September 14, 2011

An attempt by ConAgra to dupe a group of bloggers into writing about a line of Marie Callender’s frozen food backfired last week, with the bloggers voicing displeasure and at the same time shedding light on a set of best practices any legitimate food writer should follow.

Several bloggers were invited to an exclusive event: A multi-course dining experience at a pop-up restaurant in New York City, with food and spirits ostensibly prepared by George Duran, of Food Network and TLC fame. The bloggers were promised access to Phil Lempert, the “Supermarket Guru.” All was going well until the diners learned the main course and the dessert they were served (meat and cheese lasagna, followed by something called, “Razzleberry Pie”) were not Duran’s creations, but instead were the work of Marie Callender’s, a line of frozen foods produced by ConAgra.

As news of the failed stunt came to light, food bloggers discussed how they cultivate trust among their readers and protect their own independence while fighting off an onslaught of PR pitches that would have them pimping products and places full-time.

In the New York Times article about the incident, reporter Andrew Adam Newman attributed the bloggers’ outrage to the notion that they “often see themselves as truth-seeking journalists.”

Dianne Jacob, a writer and educator who has written about blogging and ethics, reacted to Newman’s remark. “What’s funny is that most bloggers argue with me when I suggest that they are journalists,” Jacob said in an email to me, adding, that she was “tremendously proud of the bloggers who spoke up and called the organizers on the folly of duping them with frozen meals.”

Whether bloggers think of themselves as journalists or not, Jacobs notes that their readers trust them to tell the truth and to be authentic. Living up to that standard requires openness and transparency, qualities that are necessary whether someone is writing a food blog or contributing to the food section of their local newspaper or website.

Some of the bloggers in attendance shrugged off the stunt, but others were outraged, particularly because they had been asked to promote Sotto Terrra (the pop-up restaurant) in advance. These bloggers were given two tickets to award to one “lucky” reader, who would then take a guest to an evening at Sotto Terra. The upset bloggers felt tricked by ConAgra, a company largely reviled by many food writers and food enthusiasts in general.

Suzanne M. Chan, author of the blog, Mom Confessionals, was one of the bloggers who not only attended the Sotto Terra event, but also promoted it on her blog, awarding tickets to one of her readers. Much of her frustration with the bait-and-switch publicity stunt ConAgra pulled at her expense stemmed from feeling that she had unwittingly violated her readers’ trust. “My readers are loyal because they trust me,” Chan said told me. “If at any time they feel I have become unauthentic, I will have lost a reader if not many.”

Some bloggers have taken to thwarting publicists as a matter of policy. Robyn Lee, who writes the blog The Girl Who Ate Everything and blogs professionally for Serious Eats, has a warning in the About section of her blog that reads:

If you are from a restaurant PR company, PLEASE DO NOT E-MAIL ME. … If you want to send me something, it would have to be just because you want me to eat it, not to mention on my blog.

Lee told me that one reason for her policy is that it would be difficult to review a meal arranged by publicists because, in her estimation, a meal designed ahead of time for anyone in the press would not accurately reflect the experience of the “average diner” visiting the restaurant on any given day. Because of that, said Lee, “I don’t see how it’d be worth writing about on my blog. It would feel dishonest.”

Whether it’s for a blog or an established print magazine, food writing is a genre whose participants frequently find themselves treated as public relations’ conduits for events and products, rather than as journalists who inform the public.

“Media dinners for soon-to-open restaurants have been a part of the business since I started writing about food 12 years ago,” Jonathan Kauffman, food critic for SF Weekly, said told me in an email. “The people in attendance are usually writers for both print and online media.”

Because such events are so common throughout the food-writing industry, Kauffman explained that blogs and print publications alike need to have clear, established guidelines to ensure that readers can trust the information they find on any given site or in any given paper. Kauffman noted that SF Weekly asks freelance contributors to SF Foodie, SF Weekly’s food blog, to identify that they were at the event and “not write about the restaurant as if they’d dined there on their own, or the paper’s, dime.”

David Lebovitz, who writes about food regularly on his self-titled blog (which includes a disclosure statement notifying readers that no posts are ever sponsored) told me that he and his fellow food bloggers “get hit on all the time with pitches by publicists about just about anything you can think of,” adding that “an unfocused pitch comes off more as an insult,” in which the publicist seems to assume that bloggers are easily “bought.”

In this case, ConAgra apparently viewed food bloggers as a naive group who would graciously lend their reviews — and their reputations — to pitching for Marie Calendar’s. In doing so, the food conglomerate greatly misjudged the bloggers and the sense of responsibility many of them feel toward their readers.

As SF Weekly’s Kauffman said to me, “Of the food bloggers I follow, some of them do write puff pieces about free meals without identifying they were comped, but just as many are frank in their criticism of places they don’t like, or simply choose not to write about them, like any journalist would.”

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