PR Firms at Loggerheads with Bloggerheads

PR mistakes with bloggersTime was, we could get a chuckle out of television commercials where unsuspecting consumers were surprised to find out that the restaurant coffee was really Folgers®, or the day spa’s skin moisturizer treatment for their hands was actually Palmolive® dish detergent.

There was something rather endearing about those consumer reactions – and they were uniformly positive ones as well.

But to show how far removed we are from those halcyon days, consider this recent attempt to pull a fast one on unsuspecting dinner guests at a “faux” restaurant in Midtown Manhattan: Cooked up by the Ketchum public relations unit of Omnicom Group for its client, ConAgra Foods, New York-based food bloggers and “mommy” bloggers were invited to dine at “Sotto Terra,” an underground restaurant supposedly run by Chef George Duran of TLC’s Ultimate Cake Off cable program.

But Sotto Terra, far from being the “intimate Italian restaurant” of the invitation, was nothing more than an elaborate set-up – hidden cameras and all – to get bloggers to sample ConAgra’s newest offerings in the Marie Callender’s line of frozen entrees and desserts … and presumably to extol the virtues of the cuisine.

In fact, no such restaurant even exists. Rather, it was all a staged scene in a Greenwich Village brownstone. The invitation promised a “delicious four-course meal” accompanied by Chef Duran’s “one-of-a-kind sangria” … along with a talk by famed food industry expert Phil Lempert on new taste trends in food.

The invitation also promised a “special surprise” for those who attended the dinner on one of five evenings.

The special surprise, of course, was revealing the actual provenance of the food items being served. “The twist at the end was not dissimilar to what brands like Pizza Hut and Domino’s have done in the recent past, with success,” noted Stephanie Moritz, a public relations flack at ConAgra.

The plan was to use the video footage captured at the dinners for promotional clips on ConAgra’s website and on YouTube … as well as for the bloggers who attended to generate cyber-buzz about being pleasantly surprised at the revelation.

But this is 2011, not 1981 or 1991. And bloggers are also quite different from the average consumer. Ketchum and ConAgra apparently forgot about the “90-9-1 rule” of online content: 1% create content … 9% comment on that content … and 90% simply lurk.

Not only are bloggers part of the 1%, they take their role seriously and certainly don’t appreciate being fooled. So instead of the food taking center stage, the event itself became the topic of (uniformly negative) conversation on the blogs. A few examples:

 “We discussed with the group the sad state of chemical-filled foods. And yet, you still fed me the exact thing I said I did not want to eat.” (Lon Binder, FoodMayhem Blog)

 “[I] pointed out that the reason I ate organic, fresh and good food was because my calories are very precious to me, so I want to use them wisely. Yet they were serving us a frozen meal, loaded with sodium. I’m NOT their target consumer, and they were totally off by thinking I would buy or promote their highly processed frozen goods after tricking me to taste it.” (Cindy Zhou, Chubby Chinese Girl Blog)

 “Our entire meal was a SHAM! We were unwitting participants in a bait-and-switch for Marie Callender’s new frozen three-cheese lasagna and there were cameras watching our reactions.” (Suzanne Chan, Mom Confessionals Blog)

I loved reading the PR personnel’s “spin” of the events the way they transpired: “Once we sensed it was not meeting attendees’ expectations, that’s where we stopped, we listened and we adjusted,” Stephanie Moritz remarked.

… By which she means the remaining dinner evenings were canceled.

Looking back is 20/20 hindsight, of course. But it does seem like most PR professionals could have seen this negative reaction coming from a mile away. PR agencies exist to provide not only publicity for their clients, but also counsel. Sure, the event sounds like a fun lark with a bit of a twist – and I can just picture the breathlessly animated PR brainstorming session at Ketchum that produced this idea.

But is duping bloggers and making them out to be fools the correct tactic? … Especially considering that their megaphone, augmented by the viral nature of social media, is much more effective and far-reaching than ConAgra’s corporate website ever could hope to be.

When the Public Relations Society of America was contacted by the New York Times for comment, Deborah Silverman, chairperson of the PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, responded by stating that the Ketchum/ConAgra PR stunt was “unfortunate” and “not quite where they should be in terms of honesty.”

Ya think?

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