Ketchum, ConAgra and the perils of authenticity
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Ketchum, ConAgra and the perils of authenticity

Paul Holmes

I’ve spoken and written extensively on the idea that we are living in an age of authenticity—when consumers and other stakeholders demand that corporate communication reflect reality. And I have long argued that control and credibility are inversely related, which is to say that the more you control your message, the less credible it becomes. Both of these ideas are, I believe, beneficial to public relations, which is inherently more authentic and credible (and less controlled) than advertising. But that’s not to say that seeking out authentic reactions to your product, or surrendering control over the message, won’t on occasion lead to less than desirable results. (The possibility of a less than desirable result is precisely what makes this approach to communication more credible.) So I’m not quite as horrified as some of my friends in the business by this story about Ketchum, ConAgra and a bunch of food bloggers. Abbreviated version: Ketchum invited some food bloggers to meet celebrity chef George Duran at an Italian restaurant called Sotto Terra, where they would be served “a delicious four-course meal.” They arrived, met food analyst Phil Lempert, and were served the promised meal—except it consisted of frozen ConAgra meals, and the bloggers’ reactions were being recorded by hidden cameras. The problem was that those reactions were not exactly positive, and many of the blog posts that followed complained about the quality foods. I’m not going to pretend that the plan here was flawless. For one thing, the invite (at least the version I’ve seen online) does not appear to have been clear on the identity of the client, which meant the bloggers in question felt misled. The agency may have felt that giving away free food did not require the same level of disclosure as pitching a story. That was clearly a miscalculation, for ethical and pragmatic reasons. For another, both the client and the agency seem to have overestimated the appeal of the product—presumably, they thought their frozen food was so good, the bloggers would forgive them their deception. Apparently, not so much. Having said all that, I hope clients are not discouraged from similar (albeit more transparent, more comprehensively pre-tested) efforts in the future. There’s a television ad campaign running in the UK right now that features “real” people test-driving some car or another. All of them have wonderful things to say about the car in question. It’s staggeringly inauthentic: the only reaction I have is to wonder what happened to the footage of all the people who didn’t like the car. Worse, it’s an attempt to appear authentic—“look, real people having real reactions”—while actually being the opposite, since its entire premise involves a lie of omission. I guess what I’m saying is that you can’t have authenticity without some risk of failure—smart companies will figure out ways to minimize that risk, but they shouldn’t try to avoid in entirely.
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