Monday, March 29, 2010

Melbourne zoo, the bloggers and the PR company - I give you Kitkatgate

You’re most likely here because you like food. I like to eat, I like to cook and on the surface those are rather innocuous activities. Way back when, I did my first degree in political science. It didn’t necessarily qualify me to do much except become a public servant or be highly opinionated. While I flirted only briefly with the former, the later has become my life work.

No pretty recipes here today, so only hang in for the ride if you want to chew on a few thoughts about how bloggers are becoming unwitting players in an extraordinary act of greenwashing. Or skip down til you get to the pictures of cute, cuddly animals.

To say I’m rather conflicted about the whole getting a freebie because I’m a blogger thing, is putting it mildly. I have new admiration for those who write in this genre and have decided to totally resist the lure of the public relations sirens. I thought I could navigate my way through the odd event that took my fancy by making it clear I was under no obligation to blog about it. But when we are used as naïve pawns, it gets very difficult to participate.

It seemed innocuous enough, an invite to attend a green event at the zoo. I like and am happy to support Zoos Victoria, they are a great organization, backed by hardworking, committed staff and amazing volunteers. I haven’t a bad word to say about them (though a petty grumble that I wish the entrance fee was cheaper).

Despite the wonderful reptile wrangler (a great guy who deserves a medal) who toyed with my phobia of snakes, the cute meerkats, the good music, I was thrown for six before the tour and festivities even begun.

It began and ended with the goodie bag. A small swag of things I’d never buy, nor had any desire to use, though on second thoughts the itty-bitty bottle of water came in handy, likewise the rain poncho. Buried at the bottom was a family sized block of a confectionery bar that’s been in the news of late.

Here’s were the problem began.

Was it total naivety, sneakily cross-promoting a possible client or out and out greenwashing to add the confectionery bar that’s been in the news for the company’s use of palm oil, leading to one of the worst social media/PR fails in recent years? While the white chocolate version of the famous finger-like sugary junk food, apparently does not contain palm oil, some of the chocolate versions do but more importantly the product and the brand has so recently been linked with the clearing of habitat of orang-utans for palm oil crops, threatening the survival of the species.

The clincher is the Melbourne Zoo is actively involved in the don’t palm us off campaign, putting their weight behind a political campaign to raise awareness about the palm oil issue.

Everywhere you go through the zoo you see these huge banners supporting the campaign.

However the person I spoke to from the PR agency, who I immediately returned the offending item to, looked at me blankly. Perhaps she'd never been inside the zoo (this occurred at the assembly point at the gate), looked at the Zoos Victoria website or been in a media bubble all week. I explained considering the whole N*stle, Greenpeace video, palm oil issue I could not accept it.

First thing this morning I called the communications manager for the zoo. She was, to put it mildly, horrified that the confectionery was promoted as part of the event. This was the first she knew of it and promised to get back to me later in the day when she had taken the matter further. I repeat, Zoos Victoria were as big a patsies as bloggers in the whole kitkatgate scandal. Don't take it out on the zoo, just encourage them to make more ethical PR partnerships in future.

Food bloggers by nature are not political. It takes time and energy to get riled up about the issues behind the news. But if we (along with Zoos Victoria) play along with these manipulations without questioning the strategy, quite frankly we deserve the lack of respect we get from the traditional media.

Update 30.3.10:Apology and disclaimer from the company "It was a major oversight on our part, and we unreservedly apologise for any offense that it has caused to any person attending. However, please be assured that in no way was this an attempt to influence or greenwash. It was an honest mistake." You can read the comment in full.

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Anonymous IdeasCulture said...

Gill, I'm actually surprised you have been so light handed on this issue. I think you're just the right person to come down hard on them. This is such a great example of how the lack of communication between marketing and PR can cause a massive PR Fail.

11:53 am  
Blogger Brunswick Girl said...

Totally agree Ideas, a classic case of the PR/events team not working through a gift bag, thinking it's a nice a fluffy take away, and not thinking about the overall brand position.

Rookie error

11:59 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

IdeasCulture - my social studies teacher at high school gave me a backhander on my report once, calling me a "catalyst", which of course was a clever way of calling me a little shit stirrer. I hope I can be a catalyst for others who were there to think deeper.

But don't despair, this issue aint over, you might have read it before I added the update (penultimate paragraphs), Zoos Vic is in the loop now. Waiting to hear their response.

Brunswick Girl - I think all bloggers need to be more vigilant.

12:07 pm  
Blogger Zoe said...

Great post, and great point. I wonder whether these types of outcomes might influence PR types to stop engaging with bloggers, rather than to work out how to engage with different types of bloggers, and how that might affect bloggers of different approaches

12:17 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

After talking to the zoo person involved with the event (strange the communications manager didn't even know of the event, let alone the competition it was promoting?!) she said "Are there any PR companies that do social media well?" you think they might just be looking for a replacement? :) Seriously, any ideas to help out these poor naive but worthy organisations?

1:07 pm  
Anonymous essjayeff said...

Gil, I'm so pleased you made people aware of this issue, and I think your "voice" is just right. The Zoo doesn't need a bunch of screaming idiots coming down on them. Someone made a rookie error. Doubt that person will ever make that mistake again.

I just sat up a little bit taller at my desk - wonder what "The Broadsheet" of "The Tabloid" would have said? What have they said? Were there any "traditional media" types there?

Google reveals nothing.

Hope your post has made at least one marketing person, and one event person, a little bit more aware of what they do....

1:09 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Thanks SJF. Pleasantly surprised by the retweets on twitter and other support from one freelance journalist and one PR company.

If other media want to talk to me, leave a comment or hunt out my email address hidden in the about info on this page.

1:16 pm  
Blogger Lucy said...

As my partner - a veteran of 30 long, gruelling years of marketing/advertising experience - was horrified...

I look at that orang-utan and...heart-breaking gaff.

But yay to the Zoo for being positive to you, AOF. Keep us updated?

3:35 pm  
Anonymous Grace Lee said...

Hi Gill,

Don't think i got to meet you at the event but I was there too with my little family, and I have also been alittle iffie about the whole event, and the PR company. Good on ya on picking this up, but I never got a gift bag, and I had NO idea what the heck was going on for the whole night. Don't know whether it was just me but yeh...

6:34 pm  
Blogger Ed said...

Great post. I also wondered if I was being paid off with chocolate? Or if it was a gaff? Or even if the people in N*stle thought up this idea: 'Wouldn't it be great to have people eating our product at earth hour right next to where we are getting negative press?' N*stle are hardly new to getting bad press for their actions/products, I remember a campaign against a certain infant formula that was being marketed in the third world by the same company... So maybe they have counter strategies now? Thats the other thing corporations are trying to do: confuse people too so it aint clear and political agitation does not work as easily.

6:41 pm  
Blogger Pip Lincolne said...

Do you really think it was deliberate? Surely not? I can't believe that. It's too blatant. I think it was just a f#$k-up by the PR girls, personally. Call me Pollyanna, I guess.

7:11 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Pip - I don't honestly know but it is certainly how some PR companies work. Considering that The Age and most of the other traditional media carried the story last week (re: the Greenpeace video and the Facebook social media disaster) they must be doing a very poor job to not keep abreast with what is going on don't you think? If it was a genuine mistake then they are doing their jobs very badly. Either way, it doesn't do this company any good.

Ed - I worked with the IBFAN (international baby foods action network) people in NZ in 1985. So many babies died because mothers in the developing world were told formula was better than breast milk. They couldn't afford it, so often it was heavily diluted and their babies died of malnutrition. The others died of gastro from the infected water they used to mix it. Have avoided N*stle as much as possible since then. (That outs me as a very old lefty :)

Grace nice to meet you. Pity we all never got introduced at the event. Nice to discover your blog. The whole thing was done poorly, except the bit that was pure zoo, like the behind the scenes in the reptile house. We were in the first group and got heaps of time, think the later groups got a bit squeezed.

7:33 pm  
Blogger Ed said...

I just googled "cracked pepper communications" AND N*stle. I'd be interested in what you make of the results...

7:35 pm  
Blogger Ed said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:51 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Ed - I can't get the same link to come up (the linkedin but not the n*stle bit) can you cut and paste it plus the link and email it to me (in my about bit in blogger). Much appreciated.

8:05 pm  
Blogger Jack said...

Great post Gill, and I agree very well handled.
The Greenpeace vid was fun in how sharp it was and no doubt mostly just nasty timing for the Melb Zoo people.
A PR company getting it wrong and not being in the loop with all their clients needs?? Never! I have a email trash box full of faux-pas, some deserve to be shamaed publicly others are just dull rubbish.

12:19 am  
Blogger Pip Lincolne said...

Gill, I wonder what Cracked Pepper's links to Nestle are. It would be valuable to know their exact relationship. And it would be interesting to find out what their spin is on this.

(I couldn't find anything relevant on that link either :just a list of profiles of people, some of whom worked at Nestle (but no crossover with Cracked Pepper))

6:27 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Jack, I still can't understand how the "communications company" founded by someone who flies the flag at being experienced in digital and social media could possibly not be familiar with their client's website with the campaign on the front page. But then again the same company has had broken links all over the place on their own site.

Pip, the name the owner rebadged the company to (previously cracked pepper) is even worse. So much so that because "religion" is in the name I heard a lot of bloggers assumed the invite was spam and never opened it! It might be good if you also directed the question to the Zoo too. As the owner of the event they've unfortunately been left with egg on their face.

8:12 am  
Anonymous LB said...

Hi All - it's Liza here.

Thanks to those who attended Saturday night's event.

Please note that Cracked Pepper takes full responsibility for choosing a confectionery item that has recently been the focus of anti-Palm Oil campaigns.

It was a major oversight on our part, and we unreservedly apologise for any offense that it has caused to any person attending. However, please be assured that in no way was this an attempt to influence or greenwash. It was an honest mistake. 

It is important to understand that the purpose of Saturday night was to invite bloggers to an enjoyable experience, educate them about Zoos Victoria and give them an opportunity to come face-to-face with wildlife. The purpose of the 'goodie bag' was to give bloggers essential items that they may need during the night and to provide a thank you gesture for attending.

I’d also like to clarify that we have no professional or personal associations, links or otherwise with the Nestle Corporation, nor have we ever worked with them, this is simply not true on any level.

Again, the inclusion of the confectionery was a complete oversight and we are sincerely apologetic.

1:50 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

I've had an email forwarded to me in which the founder of the agency categorically states "we have no professional associations, links or otherwise with the N*stle Corporation, nor have we ever worked with them". Not sure if that rules out "I" have ever worked with them (versus the company. But unless evidence to the contrary arises, we have to accept it was a stupid mistake from a communications agency that doesn't know the clients needs, nor keep abreast of the news.

1:53 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Hi Liza, our posts crossed over and I posted before read yours.

Thanks for clearing this up.

1:56 pm  
Blogger FriendlySavage said...

Gill - thanks for opening up this can of worms.

If the PR company in question call themselves a company of repute, they should have had knowledge about the Greenpeace campaign and Nestle. Even though it seems to be an honest mistake, the Zoo should reconsider their association in future with this company. It is the PR company's job to know of these issues; they clearly haven't done their job properly.

2:10 pm  
Anonymous LB said...

Thanks Gill!

Just to be clear, I have never worked for or with Nestle and have no professional or other associations with the corporation.

This was an honest mistake, not an attempt at greenwashing.

Sincerest apologies,


2:12 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Friendly Savage - would think so. But PR isn't my world, so what would I know? I made a heap of assumptions that "social media revolutionaries" keep up with PR world and real world news, understand their clients, keep their website well maintained and a whole heap of other stuff. But as I said, I aint the expert. You can direct those directly to Liza to answer if you'd like.

Regardless of rumours to the contrary, I'm not here to make anyone's life hell (Ok there are a few politicians I'd like to but I do it elsewhere). I'd just like to encourage media companies that want to work with bloggers to interact with us and understand us better.

Liza hopefully the issue of the error is now sorted. But could you take on board there would have been no speculation of greenwashing if your company's website was updated and the links to your portfolio/past campaigns worked. As you know, at least one invitee pointed this out to you weeks ago.

3:23 pm  
Blogger What's For Tea? said...

Thank you Gill for taking the time to clear all this up. I too had quite a sceptical moment seeing the inclusion when I opened my 'goodie bag' on the night. I chatted about it with some of the people I was seated with and hoped that it was an oversight rather than a deliberate act.
A loud hooray for the Zoo and their Don't Palm Us Off campaign.

3:25 pm  
Anonymous LB said...

Gill - I understand where you're coming from and we do appreciate the feedback. We'll take this on board and review our planning strategy accordingly.

9:30 am  
Blogger ozbloggers said...

do join and ping every time you blog a topic..

9:49 am  
Anonymous New Jordans said...

Take my breath away.I've loved everything in your blog, thanks for always sharing such wonderful post. Have a good week!

10:52 am  

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