With AJC commenting controversy, the table is set for dialogue


When AJC dining critic John Kessler‘s review of the new high-end Buckhead steak and seafood restaurant Ocean Prime posted online last week, there was really nothing controversial about his sans-stars grade of FAIR. Expecting Kessler to rave about a chain restaurant (albeit a “swanky” model) is a bit like expecting a film critic to adore “Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.”

The controversy stemmed from a comment posted by “Foodie ATL” on the blog, a positive perspective in a sea of commenting negativity: “I have been to Ocean Prime quite a few times and have always had great food and great service. The prices are very similar to most other Buckhead restaurants of this type, and I the experiences I have had are worth the money. It’s also fun to just go sit at the bar and share some sides and appetizers with friends if you don’t want to have a big dinner. The piano players they have are great!”

Just below the comment, Kessler posted this question to “Foodie ATL”: “Do you think it would be germane to point out that you work for the public relations firm Ocean Prime has retained locally? I can see from your name (visible to administrators) that you do. Did they know you were part of their PR team when you sat at the bar? Did you pay? Just curious!”

And that’s when all hell broke loose in Atlanta’s dining community. By Saturday morning, the commenting controversy had made its way as a link on The Buzz rail on the AJC.com home page. The Ocean Prime Atlanta’s marketing representative, The Reynolds Group, had been identified in the comments section and AJC.com commenters dog piled on the PR person, posting comments, including  this: “Foodie ATL just ensured that I will not give this overpriced place a try. Nice transparency.”

Monday afternoon, Kessler followed up with this note to commenters: “A quick ‘thank you all’ for the great, thoughtful comments I’m reading here. It really seems to be that a lot of you are sick of the feeling of getting gamed online by anonymous opinion. I certainly don’t doubt that FoodieATL likes the restaurant, but I hope she now knows how important transparency is for any discussion of opinion.”

In a statement to the AJC, Reynolds Group owner Mary Reynolds said: “The realm of social media, including blog comments and public forums where anonymous commenting is commonplace, has opened a new dialogue for media professionals – journalists and PR professionals alike. The relationship between these two parties – as well as each of their relationships with the public, is one that relies on a standard of the factual exchange of information. Both journalists and PR professionals rely on a basic standard of the disclosure of relationships. These are the factors that help consumers make informed decisions, which, after all, is the job of both a restaurant critic and a publicist. Disclosure and transparency in an anonymous public forum should be made visible at every appropriate moment, and we try to be conscious of this at all times.

“We do not request or make it a policy for our employees to comment on restaurant reviews, anonymously or otherwise. The blog comment in question was made from a personal computer and personal email address with no attempt to disguise it, and it is the personal opinion of one of our employees. This type of personal disclosure may or may not be the case with others who comment. The anonymity of a blog forum makes it difficult for anyone – including a blog administrator – to truly qualify the identity and/or intent of those who post opinions.”

Some inside Atlanta’s dining industry even wondered aloud (alas, off the record) if Kessler should be serving as the online ethics police, given that he is arguably the most easily identifiable dining critic in the city (between his two stints as critic, Kessler was a high-profile food columnist at the paper, complete with a column photo, before the AJC reassigned him to his old job, following the departure of dining critic Meridith Ford in 2010).

(Full disclosure: This columnist has known all of the players in this dining drama for many years. In my many professional interactions with The Reynolds Group, it has proven itself to one of the most ethical and efficient PR shops in town. Kessler, meanwhile, was a trusted colleague during my 16-year stint at the AJC).

In the age of Yelp! where anonymous commenting is now as ubiquitous as a boutique burger or a handcrafted slice of pizza in this city, we set out this week to solicit perspective from local PR representatives on the lessons they’ve taken away from the AJC dining dust up. As the controversy swirled last weekend, we attended the SoCon ’12 digital and social media conference at Kennesaw State University where we absorbed some additional insights.

In his “Oops! Did I Say That? Online Reputation Management Meets Social Media” workshop, CNN digital guru Topher Kohan told attendees that in 2012, with Facebook and Twitter accounts literally at our fingertips, the question isn’t if an employee is going to post something controversial but when. “Companies employ human beings and human beings make mistakes,” Kohan said. “Everyone needs to have a social media policy and an online conduct policy in place.” He also advised that transparency and honesty is essential.

Veteran Atlanta MR PR agency owner Meg Reggie concurs. “Transparency is always number one in PR,”  she says. “At the same time, we’re working in a constantly changing environment now. With all of the new technology, it’s a whole new world out there.”

“There aren’t any rules anymore,” adds Caren West, the namesake of Caren West PR. “Anyone can write a review now and post a blog. We’re constantly discussing social media and how it is changing our industry.”

In an email to us, Melissa Libby & Associates owner Melissa Libby explains: “We have a policy at MLA to always be transparent online. We rarely comment on blogs, but if we do, our policy is to identify ourselves. Sometimes clients ask us to post favorable comments or reviews but we explain that we cannot.”

Red Clay PR owner Jamie Annarino says she empathizes with the Reynolds Group account rep: “I feel for her. She stuck up for her client. I was taught to do the exact same thing.”

Reggie, who has worked as both a journalist and a public relations expert in her career, doesn’t envy the folks getting into either industry in 2012. “When I started in this business, it was church and state,” she recalls. “I followed the [Associated Press] guidelines for writing and there were no gray areas. It was all black and white. Now, I have no idea how you would even teach journalism or PR. I would love to audit a class and find out!”