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Marketing spin spills over to blog comments

As the AJC’s chief dining critic, it isn’t often I bestow a “Fair” rating on a restaurant. But if I feel I can’t even recommend a place to its target audience, then I’ll write the review the restaurant deserves. After spending nearly $550 on two lackluster visits at a new Buckhead restaurant called Ocean Prime, I couldn’t make the case for assigning it a star.

After the review published online on our Food and More blog (ajc.com/go/foodandmore), I expected to hear an earful in the comments section. As things turned out, more people agreed with my assessment than not. But one from someone calling herself FoodieATL stood out from the others with this comment (lightly edited for keystroke error):

“I have been to Ocean Prime quite a few times and have always had great food and great service. The prices are very similar to most other Buckhead restaurants of this type, and the experiences I have had are worth the money. It’s also fun to just go sit at the bar and share some sides and appetizers with friends if you don’t want to have a big dinner. The piano players they have are great!” [sic]

As a blog administrator, I was able to see the email address associated with this post. I recognized the person as an employee of the Reynolds Group — the public relations firm that Ocean Prime has retained locally. FoodieATL and I went back and forth commenting a couple of times, and I chided her for not being more forthcoming.

The readers took it from there. “BUSTED!” read the first response. Many subsequent commenters were downright gleeful at this turn of events. I might even call the mood one of catharsis.

Clearly, readers are sick to death of being marketed to, bombarded with disguised advertisements and just plain gamed. But it happens all the time. How many online restaurant reviews are written in good faith, and how many are corrective measures aimed to sway public opinion? How often do chefs advance on TV reality shows because judges like their savory food, and how often do they stay in the game because producers like their spicy personalities?

When questioned about her firm’s disclosure policies, Reynolds Group President Mary Reynolds writes in a statement that she does not dissuade her employees from expressing their “personal opinion” on blogs, even if they do so anonymously about the firm’s clients.

“We do not request or make it a policy for our employees to comment on restaurant reviews, anonymously or otherwise. The blog comment in question was made from a personal computer and personal email address with no attempt to disguise it, and it is the personal opinion of one of our employees.”

“The key is transparency, ” says Ken Bernhardt, a professor at the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University. “The person has the right to give their opinion, but they have an obligation to be fully transparent about the role they play.

“Besides the ethical aspect to it, there’s the factor that if you do post something without full disclosure, and it blows up as it did in this case, you have the practical complication of making the service or product look even worse, ” says Bernhardt. “There are practical reasons for transparency in addition to the ethical reasons.”

In 2007, Whole Foods Market Chief Executive Officer John Mackey admitted to posting a number of anonymous comments on a message board talking up his company while disparaging his competitors. He apologized to shareholders and left his PR team to clean up the mess.

While there are rumors of some local public relations firms gaming reader reviews and managing social media feeds for their clients, two that I contacted say they have strict transparency policies.

“I go over and beyond, ” says Melissa Libby of Melissa Libby & Associates, noting she tweets a monthly disclosure on her popular Twitter feed to alert followers that she will mention clients as well as nonclients in her postings. Her staff rarely comments on blogs and websites, “But if they do, everyone knows they have to say who they are and what their relationship with the restaurant is.”

Libby says clients often ask her to respond to poor reviews on user-generated sites, such as Yelp, but she refuses. Elizabeth Moore of Green Olive Media, a local public relations and branding firm, has had the same experience.

“Clients will ask me to do something to ‘fix’ a bad review, but it’s just not something we do. As publicists we’re not people who have any control over that message. That’s not what PR is about.”

That’s the distinction, and that was the breaking point for readers and commenters on the Food and More blog’s review of Ocean Prime.

The reason people are so incensed is because this breaks the tacit division between public space and private space that governs discourse online. We all know that we can anonymously chirp in as nobodies, all the while aware that some people are pushing agendas. But to have a publicist take advantage of anonymous commenting crosses a line. That goodwill from full disclosure is the only thing keeping a wall between targeted ads and honest discussion.

- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

38 comments Add your comment

George

February 13th, 2012
7:33 am

If it costs over $500 to go eat somewhere for a couple of meals, it shouldn’t even be a thought that the restaurant would be getting a bad review. Sounds like these folks should worry less about marketing and more about food/service. Marketing is essentially just ‘air freshener’… If it looks like it and smells like it, it probably is it. Marketing just tries to convince you its not b/c they sprayed the room with an intoxicating aroma of lilacs….

BehindEnemyLines

February 13th, 2012
8:16 am

Roughly 1/3rd of online reviews (the amateur kind) are phony, and that’s just the ones that the computer algorithms can spot. “Let the reader beware” is probably the lesson here. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/a-lie-detector-test-for-online-reviewers-09292011.html

reds

February 13th, 2012
8:19 am

Even if it was done on a personal email, and on personal time, she still has a vested interest in the restaurant, and therefore the comment. I think that full disclosure is a requirement, but I do market research in my current position, and am required to fully disclose who I am to our competitors.

art

February 13th, 2012
8:28 am

Marketing is ultimately only as good as the product or service being promoted. Despite the fact that most of us are not classically trained chefs or professional journalists, we can usually see the lipstick on the pig. It’s hard not to become a die-hard cynic in this constantly “Photoshopped” world. Thankfully you still can’t “Photoshop” the taste of food.nor the service with which it’s served.

John Kessler

February 13th, 2012
9:27 am

George – Just to be clear and fair to the restaurant, the $500+ was spent to feed six diners over the course of two meals. I’m not saying they weren’t charging the prices they needed to given the cost and portion size of the food and the not-inconsiderable expense of the build out. But it is an expensive restaurant, and I did feel that I spent enough money there to make the call. So I don’t want to pile on the restaurant again, here.

Grasshopper

February 13th, 2012
9:27 am

I don’t think anyone is surprised that PR ‘professionals’ attempt to sway people by posting glowing reviews in blog comments; this is an unfortunate by-product of the brave new world technology has blessed(?) us with.

The real surprise here is the failure of FoodieATL to cover her tracks. And the coup de grace…John’s subsequent outing of said professional. Good stuff!

kmb

February 13th, 2012
9:50 am

In medicine conflicts of interest are clearly stated in articles and presentations. In politics donors are public information. In law being an advocate is clearly disclosed. News outlets acknowledge ownership relationships. In Public Relations they apparently have no ethics. You can say anything about your clients without divulging your monetary relationship with them. If PR firms don’t tighten up their ethics, they will be useless to their clients. No one will believe a comment that goes conter to the trend on a blog involving a business.

Jenn B

February 13th, 2012
10:01 am

Maybe it’s cynicism, but I don’t think it’s too hard to weed out fakes. Like anything else, it’s the law of averages, throw out the top, throw out the bottom, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The PR folks are usually posting the great reviews and the worst reviews have to be taken with a grain of salt because it’s usually someone with a grudge.

Mike

February 13th, 2012
10:13 am

John,

I have no problem with you giving a bad review to the restaurant, but the thing that troubles me is that when you add a comment to ajc.com, it says “Email-required, but will not be published”. It seems that you have violated this by immediately outing this person by identifying their email. I just think that it is unfair to people who comment on blogs/articles,etc. We are expecting that have the freedom to comment without being outed by the admin.

Just my two cents.

RK

February 13th, 2012
10:20 am

Mike, where was the email published? Would you be able to email that person now?

Jenn B, that’s how you’ve got to look at them, and also look for people that seem to have similar tastes and writing styles. I’m not going to rely on someone that writes like a teenager, for example.

My 2 Cents

February 13th, 2012
10:27 am

“Marketing is essentially just ‘air freshener’… If it looks like it and smells like it, it probably is it.” I totally agree with George. Read all comments and reviews with a degree of suspicion.

I don’t have a problem with an individual expressing a personal opinion to defend a client in the comment section of a review–regardless of their day job. I would only consider it unethical if they were padding the comment section multiple times under several different user names.

I have no horse in the Ocean Prime race (other than the fact that I live in Buckhead and feel a desperate shortage of lively restaurants) but I did think the no star review was harsh. I ate there in January with a big group and everything we ordered was pretty good (mainly steaks & salads). Way too expensive? Probably, but most steak houses in Buckhead are. The service was nice and I honestly enjoyed being back in a crowded, happy restaurant for a change, so for that it gets my points. Do I want 10 more Vegas-style steak houses in my hood? No way. We could use some of the less flashy innovation that is going on over on the Westside and in Decatur though.

PJ

February 13th, 2012
10:29 am

I’ll start out & say that I am a flak. I do not represent anyone in the food or restaurant industries, nor does my practice area overlap with those industries. I read & comment about food because I love to eat.

I find this situation highly unfortunate for the profession of public relations. I am an active member of the Georgia chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and am Accredited Public Relations (APR), a distinction earned by demonstrating experience and depth of knowledge in the field, including operating under a Code of Ethics. I capitalize that because there is a Code of Ethics for public relations professionals widely taught in school and advocated for by PRSA. You can view it in its entirety here: http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/CodeEnglish/. However, unlike in other professions, PRSA has no real oversight to discipline professionals who act outside of the stated ethical boundaries. It serves as an organization to advocate for excellence in the profession.

Though so much of the Code applies to this situation, I’ll point out a few of the provisions of which I feel this professional and her firm should be aware (copied directly from the PRSA site):

HONESTY
We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.

DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION
Core Principle Open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society.

Intent:

To build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making.

Guidelines:

A member shall:

Be honest and accurate in all communications.
Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible.
Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.
Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
Disclose financial interest (such as stock ownership) in a client’s organization.
Avoid deceptive practices.
Examples of Improper Conduct Under this Provision:

Front groups: A member implements “grass roots” campaigns or letter-writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups.
Lying by omission: A practitioner for a corporation knowingly fails to release financial information, giving a misleading impression of the corporation’s performance.
A member discovers inaccurate information disseminated via a website or media kit and does not correct the information.
A member deceives the public by employing people to pose as volunteers to speak at public hearings and participate in “grass roots” campaigns.

RJM

February 13th, 2012
10:53 am

@Mike: Go back and look at the comments thread on the Ocean Prime review. John was very careful NOT to publish the offending commenter’s email address. He just made clear that HE had seen her email address and knew her to be a PR rep. Unfortuantely, I’m sure all this attention will just drive PR folks to hype up their clients using personal email accounts and perhaps less obviously worded reviews.

Next time I hear somebody complain that professional reviewers are obsolete in the Internet age, I will cite this episode as a great example of why posts by “yelpers,” blog commenters and other social media coverage of restaurants should be taken with a HUGE grain of salt.

Mike

February 13th, 2012
10:59 am

I am borrowing this from someone else but it better explains my point I made above:

I think this sort of “outing” often violates terms of service. If we’re going to use the private information we collect during the sign-up process (like name, IP address and email address), we need to disclose that. Instead, most privacy policies and terms of service say that we will NOT disclose that information unless required by law. When a user signs up to our sites and puts in their “publicly displayed name” (their alias), they are trusting that their alias will be used.

When there is a legitimate news value in exposing commenter, there may be an argument that would make sense, but disagreeing with a bad food review isn’t one of them. Additionally, if your site has those kinds of concerns and wants to “out” commentators, consider a system where all commentators use their real names and are aware of that (like Facebook comments).

[...] Marketing spin spills over to blog commentsAtlanta Journal Constitution (blog)After the review published online on our Food and More blog (ajc.com/go/foodandmore), I expected to hear an earful in the comments section. As things turned out, more people agreed with my assessment than not. But one from someone calling herself … [...]

Kar

February 13th, 2012
11:19 am

Isn’t this an overall theme in general across industries? Even for movies, PR flunkies and studio exec’s have been found pumping up online reviews and criticizing critics under false id’s.
I tend to feel that the faux flattery offsets the disgruntled who would criticise everything because their underwear’s too tonight that morning but overall, consumers aren’t fooled either way.

Crunch Hardtack

February 13th, 2012
11:45 am

Whenever I read online reviews such as Yelp, I rarely read the positives because of things just like this.

Erika Koster

February 13th, 2012
11:47 am

FoodieATL may have violated the FTC’s Online Endorsement Guidelines by not disclosing her status when endorsing the restaurant. “Under these guidelines, a positive review from a person connected with the seller or product (”someone who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product or service” or who gets a cut of the sales) should come with a disclosure.” http://blog.ericgoldman.org/archives/2011/03/ftc_endorsement_1.htm.

Lorenzo

February 13th, 2012
12:26 pm

Ironic how the employee of the PR firm Reynolds Group who posted the supposedly personal opinion ended up creating bad PR for Reynolds Group. Any PR firm that does not educate their employees about this issue lacks the kind of sophistication I would look for in hiring a PR firm. A PR firm employee has special duties to his firm and his firm’s clients that go beyond what would be expected of some other type of vendor. Reynolds Group president Mary Reynolds just dug the bad-PR hole that much deeper by standing behind the employee and her firm’s poor employee education practices.

RK

February 13th, 2012
12:45 pm

Mike, the email address was not published.

SP

February 13th, 2012
2:07 pm

I think the reason this bothers people is because a blog is a way for people to express their own honest opinions based on their own experiences and obviously, the PR rep’s “response” was not really honest or an opinion based on personal experience. Glad they were outed. However, if anyone would like to pay me to make a false yet glowing opinion on their restaurant or business, please contact me! I could use the dough!

Baltisraul

February 13th, 2012
5:22 pm

My guess is that PR firm is no longer representing this resturant. They should have been fired!

Jim R

February 13th, 2012
5:50 pm

Can you say ‘New Coke’ If nothing else this person succeeded in getting the name of the restaurant on the front page….laughing all the way to the bank I’d say.

Debra Bethard-Caplick, MBA, APR

February 13th, 2012
7:48 pm

I’m with PJ – I also work in PR, and this is the kind of behavior that gives the PR profession a bad name, and gives me heartburn. It will become Exhibit #1 in my class for PR & advertising students on how NOT to manage PR for a client.

If the PR person was commenting on her own personal behalf, then she should say so. If she’s the account executive for this restaurant, she should have contacted you directly, and if there was a resolvable problem about the restaurant, then it should have been addressed that way. If the restaurant is genuinely bad, there’s nothing she can do about that, and the review is deserved – which she should make clear to the client. Sometimes that’s something PR people do; it’s just not as visible as the media relations aspect. She could have offered to have you back “on the house” once the client improved its offerings, or she could have persuaded the client to institute a money-back guarantee, or any number of other options. It’s easy for me to armchair quarterback – it’s not my client. But anonymous postings defending the client? That’s waaay over the ethical line as established by the Public Relations Society of America.

And Jim R, contrary to what you seem to believe, not all publicity is good publicity. This person did end up “getting the name of the restaurant on the front page…” as a terrible, overpriced restaurant that can’t earn even decent reviews on its own.

With Vic

February 13th, 2012
9:37 pm

It’s crap like this that makes me avoid reading comments to ajc posts (yes, I see the irony in posting a comment on this). AJC needs to grow a pair and move to a facebook based commentary platform like several other newspapers have (LA Times, San Diego Tribune, Richmond Times Dispatch). There people can’t hide behind name calling and fake names like I am now and would be more transparent. See the study below http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/media-lab/social-media/143192/news-sites-using-facebook-comments-see-higher-quality-discussion-more-referrals/

Dave

February 13th, 2012
9:42 pm

I’ve written about it elsewhere at AJC.com but you really should have a talk with your advertising and marketing folks, they suffer from some of the same things you are attacking here:

http://blogs.ajc.com/atlanta-at-last/

FM Fats

February 14th, 2012
11:53 am

How about the trend of restaurants stuffing the ballot box for Best of Big A posts here? The top two places in the recent Best Burger voting are shams that should be ignored.. Now they can print up the piece about the winners, laminate it, and put it up next to a picture of Travis Tritt or Southside Steve in the front of the restaurant, or have a banner made to hang in the window. Feh.

A

February 14th, 2012
12:56 pm

Why didn’t she just use a fake email? The AJC doesn’t check to make sure what you put into the email field is legit.

Joe

February 14th, 2012
2:05 pm

I’m not understanding how anyone could “take advantage” of anonymity when they weren’t actually using the comments section anonymously? John, you are the admin of this blog, you are able to read the email addresses, and even respond to comments yourself. The user provided their real email address (which I’m guessing had their name in it?) It also seems apparent you know this person since you were quickly able to identify the company they worked for. The feeling from reading this and the previous story and posts is as if there was some great investigative journalism that occurred here (looking up IP addresses, computer forensics, etc), when what happened is you saw a name of someone you know. All I see someone posting a comment about your review, you taking exception, and spinning it into a story for your own benefit at this expense of this person. It just seems that everyone else has mindlessly followed along, kicking dirt on this person without actually taking a few seconds to look at the facts. I’m not sure what more transparency you are looking for than for on comments to your blog. Its like previous comments have pointed out: if you want to hold this blog to a higher standard, force people to connect their Facebook accounts and if the user really wanted to hide transparency, wouldn’t they have used a fake email address?

A

February 14th, 2012
4:06 pm

I use a fake email all the time when I post. How can John or anyone else know my real email when I’m coming in from a web browser and type in a fake email that clearly no one bothers to check to see if it’s legit or not.

Old Man

February 14th, 2012
10:56 pm

Anybody who believes anything they read on a “review” site on the internet is just plain naive. Those days have come and gone. John, do a story on Yelp’s business model. People used to go to jail for protection schemes.

Art

February 15th, 2012
8:50 am

@A, I hate to burst your “anonymous bubble” but you’re not fooling anyone with that fake email address stuff. Savvy internet folks can tell where you “mailed” your email from. In other words, they know where you live so be careful what you’re writing and to whom you write it.

Bhorsoft

February 15th, 2012
6:14 pm

I’m a little late to this conversation, but I noticed that FoodieATLs original comments were the only glowing comments about the place up to that point in the comments. Based on the review and the prior comments it was easy to figure out that FoodieATL was either incredibly ignorant about fine dining or that they were a flak of some sort.

Mel

February 16th, 2012
11:10 am

@Joe. Well said. Be wary, people, John Kessler doesn’t like to be crossed. And in this case, he couldn’t resist the ‘gotcha’. Everyone piled on to foodieATL for questionable ethics, but what about John’s? I know a dining critic may not be held to the same journalistic standards as a news/investigative reporter, but I take issue with John outing this commenter, casting a pall over her firm, perhaps splashing onto their other clients as readers enjoyed the melee. Because she wants people to try the restaurant for themselves instead of taking his word for it? He could have responded to foodieATL in a more responsible way. Yes, I agree she should have said she has a connection to the restaurant, but he shouldn’t have revealed her identity when it clearly says email is “required, but will not be published”. It wasn’t published, but he skirted that technical detail like a slippery politician.

kmb

February 16th, 2012
11:59 am

For the record this is all of the “outing” that John did: “FoodieATL – Do you think it would be germane to point out that you work for the public relations firm Ocean Prime has retained locally? I can see from your name (visible to administrators) that you do. Did they know you were part of their PR team when you sat at the bar? Did you pay? Just curious!”
The rest of the “outing” actually came from the reply from the Reynolds Group. The name of the employee was never given out.

John Kessler

February 16th, 2012
12:29 pm

Mel- not sure where you’re coming from. I relish good open discussion and never assume my opinion is right. But I don’t hesitate to express it.

Mel

February 16th, 2012
4:58 pm

You’re right, sharing opinions is a good thing, and is why I took offense to your decision to ‘out’ the PR rep. Any rational person who reads online reviews knows the truth lies somewhere between horrific and excellent. Maybe I’m wrong, but I sensed your enjoyment over having outed her as an “insider”. Why not leave a differing comment alone?

Mel

February 19th, 2012
9:07 am

Kmb, Correct. However, John has been at this game long enough to know that if you throw something out there, the public will take it and run. If he really didn’t anticipate the fallout, he should chalk this up to ‘lesson learned’ and be more responsible next time. Technically you’re right, but culpability is in play as well. I’m a free speech fanatic and don’t want to see one-sided reviews. Let me find the balance myself between negative and positive comments. I think folks will shy away from disagreeing in fear the blogger may reveal his or her identity. My opinion on this will mean nothing to the AJC, but in the spirit of free speech…there it is.