By: Stephen Crane (Photo: Flickr user nao-cha)
Ocean Marketing wants you to know that after five years of PR and SEO expertise, they believe in building great relationships. Unfortunately for them, it's coming out that these 'great relationships' are more akin to abusive ones. Let's explore.
[Update:] Gabe on Penny Arcade has updated his side of the story with published emails from Paul and his thoughts on those. It appears that Gabe is completely unsympathetic, stating "I think there is a big difference between being sorry and being sorry you got caught. I have a real problem with bullies. [...] Someday every bully meets and even bigger bully and maybe that’s me in this case."
[Original Story:] Earlier today, Mike Krahulik (AKA Gabe) from Penny Arcade published a string of emails between Dave, a customer of N-Control, and Paul Christoforo, a representative from Ocean Marketing. Ocean Marketing is the group responsible for customer service and the public relations for N-Control, the company behind a really novel design concept to help gamers get an edge in console based shooters, or allow gamers with disabilities to enjoy games just as much as the rest of us. The emails show a Paul as a rather unhelpful and eventually caustic customer serviceman with poor grammar. He tried to drop the names of his "connections" to intimidate Dave and even eventually intimidate Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade fame. More drama ensued.
The premise of the email chain was that a customer, Dave, had pre-ordered an Avenger Controller for the full price with an expected ship date of "late November, early December". There were delays upon delays, and when the customer would ask about the status of his order he would get cryptic responses like "December 17" which didn't answer exactly what would happen on the 17th. Further inquiries by Dave resulted in an increasingly tense email exchange as December 26 rolled around and still no controller in sight with no word of when it would ship.
To add insult to injury, the N-Controller website was now offering $10 off new orders. When Dave asked about this and whether or not he could get the same discount, he was informed that if he was caught trying to get the same discount his order would be cancelled entirely. At this point, the PR rep begins insulting Dave and things degrade from there as Dave responds rather angrily (although in his defense he was for the most part civil and on point) and begins emailing different tech and gaming news outlets with this exchange. The PR rep responds that he doesn't care and begins name-dropping all of the people he is connected with in the industry as well as all of the trade shows he would be at including PAX East. That's where Mike Krahulik raised an eyebrow and got involved, then posted emails for all to see. Paul also threatened to launch a smear campaign against Penny Arcade.
Not long after the email exchange was made public, a Twitter drama storm opened up and the internet grabbed their torches and pitchforks. Just about anyone who was namedropped by Paul, excluding the mayor of Boston because he really doesn't have any stake in this whatsoever, have disavowed any professional relationship. One of the first, and most public, of these names was Scott Lowe, the Executive Editor of IGN Tech, who called Paul unprofessional. Paul responded by calling Scott a douchebag. That tweet was soon deleted and replaced by a tamer one. Kevin Kelley, who is no longer with G4 (much to Paul's surprise), also stated that he has no professional relationship with Paul.
In response to the debacle, Paul has changed his Twitter account from @OceanMarketting to @OceanStratagy (@OceanStrategy was open before the name change), and remained silent since 8:57AM EST.
More complaints have also been coming out against Ocean Marketing. The Examiner has been following this debacle and uncovered many instances of plagiarism on Ocean Marketing's blog. They labeled articles as "original work" when, in fact, they were ripped from other sources including Forbes and BizReport. Attention has also been brought to another N-Controller customer handled by Paul named Nathan Stansell who received a controller but not a discount coupon promised to him.
Adding fuel to the fire, Kotaku caught Paul pretending to be someone else in an email. Kotaku writer Joel Johnson sent an email requesting an official statement from "Brandon Leidel, Director of Marketing" at N-Control. It was sent to an email address they had previously has correspondence through. The answer came with the signature of Brandon, however the email came from "firstname.lastname@example.org", an email address eventually linked to Paul via his twitter.
The Business Development Director of N-Control, Frank Shephard, has more or less apologized but has not released an official statement yet. Attempts to contact Paul for an official statement have, as of writing this article, been fruitless. I was asked to redirect my emails to his personal account.
GamerFront did manage to get in touch with Paul earlier today and had a brief 15 minute conversation with him. There are a few notable quotes from the article that are worth reading.
"Apparently the only thing special about Dave was that he caught him at a bad time, and got under his skin."
"He seemed annoyed by the amount of friend requests he’d received on Facebook, since someone managed to find him. He credited that to the fact that his information was posted at the bottom of the Penny Arcade piece, and said that he’d be talking to his lawyers about that later today. What’s more, he said that his job isn’t really to deal with individual customers like Dave, but rather to strike deals with companies like GameStop and BestBuy. Those companies are buying his wares, so he “doesn’t care about anyone else.” Why? Because as long as his products are on store shelves, people will buy them."
"In the end, he conceded that it would be a good idea to send Dave an apology, and even hook him up with a couple of free Avengers as a gesture of good faith. After all, the guy just wanted his Avenger, and got some nasty emails for his trouble."
Paul also sent an apology letter to Dave, and Gamefront obtained and published a copy of the email. Here are some quotes.
"I just wanted to apologize for the way our emails progressed from beginning to end , You caught me on an extremely bad day and I had been dealing with 100’s and hundreds of emails trying to explain the situation to everyone on where the product was and you just pushed me a little too much and I should have just apologized and tried to explain things better. Also I had a really bad day losing a friend to an overdose and the stress of my newborn baby and the Holiday ,missing my family and just stressing on getting product out to everyone and why it was held up in customs wore me out."
"I’m not asking for any sympathy just for some understanding and forgiveness , I’m human just like everyone else and made a mistake.[...] I ask that you please accept my apology as a peace offering I will refund your money and give you your 2 units/Avengers free of charge please help me to get some of this negativity removed or at least my personal name although its already all over the internet and the calls and emails will not stop but any help will be appreciated especially with penny arcade as Mike and edit his own website I owe him an apology too which I will write next."
If this is true, I do feel sympathy for Paul. His actions aren't excuseable, but they are understandable. He is in a very tough spot, and when life is that tense it can be difficult to be civil in a customer relations setting. That doesn't excuse his actions, however it does paint them in a different light. He isn't a generally mean and unprofessional man, but someone who was on the edge and very close to a sort of breaking point.
From all outward appearances, this is a situation that could have been handled much better and could have had a clear, easy resolution that was beneficial to both the customer and the image of Paul and N-Control. All Paul had to do what be honest from the get-go about what the delays were, the troubles the company was experiencing, and offer to make the poor experience better for the customer. At the very least he could have offered to make the $10 coupon valid for Dave's purchase, or discount the controller even further.
Public Relations is a tricky thing. You have to carefully balance how your company looks and know sometimes that the best way to win a battle is to lose it. The point of customer service and public relations isn't to be right, but rather to look good. Unfortunately, Paul was neither in this situation.
It should also be noted that we shouldn't pass too much blame to N-Control. Their product is interesting and definitely useful, and it looks like Ocean Marketing was a third party marketing/customer service group.
Big shout-outs go to @OceanMarketting and @StillGray and all the other fun people of Twitter whose names I forget and cannot find for helping me source this. If you get the chance, give them a follow. @OceanMarketting was taken over as soon as Paul changed it to @OceanStratagy. @OceanMarketting now focuses on showing off indie games.