2.17.2011

The sordid tale of the fake Toyota pitch.

Yesterday's blog drama du jour still has me shaking my head and going, huh?

A blogger named Crissy received a pitch that made it look as if Toyota was willing to pay mom bloggers $10 Amazon gift cards to write a post about how great Toyota is, and "like" positive news stories about Toyota around the web. Only it turns out, Toyota did no such thing.

A blogger, acting on her own accord, figured it would be a good way to get into the PR biz, start conducting blog tours, and "make a name for herself."

Wow.

Shelly Kramer summarized the whole thing crazy super well. She needs to be a professional spy.

When I first looked at the pitch, there was not a doubt in my mind that this is not a pro PR person writing this. The astute Alli Worthington said the same (and beat me to it in comments, damn her!). There is no way Toyota would have approved this kind of strategy, and the Mommy Networks website looked all pretend and scammy-like to me. But then, Shelly and Alli and I do this kind of thing for a living.

When most bloggers looked at the pitch, their initial instinct was YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT FOR $10 GIFT CARDS?

Because that is what they are often asked to do for a living.

In other words, despite the fact that the pitch looked amateur, the website looked like a fake, and the entire scheme seemed hairbrained, ethically devoid, and possibly illegal; it also seemed entirely plausible.

Not only plausible, but worthy of vengeance. Plenty of the commenters couldn't wait to spread the word about this evil company, post comments to all their message boards and Facebook pages, and BRING TOYOTA DOWN.

Mwahahahahahaaaaaa...

That's a little freaky for brands and PR folks, don't you think?

There is so much mistrust of marketers out there, so much history of gift cards for positive reviews, so many ridiculous schemes presented to bloggers on behalf of big brands that we are ready and willing to believe (and share) the worst about companies.

One commenter on Chrissy's blog even assured the group that this kind of outreach is "standard PR and in no way appears to me to be shady."

There's a lesson in here for the bloggers, of course. We have to learn to be better critical thinkers. We have to learn to analyze pitches and do a little digging before we act. Or react. Or overreact.

As for brands, hoo boy. I don't know where to start. Wait, maybe I do.

I'd say start by putting pros on the payroll. The Weber-Shandwicks and the Edelman Digitals and 360 PRs and the Stephanie Smirnovs and Stephanie Azzarones and David Wescotts of the world. The very very best, very very smartest ones that you can afford.

Your carefully constructed brand is in their hands. And frankly, some of the other folks are messing things up for all of you.


73 Comments:

Anonymous Jen Singer said...

And I'll bet you more than one blogger went for it, which is exactly what's wrong with blogging.

I agree with you, Liz, that we need to dig deeper into pitches. I'd like to say we should just deal with the major PR firms, but I think that's short-sighted. Some independent PR people are very good at what they do, and they shouldn't be dismissed simply because their e-mail address doesn't end in ginormousPRconglomerate.com.

For those of us with communications and journalism backgrounds, we need to spread the word on how to vet pitches and how to do the hard work that Shelley did.

How about all begin by no longer selling our brands and accesses to our audiences for gift cards.

2/17/11, 8:20 AM  
Blogger Kelby said...

Wow, Liz. You really nailed the root lesson in all of this. Beyond the hype, the real issue is just how BELIEVABLE this horrible pitch was, how much it has become the MO for blogger pitching. I hope companies look beyond all the hype to see this root problem. If we weren't getting awful pitched to do blog promotions for companies for gift cards EVERY DAY in our in-boxes, this fake pitch would have been questioned by everyone who received it.

2/17/11, 8:50 AM  
Blogger Sarahviz said...

I always come to you as the voice of reason, and once again, you are spot-on with this one.

2/17/11, 9:00 AM  
Blogger Deb said...

There is another message for brands here. All too often brands look to bloggers to spread messages or implement campaigns, which bloggers can do brilliantly. But they also need to have relationships in place and be in the space in a supportive way. Toyota has done some blogger outreach and relationship building, but not much compared to other similar companies in their sector, and this happened on the heels of their "we don't make cares for bloggers" commercial. If a similar pitch circulated from Chevy, for example, more bloggers reading Crissy's piece would have said, "Wait, Chevy isn't like that in the blogosphere. They sponsor BlogHer, SXSW and other conferences, communicate transparently, lend cars and generally made things happen for bloggers. I've met Connie Burke and her colleauges.This doesn't fit and I know who to ask to check it out." The #fail tag goes onto companies much quicker if they haven't done that relationship building with bloggers and their consumers in general. That's the big change that social media has brought to damage control.

2/17/11, 9:02 AM  
Blogger Lolli said...

I couldn't agree more. I too thought the pitch sounded poorly written and very questionable, but I have received too many similar pitches that really did come from brands or the PR firms they hired to make me doubt it completely.

2/17/11, 9:08 AM  
Blogger Marinka said...

Please tell me that there is more than one Stephanie Smirnov out there. I'll take a dozen, please.

2/17/11, 9:09 AM  
Blogger MommyB said...

Thanks for posting this, I didn't receive the pitch but if I had I definitely would have realized Toyota and $10 wouldn't make sense to me.

2/17/11, 9:16 AM  
Anonymous FireMom said...

Not that I'm overly surprised, but you explained this whole hoopla in the best way possible. Thank you for taking the time to do so. Your voice always lends so much to this conversation.

2/17/11, 9:23 AM  
Anonymous Heather @ The Mother Tongue said...

Great post. And agreed: David Wescott is a pleasure to work with.

2/17/11, 9:25 AM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Deb that's a super important point and I'm glad you made it. Relationships really do matter.

That said, I sort of dismissed the whole "Toyota not for bloggers" thing. Yes, it wasn't the best copy choice for an ad. But it was clear that the point was we don't make our cars for automotive critics, we make them for drivers. Not, we don't make our cars for people who have blog accounts.

2/17/11, 9:34 AM  
Anonymous ABDPBT said...

Toyota may not have come up with the specifics of the campaign, i.e. attempting to buy links with $10 gift cards, but they clearly hired the PR people, or hired the PR people who hired the PR people. So . . . how exactly should we feel bad for Toyota, again?

What they did was say "We want more search results that show that the acceleration stories aren't true. Make that happen," to somebody, who told somebody else, who hired this shady PR firm. That's what giant conglomerates do.

Since when do you people just buy what corporate America says wholesale? This crap happens all of the time. This whole thing is ABSURD and smacks of wanting to suck up to potential sponsors.

2/17/11, 10:04 AM  
Anonymous Julie @ The Mom Slant said...

This fits in so well with an offline convo I've been having with my husband, who works in the auto industry, about the nuances of establishing and maintaining a social media presence.

Critical thinking, people. We all have our moments where we react first, then think. But this is another great example of why it's so important to apply a little thought up front.

Great synopsis, Liz.

2/17/11, 10:06 AM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Anna, You're incorrect. They hired no one. This was a rogue woman acting on her own accord, thinking that this was a way to build a portfolio. Her apology is posted on both sites that I linked.

But thanks for making my point!

2/17/11, 10:06 AM  
Blogger Magpie said...

Fascinating. I missed this kerfuffle (as I usually do), but your synopsis is great.

Yes, bloggers need to be good critical thinkers - as do we all, bloggers and not.

2/17/11, 10:14 AM  
Blogger Muskrat said...

Manufacturers of cars that accelerate for no apparent reason need to be sued.

2/17/11, 10:14 AM  
Anonymous katie | motherbumper said...

Can you sit on my shoulder and remind me of this next time I set out to torch a corporate headquarter? Once I see red in these situations, the need for a person like you increases tenfold. I really do appreciate all that people like you, Alli, and David Wescott do and it's posts like this that keep me from surging with the mob. Thank you.

2/17/11, 10:18 AM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Muskrat: They were vindicated of that. A federal investigation last week determined it was user error, and not faulty manufacturing.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/08/us-toyota-usa-idUSTRE7165SY20110208

(I swear I don't work for Toyota. My agency has a rival car account!)

2/17/11, 10:20 AM  
Anonymous Stephanie Smirnov said...

Anna, you said: "What they did was say "We want more search results that show that the acceleration stories aren't true. Make that happen," to somebody, who told somebody else, who hired this shady PR firm. That's what giant conglomerates do." I respectfully disagree.Emphatically. My biggest client is P&G -- doesn't get much more "giant" than that. They are scrupulously transparent in the social media space and would never allow us or any of their other PR agency partners to subcontract any kind of outreach with full vetting and prior approval. Not to mention adhere rigorously to FTC guidelines.

Liz: I am extremely flattered for the shout-out. On behalf of all the teams at DeVries PR working hard to get this right -- thank you.

2/17/11, 11:00 AM  
Blogger Liz@thisfullhouse said...

Nice recap, thanks. Curious to see how Toyota (or, their pr reps) will address this matter, if at all.

2/17/11, 11:09 AM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Thanks everyone for the smart discussion.

And Katie, that's crazy nice of you. Thank you.

2/17/11, 11:30 AM  
Anonymous Kami said...

You know, I think this all goes way deeper than just bloggers. Our society is creating people who don't think critically. As an urban social studies educator, I see a tremendous lack of questioning texts, sources and authority going on in schools. I know not everyone has fight in them, but as citizens of a democracy, it's our responsibility to "check" stuff like this. I'm so sick of people simply taking things at face value because it's easier than doing your homework. And I'm sick of people misdirecting their anger. And/or clout. Ok. I'm done now.

2/17/11, 11:45 AM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Liz - much appreciated. (and you too, Heather.) I think Deb nailed it - relationships make the difference.

Personally, I've found hiring bloggers as consultants and partners and letting them add their creativity to yours - making them part of the team as opposed to the target - is much more effective than outsourcing to other firms. The ideas Heather and another blogger brought to the table on a project we did were outstanding, and I'd work with her again in a heartbeat.

I think that approach conveys a level of professionalism and commitment and respect that you can't deliver through a gift card. And to Jen Singer's excellent point, you don't need to work for a huge firm to do that.

2/17/11, 12:01 PM  
Anonymous Julie @ The Mom Slant said...

Kami, I agree with you wholeheartedly. That's why I wrote so passionately about the Texas BOE textbook standards issue, and was so dismayed when my own father commented to say, "Who cares? Nobody remembers what's in their textbooks."

The details matter, both in terms of specific circumstances and in how we think and how we teach our kids to think.

2/17/11, 12:03 PM  
Anonymous Julie @ The Mom Slant said...

And there's a big difference between critical thinking and analysis (what Liz did in her post) and unsupported conjecture (what ABDPBT did in her comment).

2/17/11, 12:04 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Thanks David, great point. Goes without saying that blogger has to be a pro too though. This post is a good example that not every blogger--even the really great ones--are cut out to be in charge of brand outreach.

But a smart blogger + a smart PR guy like you? Winning team.

2/17/11, 12:19 PM  
Anonymous Laura Mayes said...

This whole thing was so...weird. From every angle. It's fascinating to watch boundaries (and standards) set, explored, extended, exploited, and reinforced. And whoah, I can't wait for the Mom 2.0 Summit. Let the conversation continue...

2/17/11, 12:38 PM  
Anonymous Alli Worthington said...

You covered it all perfectly, Liz. Thanks for the shout out.

Let me tread on dangerous water here in your comment section for a minute. It was disappointing to read the comments of that article and see how many women were ready to pounce on Toyota as a company.

The Social Media trainwreck has a bandwagon effect that is dangerous not only for brands, but for the people who join in.

As someone who often advises companies on which bloggers to work with, I pay careful attention to individuals who seem all too willing to jump in without thinking critically about the situation.

Everything we do online matters. This is true for individuals as well as large companies. Professionalism matters in this space just as much for bloggers as for the companies they partner with.

I watch these events carefully and I guarantee every company that works with bloggers is watching as well.

My advice to everyone is the next time the social media trainwreck rolls by, that they do a gut check and see if they have done their research before jumping on.

2/17/11, 12:42 PM  
Blogger Cloud said...

I missed the initial "event", but as always, I enjoyed your analysis. I think I know how you feel watching this sort of thing unfold- a bit like I feel when I'm watching the latest piece of pseudoscience make the rounds. I'll echo what some of the other commenters have said- it is ALWAYS a good idea to stop and think and check the facts before jumping on a hot topic or bashing a company. Just because companies sometimes do stupid things doesn't mean that they do every stupid thing they're accused of!

2/17/11, 12:51 PM  
Anonymous Cherie Beyond said...

I'm sorry, Alli, but did I read that correctly? Are you insinuating that bloggers should self-censor in order to impress you and other PR consultants or you will punish them via a kind of black-list?

I don't blog for profit for many reasons, so this matters to me not at all, but your advice seems rather chilling. Have we now reached the point in blog monetization where every comment or thought is examined in an effort to gauge a blogger's suitability for use by a PR firm?

Er...ick?

2/17/11, 1:02 PM  
Blogger MelADramatic Mommy said...

I was around for the beginning of this story, went to the store and saw that everything had changed. I agree with much of what has been said here and I'm giving Kami a fist bump and a high five.

2/17/11, 1:03 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

SPOT. ON.

We really do need to make every effort to focus our attention on how this stuff actually works. Specifically, on what it looks like when it's done well - thank you so much for giving props to the people and companies that DO do it well, and who should be the models and examples that we look to when we're talking about this stuff.

And yes - as Alli said - we do need to keep our thinking caps on when we discuss these issues and cases like this, and not default to X IS BAD! without consideration. Which is a good rule for life in general, I think ;)

Am always, am so grateful for your smarts.

2/17/11, 1:09 PM  
Anonymous Alli Worthington said...

@ Cherie

Absolutely not. My comment was advising everyone to think critically and do their own research before jumping in on the latest drama in the Social Media realm.

"My advice to everyone is the next time the social media trainwreck rolls by, that they do a gut check and see if they have done their research before jumping on."

2/17/11, 1:13 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Cherie, If that was the intent of Alli's comment then you're right - ick! But I didn't see it that way.

What I got from that is that is that there are a lot of loose cannons in the blog world (which is true) who jump in on every drama and ever brand-bashing opportunity and that reputation carries forth. Whether you work with brands or not. Your reputation is your reputation.

I thought that was pretty sensible.

2/17/11, 1:17 PM  
Anonymous Cherie Beyond said...

My apologies then. I was focusing more on this:

"As someone who often advises companies on which bloggers to work with, I pay careful attention to individuals who seem all too willing to jump in without thinking critically about the situation."

...and taking it to a conclusion that seemed plausible. I may have read between the lines too much there.

2/17/11, 1:21 PM  
Blogger Kristen {RAGE against the MINIVAN} said...

Cherie, I think Alli's point was that we should all take a deep breath before we pull out the collective blogger pitchforks.

2/17/11, 1:22 PM  
Anonymous TechMama said...

All of these weird pitches are freaking me out so much that (here is my secret) I am one of those bloggers that chose a long time ago not to participate in any campaigns unless they were run by a professional social media company/site. Or - here is my other secret - from the company *directly* and that I either get paid as a consultant or disclose whatever other form of payment I got. But this meant that I did not participate very often... I agree with this post - bloggers need to do their homework and hold up to ethics. geezzzz

2/17/11, 1:25 PM  
Blogger SUEB0B said...

@ Cherie Beyond - I don't think Alli is suggesting we self-censor. I think she is correctly stating that people who are going to pay bloggers for their services by necessity pay attention to who they are and how they present themselves. This is just like any other professional situation, by no means unique to blogging.

We are all free to blog and comment and post content however we want to, but we have to be aware that companies may not want to be associated with us because of how we behave in the online space, just as an employer may not want to hire you if they know you are disruptive, impulsive and have an unsavory reputation in your field or in your personal life.

Not rocket science.

2/17/11, 1:29 PM  
Anonymous Crissy said...

There are obviously about twenty points I could respond to here, but, let me just say that I did my best to update the post as information came to me.

A month ago I watched no less than 20 of my mom blogging peers run a story on their blogs for Hundai. They were paid with a $20 gift card, and actually instructed not to disclose. I know that part for a fact. http://www.sheposts.com/content/should-ftc-be-harder-bloggers

When I saw this screwy pitch roll in, I assumed it was more of the same.

Did I jump the gun? Well, that's pretty obvious. I can't un-jump it, and can only hope that the conversation that came from this incident will make everyone, myself included, look at blogger-PR relationships a little more closely in the future.

2/17/11, 1:35 PM  
Blogger cheriebeyond said...

@ Suebob (and everyone else)-

I get the point and I certainly concur that if one wants to be taken professionally one should act professional. I think what bothered me, and I actually just nailed it down in my own mind, is that what Alli is pointing out that she is, in fact, a gatekeeper. And while gatekeepers can be good (who wants to work with a windbag with a grudge against corporate America?) they can also limit discussion to the detriment of the larger conversation. This is my concern, at the root.

I can't be bothered to blog as more than a haphazard hobby, which is why I think I sometimes take a step back and say, "Wait, THAT'S where we are going with this?" This was one of those moments for me.

But, clearly, this is my own issue and distracts from the discussion above, which is a good one. So...as you were.

2/17/11, 1:43 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Crissy, I thought you handled it very thoughtfully as new info rolled in, posting your updates at the top of the post and even changing the headline. That's a seriously awesome move.

Where we differ, is I probably wouldn't have jumped on a brand for something a consultant did. And I generally email the person pitching for more info before I write about it.

I wasn't familiar with the Hyundai campaigns. Yikes. Were the bloggers specifically instructed not to disclose? Or they just didn't?

2/17/11, 1:44 PM  
Anonymous jonniker said...

I find this all fascinating, as a person who only rarely participates in this kind of thing, and as a person who is NOT a professional blogger, nor has any interest in doing so.

What I found interesting about yesterday was the moral outrage that someone would be asked to cover up "bad press" at all, when -- and I say this as a PR professional -- that's what MANY of the campaigns are designed to do, they're just more well-packaged. I'm sure everyone remembers when Pampers reached out to mom bloggers after getting the crap kicked out of them for the Dry Max diapers. But I didn't see any of those moms throw a fit about how they were asked to cover up bad press, probably because they were well compensated.

To me, yesterday's mess was about compensation; what I found distasteful was that people who were regularly willing to shill for companies were suddenly putting on a show that they would never participate in such a disgusting campaign.

That, to me, showed an astonishing lack of critical thinking and a blatant willingness to be bought.

In the interest of full disclosure, I've done precisely one sponsored campaign, working with Edelman (who I loved), for a brand I already believed in. That was, and will forever be, my litmus test for working with a brand. Do I like them whether I'm paid to say so or not?

I really wish more people had that as their criteria. We'd have a lot more credibility.

2/17/11, 1:48 PM  
Anonymous Crissy said...

I have no idea how many people were involved with recruiting bloggers into the Hundai campaign, but yes, I do know that at least one group of the bloggers were specifically asked not to disclose.

2/17/11, 1:55 PM  
Anonymous Fiona @Banteringblonde said...

Fab post and awesome comments - this is absolutely indicative of a very real problem that threatens all of the major brands that are taking the right approach with blogger relationships. My post today echos many of your commenter's sentiments. The exhaustive discussion over whether bloggers should be compensated or not should be resolved in many minds today - a professional blogger would NEVER have made an error like this. Bloggers and PR have made great strides in developing a protocol for doing business together but now it is time to for the conversation to turn towards banding together to educate and demand a higher level of professionalism from the both the blogger and PR industries. Both sides are at great risk if the current practices continue....

2/17/11, 2:07 PM  
Anonymous jonniker said...

This whole thing also represents a huge problem in blogging general -- people want to be viewed as professionals, but also want to be able to blog about their preshus feelings, many of which are considered highly unprofessional in the traditional sensel. The personal is becoming the professional, and that's a really murky pool to swim in.

"We want to be taken seriously!" everyone (rightfully) crows, while at the same time writing a heartfelt post about something that is as un-serious as it gets. Our lives are becoming our brands and it's ... it's kind of creepy, if I do say so myself.

I'm also struck by the hypocrisy in how it's sometimes okay to call companies out on bad pitches, but sometimes it isn't -- it all depends on who knows who, and I firmly believe that some companies/people are given a pass because they don't want to piss off the gatekeeper for another campaign. I don't expect P&G will come knocking on my door after I mentioned the Pampers incident, for example. I'm OK with that, or I wouldn't have said it.

It's MESSY, is what I'm saying, and I don't see any way you can look at it where it isn't. It's confusing and it's pretty ugly, from my vantage point.

To clarify my earlier comment, I DO wish that more people would only work for brands they genuinely like and use before taking a compensated campaign. Because at the end of the day, you ARE only selling yourself, your trust, your brand, your credibility, and if you'll do a giveaway or sponsored campaign for the highest bidder, what do you have left to sell me on? Nothing. Sorry.

Ergo, when something like this comes up, and 80% of your content is sponsored but THIS one outraged you (and this is the general you), I feel a little twitchy, and that's not your fault as a person, it's your fault as a professional, and a failure to use your brand effectively to protect your credibility.

Did I trust Brooke Shields after Latisse? Yes. Did I trust her after Latisse, Crest (or Colgate or whatever, I don't even know) and whatever else she's selling? Nope. Do I trust bloggers who run more than one sponsored campaign a quarter? Nope. I see no reason why I should.

I've spent six years building up my readership -- a readership that is not insignificant, and one that I could easily exploit for monetary gain. At this point, I consider them friends, and I want them to trust me -- not only as a person, but in what I say and what I recommend. If I abuse that, why on earth should they stick around?

Edelman -- and Huggies -- absolutely recognized that, and it's why they are so great to work with, and why they compensate the way they do. I would have a hard time believing if I eroded that trust, that I would be able to command the same on a one-off campaign.

And yet, I see bloggers doing their best to damage their relationship with their readers every day. It's sad.

2/17/11, 2:29 PM  
Blogger Fear and Parenting in Las Vegas said...

Thanks for posting the recap on this. I saw what was happening and reached out to a PR friend at Toyota who immediately jumped on it. She's a great PR pro and I was surprised something like this could have come from her shop. I'm glad I was wrong. Let's hope the correction extends further than the misinformation.

2/17/11, 2:48 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Thanks for your comments Jonniker. You bring up some good points. I honestly didn't follow it closely enough to know who was outraged about what and why. But I think there's a difference between public relations strategy and putting good news out there in response to some negative press...and a "cover up" which is kind of what the fake pitch was offering. I know it's a fine line, but the two are very different in practice, if not in the desired end benefit.

@Crissy that blows my mind about Hyundai. I don't know the details but if a company approaches a blogger with a campaign and the instructions not to disclose, walk away. Fast.

2/17/11, 3:06 PM  
Anonymous Amy @ babybabylemon said...

I have a possibly dumb question, but I didn't see the answer in Crissy's post or Shelly's. Did anyone else receive the pitch?

2/17/11, 3:10 PM  
Anonymous jonniker said...

Well, that's just it: the end result is the same. Are people always thinking super-critically to realize that by participating in a "good news" campaign that they're participating in a bad news cover-up? Doubtful. Or if they are, they're okay with it because hell, they're getting paid!

I mean, come on. Break it down to its most basic elements and that's what it is. There is a slightly dirty element to many successful sponsored campaigns, and I don't know why people are so afraid to acknowledge it. It's gross to me that at the same time we're encouraged to think critically, while at the same time being told there is a difference when it's packaged prettily, and with a nice cash bonus.

Thinking critically also means thinking about what you're doing even when it's a "good" pitch or opportunity.

Finally, is it really so weird for people to be suspect of whether or not Toyota is involved even after the denouncement? After all, Lansinoh denied, and yet ...

2/17/11, 3:27 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Well Jonniker, isn't that inherent to marketing in general and public relations specifically? Brands exist to put the best positive message about themselves out there and potentially offset negative ones.

I guess no one discusses it because it's a given.

But hey, maybe we should.

2/17/11, 3:36 PM  
Anonymous jonniker said...

Of course. But isn't that the whole point? You're selling yourself to a brand to do their dirty work at a cost, and that cost has more ramifications than the money they're paying you. So please, spare me the outrage at being asked to cover up bad news in this case -- or others -- when that's exactly what you're being asked to do most of the time. And yes, people should be thinking about that, and thinking about the ever-present trust capital issue that Anna has brought up repeatedly.

And no, I do not think that specific point is obvious to most people. If it was, a lot of points in this Toyota case would be somewhat moot, and the outrage generally kept to a dull roar. And further, if it's really obvious, and still, that many people who are willing to sell themselves at the right price, with the right package, then there isn't a whole lot of integrity left in the world of blogging and that sucks.

This isn't a job in the traditional sense. It was one thing for me to do PR for a giant tobacco company in my younger years. But here, you really are willing to sell your brand, your personality, yourSELF, without thinking through the ENTIRE thing, and yes, I think realizing exactly what marketing and PR means is something people should be thinking about at its basic level. Yes.

2/17/11, 3:44 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

I can only assume you mean the general "you" here, Jonniker.

I do think you should give bloggers some credit though. I know a lot of people who turn down a whole lot of pitches. There's always going to be a small group who will shill anything because it's a living for them. They're not concerned with trust capital. I don't think any of us will change that, any more than we'll change people who lobby for tobacco or agree to be the registered dietician on staff for the Corn Refiner's Association. Different people have different values.

2/17/11, 3:50 PM  
Blogger Jonniker said...

No, Liz, I mean you specifically, obviously.

Of course I mean the general you! And of course there are a lot of bloggers whom I give credit. Sure, you're going to turn down a post from the Corn Refiners' Association, if no other reason that you'd be lynched if you didn't, probably by you and a lot of the people who comment here. That's a relatively obvious one. But I think there are too many sponsored campaigns going on in general, and it's eroding at trust capital more than I think most people even realize. It *is*. And it totally drops credibility when something like this happens, because people like me -- and I'm not alone, but I'm the only one sticking my neck out -- look at this and go, wow, this is ... hypocritical. And it is, to some degree.

As for the perma-shillers, I'm not talking about a small subset. There is a not-insignificant portion of bloggers who have made rather large names for themselves doing nothing but selling out.

This has taken a crazy turn, and my original point is almost lost, and I don't even know what it WAS anymore, honestly. Just that I think the outrage here was misplaced and kind of hilarious. I can't even figure out what it was, and that's the problem: was it a moral issue? For some, and totally hypocritically so. Was it a compensation issue? Most definitely, though no one is admitting it. Was it because the goal was so blatant? For some it seems it was, which is, again, short-sighted, because that's what PR campaigns are FOR.

And now people who were outraged about it are being called to task for saying something, which is ironic, since the only way Toyota was able to see and refute it is because people said something about it. If it hadn't had wings and a hashtag, it's doubtful it would have been cleared up at all.

2/17/11, 4:23 PM  
Blogger Issas Crazy World said...

Sigh. This is why I delete it all without reading it. It's too hard to know what is real and what isn't.

I think I'll stick to writing about my feelings, even though no one seems to approve of that anymore.

2/17/11, 4:40 PM  
Anonymous jonniker said...

I approve, Issa. :-D That's my thing: I just want to be a personal blogger, so I get extra sad/prickly when I hear all the monetizing stuff, because it's all so complicated, when it used to be so simple.

2/17/11, 4:56 PM  
Blogger Issas Crazy World said...

@jonniker Thank you. :)

I think for me, the more complicated it gets, the more I avoid all of it. I've been doing this a long time. Since late 2005/early 2006. (I actually remember Liz's first post.) However, I am still a wee little blogger.

People don't believe me...but I really am happy with my blog. It's size. My readers whom I adore. I write for me, because it makes me happy. Also, it's cheaper than therapy.

As Liz just said to me on Twitter: "long live personal blogging!"

2/17/11, 5:14 PM  
Blogger Amber said...

Everyone needs to do better. That's clear. Thank you so much for providing a voice and encouraging us to do so.

2/17/11, 5:39 PM  
Blogger Cloud said...

This is a really interesting discussion.

I was surprised awhile back to find that one of my posts was referred to in a tweet from the Corn Refiner's Association. I was taken aback at first- how dare they? They didn't contact me. But then I figured, I put it out there, and I can see why they find it useful, so whatever. I stand by what I wrote. I think can be sure that they'll never ask me to participate in a paid campaign, because I'm more useful to them as an independent voice. Again- that's fine. Because I'm not trying to make a living off my blog.

But I did recently decide to experiment a bit with different ways to monetize it, basically as a learning experience for another web idea I have and may someday get around to implementing. So I find myself thinking about these issues more now than I used to. I've decided that there isn't really a "right" and a "wrong" way to blog. There is just an honest way and a dishonest way, and as long as I'm always honest, then no one really has any right to complain about me. Or, if they do complain, I can ignore them in good conscience.

I mean, if someone wants to write nothing but paid campaigns and sponsored reviews- so what? If I find her opinions useful, that is fine by me, as long as she tells me what's she's doing upfront. Newspaper and magazine reviewers make money, and some of that money comes from companies buying ads from their publications. The difference in the blogging world is that there is no company to provide the separation of editorial and advertising content. So the bloggers have to be really honest about how they draw that line- and if they aren't, then yes, their "brand" is diminished- in the same way as the "brand" of the movie reviewer who loves every movie just so he can see his name on quotes in ads is diminished.

2/17/11, 6:07 PM  
Blogger Lucretia said...

I really like your take on this Liz. I'm busy trying to get around to all of the posts written about it today, because I wrote one myself... and I really want to see where I fall on the spectrum.

One of the things that seems obvious reading your post, your long (and really rockin) comments thread, and other posts today is that *everyone* involved in this equation needs to be more careful when it comes to the blogger/agency/brand relationships.

Reading what Crissy linked about the Hyundai thing, the tangential Lansinoh thing that I backtracked from Christy's (@shakethesalt) comment in yesterday's comments, and many, many other comments in these posts? This is not an isolated incident. There are unethical, unprofessional, careless people working on every side of the table - and it's a round table.
Brands need to get more careful about knowing whom their agencies are and who they work with. Agencies need to be more careful about what programs they are willing to participate in, which bloggers and brands they work with, and maybe figure out a little more about where they fit in the equation.
Bloggers need to decide what they really stand for. In the end, are you willing to lose all credibility over an Amazon Gift Card? At what price? $10, $20, $100?

I love the list of PR folks you put up. (In particular, I'm thinking about starting the Stephanie Smirnov fan club Denver branch.)
But it seems rather like you're saying "don't go with a small or independent agency, they're not as good." (Although I may be reading too much into that?) And I hate reading that. Because that means that Ms. Snyder with her one-woman wrecking crew just hurt every single 'not the rockstars' agency doing blogger outreach. And that's way too much power to give one clueless woman.
There are a lot of really talented people out there doing blogger outreach who work with some of those 'rockstar agencies' you listed. I hope no one who has come across this whole debacle decides that if they aren't actually in a NY or Chicago office, they're probably lying.

Every pitch, every campaign, every blogger, every agency or brand rep deserves the courtesy of neither dismissing out of hand, nor accepting unreservedly.

Is it really that hard for people to do their due diligence?

Anyhow... off to read more posts. If nothing else? Toyota will have a great case study on 'reacting real time to a burgeoning brand crisis - and surviving.'

2/17/11, 6:14 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Cloud, I always love your comments. So thoughtful and perceptive. Thank you.

Lucretia:

oh god no! I am a huge fan of small indie companies - Stephanie Azzarone happens to run one. I just was spouting off an off-handed list of great PR people I've worked with, but I deal with so many at Cool Mom Picks, big and small, that I adore - Elyssa from Elyssa Sanders PR and Stacie Krajchir at the Bungalow PR and certainly Barbara Jones are rock stars. As are dozens of others.

My point is get the best you can afford. Whatever level that's at. A small independent company doesn't need a huge international PR firm. But Toyota does.

2/17/11, 6:42 PM  
Anonymous Stephanie Smirnov said...

Lucretia: thank you for the shout-out. Big kiss. Your $10 Amazon gift card is in the mail ;)
Jonniker: I'm less shocked (shocked!) by the fact that gift cards were offered (that's an old, tired debate) and more that some sketchy maverick down in Florida took it upon herself to enlist bloggers in a paid campaign on Toyota's behalf WITHOUT Toyota's consent, permission or endorsement. Staggeringly misguided.

2/17/11, 8:29 PM  
Anonymous selfmademom said...

I'm so late to this comment thread, but this is bat sh** crazy stuff. Wow is all I can say right now. Wow. And, really, the pitch would have been more compelling if the gift cards were to Prada, no? Thanks for always bringing these important issues to all of our attention!

2/17/11, 9:29 PM  
Anonymous Erin said...

Just a thought because so many of you have already said what's on my mind...but what grabs me here is the back up on the research we do- that we trust our friends more than we trust these companies.

Many of us very quickly and easily trusted the info we got from fellow mom bloggers far before we'd ever trust what Toyota was saying.

While in this case it was... weird (that word doesn't really cover it) ... it backs up all the studies we've seen.

Mom-to-Mom mouth-to-mouth peer-to-peer we sure trusted what we read on our momblog reader without a thought to trusting the companies involved.

2/17/11, 11:43 PM  
Anonymous Jack said...

I still say that if Valentine's Day was banned we wouldn't have these problems. ;)

There is a fundamental issue here that isn't going away. We want bloggers to be professionals yet prefer that they don't sound like that because we don't want to lose that authentic, "neighborly" feel.

I am very skeptical about change. There is such a low barrier to entry into this "biz" and such a large misunderstanding of what goes into it.

A lot of people speak/write about being paid for their efforts and I applaud that. However there are still huge numbers of people who don't have the foggiest idea of what that number should be.

They don't understand what metrics to use to promote themselves and or which are most significant.

This lack of understanding lends itself to creating an atmosphere where bloggers moan about lazy/predatory practices by brands/PR.

Plenty of issues on both sides if you ask me.

2/18/11, 3:39 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

Just catching up after back-to-back days of way too many meetings. First, thank you, Liz, for the recognition and kind words--what a nice way to end a crazy week! Regarding the topic at hand: From my point of view, this all comes down to the need for professionalism on both sides of the fence. Marketers (companies, agencies, independent specialists or bloggers who advise any of the above) need to (how to put this?) not do stupid things -- illegal, immoral or just plain insensitive -- when reaching out to social media. Bloggers who are on the receiving end of outreach, meanwhile, need to understand that a) when all of the above do their jobs correctly, it involves a lot more effort/time/thought/planning, etc. than it may seem b) no, not everyone can do it right just because they have a blogger list and c) lashing out at a brand or a PR agency as the default response in every situation is not always legitimate. That said – I now have to go work on my blog! Have a good weekend.

2/18/11, 10:54 AM  
Anonymous Meagan @ The Happiest Mom said...

I used to be in the "Monetizing mommy blogs BAD!" camp. I think because I felt like all I saw was blatant shilling and blurring of the ethical lines I'd become used to working for magazines.

But you know? I have to make a living. I don't really have the luxury of spending hours each week blogging just to build a community or make friends--those are great side bonuses, yes, and I've made some wonderful friends via blogging and I feel like I'm part of a wonderful community--but unfortunately, they can't be the only reason that I personally am in this world. I have to write. For a living. And every hour I spend working on my blog is one less hour I spend writing a magazine story. Either way I'm providing a service, whether it's entertainment, information, or inspiration. So why would it be wrong to make a living via my blog, as long as I do it ethically, honestly, and with quality content?

(For the record: I am not currently making a living or even earning one red cent via my blog, so this question is still rhetorical for me.)

Anyway, after I had this little epiphany I started looking around for examples of good, tasteful monetization, and realized they'd been there all along. I just hadn't noticed, because those bloggers were doing it so well, and offering so much alongside it, that it wasn't noticeable. Just like when I read a magazine, I don't notice the ads to a certain point, and then sometimes I'm like "ugh, this magazine is CRAP and it's all ADS!"

So I guess I feel a little uncomfortable when comments like Jonniker's--and you know I love me some Jonniker, which makes it even more squicky feeling--seem to suggest that blogging just for the love/joy/community of it is somehow more pure and noble. Not all of us have that option, nor the option of only participating in X number of campaigns per quarter, etc. And not all campaigns require us to pretend to love a product, just as magazines don't necessarily endorse all their sponsors.

Obviously there's a tasteful way to monetize, and then there's...that other way, but many of us want...perhaps NEED...to make real money from our blogs, or we can't continue to do it. And if we're providing something of quality, why shouldn't we?

2/18/11, 3:27 PM  
Anonymous Meagan @ The Happiest Mom said...

Oh, I wanted to address the Brooke Shields thing, too. I think there's more going on here than oversaturation. While I'm personally creeped out by Latisse, it fit "the persona otherwise known as Brooke Shields." Same with Crest. When it comes to La-Z-Boy, though...I'm not so sure. The campaign is jarring because on the surface it's an odd fit, though maybe that's what they're going for--trying to get people to think of their brand in a new light.

Either way, it doesn't really make me think any more or less of Shields...I know full well she's being paid to endorse products, and look at her appearances in TV commercials as more like acting than endorsement.

2/18/11, 3:52 PM  
Anonymous jonniker said...

Meagan, I'm not suggesting it's pure and noble at ALL. My God, I write about my dog eating my kid's umbilical stump, how can that BEEE?

But there's a happy medium somewhere, and not a lot of blogs do it well. When I say a sponsored campaign a quarter, I mean straight-up, sponsored content, an entire paid post, flat out there on your front page. If you do it more often than that, then I, the reader, is not likely to trust you. But that's me.

There are plenty of other forms of monetization, though, that don't require that obvious of a sponsored campaign -- that don't require a whole post on your front page. Hell, I'm absolutely putting ads on my blog again the first chance I get.

The best parallel I can come up with IS the celebrity endorsement. Only for us, I think it's even more so, because it's at a much more personal level.

And finally, I know you know this M, because we talked about it, but I do a lot of other things to make a living, too. I just get ooky when its insinuated that it's a luxury to do this as a hobby, because isn't that how it all started? I mean, I have to make a living, too, I just think all of us who blog are privileged in some way, so the idea that people HAVE to monetize is twitchy, to a degree. I mean, if people are making an actual LIVING from this, I'd be floored (other than the people at the very top OR the people who are selling themselves completely).

And finally FINALLY, my word verification is MOOSPIEG.

2/18/11, 4:34 PM  
Anonymous Caleb Gardner said...

Thanks for the shout out to Edelman Digital, Liz! This entire fiasco is crazy to me, but as you said, not entirely inconceivable. Sad.

As always, thanks for your level headed and thorough deconstruction of what happened.

2/18/11, 5:33 PM  
Anonymous Meagan @ The Happiest Mom said...

"I just get ooky when its insinuated that it's a luxury to do this as a hobby, because isn't that how it all started?"

Point totally taken, J, I guess I'm looking at this from the perspective of a pro writer--I've been blogging since 2001, but my earlier blogs had between 2 and 12 readers each, because I never had the time to put into them, because I was using up all my writing time/mojo on other projects. Now, as more and more writing work goes online, having an online presence becomes not just about fun for me, but also a necessity for the work I do.

I guess I'd say to blog WELL you have to have a certain amount of time and energy to put into it, and having either is a luxury, to a degree, but one I agree most bloggers share. But maybe not so much anymore? I'm reminded of my early days of motherhood when some of the most financially struggling women I knew were pouring their time, credit and/or meager savings into direct-sales companies (Mary Kay and the like) hoping to be able to make money to literally put food on the table. Of course, most people don't do well at direct sales, and most of those ventures turned into very expensive and time-consuming hobbies in the end that ultimately just annoyed their friends and family. I see a lot of parallels between that and the modern-day blog world.

2/18/11, 5:42 PM  
Anonymous jonniker said...

Yes, totally. And to be fair, I'll say that my blog serves another purpose -- it's actually gotten me a fair amount of offline work. It's almost a portfolio, albeit a really weird one, but it's in my bio of almost all the work I've done where a bio would be present, and I get a fair amount of inquiries for other work through it.

So there's that, too. It's NOT just a hobby for me, so I'd be misrepresenting if I said it was, purely, but I think because of that, and because of my readership, I am that much more protective of it to make sure that it doesn't become a pile of shills.

I guess I have a totally different take on it as a professional writer, too. Just a different kind, I guess. And I think, too, that my blog makes me a better writer for the OTHER writing I do, so it's so much more than just a hobby. It fuels my professional career, just not by making money through a $100 sponsored post here and there.

2/18/11, 5:56 PM  
Anonymous ABDPBT said...

"Well Jonniker, isn't that inherent to marketing in general and public relations specifically? Brands exist to put the best positive message about themselves out there and potentially offset negative ones."

Yes! That's why the only thing you can absolve Toyota of is the general crassness of the campaign itself -- not the initial desire to bury a story. Just because Toyota said "we can locate no contractual connection" between them and the woman sending out the pitch . . . UM, DUH. DUH. Look at how this is worded. They have no contractual connection, I'm sure! The connection was made between one PR company and another!

I totally agree with Jonna that people got upset about this stupid Toyota campaign to begin with only because of the $10 price tag. Don't mix in moral outrage about PR campaigns with this. What is a sponsored post? It's about spreading bullshit about companies. That's what the whole industry is about!

If you hate it, hate it. But don't act like there is something unique about this campaign that makes is just so awfully bad other than the fact that it paid badly.

2/18/11, 6:28 PM  
Anonymous ABDPBT said...

And oh yes, let's definitely use our critical thinking skills in order to ensure that we look attractive to brands! Let's definitely use them for that. That's absolutely the right reason.

Cherie, you aren't reading "between" the lines, you're reading THE LINES THEMSELVES.

2/18/11, 6:30 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

@Erin that's such a good point. You're right, I think we do put more trust in one another. And when we see an email coming from a mom blogger it's easy to assume it's legit.

Unfortunately there are plenty of unethical consultants out there who also happen to be moms and leverage it to their advantage. This wasn't one of those cases, but I suppose it's a good lesson for all of us to do a little research into the people we hope to do business with.

2/19/11, 11:09 AM  

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