Paperchase joins the ranks of Daily Mail detractors - but is this move a suppression of free speech?

Paperchase is the latest brand to distance itself from the Daily Mail after criticism from social media users - but what are the risks when brands take this step?

Evans Cycles has 'blacklisted' its ads appearing in the Daily Mail, Sun and Express
Evans Cycles has 'blacklisted' its ads appearing in the Daily Mail, Sun and Express

Speaking earlier in the year, PR pros warned PRWeek that "efforts to bully media" could easily appear as misconceived brand activism, after several firms promised to stop their ads from appearing on the websites of three right-leaning news titles.

Campaign group Stop Funding Hate had a hand in each of these - it uses social media to urge brands to pull advertising from outlets, including the Daily Mail, Express and the Sun, which it deems to have a negative editorial stance on various social issues.

In February, The Body Shop followed an example previously set by Lego, and publically distanced itself from the Mail, saying it had no plans to advertise in the newspaper, citing the beauty product brand's "ethical stance". More recently fashion brand Joy has taken similar measures, as has Evans Cycles, which said in September that it had "blacklisted" ad placements appearing on the Daily Mail, Sun and Express.

The Mail has in each case hit back hard - of the Joy case, it claimed the article that caused the concerns was "satirical", and that the retailer was guilty of "caving in to a tiny pressure group seeking to suppress legitimate debate and impose its views on others".

In the most recent instance involving Paperchase, the Mail argued that it was "deeply worrying" that the company had taken the step due to the actions of "internet trolls orchestrated by a small group of hard left Corbynist individuals seeking to suppress legitimate debate and impose their views on the media"

Stop Funding Hate director Richard Wilson said: "Amid widespread public concern over the rise in racism and hate crime, brands are increasingly recognising that appearing alongside inflammatory and divisive content is bad for their business."

'Defend it or end it'

Looking back over examples from earlier this year, Gerry Hopkinson, co-founder at PR agency Unity, said that if customers or other stakeholders objected to a brand's relationship with anyone, there were two clear choices: defend the relationship or end it.

Hopkinson said: "The abiding reputation management principle of acting deliberately, thoughtfully and after ascertaining all the facts cannot be overstated. In either case, you must think carefully and explain your decision clearly."

He said it was evident that a number of the brands mentioned above had acted after listening to customers and examining their views, and that while the media may not like it, they have no grounds for complaint.

But he added: "However, I do worry about efforts to bully media in the same way I worry about media who are a little too eager to please advertisers at the expense of their editorial integrity. Ultimately, we are best served by a robust, independent and free press, whether we agree with all they say or not."

Avoid knee-jerk reactions

Emma Hazan, global head of consumer at Hotwire, said brands should not cave in to pressure groups or be bullied into making business decisions.

Hazan said: "Brand activism is to be applauded when done right, but if it's a knee-jerk reaction to public shaming, that's not going to earn you any points."

Hazan questioned whether the brands named above had consulted with their comms people about their decisions, or just their legal and marketing departments.

"If so, are these comms teams now also pulling the likes of the Daily Mail and Daily Express from their press lists too? I'm not so sure.

"The point here is that brands need to ensure that if these knee-jerk decisions are made, there is then consistency across the organisation, so they have one approach going forward. It's not going to look so good for Joy if we see an article in the Daily Mail in a few weeks' time featuring one of their winter coats in a fashion round-up."

Marshall Manson, CEO at Ogilvy PR UK, added: "Most brands aren’t aiming for a homogenised audience. So big, public action can result in just as much negative impact as positive. The best course, it seems to me, is for brands to make their choices quietly. Put their own values into practice, but to do so without the megaphone."

Boycotts just a 'stunt'

In a statement to PRWeek, a spokesman for the Daily Mail labelled the boycotts a "publicity stunt", adding that its effect on the Mail's ad revenue was "precisely zero, because neither Evans Cycles nor Joy advertise in the newspaper". In Joy's case, the advertising was placed through third parties.

In the case of Evans Cycles, the spokesman said: "The article which prompted their reaction was not even published by the Daily Mail, but by The Mail on Sunday - an autonomous operation with its own editor and journalistic staff - more than 15 years ago.

"What should concern any reputable PR agency is the very negative message sent by Evans Cycles and Joy to the millions of people who read the Daily Mail, many of whom will be their customers and now feel they are not welcome in their shops.

"It is very disturbing that an otherwise reputable business should seek cheap publicity by cravenly surrendering to a group of individuals seeking to suppress legitimate debate and impose their views on others by trolling them on social media. Is this what Evans Cycles means by 'core values'?"

Presenting a united front

While appropriate brand activism is to be applauded, as highlighted above, it is also clear that boycotting and even bullying a media organisation is considered a risky strategy. 

It would seem that PR professionals and members of the press are united in the belief that this approach is at best a knee-jerk reaction to pressure and at worst a suppression of free speech.

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