It’s barely 24 hours since the Cooks Source/Judith Griggs saga blew up, but so much has happened in that time that I thought it worth reflecting on how other publishers might handle a similar situation.
Although it’s an extreme example, the story has particular relevance to those publications that rely on Facebook or another web presence to publish material online and communicate with readers, and might at some point face a backlash on that platform.
In the case of Cooks Source, their Facebook page went from 100 ‘likes’ to over 3,000, as people ‘liked’ the page in order to post a critical comment (given the huge numbers of comments it’s fair to say there were many more people who un-’liked’ the page as soon as their comment was posted). The first question that many publishers looking at this might ask is defensive:
Should you have a Facebook page at all?
It would be easy to take the Cooks Source case as an indication that you shouldn’t have a Facebook page at all – on the basis that it might become hijacked by your critics or enemies. Or that if you do create a page you should do so in a way that does not allow postings to the wall.
The problem with this approach is that it misunderstands the fundamental shift in power between publisher and reader. Just as Monica Gaudio was able to tell the world about Judith’s cavalier attitude to copyright, not having a Facebook page (or blog, etc.) for your publication doesn’t prevent one existing at all.
In fact, if you don’t set up a space where your readers can communicate with you and each other, it’s likely that they’ll set one up themselves – and that introduces further problems.
If you don’t have a presence online, someone else will create a fake one to attack you with
After people heard about the Cooks Source story, it wasn’t long before some took the opportunity to set up fake Twitter accounts and a Facebook user account in Judith’s name. (UPDATE: Someone has registered JudithGriggs.com and pointed it at the Wikipedia entry for ‘public domain’, while a further Cooks Source Facebook page has been set up claiming that the original was “hacked”)
These were used in various ways: to make information available (the Twitter account biography featured Judith’s phone number and email); to satirise Judith’s actions through mock-updates; and to tease easily-annoyed Facebook posters into angry responses.
Some people’s responses on Facebook to the ‘fake’ Judith suggested they did not realise that she was not the real thing, which leads to the next point.
A passive presence isn’t enough – be active
Judith obviously did have a Facebook account, but it was her slowness to respond to the critics that allowed others to impersonate her.
Indeed, it was several hours before Judith Griggs made any response on the Facebook page, and when she did (assuming it is genuine – see comments below) it was through the page’s welcoming message – in other words, it was a broadcast.
This might be understandable given the unmanageable volume of comments that had been posted by this time – but her message was also therefore easily missed in the depths of the conversation, and it meant that the ‘fake’ Judith was able to continue to impersonate her in responses to those messages.
One way to focus her actions in a meaningful way might have been to do a ‘Find’ on “Griggs” and respond there to clarify that this person was an imposter.
Instead, by being passive Judith created a vacuum. The activity that filled that vacuum led in all directions, including investigating the magazine more broadly and contacting advertisers and stockists.
Climb down quickly and unreservedly
While being passive can create a vacuum, being active can – if not done in a considered way – also simply add fuel to the fire.
The message that Judith eventually posted did just that. “I did apologise to Monica via email, but aparently [sic] it wasnt enough for her,” she wrote, before saying “You did find a way to get your “pound of flesh…””.
This “blaming the victim”, as one wall poster described it, compounded the situation and merely confirmed Judith’s misunderstanding of the anger directed at her.
An apology clearly wasn’t what people wanted – or at least, not this sort of reserved apology.
A quicker, fuller response that demonstrated an understanding of her community would have made an enormous difference in channeling the energy that people poured into what became an increasingly aggressive campaign.
UPDATE (Nov 9): As of a few hours ago Cooks Source appear to have published an official statement which includes a more fullsome apology. The statement doesn’t help, however, partly because it doesn’t address the key issues raised by critics about where it gets content and images from, partly because its sense of priorities doesn’t match those of its audience (the apology comes quite late in the statement), and partly because it is internally inconsistent. Commenters on the Facebook page and blogs have already picked these apart.
There’s also a wonderful ‘corrected’ version of the statement which does an impeccable job of illustrating how they should have phrased it.
Engage with criticism elsewhere
The Cooks Source Facebook page wasn’t the only place where people were gathering to criticise and investigate the magazine. On Reddit hundreds of users collaborated to find other breaches of copyright, put up contact details for the copyright holders, and list advertisers that people could contact. Someone also created a Wikipedia entry to document Griggs’ instant notoriety.
Even if Judith had shut down the Facebook page (not a good idea – it would have merely added further fuel to the fire), the discussion – which had now become a campaign and investigation – was taking place elsewhere. Engaging in that in a positive way might have helped.
A magazine is not just content
One of the key principles demonstrated by the whole affair is that magazines are about much more than just the content inside, but about the community around it, and their values. This is what advertisers are buying into. When I asked one of Cooks Source’s advertisers why they decided to withdraw their support, this is what they said:
“I would estimate that between the emails, [Facebook] messages, calls, and people following us on Twitter, we’ve been contacted by more than 100 people since I first heard of this about 5 hours ago. That doesn’t include many many people who commented on fb to our posts stating that we had requested to pull our ads from the publication. We are just simply trying to run our small business, which by most standards is still in its infancy, and being associated with publications like this that don’t respect its readers (who are all our potential customers) is unacceptable to us in light of their practices. What angers me even more is the fact that it is being made light if by the Editor herself. It is disrupting our business and linking us to something we do not support.”
Postscript: How it unfolded, piece by piece
Kathy E Gill has a wonderfully detailed timeline of how the story broke and developed which offers further lessons in how a situation like this develops.