Food blogging and comps: my take on the revelations of Ian Harrison

Recently in Eater Montreal, Ian Harrison wrote a piece about comps (free meals) for food bloggers. In particular, the bulk of the piece describes the one time that Ian got a comped meal from a restaurant. From the article (I’ve snipped a bit for brevity):

Last summer I celebrated a family event with lunch at Maison Boulud in the Ritz-Carlton hotel. It was close to flawless. My wife was unable to attend so when the restaurant announced in August that Daniel Boulud was going to preside over a menu from his cookbook, Daniel: My French Cuisine, I saw it as an opportunity to try the restaurant together (and, truthfully, spend some quality alone time away from our energetic and relentless daycare-age daughter).

But first I wrote about the event on Eater. When Daniel Boulud comes to town, you do that. […]

Midway through our meal, we spotted Daniel Boulud hobnobbing in the dining room. When he eventually made his way to our table, he couldn’t have been more gracious. But he said something that gave me a twinge of discomfort: “It’s our pleasure to have you here tonight.”

There was a nudge, nudge, wink, wink quality to it. I don’t think it was intended as such but I felt it.

[…]

When the bill never came, we left what we hoped was a nice tip and [left]. On the way home we didn’t speak about the food or the excellent bottle of wine we shared. […] Our focus was on the freebie. A freebie in the order of $250.

I am guessing that’s $250 in Canadian, which is about $208.50 or so in US dollars (UK £137, €179.25) at the time of this writing. Even accounting for this, that’s still a pretty lavish meal for just about anyone in the 99% and maybe even a few in the 1%. It’s the kind of meal that some of us, including people like me, usually only dream of.

And apparently, that’s the going rate for good publicity. What’s alarming, though, is that this is clearly unethical PR, in that the food bloggers are implicitly expected to remain opaque about this. Worse than that, though, are this burning questions: How often does this happen in, say, places like Houston, TX? Dallas, TX? Columbus, OH? Jackson, MS? Memphis, TN? Atlanta, GA? (Just to name a few.) How many otherwise great restaurants are barely getting the chance to last longer than a few months because of unscrupulous and unethical behavior in what amounts to outright bribery of the press?

I don’t really rely on news coverage or food blogs to decide on new restaurants to try. Usually, it’s places I have heard about from friends and acquaintances (over a decade ago I found out what Fogo de Chao was all about from one of the companies I was working for at the time, and I have wanted to try the place since). Sometimes, it’s places I have seen while traveling around the city, or occasionally outside of the city. However, I know a lot of people do rely on traditional media or blogs and may go to a restaurant reviewed well in the local paper whereas they would completely ignore a comparable television or print advertisement. By the same token I know that the local television stations continue to publicize the city food inspectors’ violation reports for similar reasons (so people know where not to go to). The value of publicity cannot be ignored, either way.

Blurring the line between news/publicity and advertising is bad not only for the reporter/blogger, but also for those who would otherwise benefit from good publicity. It also potentially gives the entire businesses (PR and news reporting) a bad name, as well as undermining the trust that people place in bloggers and news media to be transparent. A few unscrupulous bloggers out there who take the comps and write what’s been paid for have the potential to ruin it for all of us long term.

What not to do as a newscaster, demonstrated by Owen Conflenti

This one has me shaking my head.

As recently reported by MediaBistro’s TVSpy blog, KPRC-TV anchor Owen Conflenti recently made an obscene gesture while on camera, apparently directed at someone else in the studio. Mr. Conflenti thought his display of “the bird” was out of frame; unfortunately, he was quite wrong, as evidenced by the screenshot. The video’s missing (more on that later) but a lower quality copy is, however, available as part of the guyism.com story.

It’s one thing when an average person does something like this, but a professional newscaster should have a much higher standard of conduct. However, there are things that make this blunder in judgment worse: the absolutely abysmal handling of the incident from a PR standpoint.

First, as mentioned previously, KPRC-TV falls back on a ludicrous copyright claim for what is clearly a fair use of their broadcast. Due to the way YouTube takes down videos, there’s no way to even find the uploader and ask him/her to contest the copyright claim. (Hopefully he/she is out there reading this blog.) Shame on KPRC-TV for using copyright to interfere with the criticism of the on-air conduct of one of its news anchors.

Second, Mr. Conflenti and the VP of news at KPRC-TV, Deborah Callura  does what everyone in PR is trained not to do when confronted with an inconvenient question: say “no comment.” Ms. Callura could have simply stated something along the lines of “this is unacceptable conduct from an on-air personality and we will take steps to ensure it will not happen again.” Mr. Conflenti did eventually apologize (as evidenced by this follow-up story on TVSpy):

“I’m sorry to everyone for my offensive gesture on television last week,” Conflenti told the Houston Chronicle. “My actions were careless and unprofessional. I can assure my viewers it will never happen again.”

However, this didn’t happen almost a full week after the initial incident. This is an unacceptable delay for someone who is in the business of communications.

The silver lining to this cloud is that it’s a near-perfect case study for those entering the communications business, with a crystal clear lesson: don’t make obscene gestures (or use obscene language) when there’s any chance of you being on camera, and apologize quickly if you do and it gets noticed.

(An aside: I will admit my initial reaction was to find it a bit humorous. That does not change the fact that it is a story about unacceptable conduct by a communications professional, and I want to be sure my readers understand that.)

That sinking failed publicity stunt feeling

The NYTimes.com Dot Earth blog recently featured an interesting piece on the scuttling of a boat called the Ady Gil, featured in a television program called “Whale Wars” shown on Animal Planet. “Whale Wars” is about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and their ongoing harassment and confrontations of Japanese whaling vessels. If you watch the show (I don’t, and in fact I had not heard of it until now) you already knew of the confrontation which resulted in the destruction of the Ady Gil. It is what happened after this incident, however, that is the focus here. From the post:

The news doesn’t relate to the collision, but the aftermath. Pete Bethune, who was the skipper of the destroyed speedboat, the Ady Gil, resigned this week from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, claiming that the boat, donated by Ady Gil, the millionaire it was named for, was unnecessarily scuttled to generate better publicity. There’s quite a bit of coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald.

In the New Zealand Herald, Gil is quoted as saying that he believes Bethune. Watson denies the allegations. (Shortly after the first boat was damaged, Gil started raising money for a replacement.)

In a later post to the Dot Earth blog, Paul Watson, the Sea Shepherd campaign’s leader, responds to this allegation:

On camera, I say, “it’s Pete’s boat, it’s Pete’ call.”

On camera, Pete Bethune says that the boat cannot be salvaged and that his decision was to abandon it.

Abandoning it would have left it as a navigational hazard. It was Pete who went to the vessel to attempt to scuttle it and Maritime Safety Australia was made aware of this. I am not criticizing Pete’s decision. It was the correct decision to make. What I am saying is that neither Captain Chuck Swift nor I ordered Pete to scuttle the vessel.

So why has Pete Bethune decided to make such an accusation to the media and the public that I ordered him to sink the Ady Gil?

The answer is obvious. I fired him the day before for providing false testimony to the Japanese police. He threatened to make this allegation to me if I did not reinstate him. I refused. In fact I sent the threats to the media before he released them.

So what is this story about?

To put it bluntly it was the seizing of an opportunity to make a scandal out of nothing, based on the words of a man who had been fired from Sea Shepherd the day before.

The abandonment of the vessel and the failed attempt to scuttle it was a responsible decision and made known to the proper authorities at the time. What was not justified is the deliberate destruction of the vessel by the Japanese ship Shonan Maru #2.

Now, I admire a good publicity stunt just like most other marketing and public relations counselors/consultants out there. If true, the accusation that a boat was intentionally wrecked and then scuttled (intentionally sank) simply for publicity is pretty damning. However, instead this appears to be more of a case of a skipper fired from his organization for lying to the Japanese police, attempting to extort his way back to his job. It didn’t work.

It does put a huge black mark on the Japanese whalers collectively that the crew of the Shonan Maru #2 intentionally rammed the Ady Gil, an act which was reckless and patently devoid of scruples. However, Pete Bethune, the skipper of the Ady Gil,  deserves the same black mark for a pathetic attempt at extortion, and lying about events that were well documented on video for future use in a television program.

We can all learn from Mr. Bethune’s actions as an example of what not to do. Shame on you, Pete Bethune, and good luck finding a new job. You’re going to need it.

“Inmate…” revisited

I’ve let this sit here way too long. It’s time I post this and be done with it.

This is a follow-up post to my original post on this story back in 2009 November, so just in case you have not already read it, you may wish to go back and read that one and get some of the background. In case you don’t, here it is in a nutshell: I blogged my reaction to a Houston Press article describing an apparent lapse in medical care of a man at the Harris County Jail. While this man, Monte Killian, doesn’t start his unfortunate ordeal with our “justice system” in the best of medical shape, the medical care he receives is so sloppily managed that he is effectively coerced into pleading guilty, and on the day after his release he is immediately sent to the emergency room by his doctor.

Before I go any further: It is my position that regardless of the crime of which one is accused, that this kind of thing should never happen. One whom a government agency has taken into custody and thus accepted the responsibility for should not just be released into the free world in a condition where one should be in a hospital. To do otherwise is reckless.

I honestly had no idea when writing that post on this story that it would be so hotly contested by the Harris County Sheriff’s Department and that I would wind up exchanging several e-mails with both Randall Patterson, the Houston Press reporter, and Alan Bernstein, the HCSD’s director of public affairs. I did learn a few things about the case that I did not know before, that were not made quite as explicitly clear in the original story.

I have seen both the memo Mr. Bernstein sent to the Houston Press, and the response from Margaret Downing, the editor. Unfortunately, I am not permitted to quote from either, but I am permitted to relay my impressions after reading both. Were I not, there would be no reason to enter another post on the topic.

I, of course, did not expect the warmest reception to a story quite critical of a party, by a liaison for that party. Mr. Bernstein’s memo is very aggressive in calling out what he believes to be errors in the story, quotes taken out of context, and he like. I believed many of these errors to be minor and immaterial to the story, even before reading the official word from Ms. Downing that the Houston Press stands by the story as printed.

Even the slightly more significant errors do not really undermine the story. In fact, it’s kind of a stretch to call some of them errors, some can be seen as simply a different way of telling the story that doesn’t quite jive with the county’s PR people want out there.

This part is, or at least should be, public record: Monte did not plead guilty to the drug possession charge, he pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer. However, this latter charge falls squarely in the category of the type of “trumped up” charges often laid on someone in the hope that even if the original case is thrown out, the other charge(s) will stick. Other examples of these kinds of charges: resisting arrest, evading arrest, disorderly conduct, escape and related charges (for those already in custody). These are not the only ones.

The laws are written specifically to make sure these trumped up charges stick even if the original charge is dropped. In fact, just to give you an idea, I’ll quote some of the penal code here, for the charge of resisting arrest:

Sec. 38.03. RESISTING ARREST, SEARCH, OR TRANSPORTATION. (a) A person commits an offense if he intentionally prevents or obstructs a person he knows is a peace officer or a person acting in a peace officer’s presence and at his direction from effecting an arrest, search, or transportation of the actor or another by using force against the peace officer or another.

(b) It is no defense to prosecution under this section that the arrest or search was unlawful.

There are similar sections of other laws (most notably, 38.08 as it applies to both charges related to escape).

I know I’m speculating big time here, but I can’t let this go unsaid. It is entirely possible the “crack rock” the original arresting officer saw was just a ploy to try to establish probable cause, of looking through events with “cop-colored glasses.” I will admit I wasn’t there, and I haven’t seen the original arrest report. At some point I’ll try to get whatever is available as public record.

Even if I were to give the HCSD every benefit of the doubt, and accept Mr. Bernstein’s memo as the gospel truth, I am still left with this: A man who HCSD was responsible for the custody and care of, was given “strict ER precautions” by a county doctor at LBJ Hospital, and yet the day after his release directly to the free world (not to a hospital or medical care facility), he’s in such bad shape he’s sent immediately to the ER by his own doctor.

And yet, the county (as evidenced by Ms. Garza’s statement quoted in the original post) stands by the PR spin that “Mr. Killian’s medical issues were always promptly addressed by the physicians,” everything is fine and dandy. Oh, what, he was barely alive when he pleaded guilty? This newspaper reporter writes this story that he pleaded guilty just to save his life? Hey, we did our job, we kept yet another trial off the court’s docket, we made sure the public defender didn’t have to deal with another trial, mission accomplished.

That’s inexcusable. That’s disgraceful. That’s the kind of stuff that wrecks years’ worth of goodwill and makes honest PR people cringe knowing they might have to clean up that mess.

I’m not expecting first-rate medical care out of the doctors and nurses the HCSD hires to work in the jail. But even the deputies should be able to make the call “hey, we can’t just let this guy wander out into the free world like this, he needs to go to the hospital or at least have a doctor look at him.” Maybe even say to the inmate (Monte in this case) “you’re a free man right now, but we really think you should get checked out by a doctor.”

It does not matter if one is accused of assaulting one of their own. There is a reason for the expression “one of Harris County’s finest.” The badge means one has a duty to be better than that. Those not up to fulfilling that duty shouldn’t be wearing that badge.

Controversy, timing, hockey, personal branding, and publicity

Dan Schwabel (personalbrandingblog.com) recently wrote a piece on the story of two different reactions of hockey players passed over for their respective 2010 Winter Olympics national teams. My interest in this story comes from two interests of mine: professional hockey and marketing/PR. (Yes, I know it may come as a shock to some, but I do have an interest in both.)

Scott Gomez of the Montreal Canadiens, a former NHL All-Star, was passed over for the USA national team. Scott’s reaction was relatively mild-mannered and happy-go-lucky, acknowledging the realities that there are 23 roster slots but certainly more than 23 players that can be seen as qualified to fill those slots, a decision which is extremely subjective and certainly haunts some players passed over for years (probably the most notable example: Herb Brooks).

It is what it is. You get the call, you realize it, you move on and focus more on here. It wasn’t meant to be. Congratulations to the guys who made it. You just wish them the best of luck and hope the U.S.A. brings the gold.

Now, we move on to the reaction of Mikael Samuelsson, who played on the Swedish national team in 2006, and won a gold medal. Given this, it’s a bit more understandable his reaction isn’t exactly the stuff congeniality award winners are made of:

I pretty much have one comment and maybe I’ll regret it. But they can go [expletive] themselves. That’s what I really think. […] If [Swedish coach Bengt-Aake Gustafsson] doesn’t want me, he doesn’t want me.

There is a time for controversy. I think Mikael picked a really good time to be controversial. The gold medal he already has, of course, means Mikael has a little more room to get away with what he said, and in fact may well be the sports equivalent of a “get away with it card” in this case. (Scott has yet to win any Olympic medals, having only played for the USA national team once before in 2006.)

While I generally disapprove of indecorum, Mikael’s reaction will definitely get people talking about him and may have little effect on his real chances of making the Olympic team. That’s not to say Scott Gomez’s graceful reaction was the wrong one. Not all publicity is good publicity, and Scott’s choice was likely a good course of action for Scott in his circumstances. In the proper circumstances, publicity about controversy can be leveraged to work to one’s advantage.