creators to bring in business for his clients. He doesn’t care if we actually have a good experience but doesn’t want us to voice it publicly (as he states in the [Philadelphia] article),” Matthews said.
Matthews said after her initial experience at the restaurant, a representative with Olde Stone reached out to her offering her to come to the restaurant without knowing she had already attended. She said she responded with details about her negative experience, and claims the representative asked her to come back for another visit. She also claims another person who claimed Olde Stone was “their restaurant” reached out via direct message after she posted her recent TikTok and apologized for her bad experience.
Olde Stone’s co-owner Michael Skylar said the following in response to Matthews’ claims: “A new staff member helping with our social reached out to her. Kory had already asked her to come back when we finished some menu changes. … she wasn’t interested in discussing that. I do not know of any other owner speaking to her [directly] other than myself.”
Matthews said when asked about her experience with local PR companies for Philadelphia she answered honestly saying she had a bad experience in this one situation. Although she hopes to maintain long-term business relationships with local restaurants and PR companies, she believes influencers should not be put in the position to mislead their audience in order to be invited to events.
“PR should not treat influencers like this. Especially when we bend over backwards for them. I have done so many ads for [Aversa’s] restaurants. … It’s not like this is my first restaurant for him and I’m trying to cheat him out of anything like that. Because you know, if I brought in one customer to that restaurant, that already paid my bill,” Matthews said. “My agenda is not to be malicious, rude or bring down anyone. It’s just to state simple facts and my story.”
TikToker Edelman said he personally knows Aversa, and has had nothing but positive experiences with him. He said he even called him to apologize if it seemed like he was taking sides in the influencer drama. However, he said he also knows Matthews and has had nothing but positive experiences with her as well. He thinks her story is important, and does not believe it’s right for companies to remove influencers from lists simply because they don’t like a product they were given for free.
He also believes he is in a different position than most creators because he already has a large audience—with over 279,100 followers on TikTok alone—and doesn’t need to attend PR events or post unpaid content just because a company like Aversa asks him to.
“There’s negative connotations still with influencers that our jobs aren’t real and we’re entitled when we ask for stuff. … I know now as I’m getting more professional at this, I don’t need to post anything unless I’m signing a contract. Now where that comes in is with smaller creators. Some of them don’t know that, and some of them do know that but they choose to post to not get removed from the PR lists. … They don’t want to lose out on that opportunity. Especially for foodies, they can get their most viral videos when they go to a new restaurant,” Edelman said.
On a personal note, Edelman said he does not have to create content for a PR event unless he formally signs a written contract, even if it is suggested to him. Edelman said he made his TikTok video to encourage other creators that they can do the same. Similarly, he wanted to encourage businesses and PR people to not demand content from creators they invite to events—saying a pressure-free environment actually makes influencers more likely to post positive content and recommend a restaurant.
“That to me is someone saying we really want your opinion and we value your opinion. I’m going to be encouraged to post about it,” Edelman said.
When asked if Matthews was legally obligated to fulfill the social media posts expected of her and if she signed a written agreement, Aversa said the following: “I am very articulate with what our clients can provide and what is expected from our influencer partnerships. She has gotten our standard partnership ask 2-3 dozen times in writing. She reached out to me to set up the date, time and details of her meal. For reference: I have not heard from her or read/seen anywhere where she was not clear. Her texts in writing to me after the dinner in fact confirm what was expected.”
In general, Matthews told Passionfruit she’s had many positive experiences with PR companies in the Philadelphia area. She said many don’t pressure her to post if she’s had a bad experience, and many don’t ask her to post at all prior to coming to a restaurant. She thinks that should be “the standard.”
“If there’s no compensation, there should not be a requirement to post. Maybe an encouragement to post, but not necessarily a requirement,” Matthews said.
Aversa said he wants to support the influencer community in Philadelphia. He said he has multiple fully booked influencer events coming up this year, and is working on programs to support micro influencers and rising talent.
“We have an open door policy and influencers know to reach out, share feedback, and we view these as a learning experience. I also remind them so they know we genuinely want to hear how things went. I am passionate about PR and influencing, as well as about food and restaurants. We want to create partnerships that are a win-win,” Aversa said.