The Slippery Slope of Association Blogger Outreach

It's not often that two of my favorite things to blog about happen to intersect but today you're in luck. Mom blogger drama has made its way to the association world. Score. But actually this is a post I've been meaning to write for a while about a topic that I am sort of torn about: associations doing blogger outreach campaigns.

To summarize the two links above, in case you don't feel like clicking, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), embarked on a blogger outreach campaign to try to dispel some of the bad press High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has been getting. They gave a group of mom bloggers gift certificates (I'm not sure of the amount) in exchange for their participation in an informational webinar and a blog post hyping how HFCS is actually not bad for you.

It's not for me to say whether this was a good idea or a not a good one; suffice it to say the result has been both CRA and the bloggers being portrayed in a pretty negative light. I definitely understand WHY CRA thought this would be a good idea: because PR agencies are pitching mom blogger outreach like it's the perfect addition to any media campaign. Moms are influencers; people trust them--they are the perfect vehicle to get your associations message out to the general public. But not so fast....this CRA/HFCS debacle brings up a bunch of issues associations considering doing blogger outreach need to consider before deciding to go for it:
  • Compensation--the issue of blogger compensation is already thorny enough, but at least for brands or for-profit companies, it's sort of straightforward. Not so for associations. I don't have my CAE and am no expert on the intricacies of lobbying rules regarding 501(c)(3) and/or 501(c)(6) organizations but I know enough to know there are things to know. Restrictions on how much an association can spend on lobbying activities, etc. Plus there's the "feel good" factor of bloggers being compensated to get out the message of a nonprofit...it's dicey at best.

    Now you know me: I'm all for bloggers being compensated--and not in gift certificates or good karma or whatever. Blogger outreach shouldn't be about the magical way your association can get the equivalent of a big media buy for free or cheap. ESPECIALLY if the issue is a thorny one, as many associations' issues may well be--you are putting bloggers in the hotseat. Look at the flack the women who participated in the CRA campaign are being subjected to...and all for a gift certificate? Lobbyists are paid big bucks to put a positive spin on a controversial industry or issue. Can you really expect uncompensated bloggers to take heat and defend your industry? Is that fair?
  • Disclosure--the FTC has issued guidelines regarding endorsements and testimonials by bloggers; make sure you're familiar with them. CRA was transparent about this campaign--that the bloggers were compensated--however, call me nosy but I think "compensated with a gift certificate" is too vague. Don't even think about trying to hide the fact that your association is behind a campaign because your'e worried about fallout or scrutiny--the blogosphere has a way of ferreting out any and all information like this and you definitely don't want a bunch of blog posts about how your association tried to skirt FTC's guidelines.
  • "Influencers" vs. Members--there's a lot being made about "influencers," particularly moms. But who is ultimately the most passionate and qualified "influencer"for your industry--someone who knows nothing about it but has thousands of blog readers and followers on Twitter, or members who are not only passionate experts but may well have their own spheres of influence both on and offline?

    Say you're thinking about offering bloggers a free registration to your meeting in exchange for them blogging about it, or free books or other materials. Are these opportunities your members would love to be offered but aren't being considered for because you only want to target "influencers" as touted by Klout or Technorati or whatever? Yes, it's more work to ferret out which of your members are influential online or off, but ultimately isn't it more authentic to utilize your most passionate and qualified evangelists--your members--to promote the work your association is doing? Definitely at worth considering is all I'm saying.

The blogger outreach model is not one-size-fits-all and I'm worried that associations-- notoriously behind the curve in embracing social media--will increasingly begin to be wooed by PR agencies or consultants who are pitching blogger outreach--particularly mom blogger outreach--without considering whether it's really a great fit. It may be a great idea, but being aware of examples like this CRA one remind us that it just as easily may not be.

And let me end this by coming out and saying--because I am often misunderstood and want to make it perfectly clear--that I have "met" Therese Pompa, CRA's social media manager, (online at least) and in no way mean this to be a criticism of her. Social media and blogger outreach are totally new to the association world and the whole reason I wrote this post was to point out that this is a new path for us to forge and for those of us who work for a particular association, we may not realize how potentially thorny one of our issues may be until it's out there for public consumption. The blogosphere is a weird and interesting universe where controversy often rules the day, and "results not typical" may well be a good disclaimer for this particular case. Or maybe not...

I should also mention that, in the interest of full disclosure, ASHA has done blogger outreach campaigns; this post is about my personal take on the issue, not ASHA's.