I feel sorry for William Sitwell, the latest prominent person to lose their job over a PR crisis that isn’t a PR crisis.
Sitwell, MasterChef critic and editor of Waitrose Food magazine, replied to a vegan journalist’s pitch about a vegan food article with an email that joked about a cull of vegans.
The journalist popped the email on Instagram and, a day later, Sitwell was out of a job while his erstwhile employers have accepted crisis management advice that that’s the right thing to have happened.
But Sitwell’s response, although dark, is clearly light-hearted because no one in their right mind would advocate a cull of vegans. Editors can be rude – they have to be, to be honest. It was an offhand rejection of the writer’s pitch, and her publication of the email looks like a score being settled.
It met a po-faced response online. A bad joke became a news story and something that is not a crisis became something that required crisis management advice.
Offending a small but vocal minority
And before the whataboutery begins, the “but substitute [insert religious group/sex/sexual orientation/ here] for vegan” argument doesn’t wash. He didn’t do that. He made a joke about what people eat.
Sitwell is a guy with a snarky sense of humour that any fan of Master Chef knows. But making exactly the type of joke we’d expect of him offended a small but vocal minority.
Vegans’ moral arguments are convincing many to give up animal products. They’re active across social media – vegans like people to know they’re vegan – and they’re motivated to get in the faces of the overwhelming majority of people who drink milk, spread butter and munch burgers.
Sitwell did what he felt he had to amid the hubbub. He apologised for causing offence. (Please note: you have the right to both say offensive things and be offended by those things. It’s what democracy is about, people!)
An apology, however, just wasn’t good enough. Within 24 hours, in a preposterous overreaction to this PR-crisis-that-isn’t, Sitwell’s employers at John Brown Media announced he had resigned and was stepping down with immediate effect.
Waitrose & Partners compounded the hurt, saying: “We believe this is the right and proper move.” That panders to a small but vocal minority, albeit one for which they’ve just launched a range of foods.
STUPID, BUT NOT CAREER-ENDING
Let’s have a look at Waitrose & Partners. It’s a brand of Middle Britain. The Daily Mail of supermarkets. I’d bet that most of its middle-class, middle-aged customers would merely shrug their shoulders at Sitwell’s comments. They’d either agree with him or see it as a terrible joke.
Very few of those people would be so exorcised by this “crisis” that they would come out swinging for Sitwell. Fellow critics did offer support, however. The Times’ Giles Coren wrote: “I have great sympathy for William Sitwell.
“It was a stupid email but should not be a career-ender. Vegans are not a race or a gender or a sexual orientation or a differently abled group. They just choose to eat plants.”
The Spectator’s Peter Oborne added that it was “a dark day for free expression” and that Sitwell had been “driven from his job by relentless Twitter trolls”.
When someone in a business does something legitimately bad or legitimately wrong, that’s a reason for them to go. Making a distasteful joke isn’t. If it were, newsrooms would be empty – believe me, I’m an ex-journalist.
Waitrose is rightly proud of its partnership – its rebrand as Waitrose & Partners reflects that pride – and, while partnerships require people to pull together for a common goal, they also acknowledge that people are different and work together despite those differences.
Don't bow to the trolls
My crisis management advice would not have been to bow to the trolls as Sitwell walked away.
Instead, the supermarket could have reined him in with a statement like: “Anyone who has seen MasterChef will know William is acerbic and snarky. His views, even meant as a joke, do not align with our brand’s and he is right to apologise for them. Our magazine always has promoted, and will continue to promote, the vegetarian and vegan food many of our customers love. William has been instrumental in that.”
You acknowledge, apologise and move on, instead of fostering an attitude that any transgression from what one special-interest group deems to be acceptable inevitably costs the “transgressor” their employment.
Besides, losing Sitwell is to the detriment of Waitrose Food. That magazine, because it’s created by journalists and not a marketing department, has a ring of authenticity, attitude and expertise that sets it apart from other in-house publications.
I hope his replacement keeps up the good work. Although maybe they should stick to knock-knock jokes to be on the safe side.
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