Customers Behaving Badly

One of the clauses contained in the contracts we sign with our customers includes language that, when the legalese is deciphered, basically says that our customers cannot publicly denigrate us. This means that a customer can’t go to the media, a message board, or a conference and blame us for something or trash-talk us.

The clause is important for us because we’ve worked hard to build a solid reputation, and a good deal of our efforts have been viral. We’ve seen how word-of-mouth marketing can help our business and we know it could also hurt our business. The quid pro quo is that we won’t talk bad about our customers.

For years, manufacturers and service providers have had to deal with the fallout from their customers’ actions. Aircraft maker Boeing has seen its stock fall and name dragged through the mud following crashes regardless of the fact that sometimes the accidents were caused by pilot error, weather or poor maintenance by the aircraft’s owner. MySpace is constantly under the gun because of how some of its users choose to utilize its service. Film studios, video game publishers and record labels have been hammered by politicians, the media and consumer groups who say that their products are a negative influence on children and others.

One recent example of a company being injured by a customer is EllisLab, a web publishing software and web hosting company. One of the company’s products is a content management system called ExpressionEngine; another is EngineHosting.

Last week, Apple Matters, a popular website focused on computer and electronics maker Apple, pulled a little hoax. The site, along with a few other Apple-related properties, claimed it was hacked. It turned out that the “hackings” wear a cry for publicity, something that Apple Matter’s Hadley Stern fessed up to after it became apparent that, in his words, the “bad PR stunt” went awry.

“I am very sorry to post this publicly but at this point this has gone to [sic] far. Apple Matters is a big site, and it runs on Expression Engine [sic], one of the best platforms out there. At this point this joke is begginning [sic] to impact other businesses and I cannot let that happen,” Stern wrote.

He continued: “I made a mistake of judging the inpact [sic] of this hoax. Apple Matters runs on the incredibly perfect platform Expression Engine [sic] and is hosted by Engine hosting [sic], which is a fantastic company. When I was first approached me [sic] about the hoax I thought it was a little harmless fun. I am literally shaking right now because I did not fully understand the impact of this, so lesson learnt. Again, Apple Matters, running on expression engine [sic] was in no way hacked. It was a joke publicity stunt that I thought would be funny to attract attention.”

Stern ended with an apology, saying, “I apologize wholeheartedly to anyone this may have inadvertently impacted.”

Jeff Gamet at The Mac Observer covered the alleged hackings and Stern’s admission of the hoax.

“The good news is that the Web sites weren’t hacked. The bad news is that the stunt could potentially have a negative impact on the companies that provide services for the sites — including back end hosting, server applications, and site advertising services. Even though none of the support companies were involved in the stunt, it still could appear that the host services and applications offered inadequate security protection, and that the ad host company was in some way involved, too,” Gamet observed.

EllisLab was not amused by the stunt, and it appears that Gamet’s observation was correct.

“As some of you know there is a ‘PR stunt’ underway involving a few, mostly Apple related sites,” EllisLab VP Leslie Camacho wrote. “In this stunt, a fake hacker is claiming to have ‘hacked’ these sites in attempt to generate traffic. A few of these sites are powered by ExpressionEngine and hosted with EngineHosting. This has caused a number of people to contact us asking if there are security concerns regarding our products and services.”

“The answer is no,” Camacho continued. “These claims are completely false, fabrications of an ill-conceived publicity stunt. EllisLab was not notified of this stunt nor were we involved in any way. We’re not linking to anything because we’ll be damned if we give this stunt additional publicity.”

EllisLab is lucky, in one sense. The Apple/Mac community is very tight and there has been a serious backlash against all of those involved in the hoax. The community is basically policing itself and making sure that everyone understands that EllisLab and others were victims. Nonetheless, the PR stunt obviously caused headaches for EllisLab and others. Was there anything EllisLab could have done to prevent it?

Unfortunately, there is little EllisLab could have done in this case. Its customer never directly suggested that EllisLab’s products were faulty in any way, and the PR stunt never mentioned the company or its products. EllisLab was just an innocent bystander that got caught up in someone’s bad joke.

Let this incident serve as a reminder that your customers can cause you PR problems. You can try to defend yourself through legal means when a contract is signed, but once your product is out of your hands, there’s not much you can do to protect your brand other than to monitor, to the best of your ability, what customers are doing and be prepared to play defense.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: