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?)