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ConAgra’s Can of Worms & the Blogger Surprise That Shouldn’t Have Been

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A simple PR misstep – made very public by the New York Times – has sparked a flurry of conversations around digital word of mouth and how brand marketers should approach their blogger outreach programs.

Here’s a quick summary of what happened: ConAgra, a popular North American CPG company, and its partner PR agency invited several food and mom bloggers to a New York restaurant and informed them that they’d be served a delicious Italian dinner prepared by celebrity chef George Duran. On the contrary, the bloggers were unknowingly served a plate of Marie Callender’s Lasagna (a frozen food product from ConAgra). The brand and its partner agency set up cameras to catch the bloggers’ reactions after the “big reveal” – akin to commercials from Pizza Hut and Febreeze.

Above is the invitation bloggers received from ConAgra’s PR agency (image via Huffington Post).

But during this moment of truth – when the food switch was revealed – the brand did not get the responses it had hoped for. Instead, many of the bloggers were outraged that they had been duped, taking to their very public forums to denounce the bait-and-switch. ConAgra and its agency subsequently cancelled the event series amid growing backlash.

This unfortunate scenario serves as an important reminder to all of us in the PR and marketing industry that the digital world can be a powerful place. Blogger outreach requires a well-articulated set of guiding principles that ensures brands approach this special group of influencers in the most valuable, relevant and fair ways possible.

Giving credit where credit is due. We give credit to ConAgra and its partner agency for recognizing the value of blogger relationships and investing in this event series. Some PR agencies have failed to invest in the digital space at all, so we commend the brand for understanding the sheer power of online influence, and the growing audiences that today’s bloggers wield. As our team of social publicists can attest, blogger media events are a great way to solidify relationships and create strong brand advocates.

So how can brands avoid missteps like this? Here are some best practices to keep in mind when embarking on blogger outreach programs.

Be transparent. Brands are best served if they embrace transparency and avoid misleading or intentionally leaving out information that can impact a person’s judgment. ConAgra’s intentions were not malicious in its effort to “surprise” the bloggers; however, they could have created a successful program if they invited influencers to participate in a simple taste test instead. For more on the importance of transparency in online PR, be sure to read the FTC’s guidelines and WOMMA’s Code of Ethics.

Know your bloggers. Having a deep understanding of an influencer’s interests and motivations is at the core of any successful digital PR effort. For example, one of the bloggers used in the campaign described above mentions on her blog that she only eats “organic, fresh and good food” – a person who is likely not interested in tasting a frozen dinner such as Marie Callender’s. Bloggers spend a lot of time writing their posts and “About Me” sections, so it is in a publicist’s best interest to take the time to read them thoroughly. Understanding your target will also ensure that you are providing the best possible value to that person and his or her readers.

A final best practice is that brands should avoid anticipating a certain reaction from a blogger solely because they have provided a sample product, or invited them to an event. Many bloggers see themselves as journalists – and though there has been much debate over the blurred lines between journalist and blogger – a marketer’s job first and foremost is to ensure that the influencer has a great experience and are equipped with the materials and information he or she needs to write a complete, honest post.

To learn more, read our post on the FTC’s Updated Guides for Endorsements regarding blogger-marketer relations.

Jason Powell is a Senior Social Publicist at 360i.