Vegans and Waitrose: perspective under pressure

By
DECLAN BURROWES


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Twitter, while not wholly without its uses, is generally a toxic maelstrom of self-aggrandisement, sarcasm and vitriol. Anyone brave enough to linger on it longer than the time required to read the news headlines risks acute psychological pain and damage to pencils, rulers and other objects liable to be snapped or crushed in a spasm of internet-induced rage.

Twitter is also where brands of all kinds have equal opportunities for public execution at the hands of the digital mob.

Waitrose, the upmarket British supermarket chain, is the latest to offer itself up for the guillotine. Last week, the editor of the brand’s Waitrose Food magazine, William Sitwell, was sacked after his private emails to a freelance journalist were leaked to BuzzFeed. His crime? Making fun of vegans.

The herbivorous journalist, Selene Nelson, pitched a series of “plant-based meal ideas” to Sitwell. Sitwell fired off a quick tongue-in-cheek response:

Hi Selene,
Thanks for this. How about a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat? Make them eat steak and drink red wine?

I laughed. Maybe you did, too, and maybe you didn’t. (But that’s fine: some people like Michael McIntyre, some people like Bill Burr.) While the language Sitwell used is clearly contemptuous of vegans and, sure, probably unprofessional, it should be obvious to even a barely socialised human that he was making an incendiary joke, in private, with the intention of getting a rise.

Anyone who has worked in journalism, or PR for that matter, knows that editors are often cantankerous, eccentric and opinionated individuals. Newsrooms are frantic places where things are said and written in the heat of the moment. Those who take every jab as a personal affront are unlikely to last in either game.

Waitrose, rather than step back from the situation and consider the facts in a reasonable, collected manner, prostrated itself before the outraged Twitterati. In follow-up statements, the brand apologised profusely and unceremoniously dismissed Sitwell from a role he had held for more than twenty years.

  William Sitwell and Selene Nelson.

William Sitwell and Selene Nelson.

Perspective

As we’ve written here in the past, making quick-fire decisions in a crisis (or perceived crisis) situation can be extremely challenging, especially in a social media environment like Twitter. Some brands get it right, others don’t. Those that consistently do invariably have crisis communications strategies in place and are generally good readers of the public mood. They have perspective and are willing to ride out short-term discomfort for long-term gain.

Waitrose’s response, on the other hand, smacks of panic. A story so lacking in substance (or indeed nutrients) would have almost certainly been forgotten in the next day’s news cycle. Alternatively, Waitrose could have turned an awkward situation on its head by poking harmless fun at their editor or publishing their own tongue-in-cheek ‘anti-carnivore’ messages to promote their vegan food range. Instead, a non-story was turned into an international headline, with most stories reflecting poorly on Waitrose and their decision to axe Sitwell.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this isn’t Waitrose’s first brush with the chronically inflamed Twitter mob. London’s ‘night czar’ Amy Lamé tweeted at the supermarket after purchasing a ‘Gentleman's Smoked Chicken Caesar Roll’, which she light-heartedly implied had some sort of gender bias. Waitrose responded by saying that they “never intended to cause offence” and were “planning to change the name soon”. Again, an unremarkable tweet became a news story precisely because Waitrose responded in a grovelling, reactionary manner.

Waitrose’s handling of recent events also says a lot about Twitter and social media generally: if you live by it, be prepared to die by it. Twitter’s propensity to explode in response to the slightest stimuli is a by-product of giving users 280 characters to express themselves. Having a communications team that can distinguish transient social media fury from a genuine problem will save you time and heartache.

This whole affair will undoubtedly leave Waitrose reassessing its social media and crisis communications strategies. And as for Nelson and Sitwell? The former has probably done her journalism career more harm than good. The latter might have a new job in comedy.


DECLAN BURROWES

Declan is PR360's Content and Editorial Manager. He helps clients say as much as possible in as few words as possible. He likes animated political discussions, medieval history, and heavy metal.