Cyber-Harassed & Threatened by Organic Bouquet CEO Robert McLaughlin (Allegedly)

North-American-Silva221.jpg[Update 5/24/10: Finally, ten days after being notified of he illegal cyber-harassing and threats, apparently in response to this post, Mr. McLaughlin offered a very tepid and unconvincing response.]

What is with "progressive" companies like Whole Foods, TreeHugger, and now Organic Bouquet  using weird/dirty tactics to deflect criticism? (If the links don't show up on your browser, you can find them at the end of the post.)

This very strange situation wouldn't have been something to write about here except that what should have been a dispute over a commercial transaction settled through legitimate channels quickly devolved into a civil liberties issue. Rather than use facts to dispute my claims, Organic Bouquet chose to attack me personally and use threats and intimidation in an effort to cyber-bully me out of criticizing the company.

The short version of the story is that after a really horrible product and customer service experience I took a number of actions, including writing a negative review of the company on Sustainlane (again, active link at the end of the post). In response to the review, someone claiming to be one of OB's Colombian suppliers wrote a bunch of nasty comments attacking me personally and eventually threatening that "Our association of floral exporters in Colombia, California and Ecuador need to follow you and advise your every potential employer of your inability to be fair and objective in your reporting." This person had copies of pictures that I had sent the company (to show the sad and pathetic state of the second order of wrong flowers they sent), and used them to concoct a story about my motivation for complaining.

Somehow, readers were meant to believe that my whole motivation for making a Mother's Day order and then complaining when it was wrong (and then the replacement order was wrong, and the company refused to do anything about it because it had issued a refund I didn't request), was all some sort of complex plan to "get a big headline." Weird, since I have made three other recent orders from the company without event or complaint because the company did not mess them up. The company itself has to perform pretty craptastically to get me to the point of feeling the need to speak out.

So, I reported the totally creepy comments to the FBI since they are so clearly a violation of federal law and in my now three-year long history of near nonstop harassment and intimidation no one has been so sloppy and careless as to carry it out in such an obviously illegal and traceable manner. At that point it seemed clear that the commenter was writing on behalf of Organic Bouquet, but I thought it might be someone hired to make positive comments for the company on blogs, or to defend criticism of the company and that this person went too far. Though I definitely thought OB was of course legally responsible since this person was acting on their behalf, I wouldn't have dreamed that the CEO himself would possibly pathetically disguise his identity in an effort to defame me in defense of the company.

Then, I received Mr. McLaughlin's rebuttal to a report I had filed with the Better Business Bureau. It was written the day after the online threats and contained the same weird accusation about my pictures supposedly illustrating that I was ordering multiple bouquets of flowers from different companies as part of a story I was supposedly writing. I couldn't believe it. Really, the same person had to have written it or to have had access to the same arguments and definitely the same pictures. I wrote to OB PR and Mr. McLaughlin himself for a confirmation or denial that he was the cyber-harasser, and received no response. [Update 5/24/10: Finally, ten days after being notified of he illegal cyber-harassing and threats, apparently in response to this post, Mr. McLaughlin offered a very tepid and unconvincing response.]
As I tried to unravel the mystery of my terrible experience with OB, I learned that a company I had known about since 2003, interacted with, and even promoted somewhat had left California and was on a serious revenue growth/downsizing track. This explained why there was no one available after 5 PM EDT to correct my order the Friday before Mother's Day. I was curious about why a company that originated in CA, and most of whose customers are likely on the West Coast, would move to Florida and allow that to so affect customer service availability. The poor customer service agents I dealt with were only able to leave a message with the corporate office about my messed up order on Friday afternoon and I was to wait until possibly the following Tuesday to receive a return call.

My mother's flowers were shipped from either Columbia or Ecuador through Miami to their destination in Montana. As someone who shops based on environmental concerns, it was hard to understand using so much fossil fuel to ship eco-friendly roses. When my order and replacement order were incomplete, wrong, shriveled and browning, it was hard to understand why a company that has serious environmental convictions and promotes itself as the "green" and "socially conscious" alternative to FTD or 1-800-Flowers would be so careless about product quality and so generally wasteful. For those of us who sincerely wanted and worked hard for green to go "mainstream," quality and aesthetics were and are as important as green and labor-friendly credentials. There's a strong desire for legitimately green businesses to thrive, which is why its upsetting to have such a negative experience. I can virtually guarantee that anyone who didn't prioritize green or social shopping who had decided to try out the company for the first time who had had my experience would have said "Forget paying extra to feel responsible, I'll grab cheaper, better quality flowers on the corner."

As I spread the word about what I encountered to interested parties, I came across the positive buzz the company has been churning out, that included information about huge profit margins and downsizing. So now I had concerns about the US workers who lost their jobs as OB left CA and opened new offices in Central America, which also seemingly meant that more orders would travel longer distances. 

Owners and CEOs seem to become fairly irrational when it comes to their stock price or a potential sale. The reason I think OB must be trolling for a sale is because of my experience at TreeHugger. In 2007, when a New York Times article beamed about skyrocketing revenue and sale offers, the staff (those of us who didn't understand the TH business model from the beginning or who weren't planted to set up someone like me who would advocate for a fair cut) wanted to see a larger share of the profits. After being told of a possible sale three months before, I had been personally assured by founder and owner Graham Hill that there was no sale on the horizon and no chance of one. Writers had been working for "TreeHugger dollars," way below the market worth of our work because we believed in what the site stood for. When the staff suddenly read glowing reports about how well we were doing, and I took a stand regarding a new payment agreement (with a number of other writers), the owner and COO seemed to panic, disabling my email address at 1:00AM to prevent contact with the others, firing me against the terms of our contract, and then defaming me among the staff and people outside the company as well.

About a month later, Graham Hill sold his site, the one that could barely pay its writers, to Discovery: for $10 million.

I hope for Mr. McLaughlin's sake that he was like Mr. Hill and TreeHugger COO Ken Rother and that the threat of negative buzz ruining a potential sale was what drove him to (presumably -- he hasn't denied it) cyber-stalk and threaten me or instruct one of his staff to. Otherwise, he's not just another CEO who panicked -- that would make him purely vindictive and lacking good judgment. Either way, I wouldn't want to invest in anything with him at the helm.

If OB has facts that refute my claims, why not just offer them? Why the need to distract with personal attacks? Maybe their new $800,000 in annual savings did not result substantially from cuts in domestic employee pay and benefits? That would be welcome news. Maybe the new moves haven't significantly increased the company's carbon footprint? Maybe their growth trajectory is part of the long view and not just a short, artificial boost in anticipation of a sale? Consumers -- and especially consumers of "green," "socially conscious" businesses -- should be able to ask such questions and exercise 1st Amendment rights online without fear of character assassination. Just as employees should be free to organize or unionize without fear of harassment, defamation and blacklisting. Those heading companies with socially/eco-conscious brands should expect and welcome questions about their basic operations -- especially if they involve facts that the company has itself released.

Journalists and bloggers need to read the business pages just as readily as they digest press releases, and give readers the information they need to make informed consumer decisions. What is supremely ironic is that Mr. McLaughlin (or his pseudonym or assigned cyber-harasser) spent so much energy accusing me of being a bad journalist when I'm not actually a journalist. I have been a "green lifestyle" consultant, blogger and freelance writer, and come from an academic background that promotes critical thinking above most else. That seems to be the problem: what's "bad" is that critical thought provokes uncomfortable questions concerning how a company's practices relate to the public good.


Links from the top of the post:

What is with "progressive" companies like Whole Foods, TreeHugger, and now Organic Bouquet  using weird/dirty tactics to deflect criticism?

The short version of the story is that after a really horrible product and customer service experience I took a number of actions, including writing a negative review of the company on Sustainlane.

Six Hours A Week Is:

A coping strategy, advocacy outlet, and form of protection. My life has been nearly destroyed by the unconstitutional practices of politically/socially-motivated private intelligence contractors and the corruption and cronyism that allow them. Apparently because I speak out in ways that prioritize the little guy and human and environmental health above gargantuan profit margins, and believe that facts are as important as PR spin, I was someone who had to be completely discredited. In 2007, after a few months of a surreal and relentless invasion of privacy and dignity, I started to spend six hours each week researching, communicating about, and advocating legal and ethical responses to assaults on our shared democratic and republican ideals. For most of that time I was writing from the perspective of someone whose life was manipulated into a constant state of terror and emergency. In 2010, many of the array of entrapment attempts seem to have failed and it seems no longer possible to get away with such excessive, obvious harassment and overt interference. As we take more practical steps to address what has been allowed to happen to my family, we do expect to see some more harassment and intimidation. But I should be able to chronicle it from a more measured perspective, rather than that of someone in constant fear. Part of me would like to go back and delete earlier posts, because even I find them hard to relate to in some ways. But this blog has been one of our only forms of protection as everyone in any official capacity ignored the truth and tried to spin and frame us into the troublemakers and perpetrators of one form or another. So I leave it up as a form of protection, a record of what has occurred, and (with luck) the account of our way back to credibility and some form of legitimate justice. All content on this site is property of Kyeann Sayer. All rights reserved.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Kyeann published on May 21, 2010 11:43 PM.

Will Tester and Baucus Demonstrate a Commitment to Justice? was the previous entry in this blog.

Organic Bouquet CEO Robert McLaughlin's (Non) Response to Clear Evidence of Company's Illegal Cyber-Threats is the next entry in this blog.

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