CES Pay for Play? No Way

Or why you won't see me serving as a brand ambassador for LG anytime soon.

By  |  Friday, December 23, 2011 at 10:49 am

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.

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25 Comments For This Post

  1. Louis Says:

    What about a $500,000 or $5,000,000 gift card?

  2. Rich Says:

    Good Call, I bet there are some that would have accepted without disclosure.

  3. Harry Miller Says:

    OK, Harry, I'll be the one to ask: Did anyone notice that Ogilvy regretted the error that you were on the list—for the pay-for-editorial-placement program that their policies prohibit? Which is it?

  4. Harry McCracken Says:

    He said both that they shouldn't have offered payment, and that even if the offer was made in a way that conformed to Ogilvy's policies, it shoudn't have been made to me.

  5. Burnt Says:

    You want to be transparent, then disclose now much HP paid. I'm guessing their solicitation didn't result in a moral blog posting. It's clear this kid is more green than corrupt.In his cold call email he neglected to insist that you'd disclose that post would be "sponsored"  and comply with FCC standards. A mistake no doubt. But before you went and got him fired perhaps you would have called him back, as he requested. He's probably ambitious and trying to do right by his client. He assumed you were a long tail blog and had no idea you are connected. I mean he cold called you via contact form. He's a go-getter. And you burnt him. This post has the opposite effect of your intention. It tells me you fear your editorial integrity has been compromised and so you loudly proclaim it hasn't. But to do so you ruin this kid.

  6. Harry McCracken Says:

    Also, surely a plan involving offering multiple $500 payments to multiple bloggers wasn't the work of one go-getting "kid" within Ogilvy.

  7. @jdheit Says:

    "He assumed you were a long tail blog and had no idea you are connected."

    That is the issue. Even if you don't know Harry's background, not knowing that Technologizer is part of Time is pretty poor form.

    I commend Ogilvy on having policies in place to address this, as oversight in a large agency particularly in the shifting tides of what is OK w/r/t bloggers can be a massive organizational challenge. I also applaud Harry for openly discussing the issue, rather than snarkily posting on a "bad pitch" blog.

    But to hold the individuals on this team unaccountable for the poor judgment, which includes not knowing who you are pitching and using a standard form letter, also known as "blasting" is absurd, as that is the core of what challenges our industry's reputation.

    PR people can always benefit from open dialogue of this nature, especially those directly involved.

  8. Harry McCracken Says:

    For the record, HP didn't pay me anything: It provided a laptop to a reader, which was noted in the relevant posts.

  9. Burnt Says:

    HP did not advertise on websites you are affiliated with? I bet they did to the tune of 6 figures minimum.

    This was a "seed the message" in the long tail to build organic buzz play. If the posts are compliant with FCC standards as surely you and the agency would have insisted then this is moot. You should have called him back instead of sacrificing him for your moral stance.

  10. Harry McCracken Says:

    No, HP didn’t advertise to the tune of six figures minimum. Or one figure. Or a nickel. It didn’t advertise at all, or give me any money, in any manner either related or unrelated to the laptop giveaway.

    If the proposal was fine, and would have been disclosed, then why not discuss it?

  11. Burnt Says:

    So you think their solicitation was an attempt to surreptitiously pay you off? Moreover, that this illicit solicitation, that flaunts widely known FCC standards, had the backing of the Agency and Samsung? Or was this an opportunistic blog post for you? Which I would not have a problem with if you hadn't screwed the kid.

  12. Harry McCracken Says:

    Let’s recap: So far, you’re confident that I failed to disclose six-figure payments from HP. You also think that I “screwed” a “kid” who you assume is a “he.” You also seem to think I’m accusing Ogilvy of illegally trying to pay me off when I noted that its policies involve disclosure and don’t violate the law. And even though you say there was nothing amiss here, I still shouldn’t have written about it.

    Any why are you bringing up Samsung?

  13. Scott Says:

    The kid deserved screwing. Actually, I think Burnt *is* the kid. There's no other reason that I can think of for at all being upset that this breach of ethics was exposed. It was stupid, indefensible, and there's no reason Harry should not have blogged about it.

    It's interesting to see Burnt lecture Harry on integrity while defending a "kid" (how do you know he was a kid? you're either lying or being unethical yourself) that did something that was clearly over the line.

    BTW, I cannot get the twitter login to work. I would happily have posted as my twitter account.

  14. Harry McCracken Says:

    I don’t think that Burnt is “the kid,” for a variety of reasons. (For one thing, anyone involved in this presumably remembers which company it involved.) And my apologies about the Twitter login problem: I hope to have it fixed shortly.

  15. Neven Says:

    Boy are these LG Cinema 3D TV's good or what?

  16. Burnt Says:

    I'm not the kid or the woman/man that sent the note to Harry. I work in advertising in NYC and empathize with the over zealous nature of the poor sap who did send that note. I don't think the email was truly representative of how the campaign would have come to market. It's a sloppy email from a PR agency. And a stark reminder how quickly things can go wrong. That said, was it enough to go to the presses and blog on? Well Harry knows better than me.
    And for the record, I don't know if HP was/is a paying advertiser so I apologize for suggesting. But I work in the business and these sort of PR giveaways are routinely coupled with sizable media investments.
    There's a broader ethical question to blog about here. Buying influence, transparently or not, is a long standing connundrum for the industry that is only getting thornier given the proliferation of blogs and social media. I respect this site and visit routinely but wish we could discuss this topic without the collateral damage to the employee.

  17. ileneh Says:

    Actually, there are publications in which companies pay to have their products highlighted. Usually those publications do not advertise that they have objective reviews though. Considering how many writers are out of work (aka ME), I probably would have considered their offer. Yet, I think most of their products are junk, so I wonder if they'd still pay if the review panned the product? (grin)

    While I understand your outrage or dismay at the offer, is it really so horrible, IF you stated the terms of the review on the front end? Or, couldn't have you have given away the payment as a contest on your blog? I would guess that you'd be objective about a product, no matter if you were paid or not. I do consider you an ethical and honest writer.

    Personally, if a product isn't up to par, that's what I write up-even if the PR guy is nice as pie or a complete jerk. I have noticed over the past year that many PR firms have gotten very lazy as to how they deal with reviewers. I've had many ignore my courtesy emails that I posted a product review and a number that changed staff and had no idea I even received a product to review. Time to get out that whip of competency!

  18. Tech Exec Says:

    This just shows how badly Ogilvy has deteriorated over the years. It is IMPOSSIBLE that one green staffer pulled this off. Multiple approvals were needed to make this kind of offer. If they hadn't screwed up by sending to a journalist like Harry, it would have gone forward.

  19. An Ex-Ogilvy Exec Says:

    I would agree with the "Tech Exec" comment. As an ex-Ogilvy PR executive, this would have had to go through a lot of approvals…I'm not surprised to see this coming from Ogilvy, which has had a series of layoffs and also top brass leave over the last year and a half. (Much of it has been covered in PRWeek.)

  20. RBLevin Says:

    Just a clarification. It's the FTC that has rules governing blogger testimonials and endorsements, not the FCC. See http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/10/endortest.shtm

  21. kurkosdr Says:

    "Ambassador"? Is this how shills are called in corporate speak? Isn't there any word marketing people can't rewritte it's meaning?

  22. Ex-Ogilvy Strategist Says:

    I agree with Tech Exec and An Ex-Ogilvy Exec completely. I'm also an ex-Ogilvy employee and worked on the digital team with John Bell for a few years. If John is good at one thing (and he is), it's his ability to sell an illusion. He has apparently convinced you but I assure you that this is a completely normal outreach approach at Ogilvy. Chris Graves contacting you should cause some speculation of this, no? The worst part is that Bell will blame some poor junior strategist and the culture will continue without interruption.

  23. Tech Exec Says:

    I just reread the pitch letter above. The 1st time I missed the monetary prize for reader posts & tweets. The amount of legal CYA needed from in-house or, retained atty's for that alone means it was approved VERY high up the food chain. I certainly hope Harry didn't buy the lie he was told by the O exec.

  24. Stilgar Says:

    I'm not really all that surprised by this. A journalist can be a blogger, but a blogger may not be a journalist. Most of them would probably look at this as a way to fund their blogging habits even if it seems unethical to the rest of us.

  25. Benj Edwards Says:

    The Ogilvy campaign presented here tells a sad tale about the relationship between PR and bloggers, but it’s not a surprising one. It’s so tempting to let money do the hard work for you, especially when you have a job as difficult as promoting a possibly terrible product. But paying for blog coverage will backfire for the PR industry over time. As the practice becomes more obvious, it diminishes reader trust in a way that has already started poisoning the well for both bloggers and those who would advertise with them. Look no further than the unwarranted suspicion cast upon Harry here in the comments for evidence.

    Kudos to Harry for bringing this issue to light and for following up with Ogilvy executives themselves. I’d like to think that Ogilvy will think twice about trying such a campaign again, but it’s more likely that they’ll just carefully avoid fastidious journalists like Harry in the future.