Ian Harrison’s takedown of the #HappeningGourmand marketing campaign caused a mini controversy in the Montreal foodie/social media community. Even Dan Delmar and Lesley Chesterman got involved so this must be serious business.
I am traveling so a bit late to the party but wanted to weigh-in nonetheless to add some nuance to the conversation. If you are not up to speed, here are the specific posts I am referring to:
- Antonopoulos Group Pays Bloggers to Host #HappeningGourmand Dinners
- The PR Payola Email the Antonopoulos Group Doesn’t Want You to See
- Explaining My ‘Self-Righteous’ Stance on Restaurant Comps
- The Exchange January 19 With Dan Delmar (relevant discussion at 1:36)
First, let me start with my own disclosures:
- I am friendly with a few members of the younger generation of the Antonopoulos clan. We are not close friends but I went to CEGEP with a couple of the guys and we sporadically bump into each other at events. Great people.
- I am friendly with Na’eem Adam, who works at 1Milk2Sugars and apparently orchestrated this event. Again, we are not close friends but we worked on a project in the context of PoutineWeek and we see each other at events. Na’eem’s a cool cat and his passion for food is contagious.
- I’ve dealt with PR firms and lifestyle/food bloggers extensively in the past 6 years. I’ve had PR firms on retainer, I hired PR consultants for specific consulting gigs and, yes, I have even given freebies to bloggers in hope of getting exposure to their readership (big gasp!). I am eternally grateful to the benefits I received from such exposure but I can still call a spade a spade.
Alright, now with this out of the way, let’s directly address Ian’s issues with what happened. If I understand correctly, he has two main gripes with how things went down:
- Ian does not like the fact that the Antonopoulos Group paid local influencers to host dinners at their restaurants. He goes so far as to call it payola.
- Ian does not like the fact that these guests were all over social media praising the restaurants without a single mention that they were invited.
Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:
- Ian is absolutely right that if you accept money or freebies you should disclose it. Look, you don’t need to hire Stikeman to write you a disclosure notice but it is lazy and deceitful to not even mention that there was a quid pro quo, no matter how small the quid.
- There is a big difference between doing a comprehensive restaurant review and attending a PR event. #HappeningGourmand was a PR event and the bloggers were there to cover that event. Just like when a car company launches a new model, hires a PR company to put together an event and invites journalists to cover said event. Most of the attendees treated it correctly as a PR event so no harm done (see below).
- Neither the Antonopolus Group nor 1Milk2Sugars asked their guests to say anything positive about the events. They simply invited the guests and encouraged them to share on social media. I know it’s a fine line but the “payola” email was in fact pretty benign.
- I don’t understand Dan Delmar’s argument that bloggers shouldn’t be held to the same high standard of journalism as “serious” food critics. Again, I am not saying that bloggers should remain anonymous, invent elaborate disguises and adopt a star system. But a simple phrase stating a potential conflict of interest is appreciated by all.
- Ian’s accusation that Dan is somehow involved in all this drama was mind-boggling and I am glad he updated his post.
I took the time to go through all the social media mentions I could find and they fall in three camps:
- Bloggers who went to the media event and simply reported the fact that there is a food festival at the Antonopolous restaurants during the month of January. Good examples are EnRoute, VitaminDaily and Zurbaines. Absolutely no editorializing or reviews of the restaurants. I cannot find anything objectionable in this.
- Bloggers who went to the event, disclosed that they were invited and offered light opinions on what they saw. Good examples are Montreal Food Divas and EatingOut. Again, I cannot find anything objectionable in this since there is disclosure and it’s up to the readers to decide whether they trust the .
- Bloggers who went to the event, didn’t disclose the fact that it was a media event or that they were guests and generously commented on the merits of the restaurant they visited. I am not going to throw anyone under bus here because I want to keep things positive but, come on guys, it’s not hard to preface whatever you are going to say with “I was invited to the lauch event for this year’s Happening Gourmand and here are my thoughts….”. This last group mostly consisted of bloggers with smaller followers suggesting that either it’s simply a rookie mistake or that the market is indeed efficient and rewards those who are more serious about their craft.
Since most of the coverage I found was not offensive in any way, I cannot support Ian’s condemnation of the #HappeningGourmand as an elaborate grand scheme by the Antonopolulos Group to fool the public and an example of corruption in the food bloggers’ circle. His arguments about disclosure are perfectly valid but he picked the wrong example to prove his point.
Finally, and most importantly, singling out the Antonopoulos Group like Ian did is disingenuous and sensationalist. First, they are hardly the only restaurant group who hosts blogger/media events. Second, they are being proactive to drum up business in a notoriously slow month for restaurants instead of using the usual “Montreal has too many restaurants” or “Montrealers don’t like to spend money like they people do in Toronto and New York” complaints. Third, this family is instrumental to our city and particularly the revitalization of Old Montreal. They bet on this neighbourhood when it was a deserted. Sure they profited handsomely from their prescience but so did all Montrealers. Anyone living, working, dining or going out in the Old Port owes them a huge debt of gratitude. I cannot think of another group who embodies Montreal hospitality more than the Antonopoulos’. They also personify the entrepreneurial gritty ethos of our city and their meteoric rise from operators of the Casse-Croute du Vieux Port in the late 1960’s to what they are today is nothing short of breathtaking. I estimate that they employed over 20,000 people throughout the years and the indirect economic benefits of their activities are innumerable. And that is beside what they have done to preserve the city’s patrimony and architectural heritage. Of course they should not be given a free pass on ethics but making them the scapegoat of a wild goose chase is ridiculous. They surely don’t need my defence but it’s important for me to state the above because they are simply too classy to get involved in the mudslinging.
PS: In Setting the Table, Danny Meyer talks candidly about the symbiotic relationship between restaurateurs and critics. Both groups need each other to thrive and learning how to manage this relationship is primordial for both sides. If you love the food business, I strongly recommend that book.