Unless you’ve been living under a rock with no wi-fi, you know about the heated exchange between Elle Darby, a social media influencer, and Paul Stenson, the owner of the Charleville Lodge and White Moose Cafe.
Pitch New Clients, They Said. What Could Go Wrong, They Said!
Elle emailed Paul offering a collaboration (her receiving a free or discounted stay) in exchange for a review, shared with her approximately 75,000 Instagram followers. Paul took the exchange public with what Elle describes as a “savage” response on his Facebook page.
She says her phone then blew up, with everyone knowing she was the influencer behind the pitch. He says he never revealed her identity. Whether or not Elle outed herself as the influencer in question is one of the murkiest details of this whole saga.
Who Told the Real Elle Darby to Please Stand Up
At one point, Paul accuses Elle’s supporters of photoshopping a bad redaction job and falsely attributing it to him. I wasn’t able to read her name on his original post, but how could anyone do this photoshop work without the original source material? It makes no sense.
There have been countless accusations, with advocates on both sides taking things too far on behalf of their perceived victim in the story. There are too many one-sided versions of this story and disputed details. Every time I went to the source material, I saw it differently.
For a thorough recap all in one place, read this article. It’s no small feat to put all of this in one place.
But for my purposes, a mere blog post wouldn’t cut it.
This isn’t a blog post. This is a trial.
There are plenty of articles talking about who won and who got the best exposure, but I’m more concerned with the arguments behind each side.
I’m also interested in dissecting what you can learn from it. To skip the trial and go straight to takeaways, click here.
Paul publicly accuses Elle (not by name, he contends) of having too much self respect and dignity, being an entitled freeloader, and not doing her research before pitching him. He also accuses the entire influencer marketing industry of fraud and comes down pretty hard on bloggers, too.
In addition, he’s banned bloggers from his establishment and sent her an invoice for more than $6.6 million for the publicity she’s received from the exchange.
The Case of the Prosecution
Paul’s opening argument came to the internet in a flood of derision. You can see the tone he’s set and stays true to almost to the end–all snark.
In her own response video, Elle uses air quotes to describe her job. That’s pretty incriminating, isn’t it? And while yes, this was originally intended to be a private exchange, if her offer was so legitimate, why was publishing it with her name redacted wrong?
There’s No Such Thing as Free
Plus, Paul points out that he has expenses of running his business. It’s hard to buy the influencer marketing angle when Elle’s video talks all about the perks of getting free stuff. She talks about this as if it’s some higher calling, but then she clearly relishes in the freebies. Maybe not the best thing to talk about in this particular video.
True Collaborations Require True Partners
In this post on his blog, Paul shows his mindset throughout the bloggergate experience. Had Elle looked more closely at his social channels, this would likely have been less of a surprise for her.
Side note: remember being a kid when surprises were fun? Most adult surprises are NOT fun.
Honestly, their personal brands seem completely incompatible. It’s possible an influencer with more of an edge could have created a pitch that would have resonated with Paul. Not likely, but possible. They at least would have handled a social media battle with him better.
Paul Didn’t Back Down
Paul believes in his response. After banning bloggers, he sent her a bill for the exposure and even started selling t-shirts about the experience. He’s obviously a man devote to his convictions, whatever they are. I haven’t seen anywhere that Paul expresses any kind of regret in either the bottom line of his response (a public and scathing NO) or in the manner in which he delivered it.
Throughout this ordeal Paul has said that people who live in the public eye should be able to take it. If you’re going to claim the benefits of a large following, as a social media celebrity, you should take the good with the bad.
Paul’s Issues with Influencers
Paul seems to have made his closing argument here. He promises he’ll be moving on there. This video has the most logical, thought out arguments from Paul from the entire ordeal. His video has many of the characteristics of Elle’s first video, which he ripped to shreds.
However, his critique of influencer marketing echoes why many people have questioned social media influencers. He seems to have dropped the bravado and pointed out that the internet can destroy reputations with little regard to truth.
In fact, regulation is creeping its way into this field. Many celebrities already use #ad to offer some transparency.
The Case of the Defense
Elle’s opening argument hit the internet from tear-stained eyes and an obviously shaken young woman. It’s hard to watch, because she’s reeling from a bad experience and in obvious pain. Plus, it’s clear to see how this would play right into the goals of someone seeking to gain as much publicity as possible from a private email exchange.
That’s not my opinion. He admits in in the his Truth Behind Bloggergate post.
Paul’s Criticisms Are Really Good Arguments in Favor of Influencers
And while Paul may tout the value of an organic audience, these benefits are precisely why social media influencers have sway. Unless they’ve purchased followers (something to check perhaps) their entire audience is organic and they will pay attention.
And you can say that influencer reviews are inauthentic because they come with payment of free access and experiences, does Paul also believe that all advertising is inauthentic and equally suspect? Can he really limit this argument to social media influencers, when it makes up the crux of all advertising and PR?
Holding Elle to a Higher Standard than Himself
And in his own blog post, he laments the fact that he never asked anyone to harass Elle. In fact, he goes out of his way to deny releasing her identity in any way. Yet, he seems to think it’s okay to hold her personally responsible for anyone who lashed out at him on her behalf.
His Opening Argument Doesn’t Quite Ring True
The fact that he sent Elle an invoice for the exchange, after a PR firm calculated the value of the exposure, shows that he does see value in online exposure. He wasn’t willing to pay Elle for it, but he didn’t say, “You’re not a fit, we do this kind of thing in-house.” He pretended to be completely baffled by the offer.
He understood the offer, he just doesn’t like that influencer marketing is a thing now. He believes it’s destructive. But how he can he mention damage to young people’s self-esteem (a correlation he has not supported with evidence) while he originally accused her of having too much confidence and dignity? That concern is a little hard to buy.
Seriously, who accuses someone of having too much dignity? The fact is that influencer marketing is a growing trend. While Paul can pretend the request is ludicrous, it’s obvious he’s savvy enough to know otherwise.
Elle’s Pitch Was Far from Radical
Plus, fashion and travel brands have been on board with type of freebie model for decades. That may be why Paul makes it very clear Elle was wrong to call his hotel “stunning.” It may not be high end (I don’t know) but he sure wants everyone to know it isn’t. That may be because it would make Elle’s pitch all the more logical.
This could have been an ordinary blog post, with a typical format of a headline and subheadings. But the way this played out was too misleading. Because of the tone and calculated behavior of the hotel, the only role appropriate was the prosecution.
The hotel laid a trap of escalating social media wars and she fell right into it. However, it’s clear they do understand viral marketing. Their brand is dripping with sarcasm, which lends a calculated feeling to the exchange.
On the charge of having too much self-respect and dignity.
On the charge of being a self-entitled freeloader.
On the charge of not doing her research before pitching.
Most of the time, the sentence for this would be to be ignored by your prospects. Not including the death threats she received, the punishment did not fit the crime, even though she did allow Paul’s response to manipulate her into stoking the fire.
On the charges to the entire social media influencer community being a fraud: NOT QUITE GUILTY.
Hey, this isn’t a real court, so I can be real with my judgments. It’s ambiguous. If Paul had used his closing argument as his opening argument, the ruling might have been different. And, like so many things, it depends on what consumers think and do. But Paul saw an opportunity to increase his…influence and he took it.
A New Freelancer’s Prospecting Nightmare
When people start pitching new clients via email and doing cold emails there tends to be this fear that people will get mad and lash out at them. More experienced people say, “That rarely happens. People simply ignore you if they’re not interested. Everything’s gonna be FINE.”
Now, I did find her guilty on the count of not researching her prospect. Paul is not shy about who he is and he has obviously worked hard to build a stellar audience. Elle could be forgiven for thinking this makes him a good prospect for her, but when she hit him with accusations of not understanding social media, that’s clearly not the case.
What This Means for Your Social Media Strategy
The biggest lesson here is in how you choose to respond to negativity. You can respond to people or not, depending on the circumstances. It’s clear that Elle took this exchange incredibly personally, which is understandable since Paul started with personal attacks and only after a series of self-described PR moves did he articulate why he is against influencer marketing.
While this case is mostly about influencers specifically, here are the key lessons for the rest of us:
• Anything can be made public. It may or may not be ethical, but that’s the world we live in. And if it’s interesting, the whole world might see it and the world WILL have an opinion.
• While the previous point may make you feel a little powerless, you’re NOT. If, how, and when you respond gives you power back. It’s my personal opinion that Elle’s response may have felt cathartic, but wasn’t too effective. It gave Paul all the more fodder to keep things going.
A better response would have been to wait awhile, lean on friends hard to feel better, and then respond by saying, “I respect his point of view and want to take this opportunity to thank all my amazing clients and collaborators. Together we’ve helped people find experiences that are beautiful and meaningful and there’s nothing in the world I’d rather be doing.”
Instead, this is the image that comes up most often when you google Elle Darby. Given the multitude of articles written about this (including this one), this image isn’t likely to fade fast. I believe there’s much more to her than this, so that’s why taking back control in response is so critical.
• Know your audience. Really, this was an emotionally expensive lesson in prospecting. Paul wasn’t a good fit for Elle. But that doesn’t mean other hotels wouldn’t be. It’s his right to find her offer insulting, absurd, or whatever adjective you can find. It’s her job to learn from it, shake it off, and believe harder in herself. It sounds to me like underneath the initial shock and pain that’s what she is doing.
• When people on the internet get mad, they take action and many of them will take things too far. And whatever anyone says, that’s worse for women.
• If you find yourself in this kind of situation, and it feels very personal, don’t read the comments. Hire someone to do it for you. Step. Away. From. The. Comments.
• If you have to respond, find your most honest and supportive friend (or staff member) to check your response. Another option for Elle would have been to respond with a series of funny gifs. But she felt truly hurt and that made it impossible to match aggression with humor.
• The value and status of a social media influencer is in the eye of the beholder. If you have to tell people you are one, does that diminish your credibility? In other words, if you have to invite yourself to the party, is that an issue or are you an entrepreneur?
• Humor has power. Humor drives the success of Paul’s responses and drives his brand. Many of the headlines and press lauded his humorous approach.
• Whether you’re active on social media or not, your brand can be attacked in these spaces. Here’s a great resource from AdWeek on mitigating risks specific to influencer marketing.
There you have it. If you’d made it this far without reading or skimming a blog post or article about bloggergate…hahahahaha you’re sucked in now. I mean you’re now up-to-date on a critical current event.