What Do You Get When You Combine a Press Junket, Uninformed Bloggers, Angry Activists, and the Internet?

A mess. Is what you get.

Readers may have noted that I’ve been including links to discussions about Nestle in the last few days, and some of you may have been wondering what the sudden uptick in Nestle-related stuff is all about. Those of you who follow my Twitter (I’m sorry, Meridith, I know I said I wouldn’t talk about Twitter, but it’s relevant to the larger story) may also  have noted that the hashtag #nestlefamily has been showing up repeatedly over the last few days.

So, what in the heck/hashtag is going on?

Well, sit back and I’ll tell you a story. I’m going to assume, for the sake of brevity, that all of my readers are aware that Nestle has been subject to a boycott since the late 1970s for questionable, unethical, and sometimes blatantly illegal business practices. These include the use of child labour, sourcing chocolate from cacao farms which use slave labour, stealing rural water resources in the United States, marketing formula with questionable and sometimes outright illegal claims, etc etc. This is capitalism 101, of course, but Nestle has taken it to an entirely new level. Cara brought up an excellent point about degrees of evil when it comes to Nestle, pointing out that, you know, evil does come in shades, and Nestle’s got some serious evil going on.

So, Nestle also has a long history of hosting press junkets in which journalists are invited on swanky trips and plied with Nestle propaganda. Most journalists, thankfully, refused, but this year, Nestle found a new target: mommy bloggers.* Not all mothers who blog are mommy bloggers, but there’s a large blogging community of mothers, many of whom are already kind of crossing the lines when it comes to advertising and integrity; someone else refers to them as “ad bloggers,” and that’s basically what they are. But, you know, everyone needs to make a living somehow.  The ability to monetize parenting means that these moms get to stay home and take care of their children, and I think that’s pretty cool (and very feminist, reversing a history of unpaid work for mothering).

So, Nestle issued them with an all expenses paid vacation complete with ample goodybags at Nestle’s California offices, and most accepted. Most were apparently not aware of the problems with Nestle, and did not bother to do any research about Nestle before accepting an invite. Some apparently knew, and didn’t care, or were dismissive of the claims. It sounds like some thought that they could “open a dialogue” with Nestle by accepting handouts from them.

This was clearly an advertising event. The bloggers were expected to tweet using the hashtag #nestlefamily during the event, and to write about the event afterwards. Nestle wanted to capture some of the very valuable market share found among mommy blog readers. This was most definitely a cynical and kind of brilliant advertising move. Except that Nestle must have known that activists would find out about the event and become upset. Is it possible that Nestle was also willing to throw these poor women (and a handful of men) in front of the bus as sacrificial lambs by using them as middlemen?

Because, what happened is that some activists did find out. And that’s where the fun began, because activists started also using the #nestlefamily hashtag to talk about Nestle’s corporate wrongdoing, and to ask why bloggers were attending the event. And here’s where things started to get complicated, because when you only have 140 characters to work with, your message is, by nature, truncated.

Some activists were very respectful, posting links to facts and asking probing questions. Some conference attendees responded in kind, relaying those questions to Nestle spokespeople and engaging with activists; several specifically responded to me and asked questions on my behalf (many of those also later turned on me, which is why I am not naming them). Others were not. People asking questions were called “crackpots” and “loony toons” and “idiots” while mommybloggers claimed that they were being “attacked” by people who were “hijacking their hash tag.” Asking questions is not attacking, but in the eyes of people who may be feeling some ethical unease about their participation in an event like this, I can see how being questioned would feel like an attack.

Some activists also crossed the line, making inappropriate comments and, yes, attacking people. The gloves really started to come off on both sides with racist, sizeist, and ableist commentary, accusations that people were being bad mothers, and a host of other things. At one point, activists were policing food choices while the mommy bloggers tried to defend themselves, and I stepped in to say “hey, let’s not do that,” and, amazingly, everyone stopped. It was actually pretty cool.

Activists were furious that event attendees were hearing factual information and ignoring it or claiming that it was propaganda. Several people, provided with ample information from numerous reputable third party sources, were still saying “there’s not enough information.” Attendees were making jokes about the use of slave labor. And, all the while, tweeting the propaganda given to them by Nestle executives. While activists were linking to studies on violation of the WHO code, mommy bloggers were tweeting about how they heart Nestle and how Nestle employees stay there for years, so the company must be good.

The debate quickly became clouded. Infant formula marketing was a major bone of contention, and this was taken to be an attack on formula feeding, turning the situation into a breast vs bottle debate. In fact, it was about illegal marketing practices, about the fact that infants in the third world die on watered down formula (because it’s too expensive to mix properly), badly mixed formula (because parents can’t read the directions), and formula made with contaminated water. At one point, mommy bloggers were proposing that the solution to this was for Nestle to bring in supplies of bottled water. No fooling. Serious questions about business practices like using chocolate made with slave labour fell by the wayside, and people dismissed this as a mommyblogger catfight, though people like me were involved (and I’m about the furthest thing from a mommyblogger you could possibly imagine).

Nestle finally realized that the situation was getting out of control, so they got an executive Twittering. I asked him several questions, excited to see that Nestle was actually engaging and giving people like me a chance to communicate with the company. I’ve been boycotting Nestle for 10 years, and I’ve written, phoned, emailed, and picketed Nestle, all to no avail, so it was very neat to be able to talk to a real Nestle executive. I actually squeed with delight.

But he answered only one of my questions, with a lie.

This pattern repeated itself with everyone who asked questions; Nestle said “stop attacking our attendees and ask us questions,” so we asked Nestle questions, and they didn’t answer, or they straight up lied. So, we started asking why Nestle was lying, and asking conference attendees about what they thought they might accomplish by going to this event. And…things pretty much ran in circles for two days.

Yesterday, I was repeatedly attacked by multiple mommy bloggers who called me some very unkind things, asked me if I was stupid and couldn’t read, and made derisive comments about how Nestle was reaching out and I wasn’t cooperating. I was told that if I “really cared” I would “try harder” despite the fact that I pointed out that I have been trying for years. Other activists on the #nestlefamily hashtag were also subjected to some incredibly rude, mean, dismissive, and hurtful commentary. It got extremely intense. I was so angry at one point that I was actually shaking, as I had made a good faith effort to keep my tone civil, asking questions and not insulting or personally attacking (although I did ask several people tweeting about how much they loved eating Nestle chocolate about how they felt knowing that it was made with slave labour).

The tone of the discourse really started to get out of control. Nestle just vanished, leaving their mommy bloggers to the wolves, after posting one message saying “answers to all questions are here” (when they weren’t) and that other questions should be sent by email.

Did we learn anything? Well, I hope that some conference attendees learned that they should do their due diligence before accepting handouts, and specifically learned that Nestle is a very problematic company. I hope that Nestle learned something about social media, because this event revitalized the somewhat moribund Nestle boycott (I was astonished to  learn that a lot of people didn’t know about the boycott, and once they found out, they joined).

A collision of intersecting issues happened here. I’m not convinced that everyone was totally blameless.

I think that people should not accept free handouts (which amount to compensation with an accompanying expectation of favourable treatment) without researching the issues. I also think that people should not expect straight answers from advertising executives. This is pretty basic. Company executives are not going to answer serious, probing questions honestly when they haven’t been doing it for 30 years.

I was very upset with the way that Nestle treated their bloggers. These poor people were thrown into a firestorm they don’t understand, and it was tragic to see them repeating propaganda fed to them by Nestle about Nestle’s good deeds. (Hint: building a few houses in New Orleans five years after Katrina does not make up for using slave labour. Providing lactation rooms for employees is not better than giving them more family leave to breastfeed at home. Providing books for school children in America does not address illiteracy in Asia. Etc.) These folks went on the defensive because they were being saturated in information which was clearly new to them. In the process, many said some offensive and really horrific things.

This also raised questions about blogging ethics, an ongoing problem. Bloggers are not journalists, and are therefore not held to journalistic ethical standards. But when you have a huge readership which trusts and respects you, you  have credibility and some ethical responsibilities. When you make statements on your website, your readers trust them. And that means that you need to do some legwork to make sure that you are not inadvertently backing something you do not support (like, say, the use of child labour). This is one reason I do not accept advertising or freebies of any kind, because I feel like it would compromise me. Inevitably it compromises you, sometimes because of contractual obligations, but also because you want more freebies. Nestle’s never going to invite me and people like me on a junket because a. we would refuse and b. we wouldn’t make it easy for them, and we wouldn’t say nice things at the end.

Activists learned nothing new and did not benefit from this, despite the claims from the mommy blogging shills who said that “see, Nestle is listening!” Nestle did not listen. Nestle went on its usual plan of obfuscating and lying, because Nestle is a corporation, and that is what corporations do. But the #nestlefamily debacle did raise awareness about the Nestle boycott, which is awesome, and I also think that it encouraged some people to start seriously thinking about issues like the sources of information, which companies own what, and how they can make a difference in the world, as individuals.

I’d like to take a moment to recognize some of the folks on Twitter who respectfully advocated in this debacle. They came from all perspectives and all walks of life and they brought factual information and probing questions to the discussion. I am sure that I am leaving out a few folks here, and I apologize: Retrohousewife5, thesmartmama, that_danielle, phdinparenting, Blacktating, TheLactivista, Artemnesia, ilauredhel, CrunchyGoddess, and BlabberMom, you spoke some serious truth to power.

I’d also note that I now have a lot of mommy bloggers in my followers, which I think is kind of awesome. I’m hoping that I don’t lose them over the coming days and weeks, because a lot of the social issues I write about (like gendering children) definitely pertain to childrearing, and a lot of these folks are very socially conscious and awesome people whom I am honored to have as readers. I never thought I’d have so many parents among my fans, or that I would dig it this much.

*I actually really hate the term “mommy blogger,” because it seems kind of…dismissive and disrespectful to me. But many women describe themselves as mommy bloggers, so I’m going to use that label.

13 Comments on What Do You Get When You Combine a Press Junket, Uninformed Bloggers, Angry Activists, and the Internet?

  1. My opposition is only to the reposting of the week’s or day’s tweets in the main post of a blog. To me, this practice suggests either too much ego or too little thought (or both). Keeping it to the sidebar is another thing entirely.

    As for Nestle, I think we’re somehow programmed to accept the first piece of information as the “true” information and that it’s our individual responsibity to recognize and develop past that. Nestle’s outward efforts at a wholesome image might have slipped in early and, for those unwilling to do hard critical thinking, the burden of proof lies heavily on everyone who comes after.

  2. Excellent piece. Agreed; it’s nice to think you’ll be able to influence the machine from the inside, but it’s all too easy to be coopted instead.

  3. Is it possible to do minor undermining by taking the freebies and then not fulfilling the expected compensation? I mean, it’s all physical-product-type stuff (and therefore limited to one use), I assume, so they can’t even benefit from the new-fen effect, right?

    I’m actually kind of glad this happened, because I wouldn’t have found out about Nestle’s sketchiness if it hadn’t.

  4. meloukhia // 2 October, 2009 at 9:51 am //

    Yes, really, we should be thanking Nestle for doing something so poorly thought out, because it’s really publicized the cause of the boycott!

  5. I must admit to being one of the people who was not aware of the boycott, and will be joining now. Is there a central petition or participant list to sign somewhere? I know boycotts have greater force when the company actually knows to connect any lost sales with it…

  6. meloukhia // 2 October, 2009 at 12:16 pm //

    Nentuaby, Baby Milk Action has some good boycott resources.

  7. I’m a mommy blogger, I do accept freebies in return for an HONEST review. I will NEVER back a product/company that I don’t like or agree with (just in case you’re wondering).

    I’m embarrassed to say that I would have jumped at the chance to go to this junket, and would have never even thought to do any research…I mean it’s Nestle! They’ve been around forever. I am 30 years old and I’ve never heard of any boycott. I imagine many of the other mommy bloggers were the same as me.

    This whole debacle has truly taught me to do my research, look deeper and look for more than the brand name. I had no idea that any of this was lurking behind the name…amazing.

    Thanks for shedding light on this subject, I was very confused by the whole thing.

  8. I believe Nestle was aware of how they were navigating the business of social media & using bloggers as cover. It’s not just a sidebar discussion because social media now exists in multiple forms & big companies are going to try to use those forms to their advantage. It has to be discussed in relation to how they are working in these various forms of social media. Similarly how those in the various forms of social media interact with companies, being a person who is branding themselves makes them a business not merely a mom or dad giving an opinion. If someone wants to associate their brand with a company then they need to be more aware of possible issues they may get caught in & companies need to be more honest in working with individuals/brands/individuals that are businesses.

  9. Cassaundra // 2 October, 2009 at 4:58 pm //

    nicely written.
    I was impressed by the actions of some who started asking these questions a couple of weeks ago. The event was brought to my notice by a conversation between one Lactivist and mostly one attendee who were discussing the issues well before the event. At this time, the majority of the debate was pretty reasonable. The worst crime most attendees may have committed was willful naivetee. But things really did get nasty during the heat of the event. I didn’t engage too much except to ask a few questions and share a few links. And yes, for me, the heart of the problem lies with formula marketing so that is where my focus lay. It is also where the usual hijinks from vicious formula feeders come in so I really wasn’t at all surprised by the ferocity and violence directed at activists. It is the same hate that I see directed at breastfeeding mothers on Twitter on a pretty regular basis.
    For me what it comes down to is this. Some people are ready and willing to question their own assumptions and the society that they live in, some are not. Some are so afraid to even consider those questions that they will fight tooth and nail to defend their ignorance against anyone that confronts those assumptions through words or actions. If the goal of one’s life is comfort, you will focus on maintaining it. If your purpose is justice, you will direct your energy in other ways.

  10. I think the attendees painted themselves into a corner, and except for a small handful, were acting as they were to defend, as you say, their decision to be there more than defending Nestle per se. Thanks to the hard work of many of you, I think it turned into an awesome awareness campaign about the nastiness of Nestle. Yay social media.

  11. meloukhia // 2 October, 2009 at 5:04 pm //

    I agree that Nestle definitely must have known, at least on some level, about what they were getting into when they decided to exploit social media. They must have been aware that there’s been a history of having these blogger junkets blow up in a very ugly way (especially this year, I think there’s some social unrest behind a lot of the rage about these junkets), and, given that they’ve been boycotted for over 30 years, they must have known that, you know, activists use the Internet.

    I think it’s pretty unconscionable that they pretty much threw their bloggers to the wolves. As Cassaundra points out, some of the rhetoric on both sides got extremely ugly, especially on Thursday. I’m obviously biased here, especially as a victim of personal attacks, but I do think that some of the Nestle bloggers got entirely out of hand.

    But, you know, I still don’t think it was inappropriate for activists to question bloggers. I count on the bloggers I read to act with integrity, and I count on people to call them out when they do not. Obviously, a lot of those bloggers felt drowned in @replies as well as the general discussion going on at the #nestlefamily hashtag, but that doesn’t change the fact that activists were asking some important questions, and they were trying to hold those bloggers accountable in part on behalf of readers who would have remained blissfully ignorant. (And probably still will, judging from the high-minded and extremely offensive rhetoric I’ve seen on the websites of several attendees, totally dismissing legitimate concerns raised by activists.)

  12. Thank you for summing this up. It all happened in such a whirlwind. On one hand, I am so thankful for the way social media connects us and allows us to be in touch with companies and people that were elusive in the past. It feels very empowering.

    On the other hand, I hope to goodness that ppl stop focusing on the snark (that came from both sides) and actually focusing on what happened and why. It was so intense for the bloggers stuck in the middle and like a previous commenter said they had no idea Nestle was a big bad monster. This is of course almost ridiculously frustrating to those of us who have been vainly trying to boycott them for years without much result.

    Let’s just say the kindling was set and all we needed was a match.

    I’m glad this came to a surface b/c I do believe that more ppl are informed, whether Nestle provides true information or not, we have become more aware as a group that there are important questions to be asked around the blogosphere.

    Like my grandma always said,

    “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

  13. Very nice article. I’ve been following the issue, thanks to Hoyden About Town, and even though I’m not a mother, I am interested in the intersections between social responsibility, corporate policies, and manipulation of new media.

    Plus, the commentary surrounding the situation in parts of Africs made me cry. The picture of the mother with her two chicldren is heartwrenching, and I couldn’t actually understand how anyone could laugh at it as “propaganda”.

    So, thanks for blogging about it. It’s renewed my energy for the Nestle boycott.

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