Yesterday, Twitter flexed its muscles once again as a corporate watchdog. An independent artist alleged that stationery company Paperchase plagiarized her word and the allegation went viral on the popular microblogging service.

While the firestorm ensued, Paperchase, which is without much of a social media presence, responded later in the day with an explanation.

The story put forth by Paperchase is that:

  • Paperchase bought the design "in good faith" from a reputable agency.
  • In November 2009, Paperchase brought the issue of potential plagiarism up with agency when the artist, HiddenEloise, contacted them.
  • The agency "categorically denied" the possibility that plagiarism was involved.
  • Paperchase responded to HiddenEloise and didn't hear anything back.

While Paperchase's version of events seems plausible on the surface, it's probably not wise to pass judgment until all the facts come out.

But since the angry tweets started flowing, new facts have emerged. Most importantly, Paperchase named the agency (Gather No Moss) that it purchased the design from and posted a statement prepared by Gather No Moss. Some had questioned whether Paperchase was lying about an agency being involved in an effort to deflect blame. Clearly that was not the case.

I think there are a couple of key points to be made here:

Social media is really powerful.
Social media gives leverage to those who are often without it, and that's a very good thing. In less than a day, a single individual who couldn't afford a legal battle with a big company sparked a firestorm that engulfed that company. Needless to say, whatever happens, it is clear that social media will have played a big role in the outcome, which is hopefully amicable and fair.

Social media can be too powerful.
Virtual lynch mobs form easily, and action often comes before contemplation. Within a day, Paperchase had issued a statement and provided details about what happened. For some, however, only an immediate response will do. The problem with this is that it's always better for everyone involved that the response be substantive and informed, not hastily put together before all the facts are known and interested parties consulted. Here, Paperchase explained that the design in question had been purchased from an agency and gave the agency the courtesy of writing a statement of its own before its name was made public. Like it or not, that was absolutely the right thing to do.

At the end of the day, social media has changed the art of crisis management. As my colleague Aliya Zaidi noted, "if you do something wrong, expect to be exposed publicly within seconds, minutes or hours." The speed at which full-blown crises can erupt through social media is something most companies have never seen before. Because of that, social media crises can be very disorienting. Yet good crisis management still requires responding with substance, something that's hard to do when you're focused more on the speed with which you respond.

There are no easy answers here. Realistically, companies do need to react much quicker than they may have been able to in the past if they want to nip crises in the bud, and it does help to have a social media presence. But at the same time, rushing to provide any response before you can put together a thoughtful, meaningful response isn't a good idea. There will always be individuals who are ready to jump the gun and who will take sides before knowing the facts. Companies will never be able to please these people so when dealing with a crisis, they should ignore extreme elements and focus on getting the response right.

In other words, they might heed the advice of Napoleon Bonaparte, who once said "Order marches with weighty and measured strides. Disorder is always in a hurry." Just don't wait too long.

Photo credit: Ana Patrícia Almeida via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 12 February, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (13)

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I think Paperchase may still be a little unsure how this turned into something so big and were caught off guard with how to respond, although positively gave the agency time to respond. The speed at which twitter and real time search gives information makes it hard for a company like paperchase to respond in a factual way.  I think the important thing now is how they deal with the situation moving forward

over 8 years ago


Hidden Eloise

Dear writter,

You are ignoring one very important detail: I did contact Paperchase and they did say that they will not be pulling out the infringing designs. Why should I have contacted them again after that? I contacted a lawyer after that!

You are falling into paperchase's poor spin that the design agency, GatherNoMoss is to blame.

I have replied on the matter in my blog before you wrote this article. You are talking about impartial reporting when you are not reporting my side of the story.

Bear hugs,

Hidden Eloise

over 8 years ago


Lyndsey Michaels

I agree with Kate and Claire. Paperchase have been caught on the hop, unprepared. 

Barring the invention of a time machine, Paperchase have little option but to try to move forward regardless of the damage done yesterday. Still, it might serve as a wake up call to other companies who have not yet fully understood the power of social media and the speed at which it moves.

Regardless of fault, the company will now have to do some fancy footwork to repair their brand in the eyes of, well, the world.

My take on how Paperchase could move forward and turn public perception back around is here: Next Steps for Paperchase - A Brand Issue


over 8 years ago


Lyndsey Michaels

Yipe - posted at same time as Hidden Eloise. Not meant to infer that I disagree with her, just that her comment wasn't there at the time!

Hidden Eloise - I think you are/have been handling it all in the best way possible given the limitations forced upon you in getting it resolved initially. I hope ultimately they give you your dues - and stop the petty blaming among themselves.


over 8 years ago


Charlotte Evans

Fascinating stuff.

I was chatting to my boyfriend about this last night, excited about the power of 'social media', the leveling of the playing field and so on and, not being too clued up on these things he was pretty derisory about the story. It struck me that his response was typical of a great many people who haven't yet joined the Twitter type revolution - it's easy to dismiss it and, until you witness something like this actually happening, it's hard to appreciate the scale and potential importance of these new kinds of public forum.

I love Lyndsey Michael's article (see comment above) about potential next steps for Paperchase, about the value of saying sorry. I told him about that and he snorted a bit, muttered about legal stuff and went back to his book.

I'm sure his response is typical but I tell ya, I think times are changing and where one's every move is liable to exposure it's more important than ever to run a business in a transparent, ethical and accountable manner. And that's a good thing.

I run a small retail business and think I already do pretty well on these things, but even so this whole erruption has helped me to think a little more about things. I wrote about is here -

over 8 years ago

Nigel Sarbutts

Nigel Sarbutts, Managing Director at BrandAlert

There are two separate but inter-related issues here. 1 Speed of response 2 The truth

Strength in both will cure the problem pretty quickly (see Vodafone last week)

Weakness in 1 can be fixed by a smarter corporate culture/processes and unless the company chooses to make arrogant arses of themselves eventually will be outweighed by 2. Strength in 1 is no compensation for weakness in 2.

I'm not sure that social media has changed this much, there are plenty of examples where the story was off and running before the company knew - the Bantry Bay oil explosion in 1979 springs to mind.

What remains baffling is why, given this well established pattern and the idea of insuring yourself against commercial loss is accepted each year without question, companies remain so surprised when it hits the fan.

over 8 years ago


Chipo Mugomba, Digital PR practitioner at n/a

Hi all - apologies for digressing but have no clue about Paperchase and the actual details of this is incident from our quarters (south Asia), however the general theme of the topic is quite interesting.

Earlier this week in our twitterverse (ok India only) we witnessed something similar although nothing to the scale of plagiarism (a famous local coffee shop chain wanted to impose cover-charge on members of a sizeable tweetup - details for another post). Needless to say this becoming a trending topic for most of the day and the Holy Grail hashtag #fail was unleashed. The coffee shop chain in question entered the conversation to the amusement of some and not so of others.

Key things from this were:

Is social media is powerful - YES

Social media is all about being social and especially in the face of a crowdlashing.

As you've said respond quickly but think/plan beyond the first 2-3 reactive tweets.

Find out facts quickly and map what happened. This is a great way to figure out which fire to fight first.

Always remember that there are courtside spectators who won't contribute to the conversation but document this as a case study and share this in other forums/communities :-)

over 8 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy


Realistically, few companies are going to be fully prepared for an incident like this when they wake up in the morning.

Could Paperchase have been better prepared? Certainly. But the problem with the position you take is that you've assumed that Paperchase "has been caught". Now is it possible that there was plagiarism here? Absolutely. But that hasn't been proven or disproven by any party (yet). If Paperchase and Gather No Moss internally come to the conclusion that the independent artist who supplied them stole work, that's one thing, but if they strongly believe that's not the case, the matter can only be settled in a court room, unfortunately.

That's why a company in Paperchase's situation has to be careful in a situation like this where there's legal risk. In theory, a company that hasn't done anything wrong could easily respond to a situation publicly in a manner that lends credence to the allegation that it did. So while you think Paperchase should have apologized and immediately pulled product from the shelves, you (and I, and everyone else) have no idea what information led Paperchase to decide not to do those things.

Hidden Eloise,

First let me say that I empathize with you. As Aliya noted, we were the first media channel to report on this situation.

Paperchase says that they contacted you, that they spoke with Gather No Moss, came to the conclusion (right or wrong) that there was no theft of your work, informed you of this and never heard back. I mentioned this in my post since these details emerged after we published your side of the story yesterday.

The purpose of my post was not to be an arbiter of who is right or wrong. It was to discuss the challenge companies face when dealing with social media crises. As I noted, "While Paperchase's version of events seems plausible on the surface, it's probably not wise to pass judgment until all the facts come out."

Putting that aside, I have read your blog. The conflict here is that you believe you provided sufficient evidence that your design was stolen and expected Paperchase to take action based on that, and Paperchase and Gather No Moss believe they have evidence to the contrary, so they acted accordingly.

Hopefully everyone can resolve this issue amicably. As I hinted in my post, social media has given you enormous leverage that you didn't have when you first contacted Paperchase. Unfortunately, for all of that leverage, the reality is that matters like this are rarely settled without legal counsel.

Good luck!

over 8 years ago


Nigel Sarbutts


You're right that all companies have to balance the future legal risk with the present reputational risk, but part of that balance equation is the relative size of the 'combatants' and David & Goliath is a phrase that carries a lot of weight in the court of public opinion a couple of thousand years on.

I hope you don't mind if I post quite a long chunk from Professor Peter Sandman ( which I think is relevant here:

"Not too long after the Exxon Valdez catastrophe, British Petroleum had an oil spill near Huntington Beach, California. Media interest was intense because of Valdez, and media access was a lot handier. Importantly, the tanker that spilled BP’s oil was owned by a contract carrier, not BP. BP therefore had a possible legal defense; it could argue that it was the victim of the spill (“the sonofabitch spilled our oil”), not the perpetrator. As the of BP America flew to the scene, his lawyers counseled him to be sure not to say anything that might undercut this defense. Whatever you do, the lawyers said, don’t admit legal responsibility. The CEO’s communication advisors had a different perspective. It’s our oil that spilled, they said, on its way from our well to our refinery. If we hide behind the fact that it was a contract carrier and give the impression we’re denying any responsibility, we’ll make the outrage far worse. It’s essential to take moral responsibility.

Soon after the CEO got to the scene, a journalist asked the key question: Do you consider this spill your company’s fault. His answer: “Our lawyers tell us it’s not our fault. But we feel like it’s our fault, and we’re going to act like it’s our fault.” This was a superb answer. The lawyers went home saying, “Thank God he said it’s not our fault.” The defense was preserved. But millions of viewers who saw the sound bite on television said to themselves, “I can’t believe the CEO of an oil company is taking moral responsibility for a spill.” Most importantly, residents of the Huntington Beach area were inclined to forgive the company – and six months after the spill BP’s reputation in Southern California had rebounded to better than pre-spill levels. This is not chiefly because BP handled the cleanup well, which it did, but because it handled the apology well – and it did so without any increase in liability.

If you have never heard of the Huntington Beach oil spill, that’s pretty much the point. Lower stakeholder outrage made for less long-term media coverage, fewer lawsuits, and quicker reputation recovery."

over 8 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy


Great comment. Obviously, this isn't a massive oil spill and the media spotlight isn't nearly as bright, but the BP approach may be worth considering nonetheless.

One thing I've been thinking about lately is whether companies will increasingly make a calculated decision to ignore these social media crises altogether. They tend to erupt quickly, and they tend to dissipate quickly too. It's all about outcomes. Companies will do whatever produces the more favorable outcome.

It will be interesting to see what the outcome will be here. The good news is that Paperchase and Design No Moss have been forced to come to the table and deal more transparently. Unfortunately, it appears that the artist refuses to reveal her identity and speak by phone. And since she apparently isn't represented by legal counsel, she will be at a disadvantage in negotiating a resolution no matter how much support she has from individuals on the internet. Perhaps I'll look at this in a future post that addresses, "You've got their attention on Twitter. Now what?"

over 8 years ago

Claire Thompson

Claire Thompson, Freelance PR consultant at Waves PR

Patricio, hi

I haven't suggested that they've been caught doing anything wrong, just that they've been 'caught on the hop', an English expression implying that they were unprepared.

I don't think any of us could have been ready for the full blast of the story, but they could have been better prepared by:

- having a clear policy regarding all sourcing, including design work. They are heavily reliant on design and up until now have appeared supportive of designers. They should have been able to categorically state that they view plagiarism poorly (whatever the outcome of their investigations)

- having some kind of on-line presence - they aren't used to engaging on-line

- addressing the issue & emotion rather than finding who is/was to blame

In this situation they should have been showing some empathy and promising to look into and resolve the matter (which they were obviously doing, but at the speed of trad media, not on-line), temporarily withdrawing the stock line pending resolution to protect their reputation and reassure customers, and responding to the on-line journalists who wanted their ear but didn't get it.

As Nigel quoted: "Our lawyers tell us it’s not our fault. But we feel like it’s our fault, and we’re going to act like it’s our fault."

The artist who claims her work was copied has made her identity known, I believe - she was due to be on television which would be a bit hard without being seen. She's doubtless very frightened - she's getting a lot of spotlight attention and doesn't have the resources for legal counsel. The tone of emails is frightening her.

In the grand scheme of things, it may prove to be that legally the drawing is just a sample anyway, a snippet used to make a very different piece of art. But in PR terms it's irrelevant:  the human emotion/moral issues behind the situation rather than legal blame will win or lose company's relationships with upset stakeholders.

We saw it with Trafigura. We saw it with Habitat. Trying to hand off blame doesn't wash.

I paid £13 for my last pad on the basis that it's beautiful instead of a couple of pounds in Rymans.  I've been a regular Paperchase customer and really want them to come out of this well. I want the PR team to be offering me reassurances about why I should trust them, not legal facts. IF the premium I've been paying is based on cheap knock offs rather than well sourced materials and art, I will have every right to feel aggrieved and disappointed.

Trust is is the crux of the PR matter, not legal rights and wrongs.


over 8 years ago


beth granger

Claire, I too shop as Paperchase. For years most of my Christmas presents and gift wrap has come from Paperchase. When I read the artist's allegation, I doubted they were fair or objective because they did not chime with my experience of the company. This was also the reason they were newsworthy - like tweeting a quality food chain sells eggs as premium priced free range which in fact are from battery hens. 

I will be shopping at Paperchase, assuming it is still there. I do not want Paperchase to spend more on online PR or on building a Twitter presence. I want that money to go to creating better products which since this is Paperchase I believe will mean spending on artists.

If you check the artist's Etsy shop a few weeks ago (you can see sales historically on Etsy) she was selling very little and a lot of transactions are for merchandise at sale prices. In the last few days, her shop is selling a few hundred items at full price a day. I'm not sure those sales have been fairly won. Both the artist and Paperchase are taking people's money, both are businesses, they must both play by the rules.

Meanwhile, my Paperchase high street store which as I have said pays tax in the UK, employs people in the UK, pays rent to landlords keeping high streets alive, is threatened by Tweeters most of whom are not in the UK, have never shopped at Paperchase but consider themselves knowledgeable enough about the situation to retweet messages the intention of which is to weaken, harm, damage.

You realise that the company you want to make more powerful by paying more attention to it, is on record as saying it does not ever envisage  employing more than 300 people, and none in the UK?

over 8 years ago

Claire Thompson

Claire Thompson, Freelance PR consultant at Waves PR

I'm sorry if I haven't made my position clear.

I'm not supporting either party in particular, but AM saying that Paperchase was caught out by not taking the online world seriously.

It doesn't have to spend a lot of money to see what's happening on-line, just take some basic precautions. More important is taking a good look at it's CSR. Had this been strong they would have been able to dampen the flames of this story far more quickly.

It transpires that Paperchase was selling something that appears to have been plagiarised, albeit unwittingly. It's now on the frontline of design wars.

There are ways around this, and it's a great opportunity for Paperchase to turn its PR around and become a champion of designers rights. 

over 8 years ago

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