In this beautiful city of Cape Town there are a lot of whisky people, all happy to sit down and talk whisky. Some of us involved in the whisky world as part-timers happily give of our time for nothing other than the joy of sharing our passion. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing and working with professionals – the liquor companies, PR agencies and hospitality venues – all doing good, properly, responsibly, with pride. I call and pick brains, sit down and share knowledge. I can name a dozen people well known in hospitality circles, who are available for advice about whisky events. No charge, we do what we do for the love of whisky. If someone needs help, we offer advice and people accept it in the spirit that it is offered.
But one company, instead of taking advice and fixing up the problem, allowed ignorance and ego to take over. Instead of accepting much needed help in the spirit it was offered, the company threatened to sue me. The result is not a pretty sight
The company is Global Focus Events. The Managing Director is Julia Harmel. Here is what happened, word for word, direct from me, from her and from her lawyer. But first, some background.
A superb chef, the late Frank Zlomke, of Bosman’s at Grande Roche, now sadly departed this earth, once told me that he takes care over his menu; makes sure there are no spelling mistakes; the dishes and ingredients properly described, because, he said, before his customer sees the plate and tastes the food, the first experience is looking at the menu. He said that if he doesn’t take care about something that is there for a season, (his menu was seasonal) a customer can’t have faith that he will take care in what appears on the plate. Frank was a perfectionist and a professional. He took pride in his work.
When I see serious errors on menus and mistakes in social media I call or email whoever is in charge and suggest a correction. My thought is that it is bad for the brand, bad for the bar or restaurant and sometimes misleading to the public. Why is it my business? It’s not. But then, if we all sat back and did nothing, pretty soon kids in school will be like, u no, like I dunno, not like talking proper, u no, like, and riting rongly.
A friend drew my attention to some howlers on social media from the Global Focus Events and 220 Brands twitter accounts. They were bad, very bad, so after some playful banter I called Global Focus to speak to Thando, the intern responsible for the tweets. Thando did not call back, but Mark Harmel did. Mark sounds like a nice guy and said he had two bottles of The Macallan 12, now rare, discontinued, in high demand, in his collection, but no, he was not going to serve those whiskies at the event. The problem I had was that his company was advertising The Macallan 12 when they did not plan on serving it that night.
He thanked me for the call, said he would fix up all the errors and that was that. I’m not going to list all the errors, suffice to say that if my kids made so many mistakes in a school essay they’d get a failing grade and some PR companies could well fire the staff member responsible.
After our chat I dropped him an email.
“As discussed with Mark Harmel today, please confirm that you will correct the incorrect information on your social media account. There are errors and misleading items of information. To me it seems as the social media messages were put together in an unprofessional manner, which damages the brands and is harmful to the whisky loving public. It is also a poor reflection on your business but that is something for you to manage.
I called twice this morning to speak to Thando but did not get a return call. This is unprofessional. It is only when I said I would turn to social media with my complaints that Mr Harmel phoned me.
I hope that you will repair the damage done.
Kind regards and good luck for the event.”
I thought that all would be fixed, but I was wrong. I suppose I was optimistic, when a company says “Dream it, we’ll organise it… Events Management & Catering Extraordinaires | CANT is word none existent in our vocabulary” on its twitter masthead.
Nothing changed, despite the undertakings. It is neither difficult nor time-consuming to fix up errors. Importantly, if you mention brands, get it right. If you mention a whisky legend, do him the courtesy of spelling his name correctly and describing him properly. It is just good manners.
I wrote another email:
“Please sort out your Facebook pages as well and the description on twitter of what you claim to do is also incorrect.
A spell and grammar check will go a long way to improving your image.
Do it for the whisky-loving public.
Again, nothing – but I did get a call from the Chef. He said everyone is too busy so he took it on himself to sort things out. Thando called. He said I mustn’t interfere and everything is perfect, there are no mistakes. I said there were. He said there weren’t. I pointed them out. He said it makes no difference and he was too busy anyway and I’m not a guest so he doesn’t care about what I have to say.
I sent another email:
I told the Chef and Thando some of the issues. They are still there, not fixed up. Please sort out. Ardbeg, not Ardberg, Whisky, not Whiskey, and others.
Please explain what you mean by an evening of unlimited whisky tasting.
So I took to twitter to express my disappointment.
The mistakes remained. Got worse. Bain’s became Brains. And so it went on. Julia sent her lawyer an email, saying:
The situation I consulted you about (time to consult attorneys, no time to spellcheck?) is still persisting and now getting out of hand. Kindly see below. Now as I stated I do not normally interfere with petty issues (Petty? Responsible drinking, petty? I think it’s deadly serious.) and frankly this individual has now overstepped the boundaries. Can you kindly deal with this matter as soon as possible?
Mr Gutman (copied here) has been a bit intrusive lately; calling my office and ordering my staff around. He even indicated to one of my staff members earlier today that he has been on my personal facebook page. He was asked earlier to stop contacting the office and perhaps this is a message that he did not understand, as he is still sending emails making orders. Perhaps he has mistaken my silence in this matter as a sign of weakness.
Now if he wanted to help there are ways of doing (I did, called, emailed, to no avail) so rather than taking a matter that he did not ask about to social media. We had decided to shy away from replying to his twitter remarks as he is entitled to his opinion, however calling my office about such matters is out of bounds.
Please note, he is neither a client nor a guest or affiliated with any of the brands that this event will be associated with. The only claim he has on this is the fact that he is a whisky loving person.
Please deal with this matter ASAP.
Bernard; as indicated earlier, please DO NOT contact my office in any other manner. Zeeshaan is my legal counsel he will be dealing with you from now on.
Zeeshaan once you have sorted this, either call me or email me on my personal mail account.”
Now what is not there is anything about fixing up the mistakes, anything about advertising whiskies that aren’t on offer, nothing about any of the errors or misleading information. Just a complaint. Perhaps the correct thing to do have done was to publish a retraction of the misleading advert, a correction of the mistakes and move along.
But then again, if a company is charging the public R 450 for the evening, more than double the price of the truly world class Whisky Live and Wade Bales offerings at less than R 200, perhaps I should be circumspect about what to expect.
So I sent an email to Julia and her lawyer:
“Thank you for your email.
The content of your email is not correct and is, quite frankly, a sorry attempt at silencing a voice of dissent. It would be far better to seek advice from those who know instead of trying to get the lawyers involved. How about this: sort out your own mess. If you want to have a public fight, good luck to you, and let the truth come out. Come now – do the right thing for the sake of the noble spirit. Get advice.
We’re here to help.
Lets focus on the real issues.
If you want a public fight, I can’t stop you, but think about the harm to your business as a result of your sloppy work.
I wait to hear from you.”
And “Here’s the thing: are you going to deal with the issue of an advert for unlimited whisky tasting? Surely it is irresponsible to promote drinking from 6 in the evening until late. Let’s be sensible about this.
Please get back to me.”
In come the lawyers:
“Dear Mr Gutman
GLOBAL FOCUS: 220 PRINCES LOUNGE / WHISK(E)Y CONNOISSEURS EVENING
We confirm that we act on behalf of Global Focus and we refer to the email correspondence below.
It is our instructions that you have published numerous statements on Facebook and Twitter, which are potentially defamatory and which may cause damage to our client. We are further advised that you have acted in an intrusive manner and that you persist to harass our client’s offices via email and telephone despite their previous requests that you to desist from such behaviour.
We are instructed to direct, as we hereby do, that you immediately desist from the conduct aforesaid and that you refrain from any contact with our client at all. Failing which, we hold instructions to institute proceedings against you in order to enforce and protect our clients rights. Our client’s rights remain strictly reserved in this regard.
We trust that you will be guided accordingly.
No, you would be wrong if you thought that my reply would be similar to that of Private Eye to Arkell’s lawyers when Arkell threatened to sue the magazine. I wrote as follows:
“Thanks for the email.
Firstly, to enable me to provide you with a proper reply please let me know what statements I made on Facebook and Twitter your client is concerned about.
Secondly, my calls and emails to your client were not intrusive. I called to request that your client correct information it had put out which was both incorrect and embarrassing to it and the whisky brands. My emails also dealt with the serious problem of alcohol abuse. Perhaps your client can answer the question I posed.
I look forward to hearing from you as a matter of urgency so we can properly deal with the issues of concern, so please reply by close of business this Monday.
I wait to hear from you.”
Your email dated 23rd instant refers.
We are instructed that there is no reason for any concern in relation to alcohol abuse. In fact we are advised that our client has partnered with Uber Taxis for the event in order to provide transport for guests from the event.
It is our instructions that you are not a member or guest of the event nor do you act on behalf of any duly authorised regulatory authority. Accordingly, no grounds exist for you to persist with your monitoring of our client’s event.
Our client has no issues of concern and persists that you refrain from making any further contact with them. “ (my emphasis)
I get worried when events promote unlimited whisky drinking or tasting, very worried. Driving drunk is only one issue. The sight of people lurching around vomiting in the toilet is something that cannot be unseen; it is not a good look. People that can’t see further than their car keys will say they can drive and bravado triumphs over the sensible call to the taxi company. Women passing out and ending up in places and with people they shouldn’t be with is a worry. Anyone involved in whisky needs to do more to prevent problems from happening. Promote drinking less, but drinking better. Why promote unlimited anything?
Julia complained about what I had said and threatened to sue. The reply from her lawyer did not make sense, so I wrote:
“Thanks for the email.
Firstly, you write to me saying:
“It is our instructions that you have published numerous statements on Facebook and Twitter, which are potentially defamatory and which may cause damage to our client.”
So I asked you to “…please let me know what statements I made on Facebook and Twitter your client is concerned about.”
Your reply says, basically, mind your own business.
You see, the difficulty I have with this is that your client sought fit to get you involved with a threat and now says that it “…has no issues of concern…”
So let’s think about this. I call offering to help. Your client carries on with its embarrassing conduct then gets you to send a threatening letter. Then, under scrutiny, your client says mind your own business. The offending issues remain.
My view is that your client should focus on doing what is proper instead of trying to run an event where, notwithstanding the involvement of Uber, the focus seems to be binge drinking. The fact that a taxi company will be involved is not the issue. It is the advertised unlimited whisky tasting that is the issue. Your client should be well aware of the provisions of the Liquor Act and Regulations.
Again, I’m affording your client another opportunity to let me know what statements offended your client and what your client is going to do about the invitation for unlimited drinking.
The fact that I’m not representative of any of the liquor companies or regulatory authority is irrelevant. Let’s get this resolved in the interest of the public.
Please reply by close of business on this Wednesday.
I then called the attorney for a chat and afterwards he sent me the following:
“Dear Mr Gutman
Your email below and our telephone conversation of 26th instant refers.
As we have already telephonically discussed the statements made on social media, it is not necessary to address same again in this email.
We refer to your concern and allegations regarding unlimited whisky tasting and wish to emphasise that advertising of “unlimited whisky tasting” by no means implies that the event promotes irresponsible drinking. There is a significant difference between tasting and drinking or consumption. Accordingly, our client denies that the focus of the event is on binge drinking as suggested in your email below. It would be unreasonable and presumptuous to assume otherwise and we are informed that no other person has made any such allegation.
It is further noted that neither the Liquor Act nor the Regulations seem to prohibit the use of language in our client’s advertising. (Not quite correct, but he skips over the fact that the client advertised whisky they weren’t going to serve!)
We are advised that our client is aware of the provisions of our liquor laws and the event will be hosted within a controlled environment.
We trust that the above is clear and that no further correspondence in this regard will be necessary.”
“Thanks for this.
I don’t agree with your client’s interpretation but will include your explanation in the article I’ll be posting on my blog.
I think that any event offering a “taste as much as you like whisky”, without a cut-off time, is dangerous. I hope with all my heart that the event will be properly policed; that patrons don’t drink themselves into a stupor; that nobody drives drunk; that people drink less, drink better; that whisky appreciation, not unlimited ingestion, is the focus. The Liquor Act governs what you can and can’t say, what you can and can’t do. I’m happy to sit down and discuss the content.
Julia, whisky has spent at least three years in a cask, some you are supplying have spent twenty years and more. The least anyone can do is spend five minutes checking spelling and facts. The next time someone offers help, please take it.