Michelle Sullivan Communications

Cooks Source’s annus horribilis: a Marley-esque warning for CEOs and Community Managers

Last month, I walked you through the firestorm surrounding Cooks Source. The editor of this food magazine had unleashed the wrath of bloggers (and those who love them) first for copyright infringement, then by mishandling the blogger she had wronged.

Time for an update.

The protest launched by the online community in support of blogger Monica Gaudio and critical of Cooks Source editor Judith Griggs not only bombarded the Cooks Source Facebook page with negative comments, making it virtually unusable, it was picked up as a story by traditional media. Cooks Source began to lose advertisers and, consequently, revenue. In an interview with a far-too-sympathetic journalist from the  Daily Hampshire Gazette, Griggs explains the impact the online campaign has had on her publication as well as on her, personally.

Do you hear that? It’s the sound of a death knell.

Cooks Source magazine closed mid November. Its Thanksgiving edition was, apparently, its last. Toronto Star/Montreal Gazette contributor Craig Silverman sums it up in his Crunks 2010 : The Year in Media Errors and Corrections piece : Error of the year? Cooks Source Magazine!

While Sarah Lacy of Techcrunch is critical of the online campaign in her « Congrats, Self-Righteous Internet Mob. You killed a magazine » blog post, Caitlan Fitzsimmons of the All Facebook blog has another take on Cooks Source’s disappearance, laying blame squarely on the shoulders of editor Griggs.

What does this dramatic saga tell CEOs and Community Managers?

Big Brother is actually Little Brothers .. and they’re watching you. Orwell warned that Big Brother would be watching. I doubt he imagined that Big Brother would in fact end up being made up of millions of Little Brothers with the power to share information and mobilize online to affect change. Corporate conduct, whether it be from a customer relations point of view, or social engagement point of view, can now be amplified — either positively or negatively — through social media. There’s no such thing as  letting a single disgruntled client go anymore because, after all, how much harm can he do? Angry clients might have complained to their immediate circle ten years ago. Today, they’re complaining to their 600 Facebook friends and Twitter followers. CEOs and Community managers must be aware that poor behaviour is of even greater consequence in a social media world.

The Internet isn’t a huge place. It’s a village. And people talk. Before the average person travelled particularly far, the village he lived in was his world. There was no television, radio or Internet to keep people indoors. Villagers would look for ways to connect with one another, whether it be on the church steps after mass or spending evenings dancing to the music of a single violin at a neighbour’s house. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Online communities aren’t that different from those villages. Divided into niche groups, they form relatively small circles with tools at their disposal to speak to one another and to share information. CEOs and community managers need to tap into their tribes and listen to them. More than that, they need to join the tribe.

It’s wise not to lose sight of the Wisdom of crowds. James Surowiecki coined the phrase, and it is applicable to the Cooks Source scenario. The crowd not only rallied against Cooks Source’s editor Judith  Griggs, it mobilized to fact check, research, dig up other copyright infringements attributed to Cooks Source and publish a list of its advertisers. The crowd pulled its resources together to make the protest movement a reality. Had Griggs apologized sincerely and humbly, she might have quieted the opposition. Her unfortunate attitude, however, only served to fuel the fire. CEOs and community managers should not underestimate the wisdom of crowds, their ability to self-mediate and, especially, their potential for intelligent mobilisation.

You have to react to a building crisis and react quickly. Cooks Source proves that a situation can turn into a crisis within a matter of hours. CEOs and Community managers need to stay on top of their online reputation by ongoing monitoring. Setting up something as easy as a Google Alerts is a quick way to monitor your brand. More sophisticated tools like Sysomos’ Heartbeat and Radian6 comb social media platforms for you and pull together conversations into buzzgraphs and share of voice. Whichever you choose, know that the key to nipping an impending crisis in the bud is staying ahead of it. Address complaints head on, apologize when appropriate and, if Judith Griggs has taught you anything, always communicate with respect and humility. Arrogance does not go over well, and you’ll end up looking like an ass.

Know your tribe. Really know them. If you don’t already engage with the online community that is interested in your industry or market, you’re missing an opportunity to build goodwill before a crisis can happen. Become a respected member of the community and people will not only give you the benefit of the doubt, they’ll come to your defence. Nothing should please a CEO or Community Manager more than to see that the community has his back.

Cooks Source editor Judith Griggs will certainly consider 2010 as her annus horribilis. The damage she created for her brand not only through her initial mistake but through her mishandling of the online community cause her brand irreparable damage. This all sounds very ominous, but it shouldn’t. The good news for CEOs and Community Manager paying attention to the Cooks Source soap opera? They’ll take it as yet another sign that companies and brands appreciated by consumers, who treat them right, and who engage in dialogue with them, will come out as winners in the social media space. Cultivating and working hard to deserve and maintain a good reputation has never been more important as in the age of social media.

Because I’d never heard of Cooks Source two months ago. Had you? Now it has its own wikipedia page. And not for the right reasons.

Did you know: Griggs is now a verb. As in « Why’d you get an F on that essay? » « I griggs’d the professor’s doctoral thesis from her website, and I even cleaned it up for her and told her she should give me an A, but she failed me anyway. »

Let Judith Griggs be your Jacob Marley. Repent, Scrooge. Repent!

Cooks Source firestorm: Hell hath no fury like a blogger (and her community) scorned.

Twitter and Facebook are ablaze. A wronged blogger has mobilized her online community (and their online community. And so on. And so on. Like a Faberge organic shampoo commercial). Her grievances have gone viral and her supporters are attacking the brand at the source of her frustration. As a PR practitioner guiding my clients into the world of social media, I see this as an opportunity for brands to (once again) learn from the very very big mistakes of others. In the age of social media, bad policy and bad customer service can bring unparalleled damage to the brand whose image you work so hard to protect. There is no escaping scrutiny and the wrath of angry consumers when a complaint captures the attention of the online community.

In case you’ve missed the drama, here’s a recap:

Monica Gaudio found out through a friend that one of her blog posts had been reprinted without her permission by foodie magazine Cooks Source (the Internet is also ablaze about the lack of an apostrophe, but that’s another story). As she explains in her blog post, she contacted the editor of Cooks Source in an attempt to understand how her article had ended up in print. Upon realizing it had been plagarized, she asked for a public apology on Facebook and in the magazine as well as monetary compensation in the form of a symbolic donation to the Columbia School of Journalism.

Editor Judith Griggs responded by email as follows:

« Yes Monica, I have been doing this for 3 decades, having been an editor at The Voice, Housitonic Home and Connecticut Woman Magazine. I do know about copyright laws. It was « my bad » indeed, and, as the magazine is put together in long sessions, tired eyes and minds somethings forget to do these things.

But honestly Monica, the web is considered « public domain » and you should be happy we just didn’t « lift » your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me… ALWAYS for free! »

Dismissive. Arrogant. Condescending. Factually wrong (content published online is NOT public domain and copyright free). Just bad from start to finish. From a PR —  not to mention customer service — point of view, this reply is riddled with strategic landmines. We can only hope Ms Griggs’ eyes and mind were tired when she wrote it …

So where do things stand a little over 24 hours after Monica Gaudio posted her story?

  • Her blog post has 17 pages of comments (and counting)
  • The Cooks Source Facebook page has gone from about 130 « fans » to 2988 « fans » … although judging from the slew of negative comments on the page’s wall, Facebook needs to come up with an option other than « like » for pages. It is painfully obvious that these are not fans.
  • Guy Fawkes is currently Twitter’s trending topic … but Cooks Source and the newly developed  hashtags #cooksource #crookssource and #crooksource are getting their share of Twitter’s attention. The brand is being coopted by others (@crookssource) and fake Twitter accounts are being set up : @cooksource and @cookssource (at least I _hope_ that last one is fake).


Lessons to be learned:

1. Your staff are your ambassadors. They become very visible ambassadors when what they say (or write) is published online. Educate them about new realities. It’s possible that like Ms Griggs, they’ve been doing things ‘that way’ for 30 years. Times have changed and it’s high time everyone knows it.

2. Understand that what happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas. Your customer service emails can be published online in a blink of an eye. So can your customer service calls, for that matter. And talk to Comcast about the power of video. Make sure the quality of your customer service is always something of which you can be proud.

3. Even if you’re not ready to enter into the social media space, it’s wise to stake your claim on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. If you don’t, someone else will. And you might not like what they decide to do with it.

4. Learn from the successes of others. Companies like Best Buy, Dell and Comcast have managed to turn disgruntled bloggers into brand ambassadors simply by acknowledging mistakes and by starting to work towards rebuilding bridges. They’ve entered into the conversation in a real way and it’s paid off.

5. Apologize. Sincerely. Then try to move on. There are good stories to share, so share them. And let your natural ambassadors .. your employees, your fans … share them too.

6. A fundamental shift in communication has happened in the last few years. Free yourself from the illusion of control. Invest in authentic conversations with your clients.

A message to Cooks Source Magazine and its editor: It’s time to face the music. Trust me. You don’t want to end up like Nestle, who temporarily abandoned the Facebook ship after a Greenpeace led campaign mobilized the online community and bogged down their page.  Hundreds of negative comments on your Facebook wall can seem overwhelming, but it’s feedback worth listening to. Embrace the opportunity.

I write this blog post in the middle of the night, having been violently awakened by the realization that my siamese cat had gone hunting in my country home and brought a half-dead mouse back into my bed. I see parallels, don’t you? Your brand deserves a better fate than the gift my warrior-feline presented to me tonight. Don’t let social media keep you up at night. Make sure you and all your employees manage your brand’s image online as well as off by respecting your clients, by apologizing to them when required and by demonstrating that you’re attentive to their concerns.

Social media offers you an unprecedented opportunity to engage in conversation with existing and potential clients. Grab it.

MAJ: the Internet is having fun with Cooks Source by accusing them of any of a thousand different things. My personal favourites:

Cooksource was on the Grassy Knoll

and

Cooks Source’s keyboard has 3 buttons: C, V and Ctrl