Blogging as Blackmail: citizen journalism gone terribly wrong

My colleague Neville Hobson has an interesting article today entitled Blogger waging war on Land Rover, about an English chap named Adrian Melrose who apparently bought a defective Land Rover Discovery and has been attacking the company ever since.
Indeed, on his own weblog, Adrian, who had been posting anonymously, has articles like Why am I terrorising Land Rover? and Land Rover isn’t Listening. By his own admission, his so-called campaign against Land Rover (in which he states that he wants the company to “admit publically that my car was a first build F*** Up – I want them to replace it with a new one”) is an attempt to terrorize the company.
For his own part, Neville says “The only thing I’m a bit hesitant about is that nowhere on the blog that I can see does the blogger identify who he (or she) is. That somewhat lessens the credibility of this campaign.”
Neville, you’re missing the forest for the tree here, I think…

When I read through Adrian’s blog, I initially thought “cool idea, nice way to gain some visibility” but then I realized that it’s just about impossible for Land Rover to now respond because it’s become a parody of itself, somewhat of a “do you still beat your wife?” conundrum with no good way out.
For an individual consumer to seek relief for a faulty product is reasonable – and I do that myself with shoddy products – but where I believe Adrian crossed the line was with “I want Land Rover to admit publicly”. He then follows up with what only can be called a public humiliation campaign against the corporation. Why, after all, did he think of contacting Harrison-Cowley, Land Rover’s PR agency, rather than a consumer advocacy group or automotive publication?
It’s blackmail, pure and simple. And in the public eye.
Land Rover, replace my car or I’ll spend my time and effort writing terrible things about you and your cars.
Obviously, Land Rover bears some responsibility for addressing the issue of a faulty product, but there’s a world of difference between “I love this car, but the electrical system has been wonky since day one. I continue to work with the dealer, company and local government representatives to remedy it” and “You stink. I’m going to write nasty things about you until you cry “uncle” and give me what I want.”
I can only imagine Adrian’s frustration with the situation (somehow there’s nothing more frustrating than a defective automobile), but I suggest that rather than laud Adrian for an effective online campaign against the company, it’s more appropriate to criticize his aggressive tactics. If I were in this situation, I’d be working behind the scenes, not in the limelight. The chance of a positive resolution is far, far higher.
As it is, I can just imagine the customer service team at Land Rover in a meeting with its PR agency, talking about Adrian’s problem…
“Well, we know there were some problems with the first run.”
“Yes, but we can’t replace this chap’s car now that it’s a public problem”
“Oh? Why not?”
“Because if we say yes to him, we’ll be attacked by every Tom, Dick and Harry who has even the slightest flaw in their car. Dirty ashtrays will produce flaming rhetoric and more bad PR than we can ever manage.”
“Damn. So what do we do?”
“I dunno, mates, I just don’t know…”
What do you think? Can Land Rover just resolve this situation by meeting Adrian’s demands, or has he backed himself into a corner, leaving them no viable solution to this visible and embarrassing problem?
Update, 7/16/05: In a surprise post-script, Land Rover worked a deal with Adrian so he could replace his defective Discovery 3 with a new vehicle. He took delivery of the new car and with less than 500 miles on the odometer, it now is exhibiting the same faulty electronics problems. Adrian is giving up on Land Rover and is going to switch to another manufacturer, at great cost. As you read his account, notice how the rhetoric has been tempered by the visibility that Adrian has received for this discussion.

12 comments on “Blogging as Blackmail: citizen journalism gone terribly wrong

  1. Dave,
    I hear you, but with all due respect: I think you need to read more than just one of my blog entries: all the facts would be important before using that rather unpleasant word: blackmail.
    So here are a few points you may have not picked up:
    1) I didn’t expect the car to be replaced for nothing.
    2) the car has already been replaced with a new one and i paid �5k for that luxury which was a deal well worth doing – I think it was a fair deal to both Land Rover and myself – so I am not trying to get a freebie out of them I just want them to look after a loyal and important client.
    3) I continue to post to the blog because Land Rover needs to communicate with their customers.
    4) I am no longer angry about the car – I am angry with Land Rover and their PR Company and the way they treat their customers.
    5) I wrote to Land Rover’s PR Company because I never heard from Land Rover after sending in a rather scathing Customer Feedback questionnaire dealing with the Land Rover Assist recovery.
    Not sure if it changes your view, but in my book , its nowhere close to blackmail.

  2. Leaving the specifics aside, let me say that the actions described constitute neither ‘terrorising’ nor ‘blackmail’. And it is very important to maintain a clear and principled distinction between voicing one’s opinions on a website – no matter how forcefully and frequently – and the sort of murder and mayhem associated with *real* instances of terrorism and blackmail. We expect society to respond very strongly toward these sorts of criminal offenses, and not at all against the voicing of one’s opinion.

  3. Thanks for your note, Adrian. I’m delighted you have a good resolution to your problem, and of course, I admit to a bit of rhetorical flourish in my article. Nonetheless, I did read through your articles, and I still ask the question of whether you went too far with your complaints and strategy of public humiliation?
    Further, I still have questions about what happens when the next person goes “just a little bit further” than you did, Adrian. And then the next, and somewhere along the line, it really is far more than any corporation is going to stomach, defective product or not. Then what happens?

  4. Stephen, I appreciate what you’re saying, but really, coercion is blackmail and if you accept the description of the situation I offer in my article, then it is the correct use of the word. Was Adrian engaged in terrorism? Well, he said he was on his own site, though I agree that it’s certainly the mildest form of inciting terror I can imagine, and thank goodness.
    But I’ll disagree that because there are heinous acts and cowardly criminals who engage in deadly blackmail and terrorist acts it means those words should be off-limits to the rest of us. I also don’t think that Adrian was just ‘voicing one’s opinion’ when he explains how he was writing “rather scathing letters” and repeatedly calling the public relations firm, etc.
    Having different opinions and watching words evolve is part of what makes all this interesting, though, so I certainly respect your right to your own opinion, Stephen. Thanks for your note.

  5. Dave, your rhetorical flourish makes your article worth a read, so I forgive you!
    I also accept your point about referring to terrorism in my blog… but let’s be careful not to be over sensitive. In future I might avoid the sensationalist approach though especially after last Thursday in London
    I too am worried about the unfair damage a brand can be dealt by maniacs in the public domain, but surely thats the Communication Professional’s job to listen and understand – this is a disruptive technology and the winner is going to be the brand that manages it properly to their best advantage – its not going to go away!
    I believe that there are enough Land Rover fans out there who will counter any unfair or unjustified attack – I will be one of the first…
    Land Rover needs to defend themselves too- if they are going to stick their heads in the sand everytime something like this happens – how on earth does the blogosphere hear both sides of the story – ‘ cause the truth’s always in between
    I talked with Land Rover yesterday and I hope I post a balanced account of my fulfilling conversation on

  6. Let’s reflect for a moment on the relative power relationships here. You have a corporation worth hundreds of millions of dollars and a massive bureaucracy with permanent paid positions staffed by lawyers, accountants, and publicity flacks. On the other hand you have a shafted consumer who has paid for a good or service and is therefore not likely to be a customer again (for a capital good) for some years. The typical business response is to ignore the complaint and pocket the cash – how many people like Adrian are there who will even attempt to fight back, much less successfully? Everyone uses a bit of hyperbole from time to time to get their message above the background roar of competing noise. Corporations (through advertising), politicians, preachers, and many others do this constantly. I doubt that Adrian was even mentioned in the mainstream media with his efforts or complaints. Were corporations organizations with anything besides their own (usually short term) self interest at heart, one might have some degree of sympathy that the poor giant is being kicked around by a mite. Sadly this is rarely the case.

  7. t’s a shame that customers have to go through the lengths they do just to get support for something they paid for. Every day large corporations are putting the screws to customers, and unfortunately the customers usually don’t get a resolve.
    Case in point, Symantec and Roxio, of which both I have legally purchased software from, to which I have had much trouble with, in which to this day I still haven’t received a reply to many emails sent through their web site, for support on their product.
    I completely gave up on Roxio and went to the other side, Nero Software, even though Roxio was supposed to still be under free support. And when my subscription runs out on Symantec’s updates, I will go over to Symantecs competition for software.
    And every day, at every chance I get, I make it well known that these two corporations will screw you if you buy their software. Does it work? Who knows, but if I save at least one person from making the same mistake I did, then it was worth my small effort.
    So to the bloggers that are making waves against the large corporations for support, I say MORE POWER TO THEM!

  8. Sir
    I read your comments about how LR being blackmialed etc was unfair to LR. You claim to be an expert. Therefore I strongly suggest that you got on line & look at the number of complaints & web sites dedicated to LR problems. Do you really imagine that LR will put matters right simply by owner asking them. We are a group of owners, both here & overseas, who have come together to try & get LR to meet it’s obligations. LR have history for example are you not aware of the falling bolt which caused in most cases engine failure costing thousands to repair. LR where getting owners to pay for replacment engines by letting each customer think their situation was isolated, or that they where not entitled to repair because they were out of warranty etc. In the full knowledge that this was not a warranty problem but a build problem for which they remain liable regardless of warranty terms. It was only when Watchdog picked up the story that LR where brought to account. Not only that, owners who had already paid out are I understand reclaiming there money.

  9. Thanks for adding your information here, Jon. I understand your perspective and appreciate that a group of you have banded together to try and gain some satisfaction from Land Rover. That’s a tactic I approve of wholeheartedly. However, blogging crass criticism and saying “I want Land Rover to admit publicly that my car was a first build F*-up or I’ll…” is not a strategy that’s going to work with a corporation and it is, in my view, blackmail.
    I also understand your frustration about buying a luxury automobile just to find that it was poorly made and that the subsequent support from the company was nonexistent. Publicizing that is a smart strategy. But there’s a world of difference – to me, at least – between saying “I’m so frustrated, here’s my experience” and “you worththeless dirtbags! If you don’t publicly admit you screwed up and give me a brand new car I’m going to slam you and write as much negative about your company as I can”.

  10. Hi Thanks for your responses I agree to make what amount to threats or using insulting words is not a good idea. We as a group avoid it. However, whilst we don’t condone it, if you had heard some of the verified treatment of owners by LR you would understand it. Unfortunatley we have many accounts which confirm that they refuse to act in a reasonable manner. They use every possible excuse to avoid the problem. They actually told one owner that her claim was invalid because she had given the vehicle to her Father!!

  11. One observation: “they” actually represent a lot of different people at different places in the company and its affiliated businesses. Talking about “they” just reinforces an “us versus them” attitude which might be what you want, but rarely helps resolve problems in my experience. Good luck to you!

  12. Hi again Dave
    Yes we do refer to they because it would be very unfair to refer to discussions with individual employees or departments of LR. The whole company must be responsible for the actions of it’s employees. Furthermore, they are we believe simply following corporate policy. We don’t consider that the employees are bad folk some have tried to be helpful, but that has been within the constraints set down by LR. Also I’m not sure how you think we should refer to them.

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