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