While it’s always nice to be written about, is it too much to ask that if an expert journalist is going to criticise the whole methodology of your business that they might at least get their basic facts straight?
The latest miscreant in this regard is Jasper Gerard, in the Daily Telegraph, who largely based his Saturday column around Harden’s. His piece was by no means ‘knocking copy’, and we don’t for a second imagine he has it ‘in for us’, but he did indulge in a few pot-shots at our business based on assertions of fact that are plain wrong.
Gerard confidently tells his readers that Harden’s recommendations “are based on the number of letters it receives from the public extolling a particular place”.
No. As any expert on restaurant-going knows – or damn well ought to, if they’re going to write about Harden’s – our guides are not based on random letters at all, but on an annual S-U-R-V-E-Y. (That’s the same survey as the one referred to on the front cover of the book, in the introduction and in all the press releases.)
Based on his ill-informed premise, Jasper went on to imply that it’s a piece of cake for a restaurant (or its fans) to stuff the ballot by “bully[ing] friends to write gushing paens”. If Mr Gerard had checked the actual facts he’d have had to consider that subverting an established annual survey – in which many who take part are repeat participants over many years – is very much more difficult than bullying a few mates into writing gushing letters.
Echoing recent comments by Jay Rayner (and, in the past AA Gill), Gerrard also has a jovial dig at us for having the temerity to do PR for our guides, which he parodies with the fake headline “Middle Wallop boasts the finest Sino-Bulgarian fusion food east of Alaska”.
However side-splittingly funny this may be, though, why alone amongst publishers do we take flak for PR’ing our books at all? There are only four national UK restaurant guides widely sold in book shops (AA, Michelin, Good Food Guide, Harden’s), and they all, in different ways, put a lot of effort into their PR.
That’s what publishers do – or those who want to stay in business anyway. Why do we never read pieces saying “Michelin are up to their old tricks again” when they launch their new guide? (The Guardian recently featured a Word of Mouth piece starting: “So Harden’s are up to their old tricks again”.)
Is it because the restaurant critics feel we get too much PR? Our stories usually relate to our survey, which is unique in its range and level of detail. Is it really so surprising that news desks think their readers will be interested in the conclusions of a large annual survey of consumers’ opinions on one of the highest-profile bits of the UK’s £100bn+ hospitality industry?
PS (10 March 2009) Remarkably, the Daily Telegraph initially resisted our very amicably expressed request to publish any correction to Jasper Gerard’s piece. After wasting a huge amount of time and effort in writing letters to us explaining why the newspaper would and could not publish any such correction, the Telegraph did finally publish a retraction broadly in line with what we had originally asked for… but only after the intervention of the Press Complaints Commission.