Could ConAgra Happen to You?


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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 FoodMayahem.com 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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