The PR Pitfalls of ‘Brand Ambassadors’

Today our friends at the SpinSucks blog highlight an example of an unfortunate PR mix-up on the part of a massive international corporation—shocking, we know.

Tech bloggers and tech manufacturers have long maintained “I’ll scratch your back”-style relationships. On that note, Samsung recently started a program called “Mob!lers” to recruit new “brand ambassadors”, enticing tech writers to cover their company by way of paid trips and other freebies.

Like every other company on the planet, Samsung is very interested in the fast-growing India market, so they invited several tech bloggers from the subcontinent to cover the IFA consumer electronics conference in Berlin in exchange for free phones and travel expenses.

The problem: there was some confusion over the particulars. Samsung invited both “reporters” and “promoters” to the event—members of the first group would be covering the convention for their respective publications while the second would be required to stay in the Samsung booth wearing Samsung uniforms and promoting Samsung smartphones rather than exploring the convention and collecting content for their own sites.

For reasons that aren’t 100% clear, one blogger found himself relegated to the role of “promoter”–and he wasn’t very happy about it. He declined to promote the new Samsung Galaxy, at which point a Samsung PR rep warned him that he would be left stranded in Germany with no money for airfare or lodging if he didn’t get in line. Looking bad for Samsung, right? Then the folks at Nokia stepped in and offered to “rescue” him by paying his airfare. Ouch.

Samsung later issued an apology to the blogger, but the double PR Fail had already been committed.

This may be a case of lousy communications rather than bad behavior, but Samsung has gotten bad press for this kind of thing before. We think all will agree that sponsors do not have editorial control over journalists; at the very least, Samsung needs to be very clear in the future about the role that each respective “ambassador” will play at sponsored events.

So, PR pros: How would you have handled this situation? What should Samsung have done differently? What are your thoughts on the “brand ambassador” concept in general?