Yesterday, I received an e-mail from an employee of Ogilvy, a gigantic public-relations firm, that I found startling:Now, I get strange, questionable propositions over the transom–this one arrived via Technologizer’s contact form–all the time. I also receive offers which I choose to decline, such as ones involving companies footing the bill for travel to their media events. But a big PR firm offering what amounted to cash payments for coverage on behalf of a major tech company was a new one.
Are there bloggers who would write about LG products in return for $500 gift cards? Of course. Not me, though, and I also wouldn’t do it in return for $5000 cards or $50,000 cards. And while Technologizer has sometimes worked with companies to offer prizes to Technologizer readers, with disclosure–for instance, in 2009, we gave away an HP laptop–I wouldn’t use gift cards as an incentive to encourage tweeting and commenting about a particular company.
After I received the e-mail, I dropped a line to a couple of Ogilvy bigwigs asking, essentially, “what gives?” I heard back promptly from John Bell, the head of the company’s 360° Digital Influence team, and we chatted on the phone this morning.
I was more grimly amused and confounded by the e-mail than angry and offended; Bell, to his credit, was more irate about the whole matter than I was. He said the offer had been made without his knowledge, called it “stupid,” and said “we have a whole university inside our company designed to prevent things like this.” He pointed out that the offer of gift cards in return for coverage violates Ogilvy’s own policies against paying for editorial placement, which were linked to in the e-mail to me. (Ogilvy’s stance is more restrictive than FTC rules, which say that payments are legal as long as they’re disclosed.)
Bell also said that I, as a grizzled journalism veteran who writes not only for Technologizer but also for established media outlets like TIME and CNET, should not have been on the list of candidates in the first place. He criticized the form letter-like tone of the e-mail and said that Ogilvy would “re-educate” the people responsible for it.
I also heard, via e-mail, from Christopher Graves, the global CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations (and a former journalist at CNBC and the Wall Street Journal). He was similarly humble and apologetic, and didn’t defend the offer.
The LG campaign, Bell told me, will not proceed as planned: “We will do something but it will be a different program with the right characteristics and reaching out thoughtfully to the right folks.”
You wouldn’t have read posts here about LG products spurred by Ogilvy’s pay-for-play offer under any circustances; I do, however, wonder what you might have read on other sites if I hadn’t asked. (Ogilvy’s policies, incidentally, require that bloggers be “transparent” about posts that are, in one way or another, prompted by PR outreach–although I wonder if anyone would have said “I accepted a $500 Amex card in return for writing this.”)
Graves called the whole situation a “teaching moment.” I’m glad he looks at it that way and that he and Bell responded to my query with a fair amount of grace under pressure. And I’m glad I brought it to their attention, rather than do what I usually do with offers that I have no interest in pursuing–which is to briefly and politely decline them and then move on.