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Knock, Knock. Who’s There? We’re Not Really Sure. Might Not Be Toyota.

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… by Lucretia Pruitt

The masthead at the top of the page reads Dear Crissy: Momhood Captured

A classy and pretty blog that takes you through the days and experiences of one mom – Crissy.  Her picture and her family’s hang to the upper right of the page serving as both guardians and a reminder that you are here on her site. Someplace that there are adults, kids, possibly animals, lessons to learn, things to be reflected back on. From the design of the site? You know you’re on a bona fide Mommy Blog here.

Do you want to know about Crissy? Click on the About link – she’s pretty open. You think you’re here for ADS & PR? Open that link right up – it’s clearly visible on the page.

Dear Crissy is a PR-friendly blog, and while I am happy to accept all pitches, I am more likely to respond if you address me by my name (brownie points if you spell it right), and demonstrate that you have taken a moment to familiarize yourself with my blog. That said, let’s talk! dearcrissy@gmail.com.

Well now, that makes sense.  If I were a PR or AD gal, or even a brand representative, looking to know if we could work with her? There it is in a nutshell.

You know what it doesn’t say though?

It doesn’t say what sets Crissy off. Namely: being treated by a would-be client as if she’s cheap, unskilled labor – simply there to be taken advantage of by anyone clever enough to make it sound like they’re doing her a favor. Worse if they think she’s too stupid to know that she’s being used.

It actually sets anyone off. But, if you’re a professional blogger? You lose count of the number of times you have to explain to someone that ‘no, you don’t work for free‘, and ‘no, not for “exposure” but for actual money, although you might be willing to consider a product to review and keep if it were something you’d consider buying anyways‘  and that you are smart enough to know the FTC regulations that pertain to your industry, and you will be disclosing it, and you won’t have words put in your mouth.

You move from patiently treating folks as if they just need a little education on the subject, to frustratedly realizing that if you have to be educating them on those very basic concepts? They shouldn’t be working in blogger outreach.

So recently, when Crissy Page opened up yet another email pitch (she gets many of those, daily – because she’s a good blogger with a large audience that is fairly engaged) she was perhaps not surprised, but truly offended to read the ‘pitch’ that was inside.  In her own words:

Toyota wants to give me a $10 Amazon gift card to post some of their recent “positive news” on my blog, Tweet it to my 32,000 Twitter followers, and give a whole slew of their videos an endorsement on YouTube. Seriously, Toyota? I mean, seriously?

It appeared to Crissy – and a lot of people who later read the contents of the email pitch she received posted in its entirety – that Toyota was offering to pay mom bloggers $10 a piece to bury recent bad press.

So then the blogging began – which is what bloggers do. They write about stuff they think is relevant to their readers.

Crissy’s post about it here not only included the email, but her reactions, and a link to a blog post from fellow mom blogger, Amanda Henson, over at High Impact Mom who had pointed out that a recent television ad by Toyota which had the line “we don’t make cars for magazines, or road tests, or bloggers – we make them for you…” was less than friendly to bloggers. Crissy said that she had nothing against the woman from MommyNetworks.org who had sent her the bad pitch but stated “I have no idea how much she was compensated by Toyota to recruit mom bloggers in this scenario. I can only assume it was more than a $10 Amazon gift card.

News of Crissy’s post started spreading quickly. Other blogs started picking up the story and the Twitter hashtag #ToyotaFail began showing up in Tweets about the incident with links back to her post.  Toyota’s social media team was paying attention though, and put up a tweet quickly using the hashtag to make sure it showed up on the “Twitter Channel” folks were listening to that read “Have found no contracted affiliation w/ mommynetworks. We don’t support this type of outreach. Getting to the bottom of this.^SD #toyotafail”

At around the same time Samantha Snyder, the owner of Mommy Networks, contacted Crissy by email stating that she had no professional affiliation with Toyota, but had initiated this program on her own, because she was both a loyal Toyota fan and because she thought she could use it as a ‘case study’ for Mommy Networks to attract new customers.

Some skepticism at this idea naturally arose in the comments section of Crissy’s post (which was updated to reflect new information as it came flying in.) The question as to where the money for the $10 Amazon Gift cards was coming from has yet to be answered.  But Samantha’s presence in the Comments section defending her actions brought a new question into focus: if Samantha had no relationship with Toyota – how was a blogger supposed to know if the pitch coming her way was legitimate?

Christy, who blogs at ShakeTheSalt.com, commented that “Between this and the Lansinoh thing, I’m thinking companies need to figure out who they are and are not working with.

Wait, what? Lansinoh? What Lansinoh thing?

A little digging on Google brought to light another such blogger/brand incident that occured recently over Lansinoh® breast pumps.  It appears that Jennifer McKinney (also known as @mckmama) had posted a giveaway on her blog of 4 Lansinoh® Affinity® Double Electric Breast Pumps.  From what can be ascertained by reading Lansinoh’s official response to the incident here and on Ms. McKinney’s post about the incident here – it seems clear that a PR agency had given Ms. McKinney the pumps to give away. Lansinoh claims it was done without their knowledge or approval. Ms. McKinney claims she has emails to the contrary. No one seems willing to name the mysterious PR agency/3rd party that acted on behalf of Lansinoh to offer Ms. McKinney the 4 pumps (valued at around $600.) What is not discernable is why Lansinoh felt that it needed to say “Lansinoh does not support or endorse the blog My Charming Kids or @MckMama” while admitting that their agency did in fact supply her with them.

A little more digging brings up a site that seems to be dedicated solely to exposing issues with Ms. McKinney, and from their own post on the matter here? They seem to have had a hand in bringing about Lansinoh’s awareness, the initial tweeted responses that Lansinoh was not affiliated with Ms. McKinney, her site, or the giveaway, and in part, the final statement that it was a “3rd party” who was responsible.

Let’s talk just a moment here about agency, shall we?

We social media types throw the word agency around a lot when we’re talking about who does what, and what kind of company is responsible for what kind of work.  But the term “agency” has a very specific, legal meaning in the U.S. The wikipedia entry for agency reads:

The law of agency is an area of commercial law dealing with a contractual or quasi-contractual, or non-contractual set of relationships when an agent is authorized to act on behalf of another (called the Principal) to create a legal relationship with a Third Party. Succinctly, it may be referred to as the relationship between a principal and an agent whereby the principal, expressly or impliedly, authorizes the agent to work under his control and on his behalf. The agent is, thus, required to negotiate on behalf of the principal or bring him and third parties into contractual relationship. This branch of law separates and regulates the relationships between:

* Agents and Principals;
* Agents and the Third Parties with whom they deal on their Principals’ behalf; and
* Principals and the Third Parties when the Agents purport to deal on their behalf.

Unless you’re a lawyer or just dig legalease, that sounds a little complex. So I’m going to put it in lay terms:

When a brand hires any “agency” whether it’s a PR agency, a Digital agency, or Social Media agency, the brand representatives sign papers with that agency that let them negotiate or contract with other people on the brand’s behalf.

This means that when a blogger is working with Bob’s PR Agency on a campaign for Susie’s Widgets, Bob is working as an agent for Susie to hire the blogger.

You see, too many bloggers have absolutely no background in business.  They are writers and community builders and dang good ones.  But that doesn’t mean that they automatically know that an “agent” has specific legal powers and responsibilities.

When the whole #ToyotaFail event came to the attention of Scott DeYager (@ScottDeYager) of Toyota’s social media team, the first thing he did was try to contact the folks at MommyNetworks to find out who she was working with. “@mommynetworks Hi there. Wondering if you could DM me who (if anyone) at Toyota contracted you to seed the Toyota news. Thanks.

One of the first things the folks at Lansinoh did was try to track down who, if anyone, was working with Ms. McKinney.

The reason for this is that if an agency contracted someone to work on your behalf? You can end up legally responsible for whatever they say or do in your name. Because, signing a contract with an agency giving them the power to create agreements with bloggers is the same as if you hired them yourself when it comes to legal stuff.

So who is responsible for what then?

Well, usually in cases like this if there are damages (another legally specific term), the lawyers and the courts start getting involved. And then it comes up to them to determine what the damage was, who was responsible, and whether or not the problem can be fixed (remedied) or can only be punished (punitive damages) in order to discourage people from doing it again.

In the instance of Jennifer McKinney and Lansinoh? According to her post, it looks like Jennifer is not taking any further actions. Lansinoh hasn’t said anything other than they’re “looking into their approval processes” which likely means that next contract with the PR agency they hired is likely to read a little differently.

On the Toyota-MommyNetworks front, as of the writing of this, Ms. Snyder had replaced her MommyNetworks.org site with an apology of sorts. A letter to Crissy & Toyota that reads a little bit like an admission, and a still a bit like an accusation that somehow this is Crissy’s fault.

She expresses the hope that everyone will just leave her alone now. And while it’s a nice idea to think that you can just say “oops, I’m sorry, I’ll stop. Go away now” – that depends entirely on what Toyota’s legal department will have to decide (and also that of Care.com’s – who on a sidenote was dragged into the mess due to a copyright in the footer of mommynetworks.org. One that Ms. Snyder said was ‘there when she bought the template from her designer.’)  The negative PR that arose from this incident may or may not be overlooked by the companies it hurt.  Since they were apparently the unwitting victim of this ill-conceived idea, they may not be so willing to let Ms. Snyder off the hook lest other bloggers think that they can do the same without consequences.

The fallout from the whole thing has yet to be felt.

As a result of things like this? There’s the question in blogger’s minds about who they can and can’t trust.  If a pitch comes from an agency, will the brand back it up?  Lansinoh didn’t back up Ms. McKinney.  If the pitch comes from someone who not only isn’t an agency, but also has no relationship with the brand – how will a blogger know it’s not legit?  Should their FTC mandated disclosures include the PR agency that hired the blogger on behalf of the brand?

And over on the brand side — How are you to protect yourself from well-meaning bloggers? Toyota did nothing in this case yet was the focus of a flurry of negative PR.  Do the brands know who the agencies are contracting with on their behalf? Are they included in the conversations and emails of the agencies and bloggers?  How much more work is it going to cause if they have to micromanage the agencies they hired so that they didn’t have to do this themselves?  What about the bloggers who need to verify if someone is working on their behalf – is there an obvious point of contact for them within the brand?

Christy over at ShakeTheSalt.com says “I do not think it falls on the blogger to fact check a PR reps claims that they represent XYZ brand. The chance of false claims from a PR rep about who they represent is slim to none.  Campaigns are not cheaply run and the product has to come from somewhere when product is involved.”

Kelby Carr who runs her own blogger network at TypeAParent.com commented on Crissy’s post “This is very scary…One, it is really disturbing that someone can slap up a site and start pretending to represent major corporations, and ask mom bloggers to do ethically questionable things for $10 gift cards. Two, I think there is a lesson in here for companies. Toyota is smart and clearly monitors the discussion about their company in social media. What about a company that doesn’t? That isn’t on Twitter and pays no attention to blogs? The truth might have never come out.

There will be a period of mistrust on both sides of the fence after episodes like these.  Which is sad, because they really need to be working together to make things work well.  The question of who should bear the burden? Well, I guess that depends on who stands the most to lose. At the moment, that pretty much looks like everybody.

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