Cooks Source: How to Avoid an Unnecessary Crisis

Situation:

When food writer Monica Gaudio discovered that Cooks Source magazine had lifted an article she’d written and printed it in the magazine, she emailed the magazine to inquire about how it had come about. When the editor of the magazine asked what she wanted, Gaudio told the. she wanted an apology and a $130 donation to the Columbia Journalism School as compensation.

Instead, she got this:

“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!”

The response when Gaudio posted this email was jaw-dropping. Thousands of people posted comments to the Cooks Source Facebook page, which went from a couple of hundred fans to three and a half thousand “fans” over the next two days. These comments rapidly turned from general outrage to quite offensive mockery. Commenters also began to review other content on the site, only to find it had been taken from sources such as NPR, Martha Stewart and the Food Network.

Discussion of Cooks Source Sources on Facebook

To make things worse, the editor of the magazine began to post both defensive and aggressive comments on the page, including some that were downright rude, at one point referring to a commenter as “dumbass.”

The magazine tried abandoning the old page and moving to a new one, saying that the old one had been “hacked” (in fact it appears to just have been regular commenters) but the crowd followed them to the new page, despite their setting of the page’s default to just show posts by the page administrator.

Old page:

New Page:

The uproar has done more than just mire the reputation and Facebook page of the magazine; it has also cost them advertisers as some have apparently pulled their ads in protest. It also turned into a mainstream media story as numerous outlets (including the Washington Post and the Guardian) picked-up on the controversy.

Analysis:

Cooks Source has provided us with a textbook case study of how not to manage an emerging issue, from both a non-digital and digital perspective. However, five simple steps could have managed this issue down before the crisis unfolded.

This issue could have been easily managed – the aggrieved party simply asked for an apology and a small donation – but the response to the issue turned it into a full-blown crisis that has advertisers bailing from the magazine. Still, even though their original Facebook page has been rendered unusable by irate commenters, the community manager is still posting aggressive, combative posts on the new page… and getting the same reaction as before.

There are several simple steps companies can take toward avoiding this kind of situation:

  1. Ensure your business practices are legal to begin with – in this case, don’t plagiarize (lesson: some things can’t be fixed by PR or digital).
  2. Develop a moderation policy for your social media properties, so you have something to point to if you are faced with offensive comments.
  3. Ensure everyone is educated around both general and social media-focused employee policies. Proper training and pre-existing rules of engagement should have prevented both the initial email and the ensuring negative online spiral.
  4. Avoid aggressive or defensive responses – both in email and on digital properties. In this case, the issue may have been solved with an initial email reply that apologized and promised it wouldn’t happen again. Instead, an aggressive and clearly inaccurate email provoked a virtual storm. Furthermore, the conduct of the magazine’s editor on the Facebook page ensured the situation went from bad to worse.
  5. Know when you can’t win the battle – don’t dig yourself into even worse trouble by trying to win the battle, and in doing so lose the war. Know when to disengage from the back-and-forth and stick to stand-alone statements rather than trying to win the argument.

What would you add?

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