There’s been another storm a-brewin’ in the social media realm for the past few days. A number of food bloggers were invited to a dinner with “celebrity chef” George Duran, at an underground restaurant named Sotto Terra (“underground” in Italian). Underground restaurants have been a bit of a trend over the past few years in food circles and in the dining scene–they are basically temporary restaurants that have a more “supper club” feel to them. There is an air of exclusivity, and the fact that bloggers were invited to one with a celebrity chef isn’t *too* outside the realm of logic.
What transpired is where things got a bit wacky, and why this is being written from a PR and social media/blogger outreach perspective. After some aperitifs and noshes, the diners were seated and presented with dinner…which was lasagna, and dessert, which was some sort of mixed berry pie. The lasagna and the pie were part of Marie Callendar’s frozen meal line. The whole thing was filmed, to be used for commercials. And when this was disclosed, the bloggers were annoyed/irritated/angry.
There are a few things that went wrong here, so let’s start with the most important one: someone, or multiple someones, violated the number one rule of PR (not just social media) which is know your audience. I’m sure that the objective here was to have delightfully surprised foodie bloggers who would then express a desire to serve Marie Callendar’s lasagna to their families since it tastes “restaurant quality.” But taste isn’t the only component for many, many people who object to processed foods. They object to the salt, the preservatives, the food colorings. Not taking this into account was the first mistake here. When I worked in politics, we spent time on the “persuadeables.” You don’t sink time into trying to convince someone who has an established and firm position. These foodies were not “persuadeables.” ConAgra/Marie Callendar’s never had a chance with several of these bloggers, and someone should have known, or suspected this.
The next mistake was the setup, and this is a bit more complex. The concept of a blind tasting with a big reveal is a standard, it seems, in food marketing. After all, isn’t this what we’ve seen for years on television? Switching out the regular coffee for some freeze-dried instant, or the Coke vs. Pepsi taste challenges? In almost every post I’ve seen about this (including the post I put up on my Facebook page) someone has mentioned the Pizza Hut commercials where people were served pasta in some restaurant and were told “hey, it’s Pizza Hut!” So why was the response of the bloggers so…negative? I have a theory here that may or may not be the issue, so I’m going to throw it out there and see if anyone comments on it. The difference here is that the bloggers have built a reputation for themselves online. They’ve been very clear about their food parameters. They’ve staked a personal claim on what they believe, in a very public way. This wasn’t for them a harmless “reveal,” it was an embarrassment; an intentional challenge to what they’ve built a reputation advocating made all the worse by the fact that they had been encouraged to involve their blog audiences. Words used by bloggers in attendance were “hoodwinked,” “sham,” “setup,” “tricked”–you get the idea. Maybe we are all more earnest now, and wouldn’t be able to film the decaf coffee crystal ad switch in this day and age. Or maybe there’s something else going on here. I don’t know, but there was a definite and negative reaction to the method used, and in particular the subversive element of getting bloggers to involve their readers.
It has been suggested that the whole ruse, the underground restaurant, etc. didn’t meet the transparency needs of social media. I’m not entirely sold on that argument. I think there is a place for some surprises and reveals in social, but they have to be very carefully thought through. Some people do like surprises, and I think it’s still useful to keep positive reveals in the toolbox, but this goes back to the first point: know your audience.
A final thought: PR pros, expect a LOT more questions when you extend invites to bloggers to events. A recurring point in several of the posts on this subject was the amount of time involved–getting there, hiring a sitter, and so on. Bloggers are going to want to know a great deal about events in advance of agreeing to attend; you won’t be able to get away with less-than-clear explanations in the future.
[Sidebar/Off Topic: Chef Duran has a minor branding issue himself, I think. A few posts refer to him as a Food Network chef, and others say TLC. I haven’t watched either in a long time, so my reaction upon seeing him in the photos was “oh, the guy in the canned tomato commercials.”]
[Sidebar/On Topic: The SNL skit at the end of the Food Mayhem post is worth watching.]