Some people love surprises, no matter what. Other people value honesty over shocking reveals – especially when those reveals are antithetical to other values you hold dear. When you’re planning a major marketing event, it pays to know which side of the line the media you choose to invite falls on. It especially pays to know when you’re an already divisive corporation like ConAgra Foods. Instead, the food production conglomerate learned a very important lesson about the double edged sword of new media and word of mouth when a stunt in conjunction with PR firm Ketchum and TLC chef George Duran backfired in a spectacular fashion.
According to HuffPo, whose writers were also invited but did not attend, what happened is that – back in August – Ketchum sent forth invitations for dinner at “exclusive underground restaurant Sotto Terra, with George Duran and Phil Lempert in New York City,” where attendees could mingle with other food writers and bloggers, learn about food trends from analyst Lempert, and eat a four-course dinner specially prepared by Duran. The New York Times adds that bloggers who confirmed for one of five available nights would also be given a pair of extra tickets to raffle off to readers, in order to help promote the restaurant further. Most importantly, it was also noted that there would be a special surprise at the end.
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That special surprise turned out to be that the main course and dessert had not been prepared by Duran at all – in fact, guests had been served prepackaged food from ConAgra’s own Marie Callendar’s brand frozen meals line, with hidden cameras set up to record reactions throughout the night (much like Pizza Hut’s Tuscani pasta campaign). ConAgra PR director Stephanie Moritz told the Times that the brand hoped to use the footage on their site, and hoped that bloggers would generate buzz based on being “pleasantly surprised” by what they’d eaten.
There’s just one thing that ConAgra and Ketchum weren’t counting on. Those reactions: not so good. The bloggers and writers overwhelmingly felt hoodwinked and annoyed by the ploy, especially those who’d gotten their readers involved with the free ticket giveaway promotion. Many of the bloggers in attendance focus on better eating – and focusing on fresh, local, healthier cuisine was indeed the topic of the pre-dinner panel – and felt that the food they were served was in direct contrast to the culinary values they write about.
“Feeding me free food doesn't automatically equate to great review,” wrote Cindy Zhou on her blog Chubby Chinese Girl. “I'll always keep it honest for myself and my readers, otherwise there's no point to all this. I do advertising by day, thank you very much, at night, blogging is a passion and hobby. I won't promote products I won't eat it.”
A lesson to take away from this: when creating a special event where you have the ability to hand pick your audience, make sure it’s an audience whose values fit in with what you’re trying to accomplish. Otherwise, your stroke of PR genius could quickly become a PR fiasco.