Dad in the middle (of a twitstorm)

Last week I left my family and flew to California to attend the Nestle USA Happy, Healthy Gathering, which was an event for bloggers. Some of you may have heard about the event before it was held, some not until after and, for most of you here, not at all. I did mention it briefly in my review of Trust Agents, but otherwise didn’t say much about it.

Why I went

When I received the invitation at the beginning of September I was intrigued because there has been a lot of talk about brands warming to interacting with dads. Jessica Smith of JessicaKnows.com wrote a great post about dad bloggers gaining momentum as influencers and Chris Brogan recently put together the DigiDads project with his client Sony.

Since dads are the redheaded step children of the parent blogging world, I was interested in going just to immerse myself in the conversation and take the power of social media in from the perspective moms have been seeing for years. Once the matters with my wife’s work schedule were resolved, I didn’t think twice about accepting the offer from Nestle USA to take the trip out to California.

As a stay at home dad and the family chef, I was looking forward to learning more about Nestle and their commitment to healthy living, attend my first ever blogger event and meet people in real life and hopefully come away with some tips to help me feed my increasingly picky toddler.

As a consumer I’ve been purchasing Nestle products for years. Their reach in terms of product depth and breadth in the consumer market is pervasive. However, this is not to say that I am brand loyal, as I am more likely than not price loyal.

Cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria!

There were some issues with Nestle and its global business practices that were brought up by some folks that wrote intelligent, well thought out blog posts. Unfortunately, those people managed to get drowned out by attention seekers that sought to inject themselves into the conversation.

I don’t know enough about all the issues and this post is by no means meant to support or debunk any sides of the various arguments. Some of these issues have been voiced for nearly 35 years, but they are out there and have been made much more public during the event thanks to social media and those that are passionate about them.

For that reason I’m not going to enumerate the specific issues, but I do want to address a few things, especially the attacks on my new blogger friends and Nestle’s social media readiness.

Do your research

As the controversy unfolded many suggested that we should have done our research before accepting the invitation to this event. The reality, for me anyway, is that my research has been done for years in the grocery store.

Being a single income family my activism is local and if something is on sale, or I have a coupon for it, then that is what I buy. In the same vein, despite having been to the Nestle Family event, I am no more likely to target Nestle brands as I am to not target Nestle brands in my purchasing decisions.

Corporate shills

Being a dad who is relatively new to the blogosphere and not connected to many moms I was a little disturbed at how readily the purported “community” went on the offensive against these women and Greg, the other dad in attendance. Personal ethics were challenged without trepidation, even by people that have met the attendees at other events that have been held.

The argument was made that Nestle bought us with a plane ride, a few nice dinners and a fancy hotel room. I disagree with that assertion. Accepting a trip from a company does not make one a corporate shill. Agreeing to do whatever a company asks in exchange for a trip is what makes you a corporate shill.

Not one us agreed to do anything for Nestle in exchange for the trip other than listening to what they had to say and relaying the messages if we so chose to do so. At the start of the event Nestle made it clear that we were to do whatever we wanted in terms of blogging and tweeting.

Personally, I made the decision to not ‘live tweet’ the event as is customary at many blogger events. There were plenty of attendees to cover what was happening and I didn’t see myself providing any value by clogging up the stream.

No fruity drinks with umbrellas here

Some even characterized this trip as a vacation, but due to the size and reach of Nestle and its brands the event was informative, but fast paced. For me making the trip was difficult and probably cost my family money, so this was assuredly not a vacation.

My wife had to rearrange her work schedule, including using personal time to get off one of the four days that I was away. Considering that I only have one child I can’t imagine what this might have been like for all the parents there that have multiple children or the working moms that had to rearrange their lives to be attend.

Opportunity knocked?

I did my best to avoid following what happened in the hashtag stream, but I did see that a few said they were approached, but chose to not attend. My view on this would be to say why? If you were given an open forum where you could have had access to some of the most senior executives of the US division of a multinational enterprise and you have specific concerns you wish to voice about their business practices, why wouldn’t you have taken advantage of that?

I have a great deal of respect for the women that attended and openly solicited questions from the twitterverse to help create the dialogue that is still going on. The first question asked during the Q&A session with the Chairman and CEO of Nestle USA was about the boycott over the infant formula marketing practices.

Not one of us shied away from asking the questions that those who took the time to relay to us (and by us, I mean the great moms that put themselves out there and Greg). Because I didn’t know even one of the bloggers in attendance prior to the event I was relatively insulated from the storm other than a few interesting tweets lobbied at my stream.

Starting the conversation

Valid arguments were made about Nestle and the fact that they appeared to have glossed over social media’s importance. However, the thing I found humorous was that by the time this event took place they were in a damned if they did, damned if they didn’t position.

The lack of a social media action plan in advance of the Nestle Family event elicited criticism and when the SVP of communications finally took to Twitter to engage he, and the others who manned their handle, were flamed for their responses. Additionally, and I realize this is splitting hairs, but the event was for Nestle USA and many of the issues (not all) were more global in nature and maybe have been beyond the scope of their resources during the actual event.

It is unrealistic to expect a company of this size and scope to be that nimble. To avoid being painted as an apologist, it doesn’t excuse the fact that they didn’t have a better grasp of social media before staging such an event. Still, the fact that they had this event was an important first step to developing this understanding by opening the conversation.

Questions on social media preparedness

During the second session of the first day I asked a bunch of questions about their social media strategy, specifically if they had a person dedicated to managing it, much like Ford has in Scott Monty. At the present time they do not, but have realized the importance of having a dedicated social media professional as part of their team.

By no means do I consider myself to be a social media expert, and wouldn’t think to insult the real social media jedi masters that are out there, but in nearly a year that I’ve been doing this I have learned a few things. And so I made the recommendation to them to move beyond just talking about their brands.

Let’s be honest, what kind of valuable interaction can they really have with that? “So, who here likes butterfinger?”. “Mmm. Butterfinger good.” To me there isn’t much value in that, but I could be wrong, like I said social media guru is not on my business card.

At one point during the discussion they talked about the different ways in which they support breastfeeding efforts. I took that opportunity to suggest that maybe they create a Facebook fan page (or similar tool or outpost) to relay this information and humanize their brand.

Final thoughts

Nestle will, and rightfully so, be judged by how they react and execute on a social media strategy in light of the controversy sparked by this event. After seeing the truly human emotional response they had towards it all and how upset they were that it happened to the attendees, my hope is that they worked hard and fast to get it right. I met a lot of good people who are passionate about what they do at Nestle and I hope for nothing but the best for them.

I will close this diatribe by saying that since I was an attendee I realize that no matter what I’ve said some will have the opinion that my words are bought and paid for. As disappointing as that is for me, since it runs contrary to the entire concept behind social media and community development, I know it is a reality.

To those that are in the camp against Nestle, I applaud you for your commitment to the things you believe in. I respect your right to your own position, just as I hope you respect my right to the same.

Disclosure: I attended the Nestle Family Happy Healthy Gathering in California. All of my expenses related to airfare, surface transportation, accommodations, meals and other event related costs were paid or are due to reimbursed by Nestle USA. This blog post represents my personal opinion of what transpired and was not solicited, written or requested to be written, by Nestle, its representatives or agents.

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About PJ Mullen

PJ Mullen is a dad, husband, amateur chef and prolific air drummer blogging about his life as a dad and anything else that is on his mind. Occasionally he blogs about being a dad in the kitchen at peaches en risotto and is a contributor over at Digital Dads.

Comments Closed

  • mommysnacks

    Great post, PJ! And, glad you brought up your suggestion of the Facebook page. I hope Nestle does execute that as a take away. Nestle learned a lot and we certainly learned a lot about them as a brand and the character of many in the blogosphere.

    Great meeting you and I learned a ton from you too!! I'm gonna use the meal option trick with my son too!!

  • http://thisfullhouse.com thisfullhouse

    It was so nice to meet you, PJ! I swear…I can actually hear your voice, while reading your very thoughtful recap. This was a was a very difficult trip and emotionally taxing event, indeed. I think you gave a very fair analysis of what went down at Nestle and, well, love you even more for the Ghost Buster reference :)

    I hope that the media will actually take the time to read what the bloggers…who actually attended the event…thought about corporate America's latest dip into social media.

    I really do hope so.

  • http://twitter.com/MomSpark Amy

    Great post, PJ. I loved reading the experience from a dad blogger's perspective, and applaud you for putting up with so many women!

    You made a great point about the “trip” not being as easy as it may seem. Most of us did have to rearrange our schedules to make it work.

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  • http://www.surprisedmom.blogspot.com/ SurprisedMom

    I wasn't at the event, but through your blog I received a comprehensive picture of what went on. You might not have social media guru on your business card, but I bet you'd make a good one. If Nestle or another company made me this offer, I would take them up on it. It's rare when you get to have contact with the senior execs of a company. I would think that it would be too good of an opportunity to miss. As for the individuals who jumped over and condemened those who didn't share their opionion, well those kinds are everywhere, aren't they? I hope it was a worthwhile event for you and especially for Nestle.

  • http://www.sugarmilkbook.com/ R_Mattocks

    PJ, you were right on the money (forgive the pun) with your thoughts. Practical, common sense and objective. This is a topic I've been following for a long time, and one that's been growing in scope and controversy. Like you said, most corporations are fumbling their way through social media advertising. They know they need it, but haven't got a clue how to get the value out of it.

    And on top of it, you have people like dooce who can wield the viral power to make or break a company's reputation with 140 characters and a click. Corporations jump into bed with an influential blogger to take advantage of that person's reach, but forget that they are also taking on that blogger's personality and emotions (both good and bad). The flip side to this in some cases is that these bloggers see these sponsorships as validation for their point of view, giving them license to say whatever they want on whatever topic. I liken it to NBC dropping OJ after he went psycho… NBC wasn't about to let OJ speak for them, but to a certain degree there's this potential with emotional bloggers speaking for large corporation.

    Did you read this? http://babble.com/mommy-blogger-changing-americ…

    And then there's the whole mommy/daddy blog issue… don't get me started. I read Jessica's post too and thought it had a lot of validity. But sometimes it feels like listening to two kids bicker because one of them got a bigger cookie.

    Still, I'm glad to hear your thoughts and experiences on this. You're a blogging celebrity my good man!

  • http://ohamanda.com/?page_id=20 ohamanda

    That. was. great. Excellent, even! Seriously, I can't add anything profound. How did you manage to stay out of the fray and STILL hit every nail on the head?!

    So glad we got to meet at Nestle!

  • bridgetteD

    PJ, you summarized the event and your thoughts beautifully. I am honored to be a part of it and to have met so many great new friends.

  • doudoubebe

    Thanks for that perspective – I've been waiting anxiously to hear the thoughts of the attendees once the storm had quieted down. I respect your honest assessment of why you went and why you came away with the perspective you did.

  • Pat

    Peter, having known you for more years than I haven't, I know that you are still the straight shooter you were in school and that this trip and experience have not made you a shill for anyone.

  • http://www.naturalmomsblog.com/ Lexi

    Hi PJ,

    Just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate your sensible post on this whole Nestle bruhaha.

    My family and I have been boycotting Nestle since I became involved in advocating against the unethical marketing practices of infant formula manufacturers (not just Nestle) as a communication staff of UNICEF. Here's a link to a documentary we made on this issue in the Philippines:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNYDPKQOVUE

    Even though I am on this side of the fence, I recognize that some bloggers and Twitter users on both sides behaved in a shameful manner – resorting to name calling and personal attacks.

    However, what troubles me the most about this whole incident is that bloggers just don't get how accepting a free trip (or money or anything for that matter) could undermine their objectivity and integrity.

    You cannot escape the fact that by receiving a trip from Nestle, you have put yourself in a position of obligation to the company. Nestle doesn't have to ask you to do anything in return. The power of reciprocation is almost irresistible, especially when it is at work unconsciously.

    As information publishers, we have to hold ourselves to higher standards and recognize our responsibilities to be as objective and as truthful as possible.

    Oh and PJ, no matter how I look at it, grocery shopping just doesn't quite cut it as “research.”

    Lexi

  • mekeliki

    Okay, let me just start by saying that I don't boycott anything. I don't care what people say and I don't frankly give a crap about much. What I care about is good products. To be honest, I don't really care if Al Qaida makes these items because if they are good then I'll use them. That all being said, I have no idea what this Nestle controversy is about and I had no idea they even had an event; yes, I live in a hole. Much like all the people who decided to boycott Whole Foods, I think I'll buy even more Nestle products just to demonstrate how much I think boycotts suck, don't even care what it's about. Anyway, that's what I think about that. I guess you could say I'm passionate about not being passionate! :-) HA!

  • http://www.almightydad.com/ Keith Wilcox

    Okay, let me just start by saying that I don't boycott anything. I don't care what people say and I don't frankly give a crap about much. What I care about is good products. To be honest, I don't really care if Al Qaida makes these items because if they are good then I'll use them. That all being said, I have no idea what this Nestle controversy is about and I had no idea they even had an event; yes, I live in a hole. Much like all the people who decided to boycott Whole Foods, I think I'll buy even more Nestle products just to demonstrate how much I think boycotts suck, don't even care what it's about. Anyway, that's what I think about that. I guess you could say I'm passionate about not being passionate! :-) HA!

  • http://evilslutopia.com EvilSlutClique

    I agree as far as the idea of grocery shopping as research. (And with the rest of Lexi's comment as well.) When you say “my research has been done for years in the grocery store”, what that basically means is that your decision to attend this event was based only on your own personal experience with Nestle. If that's the case, fine, but own it and don't try to claim that it constitutes some form of “research” into Nestle as a company when it does not.

  • thedevoteddad

    Hey PJ,

    Wow, I had no idea that this was what all of the contraversy was all about. Knowing how you are in your blogging style, I think you handled it well, I mean, if nestle wants to be heard by social media, then by all means, they should put on a show. It's what all businesses do. But atleast they allowed for alternate views and didn't require for you to give good reviews, etc. Also, it's great that others have more information and other views about recieving paid trips like Lexi. How else are we going to learn how others view paid trips and boycotted topics. But heres the kicker, you are not a boycotter, but rather a consumer. If, from this trip you decide to become a boycotter, then so be it. There, however, was little to no visibly seen need to do your research before going. It's not like there are boycotters standing in isle 12 telling you that nestle is bad, or even outside of your grocery store for that matter. It's a pretty integrated product in America. I am glad that there are bloggers who are willing to teach us about poor business practice, etc., but it still doesn't require that you become a boycotter as well, and that because the boycotter got to you first that nestle couldn't bring you in as well, after all, you have bought there product, on sale of course.

    I hope that this experience doesn't derail you from your goals, because in your “short” time here you have done some good writing. -Jason

  • debontherocks

    You tease out a lot of the different issues at play here–both the Nestle issues, and the blogging trips issue. I haven't seen any blogger who attended address the Nestle corporate page what features y'alls avatars, though. Did you give permission for that? If so, I think it's reasonable that people saw you as part of their PR for the event for the public to see. If you didn't, then that is an entirely different problem of blogger-corporate relations, because they took your brand in exchange for a trip. If someone else has addressed that, I'd be interested to know.

  • http://twitter.com/mothersong Vicki Seroussi

    Nestle is a business, and they are behaving as a business should. They see “mommy bloggers” as a powerful constituency with the potential to influence their market demographic. A corporation takes a qualified business risk in spending the money to have a gathering such as Nestlefamily, because they think they can profit from it. It's the first rule of business: expenses must generate profit.

    It may be true that attending the gathering didn't buy your loyalty. However, you can't blame people for thinking there might be an influence. Every lobbyist on Capital Hill says the same thing, that campaign contributions aren't for influence. They don't make campaign contributions because they are trying to get special concessions, or to have influence over voting. However, most people realize that money does sometimes make a difference; that's why those interest groups are willing to spend it. Corporations are the same. They can't force you think of them in a favorable light, or write about their products in a favorable manner just because they have spent money on trying to impress you with their products, and gain favorable reviews on your blog. However, the odds are in their favor if they have provided you with an entertaining time at no expense. If you have an entertaining trip, and you feel you gained some valuable information, why would you not feel positive about the company? In fact, many of the Nestlefamily attendees have made it clear that, if anything, they like Nestle even more now that they attended the gathering. That favorable response is, of course, exactly why companies pay for people to attend. They don't spend that kind of money hoping you will come back home and say, “Well it was fun, and the stuff was tasty, but I think I'll stick with Hershey.”

    I doubt that Nestle higher-ups care much what a bunch of people chosen for their specific demographic have to say about their global marketing practices. If they cared, they would have listened to thousands of protesters, many who are also parents, as well as government agencies and various watchdog groups around the world. It certainly wouldn't serve their best interest to alienate you by telling you that they weren't interested in your non-legal, non-marketing/management opinion. That would mean they wasted the money they spent trying to influence you in a positive way. At least they were polite and seemed interested. It shows that they have good business acumen, and decent social skills. It doesn't show that suddenly, after being the most boycotted company in the world for years, a small group of 20 or so bloggers turned the lightbulb on for them. You seem much too intelligent to think that is really the case.

    And of course Nestle employees are people, too, just like the rest of us. No one really expects Nestle to only hire heartless, cruel people who are happy that somewhere there are child slaves being forced to work on cocoa plantations. Those employees also have children to feed, mortgages to pay, and jobs are difficult to come by. It's not that they don't care about child slavery or dying babies, just like people can still buy Nestle products but feel that child slavery and dying babies is a terrible thing. Did you think that when questions were asked, Nestle employees were going to rub their hands with glee over those kinds of things? I boycott Nestle, but I still assume that there must be many kind, rational people employed there. Not enough to influence the company to work in less destructive ways, but there.

    As for the Facebook page, I don't think it's fair to expect a company to be responsible for actions that will cost it business and profits if done correctly. Nestle sells formula, not breastfeeding. That's a large component of how they make their money and keep their shareholders happy. That doesn't mean they have the obligation or the ability to teach breastfeeding. There are board certified specialists to help mothers with lactation issues. There are doctors, nurses, and childbirth educators that have taken classes on breastfeeding management. There are breastfeeding volunteers with hours of training to do that. It doesn't seem in the best interest of the corporation or the client to expect Nestle to provide a service that is so far out of its area of expertise, and that would negatively impact their profit margin.

    Lastly, it seems to me it be equally unethical to take a corporation's money and treat yourself to a free vaca if you know going in that you will never support that corporation or recommend their products. If you believe that Nestle makes it's money by unethical and inhumane business practices, how could you allow them to spend that money sponsoring you on a trip? Even if you did have the opportunity to question them while you were there, how would you justify that? How would that not be the height of hypocrisy? It seems a very illogical train of thought.

    Finally, just as an aside, I have five children and live on one income, and always have. I haven't found it necessary to buy a Nestle product since the mid-80's. Granted as they have grown larger it has become more difficult to avoid, but still doable. Stouffers was a blow, we loved their mac and cheese before they went to the dark side. It is important to me to be home with my children, and it is equally important to me to not support a company whose business ethics are abhorant to me.

    I hear you saying that you don't feel that strongly about Nestle, and I appreciate that sentiment. But it isn't true that in order to live on limited means you have no choice but to purchase Nestle products. There is no need to sell your soul to the devil if you don't want to.

    Vicki

  • theteachertom

    I haven't purchased a Nestle product for years for the reasons detailed by Lexi. I also don't shop at Whole Foods, Walmart or dozens of other places for all kinds of reasons, some political, some moral, and some personal. I don't try to persuade anyone else, however, unless they ask me about it or visit my blog. I have the right to make economic decisions based on something other than price, and I do.

    That said, you have established yourself in my mind — and those of others — as an ethical, straight-shooter. This post does nothing to change that. I like your thoughtfulness, and respect your insights. You won't change my mind about Nestle, nor have you tried.

    Of course, I'm the guy who reposted this video . . .

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAQrsA3m8Bg . . .

    so you know where I'm coming from. =)

    Keep it up PJ. You're a good man. If you follow your heart, you won't go wrong.

  • http://simplefather.com simplefather

    PJ, I've always liked how upfront you have been about who's asking to do what or paying for a product you're reviewing. At some point you have to rely on the fact that your (and the other bloggers) audience isn't dumb. I would like to think that I could tell if you had gone to the dark side.

    Also, I agree that if you have the ability to cause change in an organization, no matter how small, why not take it? Being objective (at least in my mind) doesn't mean sticking my head in the sand and refusing to hear the other side.

  • http://www.8womendream.com/ 8 Women Dream

    Wow Nestle pays for bloggers flights? I think we need to tell them we eat their dark chocolate at every meeting!

  • http://www.8womendream.com/ 8 Women Dream

    Did we just post because that registration/email/pop up left us clueless and did not save the post.

  • weaselmomma

    I am glad that you were invited and accepted this opportunity.

  • modernmami

    Regarding the trip being a vacation or being of monetary value…I had to take time OFF work to attend the event. So really, I lost money.

  • Contented_heart

    No paid vacation time here, so I always take time off work and lose that pay to take vacation. Seems like an all expense paid trip, with a hotel stay, free goodies, etc qualifies as a vacation, though. Or at least there must have been something about the offer that made it seem worth it to you to give up income to go, correct?

  • http://www.modernmami.com modernmami

    Regarding the trip being a vacation or being of monetary value…I had to take time OFF work to attend the event. So really, I lost money.

  • Contented_heart

    No paid vacation time here, so I always take time off work and lose that pay to take vacation. Seems like an all expense paid trip, with a hotel stay, free goodies, etc qualifies as a vacation, though. Or at least there must have been something about the offer that made it seem worth it to you to give up income to go, correct?

  • http://www.modernmami.com modernmami

    Regarding the trip being a vacation or being of monetary value…I had to take time OFF work to attend the event. So really, I lost money.

  • Contented_heart

    No paid vacation time here, so I always take time off work and lose that pay to take vacation. Seems like an all expense paid trip, with a hotel stay, free goodies, etc qualifies as a vacation, though. Or at least there must have been something about the offer that made it seem worth it to you to give up income to go, correct?

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