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How NOT to Respond to a Communication Crisis: Brought to You by Cooks Source

November 17, 2010

Almost overnight an Internet firestorm erupted and the ashes have spread like wildfire across the globe.   What started as a blog entry about apple pie is now the center of copyright controversy on the Internet.

"Cooks Source"

A brief recap: (click here for detailed account)

On Nov. 4, a LiveJournal blogger, Monica Gaudio, discovered that her six-year-old copyrighted article, “A Tale of Two Tarts,” was published, without permission, in Cooks Source’s October 2010 issue under the title “As American as Apple Pie – Isn’t.”   She contacted the editor, Judith Griggs, and asked for an apology in the magazine and on Facebook and a $130 donation (ten cents a word for 1,300 words published in Cooks Source) to the Columbia School of Journalism.   That’s it – pretty reasonable, considering the circumstances.

Griggs’s response, in part, via typed email, after claiming “three decades” of editorial experience: 

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!”

Griggs’s embarrassing, unapologetic and legally questionable response catapulted Monica’s story into the Web and sealed the fate of Cooks Source.  In just days, #buthonestlymonica and #crookssource were trending on Twitter, while the once unknown Cooks Source Facebook page collected thousands of new “friends” so they could post mocking messages and disparaging remarks.  Through crowdsourcing, critics produced a Google spreadsheet comparing instances where Cooks Source and a different publication shared the same material – as of today it contains 160 entries, including articles from NPR, Hallmark and Food Network‘s Paula Dean.  (Please see the Wikipedia page for additional details .  Yes! A Wikipedia entry is already published.)

On Nov. 9, Griggs posted a lengthy response on the magazine’s webpage, including this short section: (cut directly from the website.)

“So let me say this now: Monica I am so sorry for any harm I caused you. I never ment to hurt anyone, and I think I did a nice job for you, but the fact remains that I took this without asking you and that was so very wrong. Please find it in you heart to forgive me. I sent the check  to the University and also, because so many people really need help, serious help, I am sending one to Food bank of Western Massachusetts (sorry, I got the name wrong the first time, even tho we did write an article on them).”

Judith Griggs, please stop making things worse – please stop and wait for the storm to subside.

So, let’s look beyond the copyright infringement issue and focus on how she could have handled the communication crisis and what can we learn from this tragic attempt in crisis communication.

A Possible Response:

Griggs should have immediately responded and stopped the fire before it started. 

Mistake number one, not responding quickly and mistake number two, choosing to address the matter in a condescending manner through email.  Any PR professional and most Internet users know that any written correspondence can and most likely will be posted on the Web, so, if Griggs wanted to respond by email, she should have composed a letter she’d want her subscribers to read.  (I would not have suggested written correspondence with a blogger, especially since Monica called first.)

To stop the crisis, Griggs needed to step back, put herself in the blogger’s shoes, as well as, the readers’ shoes.  She needed to disconnect herself emotionally and make sound business decisions, beginning with “know the endgame” and respond to the crisis accordingly.

The endgame is neutralizing the problem.  When there’s nothing to gain from prolonging the issue, the best move is to distinguish the fire as soon as possible.  This is not always easy, but lucky for Griggs, Monica spelled out her demands, and considering the overly reasonable request, the best course of action would have been to accept ownership of the mistake, genuinely apologize for the oversight and immediately print both apologies and donate the $130 to Columbia School of Journalism. 

If the incident persisted, Griggs should have additional solutions in place.

When the facts are bad, which is apparent in this case, a professional needs to be forthright, genuine and approachable.  Beyond the blatant copyright issue, what’s really troubling is Griggs’s childlike and unprofessional response to the situation.  Her attempt to blame mistakes and gain sympathy based on lack of staff, exhaustion and the “good thing she’s doing” is not suitable for an editor with 30 years experience.

Ten Points to Takeaway:

  1. Take action immediately:  A negative story gains speed considerably faster than any other news story.  And Internet users are always on the prowl. 
  2. Do not make excuses for mistakes.  Own up to mistakes and apologize immediately.  In both the email and letter posted on the website Griggs’s nagging attempt to make excuses is insufferably irritating.
  3. The power to defend “what’s right” overpowers any sympathy for a single individual’s feelings.
  4. Don’t underestimate the people’s power of forgiveness.  It’s your attitude and approach to the situation that can make all the difference.  Comebacks are inevitable:  Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer, Michael Vick, Alex Rodriguez 
  5. Do not respond in written form, unless prepared for your subscribers/customers to read your exact words.
  6. Do not underestimate the audience’s intellect and ability to assemble and participate.
  7. Social media insists a person or company talk in a clear, approachable and GENUINE manner. 
  8. Social media equals conversation, which requires listening, and acknowledging people’s opinions and feelings and not just reverting to a one-way communication in which you push your agenda and “side of the story” onto the masses.  They will revolt.
  9. A public statement is sometimes necessary.  Don’t let the Internet tell the story for you.  
  10. Be sure to have a competent PR person protecting your brand and managing your reputation.  Have a plan ready for how to handle multiple crisis situations and of course, be sure to know the rules of copyright.

I’m truly interested to hear your feedback, thoughts and reactions.  Feel free to leave a comment and/or add to the list of takeaways or email me to discuss the situation further.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Purchase permalink
    December 22, 2010 1:18 am

    Your article is excellent. I’ve linked it to my Facebook

    • January 6, 2011 5:36 pm

      Hi Tom. Hope you had a nice holiday. I’ve spent a little time “offline” the past 2 weeks. Thanks for your comment and the link. Happy New Year.

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