Sadly, scenarios like this happen a lot more often than anyone would like to admit:
Several bloggers were invited to an exclusive event: A multi-course dining experience at a pop-up restaurant in New York City, with food and spirits ostensibly prepared by George Duran, of Food Network and TLC fame. The bloggers were promised access to Phil Lempert, the “Supermarket Guru.” All was going well until the diners learned the main course and the dessert they were served (meat and cheese lasagna, followed by something called, “Razzleberry Pie”) were not Duran’s creations, but instead were the work of Marie Callender’s, a line of frozen foods produced by ConAgra.
As news of the failed stunt came to light, food bloggers discussed how they cultivate trust among their readers and protect their own independence while fighting off an onslaught of PR pitches that would have them pimping products and places full-time.
Some of the bloggers in attendance shrugged off the stunt, but others were outraged, particularly because they had been asked to promote Sotto Terrra (the pop-up restaurant) in advance. These bloggers were given two tickets to award to one “lucky” reader, who would then take a guest to an evening at Sotto Terra. The upset bloggers felt tricked by ConAgra, a company largely reviled by many food writers and food enthusiasts in general.
Suzanne M. Chan, author of the blog, Mom Confessionals, was one of the bloggers who not only attended the Sotto Terra event, but also promoted it on her blog, awarding tickets to one of her readers. Much of her frustration with the bait-and-switch publicity stunt ConAgra pulled at her expense stemmed from feeling that she had unwittingly violated her readers’ trust. “My readers are loyal because they trust me,” Chan said told me. “If at any time they feel I have become unauthentic, I will have lost a reader if not many.”
I read about the failed ConAgra stunt in the New York Times last week. According to the Times, hidden cameras recorded these dinners — it went on for four nights before ConAgra pulled the plug because they weren’t getting the response they wanted. I guess they hoped to run ads with notable food writers talking about this “yummy” food, and a subsequent “shocked” and “surprised” response when they find out the food is frozen crap from ConAgra. We’ve all seen those ads before, haven’t we?
The gist of the Times article was how the campaign, orchestrated by Ketchum Public Relations, backfired. But I was surprised to read this quote in the piece:
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.”
Umm, no they don’t! Remember “Karen Ryan reporting”? Remember the Armstrong Williams scandal? Ketchum is a repeat offender when it comes to fooling the public; it’s their business, they’re a public relations firm, and if they’ve repeatedly crossed the line into propaganda, well who cares as long as the product got the desired publicity? That’s the difference between PR and journalism: one is shameless hucksterism, one is reporting facts.
Sadly, the last few decades have seen a blending of the two. What used to be news is now propaganda. It seems every news story is a sales pitch from some corporate or political interest. It’s getting harder to tell the difference between news stories and advertising messages.
This piece from May gave me the sads. It’s long, but give it a read. It tracks how PR firms have infiltrated newsrooms and, yes, the blogosphere. In particular, this:
The Pew Center took a look at the impact of these changes last year in a study of the Baltimore news market. The report, “How News Happens,” found that while new online outlets had increased the demand for news, the number of original stories spread out among those outlets had declined. In one example, Pew found that area newspapers wrote one-third the number of stories about state budget cuts as they did the last time the state made similar cuts in 1991. In 2009, Pew said, The Baltimore Sun produced 32 percent fewer stories than it did in 1999.
Moreover, even original reporting often bore the fingerprints of government and private public relations. Mark Jurkowitz, associate director the Pew Center, said the Baltimore report concentrated on six major story lines: state budget cuts, shootings of police officers, the University of Maryland’s efforts to develop a vaccine, the auction of the Senator Theater, the installation of listening devices on public busses, and developments in juvenile justice. It found that 63 percent of the news about those subjects was generated by the government, 23 percent came from interest groups or public relations, and 14 percent started with reporters.
Trust isn’t just the domain of bloggers. It used to be the stock and trade of the news media. Remember “the Most Trusted Name In News”? Does anyone buy that bullshit anymore? I don’t. Like most Americans, I’ve lost any faith and trust I had in the Fourth Estate. Too many plagiarism scandals, manipulations by special interests; too many inaccuracies and outright stenography. We’ve all got a jaundiced eye now.
PR firms and ad agencies are getting too clever by half. Did you hear about Toyota’s creepy 2009 “Your Other You” campaign? What the hell was Saatchi & Saatchi thinking?
It seems as if newsrooms are in a death spiral: advertisers and PR agencies have resorted to clever “stealth” campaigns because no one is reading newspapers anymore, but no one is reading the papers because they don’t trust what they read.
Where all of this leaves us I have no clue.