Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A meal with a really bad aftertaste

Conagra, one of the largest manufacturers, distributors and marketers of food in the U.S. manufactured a little PR problem for themselves last week after creating a marketing event that was just about as genuine and fresh as their food.

According to the New York Times, they hosted an event for food bloggers featuring "a delicious four course meal" by Food Network Chef, George Duran at was supposedly his new "intimate Italian restaurant." They invited the bloggers to bring a couple of their readers to share the experience with them.

The twist on this evening (you guessed it), the food being served wasn't Mr. Duran's. It was Frozen Lasagna and Razzleberry pie from another famous American chef, Marie Calendar. The idea was that the bloggers would be so impressed by the food that they would talk about it on their sites and also agree to appear in commercials that were being taped with hidden cameras.

As you can imagine, not every blogger was happy to find out they had been deceived, especially right in front of one of their loyal readers.

Conagra and Ketchum, their PR agency, made a couple of key mistakes.

First, they didn't know their audience. They should never have invited true foodies to an event like this. Even if the bloggers liked the food, they'd never admit it. They can't. It goes against everything they stand for and write about.

Second, they lied. Okay when you look a the fine print they didn't actually lie. They never "said" the food was going to be actually cooked by George, they never said Sotto Terra was an actual restaurant. But it's pretty clear that's what they wanted those invited to believe.

Third, they didn't give the guests a way to save face. Bloggers write because they're passionate about a topic (it's certainly not for the money). Their readers trust them to tell them what's good and what's not. By exposing their naivete to the invited readers, they put at risk the one and only thing of value that bloggers have, their reputation.

A good lawyer never asks a question he doesn't know the answer to. A good PR person doesn't host an event that they don't know the outcome of. This was a failure that is spreading like wildfire around the web. And anyone who's any good at this business could have seen it coming from a mile away.

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