Gini Dietrich

Samsung Threatens Bloggers and Provides a Valuable Lesson

By: Gini Dietrich | September 6, 2012 | 
178

It’s been a while since we’ve had a PR gone bad case study to review.

And, granted, this did not happen in North America.

Yet here we are again.

I saw the story this past weekend and was debating about whether or not to write about it when Jodi Echakowitz asked me if I’d seen it.

Then we had a healthy debate about it and she convinced me it’s something we should all know about and consider for any future blogger relations and/or brand ambassador programs.

So here’s the story…

Samsung Threatens Bloggers

The gist of the story is that Samsung has, what they call, Mob!lers, which is their brand ambassador program.

People who are part of this program, at least in other parts of the world, are contest winners who are then given a phone and other perks, in exchange for tweets, updates, videos, podcasts, blog posts, and other content that talks about the benefits of the Samsung phone products.

So far, so good. These are the types of programs I’m sure we’ve all at least seen, if not also created.

So Samsung launches this program in India and invited some bloggers to cover the IFA Conference in Berlin, in exchange for an all expenses paid trip.

But here is where it gets weird.

In the bloggers’s minds, they were going to cover the conference, which meant they could attend the conference, walk the show floor, talk to other vendors, and go back home to India with lots of content for their blogs.

In the minds of Samsung, however, the bloggers were to wear a Samsung uniform, stand in the booth all day, every day, and shill the product on behalf of the company.

When the bloggers refused, stating they had no intention of playing the role of a Samsung employee, a “stern-faced” PR professional told them they could either play by the rules or be stranded in Germany.

They were told on a phone call to one of the bloggers:

You can either be a part of this and wear the uniform, or you’ll have to get your own tickets back home and handle your hotel stay from the moment this call ends.

They felt their hands were forced so they wore the Samsung shirt and stood near the booth, but opted not to demonstrate the phones for attendees.

The next morning, the bloggers awoke to an email stating the Samsung event was over so they were being shuttled home (several days earlier than planned). They were not allowed to attend the show to cover any other part of it, including any other product demonstrations or vendors who were in attendance.

What this Means to Brands

I have to admit, if I’m paying a brand ambassador to attend a conference, I want them there supporting our client(s).

But a brand ambassador is different than a blogger. For all intents and purposes, bloggers should be treated as journalists. Sending them to an event and expecting them to cover only you, even if it’s an all expenses paid trip, is clearly not going to fly.

Brands, be clear about your intent before the trip, event, or conference arrives. If your intent is to have them cover you, and only you, be clear about that and, if they refuse, pay for only a portion of their trip so they are free to cover other products and vendors.

You can, however, be very clear in that they are not to cover a competitor. But you can’t tell them who to meet with, what to cover, and certainly not what to write. And you definitely cannot threaten to send them home, once you’re there and decide to change the rules.

A brand ambassador is someone who can act like an employee and help you shill your product. The relationship with those people is of that nature.

A blogger, on the other hand, is an influential journalist. There is a reason you have invited him or her to the event, just like you would a journalist. It’s to gain the third-party credibility and (you hope) to gain positive coverage. But it’s not to have them shill your product or tell them what they can and cannot write.

I know I wouldn’t accept a trip if I were told what I could and couldn’t cover. My job is to my readers, not to a brand. If you want me to cover you, give me the information and tools to make an informed decision and let me cover it the way I would, even if you weren’t paying me.

What this Means to PR Pros

Guys, this isn’t any different than a media tour, which I’m certain most of you have done at one point in your career.

I’ll give you an example.

I used to work on The Catfish Institute business. I loved working on that account. Our job was to get farm-raised catfish onto the menus of white tablecloth restaurants.

Part of that was inviting celebrity chefs to create recipes using the Mississippi-bred fish, which was a total blast.

One year, we held a recipe contest in Mississippi. We flew the celebrity chefs down. We flew the food media down. We created an event out of nothing.

The rules were the celebrity chefs were to have one recipe (out of four) that included farm-raised catfish. And the media were to cover the event. They could decide not to include the catfish recipes in their coverage…or they could. It was up to them, but the important thing is we did not tell them what they could and could not write about, even though we’d paid for their trip.

In this case, our brand ambassadors were the chefs and our bloggers were the food media. In order to create a fair and balanced event, only a quarter of the recipes had to include our client’s product.

The rules have not changed.

Just because your audience is a blogger does not mean you can tell him or her what to cover, how to cover it, and what to say.

They are journalists. The reason you want to work with them is because they’ve created an audience you care about.

If you pay a blogger to do anything on your behalf, be clear about your expectations up front and let them decide how they want to handle it. There is always room for negotiation, but one thing you should never do is tell them what to write.

It’s not ethical and it’s not right.

If you want to read the entire story about how this went down, including copies of email exchanges and the “apology” from Samsung, you can find it on The Next Web.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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178 responses to “Samsung Threatens Bloggers and Provides a Valuable Lesson”

  1. I did some research on this after we recorded yesterday and all I can say is HOLY COW. o_O

    • ginidietrich says:

       @jasonkonopinski Crazy, right? I’ve been thinking about it for days and Jodi finally convinced me it’s a story to be told, even if it did happen halfway around the world.

  2. rhastings1202 says:

    @ginidietrich @spinsucks awful handling of this situation! Hard to believe some companies still don’t “get” this.

  3. TaraGeissinger says:

    I hadn’t heard of this, but WOW! I agree 100% — bloggers are journalists. You cannot tell them what to write anymore than you could a reporter for the Times. Can you imagine thinking you’re going to attend the show and then being put to work? I guess they are lucky this didn’t become more of a PR nightmare for them.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @TaraGeissinger I would be LIVID (and they were), but what do you do when you’re already in Germany and you’re told you either play their game or get left without plane tickets home or a hotel room? I hate to say it, but I think contracts and attorneys (on both sides) have to get involved before these events happen. That way there is no “misunderstanding,” as Samsung put it.

      •  @ginidietrich  @TaraGeissinger My feeling is that many brands (especially the big boys) through their proverbial weight around with bloggers who are hungry for the recognition and get dazzled by the press trip opportunity that they don’t dot their Is and cross their Ts. 

        • ginidietrich says:

           @jasonkonopinski  @TaraGeissinger I think you’re probably right, in most cases. For some reason, this one case left me feeling like the bloggers were pretty clear about what they would and wouldn’t do. 

        •  @ginidietrich  @TaraGeissinger I absolutely agree and, yet despite all of that, Samsung thought they could bully these bloggers.  
           
           cc_chapman  and I discussed blogger press trips in a recent episode of the podcast. It was a really interesting conversation. He reminded me that while travel + expenses might be covered, that’s where the compensation stops – and that means time away from the day job, home and family. 

  4. belllindsay says:

    Yikes. Bad form. But also bad form for bloggers at the level to be *considered* journalists, to not cover all their bases and be sure they knew EXACTLY what they were getting into. 

    • ginidietrich says:

       @belllindsay Based on the email exchanges I’ve read, the bloggers were VERY clear about what they were going there to do. Samsung changed the rules after everyone arrived. But the kicker? They publicly said it was a misunderstanding, but in a private email to one of the bloggers empathized and took the blame.

      • belllindsay says:

         @ginidietrich Ahh, ok, I hadn’t read the whole story (the link you included). That’s just bad in so many ways. Hijacking! 

  5. allenmireles says:

     @ginidietrich I agree with @TaraGeissinger . Samsung is lucky that this story hasn’t generated more negative press for them than it has so far. Your post provides really important reminders for any of us who hope to work with bloggers and brand ambassadors. Yeesh. What was Samsung thinking? 

  6. GrizzardComm says:

    Don’t bully bloggers. RT @MargieClayman Interesting case study of customer service AND pr gone wrong, by @ginidietrich http://t.co/X1PY55DR

  7. burgessct says:

    Managing expectations is step one and one they stepped over.   Thanks for sharing @ginidietrich 

  8. amybp says:

    @ginidietrich I read that & was literally stunned

  9. This sounds like a devious trick that I play on my kids to get them to clean their room. But even I give them choices on what they want to clean! Before I drop some F bombs or spell out BS, I’m just gonna leave it at that.

  10. ginidietrich says:

    @MargieClayman How was your birthday??

  11. ginidietrich says:

    @TaraGeissinger Right?? I just replied to your comment, too

  12. ginidietrich says:

    @vickiaday Thanks Vicki!

  13. wdwdisneyland7 says:

    @jenajean have a fab day

  14. MZazeela says:

    @ginidietrich Do big companies really care about anything besides P&L? People are expendable as machine parts.

  15. JodiEchakowitz says:

    Gini, I’m really glad that you and I had a debate on this issue, and that you decided to write about it. I think there are lots of lessons we can all learn (or be reminded of) from Samsung’s program and how they implemented it. Like @allenmireles, I’m also surprised that there wasn’t more negative press about the program (but you’re right, the Labor Day long weekend and the fact that it didn’t have in North America are likely the reasons why). Samsung has certainly gotten off lightly this time around, and hopefully it’s a lesson learned for them too.

  16. Patrick Fitzgerald says:

     @ginidietrich Doesn’t the game change the moment their is consideration offered? In my mind, you can’t treat a journalist like a serious journalist if their trip has been underwritten by a company who may be the subject of their coverage? Samsung could have handled it better, but you have to admit, they kept themselves the focus of the bloggers coverage! As a Samsung user, they make a great product; after that there is almost nothing that they do well.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @Patrick Fitzgerald I think there is an ethical way of doing things, just like I illustrated with The Catfish Institute. Yes, we paid for their trip and all of their expenses. Yes, we HOPED they’d write favorable stories about catfish. But we didn’t require it and we certainly didn’t expect them to shill catfish for us.

  17. BobReed says:

    Besides clear communication and managing expectations, this demonstrates ignorance on the part of Samsung. And that information deficit goes straight to the top. Samsung’s lawyers waited three days to tell the CEO that it lost the recent Apple lawsuit. The CEO reacted very poorly.  One of the biggest tech stories of the year and this guy didn’t know what was going on? Begs the question of how big a bubble these people live in. 

  18. AskAaronLee says:

    @JimConnolly Ohhhh samsung….. @ginidietrich @spinsucks

  19. Lisa Gerber says:

    Well, frankly, anyone who puts an exclamation mark in the MIDDLE of a word for it’s brand ambassador program should be looked at more closely. I don’t even think @belllindsay would do that. or wait. Is it eveypistorio (one of you proclaims to abuse exclamation points.)
     
    But in all seriousness, I just understand where these people come from and how they think they can get away with it. To @bobreed ‘s point, it indicates a serious organizational culture problem. 

  20. bhas says:

    I think you have to consider the culture. I am assuming that Samsung India hired a local PR agency to liaise with the bloggers. I was a tech journalist in my past life with India’s largest personal technology magazine and I have an idea how the big boys deal with tech media and blogs, which are very niche and lightweight compared to mainstream media.
     
    So I am guessing that the PR person thought s/he could bully the bloggers and they would roll over and do what they wanted. After all, tickets from Berlin to Delhi are expensive and these bloggers are not exactly rolling in cash.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @bhas I totally agree with you on the culture piece of things. I almost didn’t write about it because I know things are completely different in India. But then I decided, even if it happened halfway around the world, there is a lesson in there for brands here (and those working globally) if only to avoid the same mistake.

  21. Carmelo says:

    Did the Samsung shirts say: “I’m a Paid Shill here to compromise my journalistic integrity!” They may as well have. 
     
    Gee! Like you said, they created the audience that you want. How short sited to try to grab it all now, unethically, and at the expense of losing it forever. Who was in charge of thinking this out?

  22. Todayseconomy says:

    @BeingMarci absolutely not. Brand bloggers are marketers and they should embrace that. My opinion.

  23. ChantalSaville says:

    @BeingMarci Samsung should have been clear about what they wanted from these people #communicationfail

  24. HowieG says:

    I tweeted this to the head of US Social for Samsung Esteban Contreras socialnerdia  curious if he will stop in and comment. There are many facets to this story. First is in the US any bloggers would have to say the trip was paid for and possibly their role. So Samsung obviously knew this is different in the EU and India (is it?). I agree with the statement Gini these are journalists.
     
    What shocks me is that Samsung which is a Fortune World 50 company would be so cheap about this. If they told these folks 1] trip is paid for 2] we will provide you sightseeing and dinners and style you out 3] but you have to work the booth during the trade show hours 4] Please give glowing reviews and write about how great we are 5] If tradeshow hours make sightseeing and dinners hard (doubtful) we will give you a few extra days.
    WHO WOULDN’T SAY YES TO THIS??!!! But they went half assed cheap. I don’t get it. 
     
    But guess what no one in the general public in the US or EU will really hear about this. More proof social is very bubble-ized.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @HowieG  Most of this we’re speculating, based on email exchanges that were published. What we’re not seeing is the email exchanges that weren’t published so we may be missing something. I also know there is a big cultural difference, which is why I went back and forth in my brain about whether or not to blog about this. But then I decided there is a lesson for U.S. brands in it.

      • Keena Lykins says:

         @ginidietrich  @HowieG  I agree there is a big cultural difference but the world has contracted enough that most everyone knows how journalists should/should not be treated. Even in China, where it’s customary to pay an honorarium to a journalist to write your story, you can’t tell them what to write.
         
        To me, it appears Samsung didn’t view these bloggers as journalists. That I can understand. While some journalists are bloggers not all bloggers are journalist (remember the mommy bloggers escapades?) That said, I can’t believe no one from Samsung’s in-house communications raised the red flag about treating people this way. Wouldn’t self-preservation alone tell you that you might not want to be rude and vindictive to people you’ve armed with weapons of social communications?

        • ginidietrich says:

           @Keena Lykins  @HowieG From what I can tell with the email exchanges, it was the in-house comms team who did this. It just makes me shake my head.

        • Keena Lykins says:

           @ginidietrich  @HowieG Someone should be fired, then. Any PR/Comm person with even an ounce of sense should have known better.

        • HowieG says:

           @Keena Lykins  @ginidietrich if this was China couldn’t they just kill the employees like Lanier-Upshaw did in 1968 when the mob took over the Florida insurance industry? @bdorman264 is a made man ya know.

  25. katrinakaye says:

    RT @JavierArronis Samsung Threatens Bloggers and Provides a Valuable Lesson http://t.co/jGlcLLqJ vía @spinsucks #crisispr

  26. bdorman264 says:

    You know me, if there were food and drink I would show up in a clown suit……or Speedo if that is what it took. And you want me to say what? How loud? 
     
    Good point, sounds pretty heavy handed especially if they were going to get stranded. Probably not going to get the publicity they wanted after a situation like that.
     
    Communication is key; establishing your role, what the expectations are and what it looks like before you even get on the plane. Sounds pretty simple………apparently not…………
     
     

  27. LouHoffman says:

    Watching this train wreck from afar raises a bigger issue–
    Many big brands, particularly those from the consumer sphere, are still struggling with the intersection of PR and digital (including social media), a struggle that becomes more pronounced in emerging markets.
    Consider what Samsung has achieved with its brand over the past 10 years or so. I think it’s fair to call the results spectacular. Sophisticated. Huge investment. Stayed the course.
    Yet, even when doing so many things right a company can look like a buffoon without some type of governing mechanism over its worldwide effort. As Samsung experienced the hard way, a mistake in an emerging market impacts the brand around the world.
     
     
     

    • ginidietrich says:

       @LouHoffman You raise a very good point. It’s already difficult to protect your brand globally and now you have to think about it online, as well as offline. Ug. Not a job I would want.

  28. TheJackB says:

    Culture is certainly a big part of the equation but I can tell you from personal experience that many of the pitches I receive essentially ask me to either work for free or to pay to be a part of the “wonderful company” they want me to write about.
     
    One of the reasons I agreed to become a brand ambassador for Nintendo is because of how we are treated. We are not required to write about any of the products/services/experiences we are provided with and if we do there is no push back for posts that are critical.
     
    The purpose of my comment isn’t to praise Nintendo but to illustrate some of the differences between companies, bloggers and PR. I think one of the challenges comes from so many companies not having a clearly defined manner of working with bloggers and an understanding of what that means.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @TheJackB It sounds like Nintendo is doing it right…and so are you. And, let’s be real, who wouldn’t want to be a Nintendo brand ambassador??

      • HowieG says:

         @ginidietrich  @TheJackB well Microsoft and Sony employees might say no to being a Super Mario wonk.
         
        But I am curious Jack. Were you a huge Nintendo fan to start before becoming a brand ambassador? I always thought you found the super fans and got them to become your ambassador. Because I am thinking I might put my Brand Ambassadorship for Spin Sucks up for bid maybe to Chris Voss or American Apparel. I never even got a Gini Dietrich T-Shirt. I been doing this all wrong I see.

        •  @HowieG @ginidietrich 
           
          No, I was not a huge Nintendo fan. I don’t know all of the reasons they had for asking me, but I know for certain much had to do with my presence in the dad/parent blog community.

    • rdopping says:

       @TheJackB You wrote more than 1 sentence. Waddup?

  29. […] our friends at the SpinSucks blog highlight an example of an unfortunate PR mix-up on the part of a massive international […]

  30. saratweetshere says:

    @ginidietrich Wow. That is shocking. Maybe things don’t transfer internationally as well.

  31. tanyagm says:

    This is spot on.  What’s disappointing is that brands ‘don’t get it’.  It seems somewhat elementary to say, but isn’t this common sense? Bloggers=journalists (esp in this example) Brand Ambassadors = not journalists. 
    Having a clear set of intentions/expectations for those who willingly represent your brand (bloggers or otherwise) is a clear path to more productive relations; between the brand and the ambassador/or blogger and the larger audience. 
    This communication breakdown, and the assumptions that underlie it, are the kind of thing that is making ‘social relations’ in the online world for brands so challenging [for them]. 
    A lot of this is built on the same principles espoused by neuroscience, behavioral economics and simple social/situational awareness and relationship-building.
    Seems those principles aren’t common sensical to everyone.
    Thanks for great post.
     
    Onward and upward, always.
    TanyaFounder, GOTRIbal
     

  32. tanyagm says:

    @ginidietrich Great post Gini. http://t.co/FKWasycU

  33. karenswim says:

    @ruthdfw good point from the other side to get terms, in writing and know what you’re signing up for cc @SpinSucks

  34. ginidietrich says:

    @jonbuscall Jon, I miss you. Twitter is evading me lately. You good?

  35. jelenawoehr says:

    Cultural differences or no, there’s not a culture in the world where companies that lie to the “little guy” get respect for it. If it’s true that they told these bloggers they were going as “reporters,” then threatened them when they expected to act as reporters, Samsung is 100% in the wrong, regardless of where the bloggers came from.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @jelenawoehr Did you happen to read the public apology from Samsung and then the email exchange with one of the bloggers? They can’t just help themselves. Transparency is clearly an issue.

  36. AlinaKelly says:

    Big Brand Bullying = BAD
    Is that the brand positioning Samsung is after? Mobile bully? It’s hard to believe that a corporation this size would allow this kind of behaviour from anyone in its ranks. It really makes me question their management. 
    Thanks for calling it out.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @AlinaKelly It’s surprising to me, too. It’s hard to believe leadership is so far removed from day-to-day operations that this stuff is allowed to go on, but rumor has it it was three days before the Samsung CEO found out they lost the Apple suit. That one blows my mind, but I guess it explains how this stuff happens.

      • AlinaKelly says:

         @ginidietrich If that rumor is true, I think we can see trouble on the horizon unless this outfit regroups and gets some solid leadership in place. There’s no room for that kind of corporate disconnect in such a competitive environment. RIM anyone?

        • ginidietrich says:

           @AlinaKelly Ha! No kidding. I just can’t imagine being that far removed. You have a MAJOR lawsuit and it takes you three days to learn the outcome? Do you not read the papers?

        • AlinaKelly says:

           @ginidietrich Maybe if he had an iPad, the CEO could get more timely news updates? If the lawsuit wasn’t high on the CEO’s priority list what was? 

        • bhas says:

           @AlinaKelly  @ginidietrich I still think it’s something someone floated for shits and giggles. I would want to see some reputed source talk about this. It so does not square with Samsung as a company that makes great personal tech products

        • AlinaKelly says:

           @bhas  @ginidietrich You know I agree with you about the great products. And even if the lawsuit rumor is a joke, the treatment of the bloggers is not. It speaks to a lack of brand consistency in the organization and that will not work for them long term. They can’t afford that kind of “mistake” – if that’s what it was. 

  37. ladylaff says:

    That is not only bad practice and bad manners, it genuinely creates business risk and for that reason should raise a bright red flag to an HR department.  If you expect these people to represent the company, you might have to accept responsibility for them and their actions. What if the blogger was injured on the stand, or harrassed by a Samsung employee?  What if a blogger decided to get drunk on the stand and spout obsencities to passing trade?  You get the idea.  It just ain’t clever.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @ladylaff You raise a good point. Where IS HR in all of this? Warren Buffet once said he’d be forgiving if you lost money for his company, but ruthless if you lost reputation for it. I think a lot of organizations could live by that creed.

  38. rdopping says:

    Those Samsung guys suck. Written on my Samsung Note.

  39. […] Earning Media, Social Media | October 24, 2012 by Kevin Dugan | 0 Comments Why can bloggers and brands sometimes be the best of friends and, seemingly at other times, the worst of foes? […]

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