ConAgra’s Failed Con Begs the Question: Are Food Bloggers ‘Professionals’?


As many people who regularly read food blogs know, ConAgra pulled a tragically ill-conceived public relations stunt recently. As The New York Times reported, the company lured food bloggers into an exclusive underground dining event and then fed them frozen three meat and cheese lasagna as they filmed their reactions. In fairness, I think they were going for that old “We’ve replaced the usual coffee they serve here with Folgers” approach, thoroughly mocked by the “Saturday Night Live” skit above.

What’s curious to me was ConAgra’s audience. I’m certain that Ketchum, the normally hip-to-it agency involved, would not have tried such a stunt with established journalists from other media. Imagine a narrator saying, “Let’s watch Barry Estabrook inhale the heady tomato flavor. Oh, wait, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Gold is taking a bite! Let’s watch!” Or, “So Michael Ruhlman, you’ve been duped into eating commercial pepperoni. Pretty good, huh?” You think so? No, me neither. So frankly, I don’t blame the bloggers for their reaction. They called the company on it. Loudly, and with conviction.

Mom Confessionals referred to the whole thing as a “SHAM!” Chubby Chinese Girl wrote “What I don’t understand is who’s genius idea was to bring in bloggers into this…Feeding me free food doesn’t automatically equate to great review. I’ll always keep it honest for myself and my readers, otherwise there’s no point to all this. I do advertising by day, thank you very much, at night, blogging is a passion and hobby. I won’t promote products I won’t eat myself. Either, they were too confident about their products or just didn’t believe in our palates and tastebuds.”

Over at FoodMayhem.com, Lon Binder wrote an open letter to the chef involved in the stunt, George Duran, essentially calling him a feckless hack who should surrender his chef’s toque. (Binder also had the above video embedded on his site which is how I found it.) Prior to being served the dinner, the hosts had “guided” conversation around the importance of fresh ingredients, which then shifted into how intensely some members of the group disdained processed food. After that conversation, ConAgra fed them this:
semolina [enriched with niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid], egg white), seasoned cooked beef and pork (beef and pork, seasoning [flavorings, salt, spices, dextrose], tomato paste, salt, soybean oil), ricotta cheese (pasteurized whey, milk, cream), mozzarella cheese (part-skim mozzarella cheese [pasteurized milk, whey protein concentrate, cultures, salt, enzymes]), contains 2% or less of: parmesan and Romano (made from cow’s milk) cheeses (part-skim milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes, cellulose powder [prevents caking]), garlic (in citric acid), carrots, celery, seasoning (salt, dextrose, sugar, spice, spice extractives [including paprika, soy lecithin], disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate [flavor enhancer], tricalcium phosphate and soybean oil), onion, sugar, heavy whipping cream, salt, bread crumb (wheat flour, sugar, yeast, soybean oil, salt), spices (includes oregano and basil), modified food starch, dried egg whites.
Compare that to ingredients in a fairly standard lasagna recipe:
ground beef, Italian sausage, tomatoes, lasagna noodles, onion, carrots, celery, olive oil, ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese, eggs, garlic, oregano, basil, kosher salt, pepper
Wrote Binder on FoodMayhem: “Let’s consider a more personal hypothetical: George, how would you feel if invited to my home, fed chicken cordon bleu, and then afterwards informed that we had secretly stuffed the cavity with entrails of rats found in the street, cleansed using various chemicals from the utility closet, such as bleach (also food safe in small quantities).”
This isn’t the first frozen food faux pas involving bloggers. At the BlogherFood conference a couple of years ago in San Francisco, Rocco Dispirito tried to sell the crowd of online food writers on frozen pasta dinners with the zeal of the ShamWow guy to what the L.A. Times referred to as a “tough room.”  As Jen wrote in Use Real Butter: “People, I just made puff pastry from scratch and they were serving me frozen, mushy pasta. That doesn’t jive. We had our angry/semi-humored tweets, but I think the feeling I came away with was that of being insulted…”

As Sarah Fidelibus notes on Poynter.org, “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.” So, companies, here’s what you need to do. Treat food bloggers and writers like you would any other journalists or opinion columnists in the media. In other words, like culinary professionals.Yes, it’s a different game and many bloggers exist who will readily shill for your canned beef ravioli or your prepackaged mixes for any bit of extra traffic to their ad network. But a wide enough swath of bloggers take their work seriously that it isn’t worth pissing them all off by treating them as lesser professionals. As Chubby Chinese Girl noted above, her blog might be viewed as a hobby, but to suggest that because she’s not drawing a paycheck from a media company for her work means that her passion, energy and time can therefore be bought off by a free dinner is insulting. In fact, when you’re doing it for free, the one thing you’ve got is your reputation.
In an excellent article on The Huffington Post, writer Jamie Schler of Life’s a Feast detailed about her experiences at the International Food Bloggers Conference in New Orleans. (In a disclosure moment, she and I shared some grits at breakfast one morning, and I’ll be speaking at the next IFBC conference in Santa Monica.) After initial trepidation after watching the food blogging phenomenon unfold from her perch in France, she left the weekend with a new-found respect for the community. “The line between amateur and professional began to thin and grow hazy, creating a formidable dilemma: what role do food bloggers play? Are they the new journalists?” she asked.

It’s a intriguing question. “What’s funny is that most bloggers argue with me when I suggest that they are journalists,” food writing expert Dianne Jacob told Fidelibus of Poynter.org; she has previously made the pitch on her own blog Will Write for Food.

It strikes me as an issue of semantics. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines a journalist: “a writer who aims at a mass audience.” Here’s how it defines journalism: “the collection and editing of news and information for presentation through the media.” But with blogs, your mileage will vary in how well the term “journalist” applies. Personal voice defines most blogs, and traditional journalism seeks to strip that out. (I was nearly 30 before using the word “I” in a story.)

But the label “blogger” is problematic in that it’s too generalized. I have a very talented friend in San Francisco who debates whether to call himself a “writer” because he’s not sure if he warrants the title since he writes “only on a blog.” I say bullshit. If Ernest Hemingway were around, he’d be all over Twitter. Charles Dickens would most certainly blog. I challenge anyone to suggest neither of them are writers. I’ve long been an advocate of the policy that if you do the verb, you can call yourself the noun. If you write, you’re a writer. If you take photos, you’re a photographer.

Why shouldn’t some bloggers self-assign their own titles if they feel undefined by the more general term? If you’re diligent about research, reporting and ethics, I see no reason why you can’t call yourself an independent journalist. If you primarily write about food, perhaps publish original recipes that you prudently test, you do your research, live up to ethical guidelines, treat other writers with respect and take your work seriously, I’ve got no qualms about saying you’re a culinary professional. By definition, “professional” means “relating to, or connected with a profession.” While everyone would prefer a paycheck for what they do, that you’re not getting one shouldn’t automatically put you in some lower caste.

Neither the James Beard Awards nor the IACP Bert Greene journalism awards make any distinction about the medium stories appear in anymore; whether a story appeared in a newspaper or in a magazine or on a blog, they’re judged the same.
It’s about time the rest of the media world — and companies like Ketchum and ConAgra — to do the same.
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