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PR nightmare for new cafe as blogger bites back

A yet-to-be-opened Melbourne cafe has found itself in the middle of a PR nightmare after a stoush with a local blogger turned horribly wrong.

Brunswick Street’s Stencil Cafe promised in its marketing material that it will become a “Fitzroy institution” daubed with edgy “street art” but the cafe appears to have cruelled that hope after an offer of free coffee turned into a case study on how not to engage with the media.

Acerbic hyperlocal Fitzroyalty blogger Brian Ward, whose altercations with local businesses and media outlets are legend, originally wrote about Stencil’s imminent opening in June, noting its location without extraneous comment.

Then, on January 8, he noticed a sign suggesting another business was about to open on that site, and accused Stencil’s proprietors Phil and Christine of running a substance-less PR campaign. The comments thread tete a tete on that post makes for humorous reading, as the initial free coffee for positive coverage is revoked (Ward employs a strict no coffees for comment rule).

Stencil’s owners could have stopped the torrent of negativity then and there. But things began to spiral rapidly out of control.

On Sunday, Ward published an email from Stencil’s owners “banning” him from the premises for six months due to “poor behaviour”. It’s worth reproducing that verbatim as what not to write when confronted with a hostile critic.

 ”Hi there,

The team here at Stencil have recently had a discussion about your article and poor behaviour regarding it. As a result of this we have decided to place a 6 month ban on you coming into the cafe when it opens up the road from the original planned location in just under a month’s time . However, you can work to over turn this ban with positive press on your blog. But as it stands it will be 6 months of not being allowed into the cafe or getting someone else to come in on your behalf so you can blog about it. Once the ban is up you are welcome to come in and PAY for your coffee or check out some of the fantastic artwork.

I trust this clears things up and I will notify you when the ban is up.”

Owner Phil decided to take on Ward again in the heavily populated comments thread: “As I said earlier, this matter is over. You are banned, deal with it”.

Ward hit straight back: “You are the one who keeps mentioning free coffee. You offered it to me, then withdrew the offer, then reoffered it, then withdrew it again. You’ve created a PR disaster for yourself and I am amused by how poorly you’re dealing with the consequences.”

Yesterday, it got even weirder when a Fitzroy local emailed Ward a photo of a flyer plugging Stencil that falsely quoted him as claiming it was “…going to become a Fitzroy institution.”  Ward wrote that whoever produced the flyer was in fact guilty of fraud and libel.

Shortly after, an anonymous “Fitzroyalty” blog appeared on WordPress. It contains one post, and one sentence, containing the “Fitzroy institution” line.

An email had also arrived from the Stencil team to Ward, offering to hatch a plan to blame a “third party” for the disaster so both Ward and the cafe could emerge with their reputations intact.

My suggestion is telling readers that the whole thing was a gag to get everyone talking about Fitzroyalty and just for readers to enjoy as a bit of different content on the site. We could then say that Stencil was kind enough to get in on the fun. If we say it was a viral type ad for Stencil and not content for you is people could still look on not only us but you badly as well, and that’s the last thing we’d want.”

Then, they suggested they would “help Ward out financially” if he became a party to the ruse, even suggesting that they could jointly finger burger joint Grill’d as the culprit.

Ward, unsurprisingly, wasn’t impressed.

PR doyen Noel Turnbull told Crikey this morning that Stencil’s approach to publicity had “backfired spectacularly”

The first lesson is that the assumption that any publicity is good publicity is a dumb one. For all the talk about social media there’s absolutely nothing new about this situation, there’s only the new platform. It’s just an astonishing response…I wouldn’t recommend using it as a marketing tool,” he said.

Branding expert Stephen Downes agreed, telling Crikey that it turned into a “a really bizarre situation. They didn’t get it all, they seem clueless.”

Frankly, from the tone of the emails these people don’t know what they’re doing. I would assume that a cafe actually needs to open before it starts with its branding strategy. I don’t know that coffee is that hard to find on Brunswick Street, so maybe they should be focusing on the street art angle.”

Ward told Crikey that he also did not want to make additional comments on the issue. “Everything I want to say is on Fitzroyalty”, he said.

Stencil Cafe responded to an email requesting comment but declined to add anything further to the public record. It did not respond when asked directly whether it or an associate of Stencil had produced the erroneous flyer.

The cafe is set to open in about three weeks.

20
  • 1
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Too funny.

    If this is how they manage PR or generally deal with everyday locals (the easy part of running a business), then I’d hate to see how they successfully make drinkable coffee or balance the books.

  • 2
    Steven McKiernan
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    First world problem.

  • 3
    HB
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    actually, a first world Brunswick problem

  • 4
    jankowski vicki
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    They’re also touting for free art on Facebook, promising a coffee or possibly some free art materials for the privilege of decorating and branding the cafe for them. Funny stuff.

  • 5
    paddy
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the #qantasluxury crew have retired from flying high, and are about to take up a new career as “edgy artistic baristas”?

  • 6
    Dikkii
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Stupidest post ever.

    Crikey, lift your game.

  • 7
    Maninmelbourne
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Who cares?

  • 8
    LJG..............
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m thinking of moving to WA. Melbourne is starting to become a little embarrassing.

  • 9
    Sancho
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    I was pretty dismissive at the start of the article, but it turned into an interesting tale of skullduggery.

    No one likes it when retailers gouge and mislead their customers, so it’s nice to see one called out on a national platform.

    I wouldn’t want to see this sort of thing become a focus of Crikey’s but it’s worthwhile to keep dishonest businesses on their toes.

  • 10
    Robin Cameron
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    yuck yuck yuck.

    Maybe this is how civilisation ends. A devolution into to distanciated personal sniping.

  • 11
    LJG..............
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Actually has anyone checked if this cafe is going to exist? Is going to open? Has anyone signed a lease?

    It could just be someone taking the proverbial out of Brian Ward and the media for an Art Assignment.

  • 12
    Georgie
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    A collected works of Andrew Crook is certain to be a good primer for students in the future: This is What Happened to Journalism.
    Subtitle: When Moronic Media Took Over.

  • 13
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    For THIS incestuous inanity I pay a subscription? FFS!

  • 14
    John64
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    This story is interesting and I find it highly fascinating. Please keep me informed with more posts about what happens with regard to this cafe in the suburb of Fitzroy.

  • 15
    Mark
    Posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Geez, is there a rule a guy can’t report an amusing and true story that occurred in an urban Australian setting? Lighten up, cranky-pantses (what IS the plural of that word???) - it’s amusing! It’s not a page 3 girl or equivalent low-brow sh*te. Maybe you should subscribe to the Financial Review instead. They have no sense of humour over there that of which I’m aware.

  • 16
    Bob the builder
    Posted Thursday, 26 January 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    This deserves to be on an obscure Crikey blog as a five line piece with a few links to the original blogs and comments.
    NOT as a main story by a political correspondent.
    THERE ARE MUCH MORE IMPORTANT AND MUCH FUNNIER THINGS GOING ON!!!
    For instance in my locale a private rail operator sent a train across a flooded bridge after 400mm rain overnight, causing massive damage and public cost as well as multi-day closure of the only road or rail access to the rest of the country.
    Perhaps some investment - even if only into the ‘funny’ aspects of the story - would be more relevant than some navel-gazing about a coffee shop FFS.

    This is pathetic Crikey…

  • 17
    Widow Twankey
    Posted Friday, 27 January 2012 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    Lots of Crikey readers work in communications and PR so are very interested to see how other organisations are doing it - well, or not so, in this case. Rather than there being any real news value in this spat, this piece gains it usefulness as an interesting case study. (Although the story is interesting enough to me, a non-Melbournian even.)
    I hope those complaining above don’t mind too much bearing with us Crikey readers who are interested in hearing about PR techniques (and gaffes) - especially in social media, where we are all learning.

  • 18
    Bob the builder
    Posted Friday, 27 January 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    @ Widow

    If people who ‘work’ in PR/communications (just ‘cause it’s paid well, doesn’t make it a real job) don’t know not to be overweening w*nkers, no amount of articles will help. This has naught to do with ‘new’ / social media and everything to do with common or garden hubris. Interesting enough for a short, sharp ‘chunky bit’, but a whole article?!?

  • 19
    Vy Pham
    Posted Friday, 27 January 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I never comment on articles but…. omg BOB THE BUILDER et al… chill out.

    I agree with Mark “it’s amusing! It’s not a page 3 girl or equivalent low-brow sh*te. Maybe you should subscribe to the Financial Review instead. They have no sense of humour over there that of which I’m aware”

    and with Widow - as a subscriber I subcribe not just for political news but also for media news.

    For the record I quite enjoyed reading the article.

  • 20
    Widow Twankey
    Posted Saturday, 28 January 2012 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    @ Bob
    It’s not always well paid. But point taken on the “real job”.

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