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What PR Types Can Learn from the Notorious Ocean Marketing Debacle

Mike Dolan, 28 December, 2011 0 Comments

Over the last few days, one of the most unbelievable and incredibly visible PR disasters has been ripping its’ way through the Geek-O-Sphere: “The Ocean Marketing Incident”. If you haven’t had the twisted pleasure of reading the first hand accounts that make up “The Ocean Marketing Incident” for yourself, I won’t deprive you of that entertainment. Penny Arcade, Kotaku, Venture Beat and scores of other websites have done an excellent job reporting the facts and delivering some scathing opinions. Instead, I think there are some lessons about how to properly operate in the online public relations world and how to interact with geek culture. Being both a lifelong geek and having spent most of my working life in PR, this is a subject that interests me both professionally and personally. Never Bully A Geek In my entire working life in the PR sphere, I can’t recall another incident that tore through the web so quickly, and with so much vitriol as “The Ocean Marketing Incident”. Why? Geeks don’t hate anything as much as they hate a bully. Sadly, the web is currently filled with fake geeks. In the last few years, it has become fashionable to throw in a pair of oversized, non-prescription glasses, profess your love of Zelda as a kid, tell everyone you know what Linux is and proclaim yourself a Geek. What’s missing from these credentials is the years of being picked on, bullied and abused for lugging around DnD books, quoting Dr. Who and wearing Spider Man t-shirts. Paul Christoforo, the President of Ocean Marketing is a bully. He sent his customer several emails that were filled with the kind of loudmouthed threats that geeks have been hearing on the playground for decades. Christoforo sells very specialized video game controllers, and he knows his audience: hardcore gamers. He assumed that since he was dealing with a gamer, he could play internet tough guy, and abuse his clientele. It was this abuse, and especially the petty, threatening nature of the comments, that rallied the nerds of the web world together to take on Ocean Marketing. The second that the email exchange crossed from “dissatisfied customer” to “geek being bullied”, it was a given that the online nerd posse would close ranks to defend one of their own against an outsider. PR types, marketers, journalists, bullies or anyone that deals with the numerous geeky subcultures on the web should take note of how this situation played out. There are some valuable takeaways here. Geeks absolutely loathe bullies. The reasons above explain why, so be certain to keep this in mind during all your web interactions. You may be tempted to act like a creep, throw your verbal muscle around and get pushy. This isn’t “Revenge of the Nerds”. Just a whiff of bullying is all it takes to get the nerd herd riled up, the Lego pitchforks out and the Minecraft torches digitally flickering. Internet Gangsterism 101: Do You Know Who I Know? As the email exchanges between Ocean Marketing and their customer “Dave” continued on, and got more and more insane, Christoforo began dropping names. If you’ve spent more then a minute working in PR, and you’re any good at your job, chances are you know quite a few editors and journalists. Christoforo decided that he would use his “connections” in the reporting world to both justify and excuse his inexcusable and irrational behavior. This was a huge mistake.  Most journos don’t have a problem working with flacks who do their job well. In many cases we can make their lives easier and help them create better content by providing access, interviews, products and information. However, this is somewhat of an unspoken rule that good PR people operate in the background. Journalists appreciate the option to keep their sources, including PR, their own. They may or may not feel the need to openly discuss how, or who they interact with in the PR world. Using the names of editors and reporters that you have relationships with as a bludgeon to scare someone is an absolute breach of confidence of the worst kind. As soon as Christoforo started naming names, he lost any credibility or goodwill he might have accumulated in the press sphere. When the journalists he identified in his emails discovered he was bandying their names about, they couldn’t distance themselves from this guy fast enough. Almost immediately, tweets, blog posts and emails went out declaring that Christoforo’s “connections” wanted nothing to do with him. In some cases they went even further, and denounced him as a liar, a creep and explicitly called his behavior into question. The Hack/Flack Relationship is sacred – don’t kiss and tell. When you work in PR, a certain level of discretion and privacy is expected. The journalists you work with should have the option to make the call, and be able to decide how their stories are written and how much they want to reveal. There is nothing more pathetic then using “Who You Know” as a weapon. This isn’t a bad made for TV mob film. There Is No “Undo” Command for Being a Creep After a long series of back and forth emails, Dave, the very dissatisfied customer in this scenario, decided to take his story to the press, and CC’ed several well know game and tech journalists into the email exchange with Ocean Marketing. Unbelievably, Christoforo then decided to get into it with these writers. Christoforo continued dropping names and flaunting his “connections”. He began belittling Penny Arcade in an email to Mike Krahulik, the sites editor, saying that the site was tiny and insignificant. As a PR person, working in the tech and game sector, you should know Penny Arcade is one of the big players, much beloved by gamers and that they also run the very popular PAX conferences. Even if you somehow missed this major factoid, you should have the good sense as a PR pro to run a quick search on a site before you begin ripping them apart to their founder (then again, as a PR pro you probably shouldn’t be ripping anyone apart…). Do Your Research! A big part of working in PR is knowing the space you work in. Having detailed knowledge of who the players are, where they write, and their outlook on your industry is part of your job. In 2011, where this information is just a click away it is absolutely inexcusable to plead ignorance. Each and every time you’re about to click “Send”, conjure up the voice of your favorite member of the GI Joe team (I think of Shipwreck…) and remember their immortal wisdom: “Knowing is half the battle!” I was going to add a second point above, pointing out all the trouble you can get into by verbally attacking someone before Googling them to find out if they are a big player in your space or not. Then I decided against it. Some people are just jerks. If you’re a creep that gets off on attacking people, then you’re in the wrong line of business. I’m sure there is a vivisection lab somewhere that is hiring. Good PR Advice from Hall and Oates The way the “Ocean Marketing Incident” has shaken out on the web over the last 24 hours, it appears that both Ocean Marketing and Paul Christoforo are both complete write offs. They won’t ever be working in the PR or gaming world again. While he won’t be getting much pity from me, I do think it’s a bit sad, because this entire ugly incident could have been prevented by following what is essentially the Golden Rule of PR. What I like to call “The Hall and Oates Rule”. When I started my first PR gig at an agency, back in the age of 3.5 floppies and monitors that weighed 45 pounds, my boss sat me down my first day on the job to fill me in on the landscape of where I would be working. The first thing she told me was, “I can, and will read your emails”.  My initial thought was that this was an unnecessary, creepy invasion of privacy. Then she explained why. There is nothing that I should ever be writing to a client, or a co-worker that I wouldn’t want to have read out loud in public at a meeting. This is truly excellent advice. If Paul Christoforo kept this in mind while he was replying to Dave, this situation would have turned out entirely differently. It may have even ended with a happy customer and Ocean Marketing looking like heroes for solving the issues that caused this out of control kerfuffle in the first place. Act like anything you write will be read publicly (Private Eyes – They’re Watching You. They See Your Every Move!) There is no such thing as privacy in the PR world. Any email, tweet or blog post you write can and will be shared, forwarded, screen shotted, passed around and commented on. Write like your Mom is going to read it. Would she approve of the tone and what you’re saying? Always keep this idea at the top of your mind when writing, especially if you’re ticked off or angry. Before you hit send, take a second and give what you wrote the Dear Old Mom Test. Would it embarrass her, your boss, your client or yourself? The hit delete and start again. It’s too late for Ocean Marketing and Paul Christoforo. Any apologies, change of Twitter handles, connections to the Mayor of Boston or hired goons are a day late and any dollars short at this point. The “Ocean Marketing Incident” will go down as one of the great, and most entertaining, PR screw ups in history. When agencies warn rookies to be careful on the job, they will tell them to Google “Ocean Marketing” as a cautionary tale. My advice may be too late to help Ocean Marketing, but I hope it can help prevent someone else from stepping on a digital land mine like this. As amusing as I find this whole incident, I actually really hate that it happened. After doing a bit of research on Paul Christoforo, and reading his various apologies, I see that he has a newborn child, and wants to make things right in order to survive. This won’t happen. Take this as a cautionary tale flacks.

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