In which your blogger faces a crisis of conscience in the shower…

Well, who wouldn’t be flattered? I received an email from very nice PR lady asking if I’d be prepared to do a blog or tweet or two in the campaign to encourage people, especially children, to eat wholegrain cereals. She’d send me the cereals and the recipe cards, and I just had to make up a few of the recipes and blog about them.

I was pleased. I’m not often approached by PRs, largely because this blog is quite modest and has been going only since February. I’m told I can come over as quite unapproachable too. Not sure I’m too happy with that assessment. Unexpectedly, I enjoy blogging as a way of communicating a slice of what’s going on in my thoughts at the time. Whilst this blog does not go out overtly to attract PRs to send me products for review, obviously I welcome the interest.

I was making supper at the time and in a hurry to organise homework and evening activity, so I should have looked more carefully. The supplier of the cereals was a large conglomerate. Something rang a bell somewhere in my mind. Some instinct told me would be bad idea but I was in a hurry.

When the cereal parcel arrived I was delighted, and planned when to do the recipes. But one of my immediate thoughts was that, yes the cereals might have healthy whole grains in them, but what else? I’ve always been annoyed by what food manufacturers people leave out of their ads. For example, these cereals might well promote healthy wholegrains but, in some cases, contain up to 15% of the adult RDA of sugar. Similarly, ads for a certain chocolate spread emphasise the healthy hazelnuts, skimmed milk and cocoa but conveniently neglect to mention that its main ingredients are sugar and vegetable (i.e. palm) oil. Somehow, the Boywonder’s suggestion that “These aren’t the worst,” seemed like a weak case for recommending a product.

Then there was the concept of dressing up the food to make animals etc. Another subliminal expression of how “natural,” the cereals were? I’ve always been against making food into pictures to try and tempt children to eat it. To my mind, they should always be encouraged to see good, honest, healthy food for what it is. And isn’t making models with food just playing with it, precisely what we tell our children NOT to do? But it’s just a bit of fun, isn’t it, and all in a good cause…?

Further, the global impact of the corporation demanded research. A boycott of its products has been conducted since the 1970s and is still ongoing. I am not going to mention the company by name here, but most of my readers will have figured out who it is. I was anxious and, never liking to have my facts wrong, did a little Googling. The boycott of this organisation is due to at least three serious environmental and human rights concerns. Now, I could have ignored them, or made up some fluffy reason to dismiss them, but wouldn’t that be totally disingenuous for me? Wouldn’t my readers wonder why someone who purports to be well informed and compassionate had chosen to ignore the elephant in the room, or worse, be an apologist for it.

But suddenly to take up the cause of the boycott would be just as hypocritical of me, wouldn’t it? I mean, I had always been aware of the issues to do with Western companies promoting western lifestyle products in developing countries to those who can’t afford them and for whom the products are totally unsuitable, if not harmful. I’m skirting around the issue again here, deliberately. There are many, many people who blog about it and I’m really no expert.

I do think this is deplorable but continue to buy and enjoy several items produced by the corporation and the companies in which it has a stake. How could I suddenly jump on this bandwagon without damaging my own credibility? Of course no-one is perfect and it must be almost impossible for anyone to remain completely untainted by goods or services produced by countries or corporations that engage in things we don’t like, like destroying the environment or perpetuating the death penalty.

Further, we can’t all campaign against everything. Some of us choose to throw ourselves into one campaign, leaving other issues for other people. A late family member of mine, campaigned for peace and against nuclear weapons for much of her life but seemed unaware of the horrors of apartheid in South Africa or indeed, racism at home. I try to repair, reuse, recycle, but still drive a 4×4 to transport children, instruments, elderly parents and dog, sometimes all at the same time. And do the people who fight so passionately for electric, less polluting cars, ever think of where the electricity has to be generated for these cars?

It’s difficult.

In the end, though, I decided not be part of a campaign that could be seen as greenwashing: trying to change the brand image of the conglomerate by being seen to be engaging in colourful but ultimately unaccountable corporate social responsibility programmes.

Some consider the world of social media and PR shady. I don’t agree. To me, is just a newer form of marketing using the ancient form of networking and personal experience and combining it with technology.

Emphatically, it wasn’t the PR’s fault. She was just doing her job. I was tempted by the foods and money as I don’t earn anything and am now looking for a source of income to do my bit for my family.

But, as I say, this blog has never actively sought to court companies to send products for review. Generally, when I blog about stuff, it’s things I have bought and liked and want to share. Until now, I have always liked the exceptions that people have sent me and been happy to share a good experience with my readers. In this case, I could not with a clear conscience be seen to be promote either either the products or the organisation. It’s just not what I’m about.

My big thing is the truth. I can’t bear being lied to and I won’t lie. And finessing away unpalatable details is lying by omission. I once gave a presentation to clients of my research findings and recommendations which went against my employer’s normal practice. I was heavily leaned upon to give a more compliant version. My presentation was dreadful, uncompelling, unconvincing, because I didn’t believe in what I was saying. I lost confidence in presenting for a year after that experience but have learnt my lesson about telling the truth.

I am aware that I have probably now cut off all future sources of reviews and people will be wary of sending me stuff again but in the future, I shall try not be quite so naive. Surely there is scope for companies to approach those of us who just want to give honest feedback. Surely there are products and services that can bear scrutiny? And surely that reputation for integrity and credibility is worth standing up for?

Now, the PR has politely declined my offer to send back the cereals so now have two options. Should I a) eat the cereals? Or b) throw them away and join in a boycott that has never much concerned me before? Anyone?