Transparency, Ethics and Lasagna: How Ketchum's Fake Dinner Backfired

This was the tweet that caught my eye:

"Food bloggers invited to "exclusive supper club" hosted by Food Network chef, actually frozen meal focus group. "

By Andrew Hwang (@andhwang) who was linking to the (self proclaimed) "Chubby Chinese" Girl's post.

I thought I could let this one go. A few tweets to express my outrage, then be done with it.

But you know what, I can't just look the other way. You know I hate it when I see PR gone bad (I even wrote my own PR Customer's Bill of Rights.) This PR fiasco shows the willingness of a big firm like Ketchum, to push ethical boundaries. (Here's their Contact Us page should you care to voice your outrage.)

In my past life, I used to design and run research and focus groups were a part of that. As a consultant and as a recovering attorney, it gets my blood boiling when people ignore things like, oh, say, ETHICS. Or PROFESSIONALISM.


Bloggers and Freebies

As a writer with a blog, I get offers all the time. I turn down more than I accept. When I accept, I disclose. And, I usually only accept from a few in the business that I respect and for whom I think I can write a good piece, honestly. There are food blogging ethics, too. And there's also some common sense which several of the duped, later realized they may have overlooked. My first thought was "Sangria is not Italian", but hey, that's just me.

This fiasco shows the danger when bloggers are lured by a "Food Network Celebrity" and the promise of a free dinner. Bad food can happen to good people. Say yes simply because it's a private dinner with a celebrity chef? Think about that. I'm sure they will next time something like this pops up in their inbox.

Every subsequent post I read about these duped bloggers, makes me a deeper shade of red, like the artificial red dye that was added to the frozen lasagna. Even when an invited guest disclosed an allergy to the dye, it's not clear this was handled well.

Lured under false pretenses to a private dinner "Sotto Terra" (under ground or soft ground in Italian, I think) with a "Food Network Celebrity" that turned out to be, in fact, a frozen food focus group for ConAgra's Marie Callendar frozen dinners. People are rightfully incensed.

The conversation before dinner was decidedly vague, several posters/guests asked direct questions that were not answered. They were manipulated at dinner to disclose their food memories, preferences, stories. They were encouraged to talk about CSAs and such (really?) and then they were fed frozen ConAgra dinners.

Here is what Mom Confessionals says:

[Bloggers were encouraged to hold contests and invite guests:]

I want to deeply apologize to my winner and her husband, my children’s beloved pediatrician.  They were expecting an amazing meal and a true experience at the hands of famous Food Network chef they were fans of and were left with a really foul taste in their mouths.  I too was completely surprised and I promise you, had I known, I would not have encouraged you to sacrifice your valuable time and money only to be tricked.  I am profoundly embarrassed and hope that you will accept my sincerest apologies.

FoodMayhem writes an Open Letter to George Duran:

I told you first hand of our focus on wholesome food, particularly with our baby in tow.  We both said to you, with 20+ witnesses and apparently hidden cameras, how much we despise over-processed foods and artificial ingredients.  We discussed with the group the sad state of chemical-filled foods and discussed various chains.  And yet, you still fed me the exact thing I said I did not want to eat.

Chubby's New York Food Diary writes:

"The words "intimate Italian restaurant", "delicious four course meal" and "sangria" tickled my appetite. I accepted immediately. To hype it even more, I was told that this "exclusive" underground restaurant was only open for 5 days. Not only was I allowed to bring a guest, but they offered my readers a dinner for two though a giveaway."


Brand Noise calls the PR debacle:

"[an] exercise broke every basic social media and research rule."

Let the Spin Begin

Now, it seems the last dinner was canceled and Ketchum is back-pedaling - somewhat - in the New York Times. Bloggers Don't Follow the Script, to ConAgra's Chagrin. [note for the record, the photo in the NYT piece seems to indicate a bit of snark on the part of the hosts, like they're laughing all the way to the bank, and acting like your big brother who just played a practical joke on you, then chides you for not having a sense of humour about it.]

As noted writer Rebekah Denn points out, Ketchum's non-apology adds insult to injury: "We apologize that they felt this way." That's like saying "we're sorry they were wrong to have an opinion other than the one we were looking for." How about, "It was wrong and arguably unethical. We are sorry." You'll never hear that from the likes of Ketchum.

The story is blowing up in Tweets and RTs and the ire it incites from the people who try to do this work of Public Relations and of food writing or blogging with honesty and integrity every day.


  • Shame on ConAgra for being so out of touch with the food and social media zeitgeist. It's all about Transparency. Authenticity. Integrity.
  • Shame on the sellout celebs. (I have no idea who these putz's are, proud of that.)
  • Shame on everyone at Ketchum who had a clue and failed to speak up.
  • Shame on the Marie Callendar's team for putting 860 milligrams of sodium, 36 percent of the recommended daily allowance, in a single 8 oz serving of lasagna.


But not for me

As Chet Baker croons, "they're writing songs of love, but not for me." About once every other month or so, someone asks me if I'd ever consider "coming over to the dark side." This stunt is a reminder of why I always say "No, Thank You." Or maybe it's an opportunity to say yes and do it better, more ethically. Who knows what the future holds but I can tell you for certain, I'd never last a day at a place like Ketchum. I'd never waste my client's money on an ill-conceived stunt like this one. I'd never waste the currency in the social media circles whose good will my clients covet.

In just five hours since I saw Andy's tweet, this has been tweeted to my 4,000+ another 8,000+ if you just count my quick circle of followers who picked up on this in the last couple hours.

Don't you think ConAgra cares that it has alienated thousands of food bloggers, their readers, Twitter followers, journalists, "Mommy bloggers" and more? Personally, I think ConAgra and Ketchum deserve each other. Maybe they all believe that any PR is good PR. Who knows but I will be interested to see if ConAgra issues any statement.

To my fellow food bloggers out there, remember no one can disrespect you without your consent. Or, put another way, if you lie with dogs you wake with fleas. Maybe that's a little harsh, but who is that guy that you are being lured by? Ask about the strings attached before you say yes. Your readers will rely on your judgment and your integrity and that is currency that is worth more than a free dinner. They deserve your good faith and judgment.

I applaud each of the bloggers who posted immediate responses to the duplicitous dinner.


More on ethics, PR, food blogging