Could ConAgra Happen to You?

By now everyone has heard about the ConAgra-Ketchum crisis and forwarded it along to their consumer clients as a cautionary tale.But if you’ve been living under a rock for the past week and missed the public smearing (NYT, HuffPo, Gawker, PRWeek, Business Insider, to name a few) here’s the nutshell version:Ketchum planned a bait and switch stunt with celebrity chef George Duran being the bait and Marie Callender’s frozen food line being the switch. Taking note from other major food brands like Pizza Hut and Domino’s and hoping for similar success, ConAgra thought the invited bloggers would be pleasantly surprised by the quality of their meals and the company hoped they would be able to use the footage for promotional videos on YouTube and its Web site.

They weren’t pleasantly surprised but they did spread buzz – the bad kind.
Disregarding the fact that ConAgra may have used the wrong audience for this promotion, what shocked me the most was not the “trickery,” but rather that some of the bloggers had food sensitivities and issues. For example in the NYT article, the bloggers at cite their avoidance of artificial ingredients and an allergy to food coloring in a conversation immediately preceding the meal.  Cindy Zhou, of the blog Chubby Chinese Girl, said she “ate organic, fresh and good food.”

Like the rest of the mob, I wanted blood and began writing a pretty hard hitting post about how Ketchum and ConAgra should have done a little better research before they invited bloggers with food sensitivities and issues to an event with their products. But then I did a little research of my own.

And you know what I found? Maybe the big bad PR agency isn’t as bad as everyone thinks. In fact, it seems there was little Ketchum could have done to avoid the foodie faux pas.

As bloggers are frequently passionate about their chosen topic, one would think that they would write about special issues which they hold near-and-dear or touch them personally, such as a food coloring allergy or eating only fresh and organic food.

Or, if they’re truly dedicated to the cause, mention it in their ‘About’ page.

Or in an email when they’re invited to a free dinner (particularly where they’re being served food of an unknown origin and ingredient list), even if they’re dazzled by the blinding light of ‘celebrity chef.’

But when there’s nothing about these “important” issues on a blog’s ‘About’ page or in posts dating back for two years, how is a PR pro to know a blogger has a strong adversity to artificial ingredients and may not be the right fit for this project?

That’s the thing: you can’t.

This also brings up a very important question: how thorough can you be in your blogger research and selection for events? Vocus and Cision often don’t have niche blogs in their database. Other than reading About pages or Facebook Page information, the only thing you can do is search for keywords and read post after post.

Without reading every word ever published on the blog it would have been very difficult for the person putting together the media list to have distilled the core values of the blogger when those very values haven’t been raised for double-digit months.

In this particular case, sure, the bloggers brought up their “issues” during the pre-dinner conversation. But let’s not kid ourselves – at that point, it’s too late (if the pros were even in the room at the time).

My question is why didn’t the bloggers ask about these issues before the event? They had no way of telling if all the ingredients were organic, or if any food coloring or artificial ingredients were used throughout the cooking process. Let’s be real here: if it was really that important they would have asked – plain and simple.

So before you start mindlessly chanting “off with their heads” with the rest of the industry, just think: it could have happened to you.

Mikinzie Stuart is a Michigander turned New Yorker specializing in digital communications for B2B and B2C clients at Peppercom. She frequently indulges in artificial sweeteners, preservatives and shelf-stable liquid cheese. You can read more of her stuff at her personal blog, PR Geek Speak.

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  • You ask some really good questions and make some important points, Mikinzie. It’s definitely not all the PR agency’s fault, and yes the bloggers could have inquired beforehand if they had food allergies, but why didn’t the PR pros reaching out to the bloggers ask them first? If you are putting on an event centered on a food tasting, one of the first things that should come mind is that it’s necessary to find out if anyone has food allergies.

    There are definitely a lot of lessons learned from this situation, both for bloggers and PR pros!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Nikki! Honestly, I haven’t seen anything saying that Ketchum-ConAgra asked the bloggers about food allergies, but I also didn’t see anything saying they didn’t. The point is, we don’t know. But as I mentioned to Harrison in another comment, I have several friends with dietary issues (i.e. vegetarian, kosher, lactose-intolerant, etc), and most people with these types of special requests ask about it before they attend an event or eat a food item. Even at a ‘fancy’ restaurant with ‘gourmet fare,’ there’s no telling what ingredients they use in the food. But regardless if Ketchum-ConAgra asked or not, the fact is no one is perfect, not even PR pros. 🙂 And if the PR pro forgot to ask, and it was a concern to the blogger, he or she should have asked. It’s a shared responsibility. 

  • Hi Mikinzie, we work on a lot of CPG brands here at GdB and many tactics associated with these accounts involve blogger-related events. As PR professionals, it’s our responsibility to view niche bloggers just as we now do reporters: we get to know them very well first. The lines of pro/personal have become fully blurred, so when you say we shouldn’t take the time to understand bloggers, that’s totally contradicting the way we now engage with media, bloggers, friends, etc. I get what you’re saying about media lists, but even those are becoming quite small in an effort to truly build relationships. Bloggers do not owe it to companies to communicate issues; instead there should have been a disclaimer in the event invite — because the bloggers didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. Call it bait and switch, but it’s a practice that flies in the face of ethics and the disclosures bloggers are now accustomed to stating on their blogs.

    Tim Otis

    • Hi Tim,

      In no way am I advocating not thoroughly researching your bloggers. Perhaps there was a misread as what I wrote was that the amount of research that would’ve been required to find these ‘very important’ issues would’ve been beyond reason. On one of the blogs the last mention of a food particularity was approximately 30 months old.

      Was this the wrong audience – perhaps, but Gini covered that in her post yesterday, which is linked above.There’s a big split in how bloggers want to be treated – as journalists or as marketing avenues with the great majority of lifestyle bloggers falling in the latter group (see Aveda controversy on blogger compensation from earlier this year).

      As far as members of the media (bloggers and traditional media) not owing it to companies and their PR reps to communicate issues, I think you’re totally off base. PR pros are not mind-readers: if the issues are not clearly communicated on their main channel of communication or in email correspondence, then how is one to know? None of the bloggers who claim to have been duped run blogs with “organic” “natural” or any other similar verbiage in the title and do not list their values in their about pages.And as far as a disclaimer in the event invite, that would have kind of defeated the purpose, wouldn’t it? The idea of this promotion was that it’s supposed to be a surprise, mentioning every ingredient to see if there’s an allergy would’ve made the event itself useless – even if this was for an ‘All Organic’ product a sufficient disclaimer would’ve let the cat out of the bag.

      • Mikinzie, we can agree to disagree on your one point about bloggers needing to communicate with PRs. The agency should have known about the issues. Bloggers want to build a community, which means this community stays engaged with them. PRs have a responsibility to be part of this community now. If that’s work, too bad. As far as the disclaimer, I wasn’t saying they should disclose specifics of the event, rather ask food particulars that might have shown the agency that this blogger was a red-flag not to attend the bait and switch. That said, bait and switch isn’t good for bloggers. People don’t have scalable behaviors, so no telling how they’d interpret it. Better to be safe than sorry.

        • Yes, agree to disagree regarding blogger communication. My most successful blogger relationships have always depending on communication from both ends: it’s a shared responsibility since we’re both benefitting from the outcome. However, this does inspire another blog post, so thank you 🙂 And as noted several times both in the post and comments, this may have been the wrong audience for a bait and switch, but the point of the post is applicable to any type of blogger event.

          • Looking forward to reading your new blog post! Disagreement is healthy; as long as both of us are being educated, it’s a win-win 😉

          • Agree to agree 🙂 Thanks again.

  • I completely agree, Mikinzie. It’s so easy to call out ConAgra and we all know how PR folks and social media “gurus” love to harp on situations like these. But in reality it’s just an unfortunate outcome to a fairly good idea. If bloggers don’t give you the details you need, PR pros need to make their best call and take a leap – unfortunately this time it didn’t work out for ConAgra and they are taking the heat for it.  

    • They invited hard core foodie bloggers to eat high sodium frozen food without their knowledge. That’s not a very predictable outcome, isn’t it?

      • Hey Kai, depends on how you define the term “hard core.” If you look a little closer, these bloggers have written about shelf stable meat and potato chips. Not very high end.

        • Got links?  The only vaguely on target one I’ve managed to find was Mom Confessionals, she’s writing about Lays chips today for example, but lots of the others were foodies who take their food very seriously like Feisty Foody and Food Mayhem.

          • Sure do – Walkers, which is the UK version of Lays potato chips and vacuum-sealed shelf-stable meat:

            As I mentioned in the post, I’m not disagreeing that ConAgra may have used the wrong audience for this specific promotion as Gini pointed out in her article, but there was a responsibility on the blogger’s end to find out more about the event if they had specific issues. This goes for any blogger events.

          • Two interesting posts, thanks. Both exude an interested, worldly view of food though, wouldn’t you say? There’s nothing there that would suggest to me that they would be receptive to pre-packaged frozen foods.

            We’ll have to agree to disagree on the agency piece: I believe the responsibility lies squarely with the agency to double, nay triple check the people they’re working with. I don’t know the details of this, other than what I’ve read online, and it’s entirely possible that they got extraordinary pressure from their client to work with these bloggers, but whoever made the final call made a mistake, imo.

  • Anonymous

    Great points Mik. I feel like all too often, the entire responsibility within a PR-influencer relationship is put solely on the PR company’s shoulders. Relationships are two-ways, and bloggers need to take responsibility instead of remaining on the passive side. 

    Thanks for a great post!


    • Thanks, Meg! You’re totally right: blogger relationships, just like any kind of relationship, is a two-way street. 🙂

      • Mollie128

        I completely agree and feel that if these bloggers are claiming to have such strong feelings about the event and their sensitivity to the food, their specific allergies, preferences, and strong opinions should be expressed in their about me/bio segment of their blog considering the blog is food-centered. Perhaps this is just a lesson for the agency as well as bloggers about how specific you need to be. 

  • Good point about bloggers and their hard to find background on their blogs. Not even database companies you mentioned, which provide this service 24/7, have enough time to research all that information.

    On the other hand, if you’ll be pulling a bait & switch on bloggers, make sure it’s an upgrade. Ketchum missed something here…

  • The problem, though, is that at some point along the way, the agency didn’t do due their diligence. They clearly picked foodie bloggers despite them not being the target market for the product, and they deceived them by inviting them to what sounded like an upscale foodie event and then serving them high sodium food.

    I don’t agree with shifting blame onto the bloggers: it’s up to the brand inviting them to make sure that they’re inviting appropriate people. The brand (or agency) needs to ask the questions, not rely on the blogger to offer up information.

    If I had been advising ConAgra, I would have advised against trying to work with these sorts of bloggers in this sort of way. You are never going to get them to like this product, so why even try? Doesn’t make sense. I almost wonder whether the client was unrealistic about who their product appeals to, and pushed the agency in this direction?  I’ve seen that happen multiple times.

  • Harrison636

    I completely agree with the statement in the orginal blog made about how was the PR agency, and the food companies to know that these bloggers were food sensitive or allergic to certain ingredients? Yet, this fail could fall on both the food companies wanting to be blogged about the bloggers themselves. First of all, the food companies and the PR agency, should have taken every precaution with the blogger to ensure that they weren’t allergic tospecific ingredients that way negative side effects wouldn’t come in thier reviews.
    On the other hand, the bloggers should know better to preface thier blog about the food or the company and state that their reaction or negative feedback is due to thier personal allergy symton and should not influence how others precieve the product.
    Either way, both parties could be at fault.

    • I agree that communication is a shared responsibility. There’s no telling outside of the involved parties if Ketchum-ConAgra asked the bloggers about food allergies. But from the personal experience of friends with dietary issues (i.e. vegetarian, kosher, lactose-intolerant, etc), most people with these types of special requests are sure to ask about it before they attend an event or eat a food item. Also, it appears the press from the event had a more negative spin on it than the actual event itself. Buried in the NYT article, it calls out that there was “a high percentage of people who actually appreciated the event” and that over half of the attendees indicated having a favorable impression of Marie Callender’s. Call me cynical, but there’s a possibility that the motive of such a negative reaction could be to get publicity for their blog (ie increase traffic to their site).

  • Madison112

    This is very interesting. If there is no way to avoid this kind of misfortune when planning an event with bloggers, do you have any suggestions for precautionary actions you could take to avoid the bad PR?

    • It’s usually a case-by-case basis and really depends on the type of event and type of bloggers. Make sure you have the right audience for the event and that it’s worthwhile and valuable to the blogger (and their readers). Other than communication and research, there’s little more you can do. And even then, you can only reasonably go so far. 

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  • Heather Caldwell

    Great thought provoking post!

    I think this is a great spotlight on bloggers participating in a two way relationship.  I have read many blogs with very interesting and informative content, yet there doesn’t seem to be much background on the actual blogger, or it is very basic information.  Some could have saved themselves and ConAgra’s time had they brought the questions/issues to light before the event. 

    On the flipside, had ConAgra done better research or had they been more proactive in bringing up important food issues such as food allergies or in this case organic eating, they could have saved themselves a little trouble. 
    Another interesting thought, is whether ConAgra would have still invited these bloggers if they had been more upfront about organic eating, or would they have still invited them thinking they could wow them with the switched food.