Kobo has proven big brands can seldom afford to beg forgiveness

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By Leo Valiquettekobo_logo

While Canadians lament the shaky future of BlackBerry, I wonder how many have been following the PR nightmare that’s been faced by another Canadian brand, Kobo.

I heard Kobo chief executive Michael Serbinis speak in May at the Canadian Digital Media Network’s Canada 3.0 conference. I enjoyed the image of patriotic pride that he painted, characterizing Kobo as an upstart in the ebook world that has successfully challenged, not one, but many entrenched Goliaths for global dominance.

He also spoke of Kobo’s commitment to independent authors through its Kobo Writing Life self-publishing arm. About 10 per cent of its best-selling titles, he said, are from self-published authors.

But the warm and fuzzy relationship with the indie community hit the skids earlier this month.

Mainstream ebook retailers have policies against carrying adult material featuring “illegal acts” or acts “deemed to be exploitative.” After a scandalous discovery that quite a bit of this sort of offensive material had slipped through the cracks, ebook retailers were quick to crack down by reviewing their policies and yanking questionable titles.

But Kobo, it seems, took it a step further than its rivals. In an Oct. 15 statement, Kobo defended its actions:

“We believe these steps are necessary to provide a great store experience for our readers, so that the reputation of our amazing authors and publishers is protected, that we comply with international laws, and that our partners like WHSmith are confident in the catalogue they provide to their customers.  We believe the short-term implication of these measures far outweigh the long-term damage that could be done to the reputation of self-publishing and ereading as a whole … this is not a matter of censorship.”

Specific reference was made to U.K. retailer WHSmith because, in that instance, practically all indie titles were, temporarily at least, pulled. There have also been a host of other examples where indie titles that did not fall into the illegal and exploitative category were unfairly pulled.

That’s when the indie publishing world declared war on Kobo.

Perhaps it’s a result of the fact that my Twitter feed is peppered with independent authors and other publishing industry types, but I’ve seen a lot of hate expressed in 140 characters or less over the past two weeks. #kobogeddon has become a popular hashtag. @RayneHall and others have been on protracted rants that I can only expect will have a negative impact on Kobo Writing Life.

Other than that Oct. 15 statement, Kobo has been rather tight-lipped on the subject, at least on its Twitter feed. However, it has apparently made efforts to mend fences by reaching out to organizations such as Vancouver LGBT publisher Icon Empress Press to stress that its policies “will not be unfavorable to houses that publish gay and LGBT titles.”

But the critics say that such overtures, as well as ongoing efforts to restore titles wrongfully yanked, is too little, too late. Kobo has already broken trust with its community.

It’s a classic example of a corporate brand making a knee-jerk move without appreciating the vast potential for backlash.

I am not going to get into the freedom of expression debate that’s part of this. That’s not the point and that’s not what’s important, at least, not for our purposes here from a crisis communications standpoint.

Kobo (and any other ebook seller) has a moral and legal obligation to police the titles it carries the same way that video rental stores (remember those?) would confine X-rated titles to a discreet backroom. But that doesn’t mean you shut down the entire store because a risqué title is found on a shelf in the family section next to The Little Mermaid. It requires a rational, measured response that doesn’t run the risk of alienating your broader customer base. Pains must be taken to inform all stakeholder groups, (in this instance, readers, authors, agents and publishing houses) about the nature and dimensions of the problem and the corrective action to be taken.

Kobo’s response to the backlash has been measured and thoughtful and it deserves kudos for that. Too bad it didn’t exercise the same prudence before taking such drastic, and inconsistent, corrective action.

If there is a single crisis communications lesson to be had here, it’s this: Think before you act to avoid creating a crisis in the first place. Sometimes, it is far more difficult to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.

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