A Very Real Question For Publicists And For Nestle

It’s not a secret, I have an uneasy relationship with publicists. Oh, except one. Stephanie. I have a terrible relationship with food manufacturers, I really wish y’all would too. Food growers, particularly organic ones, they’re kinda hawt, and we have a good relationship… rumor has it we might kiss one day.

On the 5th I briefly noted that Nestle is in search of a public relations firm who can help them with the most recent backlash regarding their ill fated Mommy Hawking event.  Stephanie addressed my disdain with a really thoughtful comment.

Hiring a PR firm is exactly what they should do–assuming their intent is not to dissemble and spin but to get some counsel on how to repair their reputation through honest bridge-building with their consumers, critics and any other stakeholders important to them.

Oh really? I never really thought of it that way. My take was, and we will see if it still is, that Nestle needs a business plan and not a public relations plan. To be fair, I’m a Mommy Blogger so my exposure to the world of Public Relations comes in the form of emails that start with, “Dear Mommy Blogger.” and ends with “I’d like to send you a sample to review.” Oh, I’m also invited out a lot. You don’t’ see a lot of reviews here, and you don’t see a lot of sponsored events. I’m not as PR friendly as some, so perhaps that’s why I’m left not understand why anyone would go to Nestle Headquarters.

Here’s the event. I know it looked like fun, candy is fun, but hard questions were certainly not asked.

More check-ins at Nestle Headquarters
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Nestle isn’t good in my community. It’s substandard food, made with cheap ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated gloop. Were it not for their foray into social media I’d never mention them, they’d be off my radar as just one more junk food brand that doesn’t belong in my house. I don’t consider myself part of their formal boycott, because even if Nestle complied with the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes they still don’t have a product that appeals to me. If predictions are based on history, it’s unlikely that Nestle will comply any time soon.

With all that being said Nestle jumped into the virtual community of Mommy Hawking, and, well, here we are.

I have a few questions I’d like answered. I’d love to hear from publicists about this. I’m trying to understand how all of this matters. I know as a Mom I chose my brands with great care. I try to not bring things into my home that will harm my children. I don’t understand Public Relations, and I think this is a great moment for us all to learn something. Most of us bloggers only know Public Relations through press releases, spin and parties. What else is there?

If you’re a publicist would you mind answering any or all of these questions for us?

1. Do publicists help businesses shape a businesses marketing practices or simply react to what is out there?
2. When there is a thirty year boycott how does a PR firm address it?
3. Should a thirty year boycott even be addressed? Obviously Nestle makes plenty of money.
4. Is there ever a client you simply do not want?

I’m going to offer something unusual here. If you are a publicist, you may answer these questions in the comments and remain anonymous. Make up an email address, make up a name, or just write “publicist trying to keep my job” I don’t care. I moderate the first few comments anyone leaves here, and I’ll send through anonymous comments on just this one post.

I really do want to hear from you.

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Comments 12

  1. 1. Do publicists help businesses shape a businesses marketing practices or simply react to what is out there?
    It depends on the client is the honest answer. I have worked directly with the CEOs of NYSE-listed companies, through to a secretary | head of PR and everyone in between. There is a debate in the PR industry at the moment about how the industry gets a seat at the table and whether there should be a chief communications officer role in every business. Often your role is to be the knowledge economy’s equivalent of a Band-Aid, but there are some companies who employ PR people in a professional services type role
    2. When there is a thirty year boycott how does a PR firm address it?
    The first thing you do is research and find the depth of the sentiment against the client
    – Is the protest movement made up of factions
    – Is there room for to accomodate at least part of the protest movements requirements?
    3. Should a thirty year boycott even be addressed? Obviously Nestle makes plenty of money.
    There is a substantial audience that have neutral-to-positive attitudes to Nestle that you can address without having to address the determined detractors. However, social media is not the best vehicle to do this. A good time to address a boycott is if you think that you can come to an accomodation with a moderate wing of the boycott group and split it down the middle and colour the remaining protesters as extremists or ‘terrorists’ a la animal rights activists
    4. Is there ever a client you simply do not want?
    My personal perception is that there are some brands I wouldn’t want to have on my CV: political parties from many central African countries, the Islamic Republic of Iran, RJ Reynolds, Altira | Phillip Morris, Dick Cheney, Xe | Blackwater etc. I believe that you can be judged by the company that you keep. But some agencies like notably Burson Marsteller have handled some of the most controversial clients out there. There is a tongue-in-cheek saying that when evil needs PR, it has B-M on speed-dial

  2. Looking at the Whrrl, I’m wondering, Did they fly in those Mommy bloggers I know some of them were. But really I don’t see any of the usual suspects I see at almost every event I go to there. Though I don’t go to many food events either so maybe it’s just a different crowd???

  3. I know of a company that was boycotted for 10 years because they recognized same-sex relationships and allowed those partners health benefits. In that case, I think this company made the right call in ignoring the boycott.
    As consumers, if a boycott exists, I think it’s in our best interest to find out why, and not just boycott to boycott.
    I used to work in market research, and what I found interesting was learning which companies were genuinely interested in finding out what consumers thought, and which were just looking for a survey that said what the company wanted it to say.
    You’re excellent at looking beyond a headline or tagline. We all should emulate that.

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  5. Hi Jessica,

    1. A publicist is not a PR Counselor or strategist. A PR Strategist should absolutely be advising top management about policy and business practices, not just a reactive ‘fix’ for what is out there.

    2. As you point out this 30-year boycott has not really adversely affected Nestle. Up till now their detractors have not had the means to make a major impact on Nestle’s sales. I lived in Africa and I’ve seen the formula/breastfeed argument rage there for decades. The Internet and the Mom and Dad blogger’s Power if Voice may well change that scenario. I’m guessing that is the case, if they are looking for social media help.

    3. Just as the tobacco industry was forced to address the reality of their product and contribute to anti smoking campaigns and medical costs for smokers, so should this issue be addressed.

    4. Yes there definitely clients I won’t work for. We have a very public policy that we don’t do PR for anything that is harmful to body, mind or spirit. Would I work for Nestle? That would depend on how they plan to address the issues.

    I have experience in both sides of the story – I had one child that was bottle fed because I was given false information by the nursing staff at the hospital. I discovered La Leche League and successfully breastfed my second child for 18 months. I became a LLL Leader in my area and helped other moms to breasfeed.

    I know times have changed. My daughter in law gave birth at Glendale Adventist last year and she had fantastic help from the nursing staff.

    I believe that Nestle could sell thier products and still do the right thing.

    I am right in their back yard. But I doubt they’ll be calling me :)

  6. Hey Jessica — Great questions, and here’s my $0.02

    1. Do publicists help businesses shape a businesses marketing practices or simply react to what is out there?

    It depends. There are agencies that specialize in certain fields and certain practices. A number of PR Pros also object to being called publicists so trying to get everyone on-board with what they are is like stapling Jello to a tree. Sometimes it’s also both – deal with the reaction immediately and going forward build a practice/brand/reputation together. The best relationships I’ve seen don’t start with a ‘reaction’ project but rather take what the company has and they work together to build something.

    A client/company that merely wants a hired gun agency to do the dirty work might be good for the bottom line but can in the long run hurt relationships since the client is always going to want more than is necessarily good for hack-flack relationship.

    2. When there is a thirty year boycott how does a PR firm address it?

    Carefully :). Obviously those vested in the boycott hold deep feelings about the matter (not like the right wingers who boycott a tv station for showing a kiss until it’s game time). There’s no room to be flippant but like all issues — addressing the core of the problem and determine how it can be worked out (if it can be worked out given the basis of the boycott and company’s business plan) is a good first step.

    3. Should a thirty year boycott even be addressed? Obviously Nestle makes plenty of money.

    Depends on Nestle’s goals. If it’s solely bottom line oriented then it’s time to call in the bean counters and see if the increased sales under any scenario would justify the cost (not easy math I’m sure).

    Given that they already do make enough money, not being boycotted can’t hurt their reputation and so likely a good idea to at least examine. There’s also a number of intangibles – for example if Nestle were to be interested in acquiring a company that strongly supported breastfeeding efforts the target company could either 1) make it very expensive for Nestle to offset the ‘sell-out’ pain 2) refuse to be acquired and publicly make a comment that they did it b/c of Nestle’s stance. Being hated by any group you may want to in favor with can never help.

    4. Is there ever a client you simply do not want?

    The Klan is on my shortlist of clients I wouldn’t want. Most companies (at some level) have a deep belief in their product or service. That kind of ruach (spirit) can’t be beat. Where you’ll find this will vary from company to company. C-levels at international conglomerates probably have less ‘spirit’ than those working in the division, dealing with their product and customers on a daily basis. The kind of people who start a product/service not for the bottom but because they believe in it are great.

    (I know, the Klan believe in their thing – so it’s not exactly consistent, but tough tatas :-P )

  7. In my former life, I worked in food marketing/pr. I didn’t work with any large conglomerates and my clients were fairly controversy free, so my comments are what they are.

    1. Do publicists help businesses shape a businesses marketing practices or simply react to what is out there?

    Any good marketing/PR firm is hired to plan. Granted, damage control is sometimes necessary, but it should be minimal if they are doing their job well.

    2. When there is a thirty year boycott how does a PR firm address it?

    On an as-needed basis. Nothing any company will do in the future will negate the damage that has been done or the opinions that have been formed by such a boycott. Even though company XYZ is now a shining social citizen, people will continue to boycott on principle.

    3. Should a thirty year boycott even be addressed? Obviously Nestle makes plenty of money.

    The company should address the issue when individual complaints or consumer contact arises. A large scale marketing/PR blitz just ads fuel to the fire.

    4. Is there ever a client you simply do not want?

    Absolutely. I have personally turned down clients and agencies I have worked for have turned down clients for a variety of reasons. Business practices, current PR situation, or individual company contacts have all been reasons that a business relationship should not be fostered.

  8. Hi Jessica,

    I actually interned for a company that did some of the public relations and a lot of marketing for Nestle (along with other PR firms). The interesting thing about the company is that they also own several other brands that people don’t even know are related to Nestle (Stouffers, Buitoni, Libby’s… just to name a few) – so I would be willing to bet that many boycotters unwillingly are still buying Nestle products. When I did projects for them 2 years ago, we touted them as the largest food and beverage company in the world – which I don’t believe has changed. I understand your distaste for Nestle and publicists in general, often times they’re under a lot of pressure from people above them to “get a hit, get a hit!” And also we’re often not compensated by the hour or run into clients that want to try to pay for the results, not the time, which is worse than commission sales. I like to think of public relations as creating goodwill between the client and the public – not just simply getting placements. Unfortunately, the bad apples make it stink sometimes for the rest of us.

    1. Do publicists help businesses shape a businesses marketing practices or simply react to what is out there?
    It always depends – for my own practice I directly consult clients on the business front and best marketing practices. I’ve seen many big companies when I used to work at agencies falter to bad sales, distribution and marketing practices and can recognize the mistakes before they’re made. However, when you’re a part of team, which usually reports to someone bigger than them, who is in turn reporting to a multi-million dollar client, your say is minuscule. I wouldn’t rule out all publicists as simply reactive communicators but it totally depends on who are talking about – freelancer, boutique agency or huge national or international firm working with big clients can all work differently and in some cases, similarly.

    2. When there is a thirty year boycott how does a PR firm address it?
    I was in a PR conference comprised of top-level agency execs of addressing the question of what to do when a true, crisis has happened. Bury it with good news was the general consensus. Personally, I think in this case, they should address their past mistakes and start a nonprofit division to help mothers in third world countries. Like really help them. Take their billions of dollars and put them into education, outreach, supplies… anything that could help and not just for the sake of a cutesy photo op.

    3. Should a thirty year boycott even be addressed? Obviously Nestle makes plenty of money.
    The issue that caused the boycott should be addressed, not necessarily the boycott.

    4. Is there ever a client you simply do not want?
    Most definitely! Anyone that lacks ethics and would actually give me false information to send to the press. I like to earn the trust of the media I pitch and I know there’s no better way to destroy it than lying to them. Which sucks if you thought it was the truth…

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