PR behemoth Ketchum (the PR agency of record for ConAgra) caught it’s foot in a bear trap of its own manufacture recently, when it thunk up and perpetrated a bait and switch blogger outreach program.
Evidently, Ketchum invited a group of bloggers to a restaurant in NYC, where they would enjoy a “delicious four-course meal”, a food trends discussion from an analyst, and an unexpected surprise. Unexpected indeed, as the big reveal turned out to be that the four-course meal had not been prepared by the celeb chef owner of the restaurant, but was rather from ConAgra’s Marie Callendar division.
And it all went horribly wrong from there. Outraged at being duped in some sort of post-modern “I can’t believe that’s Folger’s Coffee” stunt, some bloggers wrote negative posts about the experience, forcing ConAgra and Ketchum to apologize.
Simon Salt has an excellent post about this that rightly points out that the bloggers should have been more cognizant of the overall scenario, and asked who Ketchum was representing. It’s a good point. But, I think there’s another lesson here which is that there is no substitution for relationships.
Bloggers Are Not Reporters
Bloggers are not typically trained journalists that understand the company/PR firm/reporter news continuum. Bloggers are also typically not full-time writers. Nor are they particularly interested in regurgitating your carefully crafted news release. Bloggers want to create a story with you, not for you. The result of all this is that bloggers are time-starved, suspicious, and persnickety.
By any definition, I am only a modestly successful blogger. Yet I still see 10+ pitches from PR firms every single day, most of them untarged, unfocused, irrelevant, and instantly deleted. The ones I read demonstrate some awareness of what I actually write, and treat me as a distinct individual, not Row 13 on the “social media bloggers” Excel spreadsheet.
But the real secret to blogger outreach isn’t relevancy or personalization. It’s recognition. I work with quite a few PR firms all across North America on social media packaging, pricing, staffing, selling, and operations. My team and I help them grow their social media business, without self-immolating the way Ketchum did in this situation. When it comes to blogger outreach, the point we always emphasize is that you have to build relationships with bloggers before you need them, not when you need them.
If you have a blogger event coming up in 90 days, you need to start building relationships with potential invitees TODAY, not 15 days out from the event. Read the blog every day. Comment on blog posts (add value, don’t just say “great post”). Tweet blog posts. Google + blog posts. Linkedin share blog posts. Interact on Twitter with the blogger when he/she poses a humorous, semi-rhetorical question. The objective is to make damn sure that when you need to get on the bloggers’ radar for real, she recognizes your name and your avatar.
The Changing Timeline of PR
This is of course a difficult proposition for PR firms because it requires the one thing they have in very short supply….time. If you have to start sucking up to bloggers 90 days out from your big event, how do you pay for that agency time? How do you bill that back to the client? It’s tricky to be sure, and requires agencies to redefine blogger outreach from a project-based circumstance to an ongoing circumstance. PR firms need to be billing their clients to develop relationships on a retainer basis, so those blogger bridges can be crossed whenever necessary.
That’s also why I see smart PR firms starting to specialize more and more in a particular vertical, whether it’s B2B technology, marketing to women, or food and beverage. It’s much easier and cost effective to develop and maintain many blogger relationships when doing so can benefit multiple clients instead of just the one client with the big launch coming up soon.
We’re entering an era of the Invitation Avalanche where consumers are besieged by offers to click, connect, friend, follow, download, and more. And the same is true of bloggers. Any bloggers with a decent audience are constantly asked to write, review, or participate. So what makes your “special blogger event” so special? It’s not the food, or the celebrity chef, or the restaurant. It’s the fact that the invite comes from YOU, a person they recognize and respect.
And in Ketchum’s case, if they had built real relationships with these bloggers before the event, they could have given them a heads-up in advance about the objectives of the event: “Marie Callendar’s is just as good as restaurant food. Come check it out and see if you agree.” Or, the bloggers would have at least felt less jerked around, mitigating their ire and the subsequent blowback.
Is building relationships in advance more work? Yep. So it’s up to you to convince your client (or boss) that it’s worth it.
Despite all the apps and influence metrics and crazy stunts, social media isn’t a game. It’s about business. Relationships are the foundation of success in business, and Twitter and Facebook and Klout and WordPress don’t change that one iota.