But there are two sides to every coin. The Internet tirade quickly engulfed the unknowing advertisers of Cooks Source into its rage. To quote the website, How Publishing Really Works, "You can't release the hounds and then expect them to behave like lap-dogs."
The businesses that were listed as the magazine's advertisers were pummelled throughout the next few days with angry calls, emails and threats to boycott. But one small town bakery somehow managed to succeed where even some large, corporate businesses have often failed in this situation; with an effective and timely crisis communications strategy.
2nd Street Baking Co. is a custom style bakery in the village of Turners Falls, MA. The business has been open now for three years under owners Christa Snyder and Laura Puchalski. Laura first learned about the scandal at approximately 1:30 to 2pm that Thursday, just as the story was breaking online. The baking company's email account began receiving dozens of emails from people all over the country as well as Australia and Canada.
According to Laura, most of the angry e-mailers had copied a form letter that was posted on Facebook to notify the Cooks Source advertisers that they were "supporting plagiarism" by advertising with the publication. The message threatened to boycott their company and its products unless 2nd Street chose to pull their advertisements. Other emails were more brazen and offensive with lines like "how dare you support Cooks Source."
Laura immediately logged on to Facebook to find out more. Seeing the numerous posts on the Cooks Source fan page and researching about the story, she became deeply concerned about the quality of the publication 2nd Street Baking Co. was supporting.
"Not only do we disagree with the way Monica's work was used without her permission, I worried that the association with Cooks Source would negatively impact our business," Laura told me in our email correspondence.
What does it take for a small home-owned business to fight against the mayhem? Engage your audience on their playing field. Within minutes of learning about the situation, Laura began to post a public statement on Facebook that they were pulling their ads.
"As an advertiser, we are disappointed in Cook's Source as we are pulling our ads from this publication. Many of us (as is the case with our business) paid several months in advance for advertising and are unlikely to get any compensation back. We ask that you please stop emailing our business, we agree that the publication made a grave error, but the blame should be placed with them. Please do not make small businesses like mine pay for their error in judgment. "
- Laura Puchalski
(2nd Street Baking Co.)
Laura then continued to post the statement about every 20 to 30 minutes for the first few hours on the Cooks Source Facebook page, with an additional posting on the bakery's Facebook page as well. She also began posting on Cooks Source's Facebook "Discussions" page where new threads would start-up like "Cooks Source Advertisers List."
"As I posted that we had pulled our ads, I would get dozens of responses immediately and the emails would slow down," Laura said. "Then as the statement got pushed further down the page and lost in the sea of other angry posts, the emails would start up again and I would have to post again."
In Laura's research, she discovered that Neil Gaiman had posted something about Cooks Source. She then used the bakery's Twitter account to respond to him in hopes that his 1.5 million followers would pass along the message that they had distanced ourselves from the publication.
"He did help us out in that respect, and also made a donation to the Food Bank of Western MA, which we very much appreciate," Laura said. "We were getting a huge response from people wanting to send us money to compensate our lost advertising dollars, or requests to order products from us in support of us pulling our ads.
Because 2nd Street could not ship most of their products and they did not feel it was morally right on their part to accept money from people, the owner's instead asked for support by donations to the local food bank.
Laura received an email response that evening from Griggs, confirming that the bakery's ads would be removed.
"I have tremendous respect for the power of the Internet!" Laura said. "It can be an extremely useful tool for promoting your business and communicating with your current and potential customers. Unfortunately it can also ruin you, as evidenced by the situation with Cooks Source."
2nd Street Bakery's story is a positive light where others have quickly fallen victim to this kind of chaos. So what public relations strategies can small businesses take away from the experience of 2nd Street Baking Co.?
Research your dilemma:
- Make sure you know ALL the facts
- Appoint a spokesperson who will serve as the point of contact between your business and the media
- Identify key audiences - your local consumers, employees, the media and the Internet
- Develop a communications strategy - including your plan of tactics
- Act quickly to resolve the dilemma
- Tell the truth
- Don't editorialize
- Be accessible to the press and other publics
- Show compassion
- Update your message as frequently as you can
- First and foremost, remaining calm is always best. It is never a good idea to communicate from a place of anger, confusion, or fear. Keeping calm allows you to really think about what is happening around you and decide what the best approach to take for your business really is.
- Acting fast to minimize the impact to your business is also helpful, and respecting your customers (and potential customers) and their feelings is important.
- Knowing that the Internet is a powerful force of positive and negative publicity for your business is also important. It is the fastest way to reach the multitudes and get your messages across. In this instance, it is where this was all taking place so it was also the logical place to communicate our position.
- And always be as professional as possible!
- Use your email to your advantage in this situation. Most email providers include an automated reply message that users can program in their absence. For a small business under the gun from a continuous number of emails, utilizing this means of response will save a lot of time and emotion while helping to quickly spread your message. It will also create less of a disruption for your limited resources.
As a continuing student of the public relations craft, my sincerest respect goes out to Laura and the people of 2nd Street Baking Co. for their inspiring work. It's not often people talk about the crisis communications scenarios that go right but theirs is certainly one worth telling.