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.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

View all posts by Gini Dietrich