We’ve all been there: someone says something you disagree with, you tell them they’re talking bollocks. Perfectly acceptable – unless you’re a business saying it to customers. That’s not okay.
On Friday, customer Helen Forsythe visited The Shed and left what she considered to be an honest review on their Facebook page. She said that the cakes looked so delicious, she wanted to try them all, but that she was prevented from doing so because she felt that the cakes weren’t adequately protected from being ‘breathed on, (or worse)’ by customers.
Luckily, The Shed avoided a social media disaster by replying: “We’re sorry that’s how you feel, Helen, although we do think that our cakes are suitably shielded from the public, so that everyone can enjoy them as they’re meant to be enjoyed. If you take a look at this photograph, you can see that it’s pretty difficult for the cakes to be affected by passing customers, but we’re always open to suggestions on how we can improve.” – along with a picture of some pretty well-shielded cakes. And that was the end of that. Feedback was gracefully received, gently disagreed with and even respectfully disproved as an overreaction with the evidence of a simple photograph. The story ends, life goes on and The Shed continues as it always has done.
Except that’s not really what happened. Here’s the actual reply:
Oh dear. Ohhhhh dear.
And it didn’t stop there. As I write this, the story’s spreading across Twitter and Facebook. I expect both of the people on Google+ have seen it by now, too. People are (mostly) in agreement that it’s the worst possible way to respond, yet The Shed continues to retaliate. They’re poking fun at the review by posting pictures of their ‘hygienically prepared’ cakes, despite the preparation never being drawn into question. They’re even citing UK defamation law (incorrectly) – I’m not sure if this is a genuine threat of litigation but if it is, they really wouldn’t get very far:
‘You have to be more responsible for your comments’, said the pot to the kettle.
Basically, right now, they’re using their social media channels to commit commercial suicide. Sound familiar? It should – remember Amy’s Baking Company?
Some people say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Sure – before this all started, I’d never heard of The Shed. Now, because of this, I have.
But on the ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ theory, I disagree. I’ve also now seen The Shed’s official hygiene rating, as published by the Food Standards Agency, because people are posting it as a direct result of the way in which they’ve handled this review.
And there’s your knockout punch. Helen’s review probably wouldn’t have put me off buying cake from The Shed if I ever visited Bath, and I suspect the same could be said of most people – not least because most of us wouldn’t have even seen the review. It would’ve made almost no difference to their business, had they handled it properly in the first place. Their attitude towards customers would prompt me to hesitate, though – would I take my kids into a place where ‘All the family is welcome’ according to their social pages, but where they’re happy to yell ‘bollocks’ in the face of an unhappy customer? Not for a gold pig. And their ‘Zero – URGENT IMPROVEMENT NECESSARY’ food hygiene rating would stop me dead in my tracks. That’s an official rating from an official government agency.
I should specify at this point that I’ve never been in The Shed. In fact, I’ve never been to Bath (I’ve been in the bath, though, before someone starts). I don’t know Helen. I have no involvement in this story other than that of an outside observer. I don’t know how much of what Helen’s said is true. But that’s not even important any more.
To clarify, this blog post isn’t about The Shed’s cake display, or their hygiene standards as a food vendor. It’s about their use of social media as a member of the service industry. My rating on that? Also ‘Zero – URGENT IMPROVEMENT NECESSARY’.
TL;DR – Cake shop gets bad review on Facebook, posts worse than bad reply.
– UPDATES –
Despite the story spiralling on Twitter, The Shed originally remained steadfast in their seemingly unshakeable mentality of ‘bollocks to you all’. Inevitably, it spilled out of social media and into mainstream media. BBC Radio Bristol was the first outlet I spotted, asking Helen if they could interview her on Breakfast the following day (You can listen to a clip HERE). It seems that’s when The Shed finally realised they were getting into a sticky situation.
Naturally, I wasn’t the only person blogging about this. Nigel Morgan, of Morgan PR (he’s commented on this post, prior to this update), also wrote a post which said – essentially – the same as I’ve said here; that it was a PR disaster (Yay me, I concluded the same as an actual PR pro!). He was even quite sceptical of their social veracity in general – pointing out that their twitter following kind of looked, well, more ‘shop-bought’ than ‘home-made’. Anyway, I wrote my blog post to keep my hands out of mischief, but for Nigel, it’s his business. As such – quite rightly – he used his post to encourage businesses to contact him before ‘going nuclear’ on social media. As it turns out, that’s exactly what The Shed eventually did.
Since then, things have slowly improved. But I mean slowly. At first, their approach seemed conflicted – a bizarre mix of humility and arrogance that combined about as well as oil and water. Tweeting about learning a lesson, but then RTing tweets from others, in which Helen was labelled a ‘silly woman’ left me baffled as to what their strategy actually was. And then came this pearler:
Sorry – what?! I’m not sure which pop-up book of PR this came from, but it’s not one that I’ve ever read.
In any case, this morning (60 hours after Nigel was retained), The Shed finally posted an apology to Helen Forsyth. In my opinion, that was 48 hours too late.
I’ve never owned or operated a PR firm. I’ve never studied PR on any level. I’m not a qualified PR professional. Clearly, Nigel ticks some – perhaps all – of these boxes. I’m not sure how heavily-involved he’s been in the social media activity since the morning of Monday 17 February, and far be it from me to be telling PR experts how to manage a crisis such as this but, for what it’s worth, here’s what I would’ve done:
Apologise: The apology to Helen should’ve been the first thing to come out of The Shed after Monday morning’s radio show, followed by a series of sincere ‘we got our response wrong and we’re sorry’ replies to anyone who mentioned the episode.
Nothing else: That’s it. Say you’re sorry and then get back to business as usual – maybe toning down on proactive comms for a few days until the dust has settled. Distance yourself from the thing you got wrong in the first place. Stop talking about the thing. Don’t even refer to the thing unless you’re reactively apologising to people about it, or even gently mocking yourself about it.
Most importantly, be humble: For God’s sake, definitely no bragging about busiest ever days, no RTing those speaking out in support of you about the thing, and no getting drawn back into the argument about the thing. Not ever.
I honestly thought that my previous update would be the last one on this post. But then things took another turn, once again leaving me gobsmacked at The Shed’s attitude towards social media.
Whilst writing the previous update, I noticed a comment on The Shed’s ‘apology’ post to Helen Forsyth. The comment went on and on about how people should think before abusing small independent businesses in social media. It was posted by Janet Stansfield (who is presumably so impassioned on the subject because she herself runs a small, independent ‘design your own jewellery’ business in Newcastle), and I felt compelled to reply to it.
I was particularly careful to ensure that my reply was balanced and fair, while conveying my views clearly. They were that, although a business owner is indeed entitled to rebut criticism of their business, they must do so in a way which isn’t offensive. I pointed out that only one party in the original exchange had been ‘openly abused’, and it wasn’t The Shed. I gave my opinion that, from a PR and social media perspective, they handled it incorrectly, and that their ‘rebuttal’ to Helen’s criticism had caused them far more problems than the criticism itself ever would have. My reply was essentially a very brief summary of this blog post.
As I type this update, I’m kicking myself for not capturing a screenshot of my comment, because it seems that The Shed have learnt nothing about good social media practice from this experience – or from their newly-recruited ‘PR expert’. They deleted it.
When I discovered this on 24 February, I commented again – this time taking a screenshot:
They deleted that one, too. And then they banned me from posting on their page. But that’s not all…
Helen Forsyth – the very subject of their ‘heartfelt apology’, who ‘will always be welcome at The Shed’, isn’t welcome to comment on their Facebook page. They’ve banned her, too.
I should point out that Helen wasn’t banned at the time the ‘apology’ was posted, as I saw a comment on it from her, acknowledging the post.
Perhaps this development wouldn’t be so astounding, had The Shed still been in charge of their own social media channels. But, as I mentioned in the previous update, they’re now under the ‘expert’ guidance of their PR consultant, Nigel Morgan. Ever willing to give the benefit of the doubt, I tweeted Nigel and The Shed three times (count them – one, two, three) to seek clarification on who was deleting fair, balanced comments from their Facebook page. All three tweets were, apparently, deliberately ignored.
Now, in my update on 19 February, I talked about Nigel’s PR pedigree, and my lack thereof. I was kind to him, despite my having reservations about some of his methods. Well, here’s the thing: I don’t care who you are, or how long you’ve managed to keep a PR consultancy afloat. If you advocate the censorship of your critics for no good reason, you’re doing PR wrong. You’re no expert.
From a PR perspective, forcefully suppressing fair and reasonable criticism doesn’t work in your favour – ever. Morgan PR’s ‘about’ section on Facebook says, ‘We help businesses understand how to use public relations and social media to promote their business.’ – Er, not like that, you don’t.
As I mentioned before, Nigel has commented on this blog post, taking issue with the fact that I referenced a government agency’s published findings on The Shed’s hygiene. As he seems to promote a policy of deleting things from the internet, here’s his comment for posterity. Y’know – just in case:
“Entertaining! My own blog on this brought the opportunity to work with The Shed and I would take issue with is the Food Standards Agency Rating – I saw this and dismissed it understanding how those ratings work.
As a new business (they started in November) they start with a zero as there is nothing to rate but are given help and guidance etc so it will be the score they get in the near future that matters! This stops new premises trading on an old premises’ rating.
Easy mistake to make to think it reflects the actual standards – real zeros tend to be closed!”
Hang on a second. Firstly, two months is plenty of time to be getting your hygiene act together if you’re serving food to the public. Secondly, am I supposed to believe that when Gordon Ramsey or Marco Pierre White first open up a posh-nosh restaurant, the council rocks up and gives it a zero rating because it’s a ‘new business’? I suspect not.
Oh, but wait. Two days after leaving his comment here, the tune had changed – in an interview for a Bath Chronicle story two days later, Nigel was blaming the floods. Okay then.
Which is true? Or are they both verses from the bad PR bible of half-truths? Well, I’ve just submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Bath & North East Somerset council, so we’ll soon see.