In our Ethics & Issues class this week, we discussed John Stauber’s documentary, “Toxic Sludge Is Good for You.” The film, and the book it’s based on, is a scathing indictment of the public relations business. And while it’s hardly a balanced view, it’s one every PR professional should see. “Toxic Sludge” begins by questioning an axiom long preached in our field: that the “best PR is invisible PR.” Will that approach work in a 2.0 world?
Adweek’s Brian Morrisey this week reports on the latest social media campaign designed to create buzz. It’s called MyBlogSpark. The campaign features cereal giant General Mills targeting some 900 citizen journalists, most of them mommy bloggers. That’s a sizable and influential group when your job is to sell Cheerios. The campaign is smart and efficient marketing by any standard.
MyBlogSpark sends free product to the bloggers to sample and, if they choose, to review. It’s hardly a blogola scandal, as the bloggers receive nothing more than free consumables and some in-store coupons. If you’re a blogger corrupted by a free box of Kashi Whole Grain, then you’re beyond hope. No one is being “bought” here.
BlogSpark, like Ford’s Fiesta Movement, is ingenius (though Ford, IMO, crosses the line into blogola). The campaign puts products in the hands of influencers within its target demographic. There’s an element of market research to it all, but the real benefit comes from bloggers sharing their experiences with readers. It’s a buzz machine that helps sells product and fuel search engine optimization. It’s also inexpensive to implement and maintain.
So why am I writing this post? These passages from Morrissey’s story bother me a bit:
General Mills can be confident the program will fill blogs with positive reviews. One of the requirements for participation reads: “If you feel you cannot write a positive post regarding the product or service, please contact the MyBlogSpark team before posting any content.”
In response, Stacy Becker (of Coyne PR) told Morrissey of the bloggers: “They are free to write anything they’d like, though.”
Becker could not point to any reviews that weren’t positive, but she assessed some as “not so great,” adding: “We don’t tell them not to write, but most want to only write positive things.”
According to Morrissey, General Mills “suggests bloggers inform readers they receive products for review,” but it’s not a requirement they do so. Though, in General Mills’ defense, how do you force anyone to be transparent? You can only suggest it.
Morrissey then reminds us of the news we’ve all been hearing:
The Federal Trade Commission has suggested it might put in place regulations requiring clearer disclosure from bloggers who review products. A half-dozen product review posts from MyBlogSpark members sampled did not include mention of General Mills. The typical disclosure was more discrete.
“If bloggers want to maintain editorial integrity, they need to disclose their variables for reviews,” said Sarah Hofstetter, vp of emerging media and client strategy at 360i, which has run blog-influencer programs but is not affiliated with MyBlogSpark. “If they’re only going to review things they like, they need to disclose this is part of their deal: they’re receiving a lot of products from a lot of vendors and they only review what they like.”
I don’t know Brian Morrissey, but I know he’s been critic of social media campaigns that fly under the radar. The General Mills campaign is largely above board, but only because Morrissey called them on it. After pointing out the ambiguity of its agreement with bloggers, General Mills’ Brand Manager David Witt had the language removed. General Mills no longer requires its bloggers to forewarn the company when negative posts are coming. (Witt posted this news in the comments section of Morrissey’s story.)
So we can’t be unhappy about the outcome. The critical eye of a journalist brought about change that made a marketing program more transparent. It’s the watchdog function of media working as it should. You see why I worry every day about losing these guys?
What’s wrong with a little free cereal to generate a lot of goodwill? Nothing at all, so long as the writers disclose their relationship with their sponsors, and that they do so at the top of the post.
The age of PR as the “unseen power” is passing. And we’re all the better for it.
Update (5:28 p.m. EDT, 4/30/09): Ben Parr over at Mashable actually praises General Mills for asking bloggers to contact the company if they don’t feel they can write a positive review. “This is good brand management on the part of GM,” he says. I’d call it co-opting the messenger, but it goes to show you the range of opinions on this one.
General Mills earns MY praise for removing the policy from the MyBlogSpark program. It smacked of prior review. (Thanks to Guhmshoo for inspiring this post as well as the update.)