ConAgra Foods: A Case Study in Blogger Relations Gone Bad

ConAgra Blogger PR Fail

A blogger outreach effort by ConAgra Foods and PR firm Ketchum is the latest case study in blogger relations failure.

Here’s the skinny: Food bloggers and parent bloggers in New York were invited to a VIP dinner with celebrity chef George Duran of TLC’s “The Ultimate Cake Off.” The dinner was at Sotto Terra, “an intimate Italian restaurant,” according to the invite. The bloggers would have a chance to discuss food trends with industry analyst, Phil Lempert. They were even given an extra set of tickets for a reader giveaway.

Instead of a gourmet meal prepared by a celeb chef, the bloggers were “treated” to a frozen, grocery-store lasagna by Marie Callender’s, a ConAgra Foods brand. Hidden cameras captured their reactions to the meal, presumably for a future ad or social media campaign.

The bait-and-switch stunt infuriated many bloggers. It’s an ideal case study in how to do blogger outreach poorly.

Where ConAgra Foods and Ketchum PR Failed

When you ask bloggers to write about you — when you’re seeking earned media — you’re hoping to leverage the goodwill they’ve built with readers. Bloggers work hard to earn that trust, and it’s valuable to them…and to you.

ConAgra and Ketchum betrayed that trust. Where did they go wrong?

  • Dishonesty. People don’t like being duped, bloggers especially. Many see themselves as quasi-journalists or full-fledged journalists. The invitation, the set up…it was all misleading. Even if there was no outright lie, it was sleight of hand at best.
  • Failure to Research Bloggers. Had Ketchum PR done its homework, they’d have known many of the bloggers they invited oppose artificial ingredients, chemicals and dyes. Several of the bloggers prefer organic foods. Others talk about food and chemicals. ConAgra’s product conflicts with the values of the bloggers it pitched exploited.
  • Breach of Trust. By misleading bloggers, ConAgra and Ketchum tricked the bloggers into unwittingly misleading their readers. After writing pre-dinner posts about their invitation, several bloggers had to apologize to readers. Mom Confessionals wrote:

I want to deeply apologize to my winner and her husband, my children’s beloved pediatrician.  They were expecting an amazing meal and a true experience at the hands of famous Food Network chef they were fans of and were left with a really foul taste in their mouths.  I too was completely surprised and I promise you, had I known, I would not have encouraged you to sacrifice your valuable time and money only to be tricked.  I am profoundly embarrassed and hope that you will accept my sincerest apologies.

ConAgra may have been oblivious to how ill-conceived its blogger outreach campaign was, but Ketchum should have known better. It’s time for big PR agencies to quit making excuses and learn how to do blogger relations right.

Blogger Relations Lessons: Takeaways from the ConAgra Blogger Outreach Misfire

Smart PR pros and brands will learn from this blogger outreach backfire. Here are my takeaways:

  • Be Honest. Shouldn’t this be PR 101? Even if Ketchum and ConAgra didn’t lie, per se, their approach was sleight of hand at best. Transparency is a social media buzzword, but it’s also a cornerstone of ethical public relations.
  • Blogger Relations, Not Blogger Outreach. A good blogger PR program is built on relationships. Good relationships are built on trust and respect, and they’re nurtured over time. Betray that trust and you burn the bridges to your customers.
  • Know Your Audience. Good blogger relations starts with understanding the blogger. What does she write about? What are her values? Is your product consistent with those values? Again, it’s about respect.
  • Value Bloggers’ Time and Effort. There are times when it’s appropriate to pay bloggers, and times when it’s not. Regardless your views on if it’s appropriate to compensate bloggers, a frozen lasagna is a paltry reward for getting gussied up and schlepping across town. Blogging is a third full-time job for many bloggers, behind a career and parenting. Respect their time.
A good blogger outreach program is a two-way street. Done right, it can be a powerful tool in your publicity and marketing arsenal. Do it wrong, though, and you risk alienating writers with strong influence on your customer’s buying decision.
  • Anonymous

    This is a great example of poor decision-making by the campaign creators.  It will be interesting to see how/if both Ketchum and ConAgra Foods address the crisis management issue here.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    Ideas always sound good in the creative brainstorming phase. Good PR pros make their money in the polishing and execution phases. Even the biggest PR firms need somebody to reality check their campaign ideas.

    Thanks for swinging by, Lisa. Any blogger relations work on your plate these days?

  • Ron Randle

    Great insight Scott!

  • http://foodiefresh.com Kelly @foodiefresh

    Remember that stupid Pizza Hut commercial where they showed a restaurant full of people and said that everyone thought they were there for a fancy Italian meal and then they brought out the new Pizza Hut pastas which everyone loved?  They couldn’t tell it wasn’t a fancy Italian Meal! (insert sarcasm here)  I’m wondering if ConAgra tried to do that, but in real life (because the Pizza Hut commercial was obviously not real people, but actors).  They tried to pull the wool over the bloggers eyes because they didn’t think bloggers could tell the difference, which just goes to show you that ConAgra doesn’t take bloggers seriously.  I can only speak for myself, but I like to think that I can tell the difference between frozen lasagna and a restaurant quality meal.  I’m sure they thought by doing this they would become credible but in the mean time they didn’t think the food bloggers were credible enough to really know food.  

  • http://foodiefresh.com Kelly @foodiefresh

    Remember that stupid Pizza Hut commercial where they showed a restaurant full of people and said that everyone thought they were there for a fancy Italian meal and then they brought out the new Pizza Hut pastas which everyone loved?  They couldn’t tell it wasn’t a fancy Italian Meal! (insert sarcasm here)  I’m wondering if ConAgra tried to do that, but in real life (because the Pizza Hut commercial was obviously not real people, but actors).  They tried to pull the wool over the bloggers eyes because they didn’t think bloggers could tell the difference, which just goes to show you that ConAgra doesn’t take bloggers seriously.  I can only speak for myself, but I like to think that I can tell the difference between frozen lasagna and a restaurant quality meal.  I’m sure they thought by doing this they would become credible but in the mean time they didn’t think the food bloggers were credible enough to really know food.  

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    Yep, I think you’re exactly right, Kelly…the Pizza Hut commercial is exactly what comes to mind. 

    Working with bloggers doesn’t have to be so hard! Keep it simple, be honest, be respectful…no need to get cute! 

    Sometimes PR tries too hard to justify that big retainer. 

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  • Rich Reader

    The Public Relations industry needs to abandon the old model of pushing out the message for two reasons:  
    1) Push has been replaced by Pull
    2) Consumers and Influencers will never trust your brand again when you lie to them.