The Fall of Cooks Source Magazine and the Slippery Slope of Scandals

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how a small business called Cooks Source Magazine plagiarized a woman’s article and, instead of apologizing to her, insisted that everyone steals content from the Internet and said that she should pay them money for bringing some exposure to her piece. An Internet backlash of epic proportions ensued, with irate people contacting the magazine’s advertisers, sending disgusted emails to the editor, and leaving exceptionally negative comments on the brand’s Facebook wall. Shortly after I published my post, Shoe wrote a piece called “Do You Need a Scandal?” and talked about how sometimes controversy can boost your business or image into the next level, and that there’s no such thing as bad press. I partially agree with him, but, as always, it’s all about execution.

First, an update about Cooks Source Magazine. In response to the backlash, the magazine shut down and the editor left an open letter on the website. The site itself now redirects to Intuit.com, which I’m assuming was the website builder with which Cooks Source was created. You can read the letter via a Google cache, but here’s the gist of what the editor said. She basically offered up an insincere apology and made a lot of excuses that she presumably thought would justify her plagiarism. Being tired and answering a work email too hastily isn’t really an excuse for stealing someone’s work, but whatever. She also insisted that the woman never “gave her a chance to respond to her” before “blasting” her. I’m assuming she forgot about the first response she sent where she not only defends her plagiarism, but has the gall to insinuate that the author pay the magazine for their troubles.

The editor then went into a sob story talking about how she volunteers her time to help “budding writers” with their writing skills (though based on how many spelling and grammar errors are in her open letter, I’m guessing she’s doing more harm than good to these people she’s supposedly mentoring), and that her small magazine staff was so overworked that when she was short one article, she got lazy, did a search on the Internet, and found an article that she “didn’t notice” was copyrighted (uh, what about the countless other copyrighted articles you published from numerous sources?). She also “forgot” to contact the author. This lady might be the world’s worst editor.

In her letter, she mentioned the following:

“Since then, we have had so much hate email (over 400 pieces), phone calls and regular mail. My advertisers too, have been so harassed that it has all muddies [sic] up the waters as to what the real situation is. I took the site downbecuase [sic] someone threatened to go to all the distribution spots and destroy the new issue, also to protect my advertisers…The bad news is that this is probably the final straw for Cooks Source. We have never been a great money-maker even with all the good we do for businesses. Having a black mark wont [sic] help…and now, our black mark will become our shroud. Winters are bleak in Western New England, and as such they are bleak for Cooks Source as well. This will end us.”

She closed by saying she wished the plagiarized author had “given [her] a chance,” which I thought the author had done when she initially contacted the editor to confront her about the plagiarism. But hey, that’s just me being logical and stuff.

When I first wrote about Cooks Source Magazine, some folks in the comments wondered if all of this bad press would end up being good for the magazine, and right after that, Shoe published his post about how scandals can be good for your business. I understood his point and agree that a scandal can sometimes be a good thing, but in certain circumstances:

  1. You’re a well established, big/strong brand.
    Tylenol and Bridgestone ain’t exactly mom and pop operations. They have entire teams of public relations people and spin doctors to deal with ugly mishaps like cyanide-laced medicine and exploding tires. These brands have been around for decades and have built a strong, legit reputation over the years. A scandal, even a big one, shouldn’t bankrupt the company unless it’s especially egregious or chronic. Hell, BP killed practically the entire ecosystem of a huge body of water and you don’t see them packing up their things and sticking a “For lease” sign in their office windows. On the other hand, if you’re a brand that’s just starting out and is relatively unknown, a scandal has the potential the do far greater damage than if you’re Coca Cola or Apple. If one of the first impressions the general public has of your business is negative, it’s going to be much harder to bounce back and use that to your advantage than it would be for Tylenol to endure a couple quarters of shitty sales.
  2. You know how to appropriately address the situation.
    The best course of action when facing a scandal is the three S’s: Speedy, Serious, and Sorry. If something shitty’s happened, act fast. The longer you wait, the worse the situation can get. Acknowledging the problem right away shows the public that you’re aware of the issue and are working on solving it as soon as possible. Also, be serious. If Chris Brown issued a press release saying, “I’m sorry that Rihanna tripped and broke her fall with my fist. LOL, j/k, sorry for beating her,” the public probably wouldn’t have been so quick to embrace his music again. Offer up sincere apologies and serious promises to fix things. Even if you think you did nothing wrong, as was the case with Cooks Source Magazine, sometimes it’s just easier to eat crow and say you’re sorry so that things can blow over. No qualifiers, no excuses — admit you were in the wrong, apologize, and start building your business back up. Even if the plagiarized author is a mean jerk, she had the upper hand and Cooks Source failed to realize it. Trying to paint that person in a negative light in order to evoke sympathy will be fruitless unless you have some Mel Gibson-type evidence that proves otherwise.
  3. You won’t be a repeat offender.
    Like I said in point #1, it’s easier to bounce back and get in the public’s good graces if you’ve learned your lesson and won’t let it happen again. Even if Cooks Source Magazine had emerged from this scandal relatively unscathed, if they kept stealing people’s articles and plagiarizing others’ works, their credibility and reputation would have continued to deteriorate until nobody trusted them, and when that happens, you can’t operate a successful business. Faulty designs need to be fixed, bad formulas need to get corrected, and bad employees need to get axed; otherwise, your business won’t be able to move on and heal from the negative publicity it received.

Cooks Source Magazine is really a fascinating example of how to handle bad publicity and what to do when a scandal disrupts your business. Shoe’s post came at great timing — it’s true that you can use a scandal to your advantage, but the tricky part is to know how to steer your business through the storm and emerge in relatively good shape. Unfortunately for Cooks Source, they not only couldn’t weather the storm, they ran into an iceberg, got attacked by a kraken, eaten by sharks, and leaked on by BP.

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