Food giant ConAgra and its PR firm Ketchum found itself in a reheated soup recently, when an event for bloggers in which food bloggers were fed frozen dinners as a “secret surprise” went wrong. At least some of the bloggers took offense, and a retreat was hastily beaten.
The story is an interesting one, as written by Andrew Adam Newman in the New York Times. But I was most interested in the quotes by PRSA ethics expert Deborah A. Silverman.
Here’s what Newman’s story closed with:
The promotion was “unfortunate” and “struck me as being not quite where they should be in terms of honesty,” said Deborah A. Silverman, who heads the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards at the Public Relations Society of America.
In an e-mail message, Ms. Silverman added, “Ketchum has an excellent reputation for high ethical standards,” but “the social media realm (including bloggers) is new territory for public relations practitioners, and I view this as a valuable learning opportunity.”
I have some issues with this. First, Ketchum’s “excellent reputation” has at least one gigantic hole in it in the shape of Armstrong Williams. I wrote about the Armstrong Williams scandal when it happened in 2005. It stank then and it stinks now.
They’ve also been sharply criticized for their use of Video News Releases (VNRs) — criticism serious enough to cause PRSA to issue a bulletin about their ethical usage.
Second, the idea that social media and blogger relations are “new territory for public relations practitioners” is hokum and hooey.
A quick Google on blogger relations found articles from Lee Odden in 2006 and John Cass in 2007 on doing blogger relations right. Neville Hobson wrote an article for IABC’s Communication World magazine in May 2006 about blogger relations (I’m not a PRSA member, so don’t have access to their resources as I do IABC’s). I pointed to some guidelines from Cory Doctorow in 2008 on this blog.
I asked Deborah Silverman, who is a PR prof at Buffalo State in New York, if she wanted to expand on her view, and she did. Here’s her response:
“The social media realm, including bloggers, is relatively new territory for public relations practitioners, as evidenced by the large crowds who attend social media workshops. Social media have been around for only about five years. Although many practitioners may be familiar with social media, there are numerous new ethical issues that are arising; one of those is where bloggers fall within the consumer-advocate-journalist continuum. So I do believe that this situation was a learning experience for all of us. Above all, it reiterates the ethical tenet in PR that disclosure of motivations, intentions and/or sponsorship is paramount.”
First, it’s unfortunate that Silverman chose not to respond to the concerns over Ketchum. Second, I disagree with her on a number of points. First, the fact that social media training attracts crowds doesn’t necessarily mean it’s new. People still go to speechwriting workshops and speeches aren’t new; people learn to write news releases and the news release is more than a century old. And while this may be a “learning experience” for Silverman, ConAgra, and Ketchum, I think a lot of social media practitioners only learned a new way to screw up blogger outreach.
One could be charitable and say that it’s too soon to REALLY know how to do this. But it’s not true. There’s no reason to not know how to do this well, and to do it.
May have more about these issues soon.
UPPERDATE: Tonia Ries at the RealTime Report has more thoughts and references related to this story, as does the always readable Jen Zingsheim at Media Bullseye.