PR Lessons in Paperchase

Hidden Eloise: claims that Paperchase copied this design.

Claire Thompson, Freelance PR consultant, Waves PR

I have long loved Paperchase.  Their shops have a degree of solidity and artiness that Rymans just can’t rival. So, on the basis that they were a premium supplier, and therefore paying artists and suppliers decent wages, it’s always felt good shopping there. I’m sure that I’m not alone in feeling betrayed by the current debacle that will doubtless spill into the wider media arena than the Twittersphere where it began. (Actually, as I write, Channel 4 is interviewing.)

The artist behind HidenSeek/Hidden Eloise claims that Paperchase is using a character that she designed, and certainly the evidence she presents seems very compelling.

Sadly, the Paperchase responses have been akin to the Habitat ones before it: blame someone else (in this case the design house they used, and the artist for not having been back in touch with them). Not good enough.

Any retailer today should be well aware of the impact that their supply chain has on their PR. Paperchase offers a premium product, the Waitrose of the stationery world. They should have a very clear and enforced policy with regard to sourcing design, making clear to their suppliers exactly what standards are expected of them. We might expect Top Shop to offer cheaper, altered versions of Catwalk design trends, but wouldn’t expect Vivienne Westwood to be ripping off colleagues. Design is a very clear part of the Paperchase brand.

It’s no good blaming someone else. Had the company had a clear directive, the PR team wouldn’t have had to lose time fact finding before issuing a statement. They would have been as appalled as the rest of us.

Even more damaging than the allegations themselves  is the response to events. The PR team (with whom I have a degree of sympathy) seem to be siloed off – haven’t been empowered to take decisive action.

With ex-staff backing up allegations of plagiarism, and other artists making similar claims coming out of the woodwork, things don’t look good for the chain. People are calling boycotts ahead of Valentine’s day.

So some well worn immediate PR takeaways for anyone needing to learn from these events:

–          It didn’t take long for someone to take a Paperchase twitter name. It’s a bare minimum for companies to own their name online and have the channel open for people to contact you. No-one will complain if you don’t spam the airwaves with output – just make sure you have a point of communication.

–          In a crisis, take decisive action. We’re talking about  a single range in a shop crammed full of goodies. Would it have hurt Paperchase to have removed the range pending investigation? (Amazon managed.)

–          Big companies need to accept the erosion of power. Your stakeholders (customers, suppliers) don’t need to rely on expensive legal cases any more for restitution. And you can’t wall in your activities. If your corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been limited to a couple of charity donations (worthy though they are) it’s time to wake up and smell the roses.  There are huge PR implications in your company’s every activity. If you’re doing something wrong, it will eventually leak out.

–          This is a big company v. real person situation. You’re on the back foot as a company. Accept it and behave like the people you are rather than the ‘corporate’ whole. (Finger pointing at an aggrieved artist about what they have/haven’t done looks shabby and fails to address the main concern being raised – wholesale plagiarism.)

–          It is absolutely unforgiveable that the people who could have helped with getting over the Paperchase message  (not that it’s been particularly clearly articulated or defined) –  the online media – haven’t had responses or been able to contact anyone in the PR department. In a ‘crisis’, open-ness is your only option – even if it’s only to say you don’t know.

–  This story blew up quickly, and burned fast. PR departments need to work at the speed of now, not to print media deadlines.

–          CEOS: take your PR seriously.

Who knows what effect this will have long term, but expect every disgruntled employee, environmentally damaging paper source and plagiarised artist with something to say about Paperchase to do so over the next few days. If I were the Paperchase PR team, I’d be cancelling the Valentines celebrations and planning for some weekend working.

Added since article was drafted:

From The Independent:

A spokesman for Paperchase said the company had bought the design in October 2008 from a “well-known central London design studio” which had “categorically denied any plagiarism”. He refused to name the design studio in question.

He also criticised the way that the “cock-eyed” allegations had spread “like wildfire” over Twitter: “We’ve had the most unbelievable amount of emails this afternoon of extraordinary vitriol – and we haven’t actually done anything wrong. It must have damaged people’s perception of us.”

(I think it’s safe to say that’s correct.)

Statement from the design studio which supplied the design:

Gather No Moss, the Agency we bought the artwork from, have asked us to post the following statement:

“We are the small design company that represents the independent artist who created the Paperchase design. We have contacted Hidden Eloise by email and are hoping to talk with her soon. We carry the work of designers who like Hidden Eloise are all trying hard to make a living through their art. We would never knowingly sell a design that infringes the copyright of a fellow artist. We have worked with Paperchase for many years and found them a great supporter of independent artists.”

(Blaming a third party again. Have they taken decisive action to discover the truth?)

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  • By Jessica Twentyman, February 11, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

    Absolutely Claire. I think you’ve hit several nails on several heads here. Companies like Paperchase need to be doing a much better job of using social networking tools proactively, rather than simply jumping on board when the shit hits the fan. I’ll be interested to see if @FromPaperchase ‘evolves’ as a ‘strategy’ (yuck) once the fuss dies down.

  • By Perri, February 11, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

    Excellent post.

  • By Bev, February 11, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    Claire you clearly know your stuff. Such a disappointing response from what was, in my mind, a quality brand. It’s the kind of PR disaster that every company dreads, and presumably likes to think they’d handle well. Yet they are coming across (unintentionally probably) as more concerned about the reaction this is causing for them than bothered for the artist – whom they admit got in touch some time ago – and this will do them no favours. What a pity, I had them down as the ‘good guys’. They most likely are, but that hole they’re digging is getting deeper and deeper…

  • By admin, February 11, 2010 @ 10:03 pm

    Thanks for nice comments. I’m with you Bev. It’s really hard to get a quick response out when a story like this is breaking, so I have some empathy, but you’re right: they come across as more concerned about passing blame.

    It’ll be interesting to see how long the story runs for.

  • By David emery, February 11, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

    You’ve absolutely summed it up. Power to the person. Good luck Eloise.

  • By C, February 11, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

    Very interesting to read about the PR aspect of this huge story. Thought you might like to know that Topshop have allegedly stolen designs from small boutique artists in the past; it’s not alway big designers that they take ‘inspiration’ from. Plagerism has been a big topic in the crafting world for some time now and I think this story was just the tip of the iceberg. Artists, crafters and their fans have had enough.

  • By Hidden Eloise, February 12, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    I can now verify that the third party ( blaming another third party: an independent designer who sold them the design.

    Well, almost… and the designer deny any plagiarism and have offered evidence that I have asked permission to publish. So they are not “blaming” anyone, they just plead innocent.

    Bear hugs,
    Hidden Eloise

  • By Lee Griffin, February 12, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    The problem that I feel is here for Hidden Eloise is that while Paperchase may be forced in to the correct action (and if pigs start to fly maybe an appropriate PR response) by customer opinion’s changing, legally they can stand behind a wall of ignorance and essentially challenge Hidden Eloise to do something about it…knowing full well that the cost and effort to do so through the proper legal channels would be prohibitive.

    I seems to me like they’re hedging their bets, that they can weather this (twitter) storm and come out at the end with their integrity held intact, at least from a legal perspective.

    Great article, btw. 🙂

  • By Jamie Dowling, February 12, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

    I’m at a loss to understand why businesses don’t realise just how quickly bad news spreads thanks to social networking. This isn’t rocket science, it’s bleeding obvious. Paperchase aren’t the first company to encounter a negative response to things they do and they won’t be the last.

    Paperchase’s response has been poor. To say that the people asking “what have you done here and why?” are “cock-eyed” is patronising and offensive. Their initial statement (which has now grown and will probably do so again) came across as snotty and defensive.

    Their brand is the one being questioned, it is Paperchase who should take ownership of the issue, investigate sensibly and thoroughly then publish the full facts. Trying to pass the blame onto someone else – a design agency – is very poor form.

    Paperchase claim to have purchased the image “in good faith”. There is little about their response thus far that has been good.

  • By Hidden Eloise, February 15, 2010 @ 12:06 am

    Hello again,

    For your information, the designer of Gathernomoss, Kitty Mason has admitted copying my character and there is an update in my blog :
    or directly to her apology here:

    Many thanks again and all the best!

    Bear hugs,

    Hidden Eloise xx

  • By claireatwaves, February 15, 2010 @ 8:44 am

    I’ve been following your story on-line, interested to see where it takes us.

    Glad to see that you’ve been vindicated, but also relieved to hear that Paperchase hadn’t been deliberately buying knocked off art.

    (I don’t know that the artist even sees what she’s done as plagiarising – she says she simply copied a pose, but that’s another story.)

    Paperchase has learned a lesson about taking on-line reputation seriously, but I now see them as being between a rock and a hard place.

    They’ve bought artwork in good faith and been offered reassurances about what they bought – reassurances that they relayed to you. They are also victims in this tale.Their responses now are limited.

    The natural thing would be for them to stop using indie designers in favour of an in-house team where they could be certain of the provenance of their art. That would be a real shame.

    You have a lot of power in your hands now to make something good come of this.. Paperchase were hamfisted in their responses but I would hate to see them destroyed by this. In general, they seem very supportive of good design.

    If the whole range is removed and destroyed, who benefits?

    Many people who had never heard of you have been exposed to your artwork. Many have chosen to buy it. So you have already had some benefit from this (although I don’t imagine that being in the spotlight was all fun) and I imagine that the exposure to your artwork will have a continued afterglow.

    Why not become something of a hero of the hour and offer Paperchase a solution that benefits everyone?

    Why not ask that 10 or 20% of all takings on this range go to one of the funds that supports artists whose work has been ripped off? You can always ask that a tag is added to the range with something referring to Hidden Eloise and clarifying the situation.

    Or ask them to create a range whose profits go to Twestival ( in March in order to pay something back to the on-line community.

    Your reputation hangs in your response to this as well. People will be asking whether your motivation is money (Should it have been my design in the shop, not hers? Shouldn’t they be paying me lots of money, not her) or seeing the right thing done (artists being rewarded for their efforts, and good design supported).

    I hope that doesn’t sound harsh. It’s simply meant to point out potential realities.

    On Paperchase’s part I would like to see them implement a range of other measures that could improve their transparency, but that’s a story for another time.

    I do hope that you will choose to make a stand for good, genuine design and help Paperchase to find a response that benefits the wider artistic and on-line community.

    It would be a shame to see an organisation that for the most part appears to be very supportive of designers brought down by a mistake.

  • By Rita, April 3, 2010 @ 1:15 am

    Your girl character seems to be not the only one copied. Animals and plants too. I recall having seen the originals somewhere – mostly likely in children’s colouring books: the butterflies, owls, birds, mushrooms, etc.

  • By Marc Segel, August 5, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    The Internet and social media today have made PR management more pressing then ever. It does not take long to get praise or to tarnish a companies image by disseminating information to the right online outlets. This is a great article and reiterates the point. Big businesses are weary of this fact and are taking steps to ensure they are covered online as well as every where else.

  • By claireatwaves, August 11, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

    Hi Marc
    So sorry to have been tardy in responding – my main computer went wibble, limiting my access to everything. Thank goodness for Twitter, geeks and back ups!

    Thank you so much for commenting – especially such positive comments.

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