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.