Vegan Mag Misleads Readers with Meat Photos

If you’re the publisher of a vegan magazine, your subscriber base is almost certainly filled with passionate vegans whose meatless lifestyle is core to their very identity.

So if you find stock photos of meat products, you should probably not buy them, pretend they’re delectable vegan products, and deceptively present them to readers as meatless.

VegNews, a magazine with 210,000 readers, did exactly that. According to the QuarryGirl Blog, the magazine has run tens (or hundreds) of photos of meat – but presented them to readers as vegan dishes.

This screen grab from iStockPhoto shows the original photo of real ribs:

This screen-grab from the VegNews site shows the touched up version of the stock photo, with the bones removed. The QuarryGirl website added the note in pink:

If you’re wondering why I’m using a strong word like “deceptive” here, look at the caption on the second photo, which reads, “Here at the [VegNews Headquarters], we devour these savory, sauce-covered spare ribs as often as possible.”

Whoops. Those “vegan” ribs were actually from a dead animal.

When a reader commented on the VegNews website that he noticed they were using stock photos of meat, the editors deleted his comment numerous times. When the editor of QuarryGirl left a similar comment, hers too was deleted. That immediately made readers suspicious that a cover-up was afoot.

According to The New York Times, the editor of VegNews initially stood his ground:

“An earlier statement by the magazine acknowledged using stock images of meat and dairy but said it was necessary for budgetary reasons and would continue.”

The day after QuarryGirl’s original report, the magazine released a statement to readers, but the statement failed to apologize and expressed sadness only “with the dialogue that has transpired” – not for misleading readers.

But when readers started canceling their subscriptions, the editor suddenly had a change of heart, and finally released a “real” apology on Monday, that read, in part:

“We screwed up. With regard to our use of symbolic imagery in VegNews, our readers got it right. We wholeheartedly apologize. We assure you that we will never again use non-vegan photographs in VegNews.”

That’s exactly the tone they should have taken from the beginning. As I mentioned in an unrelated story on this blog yesterday, spokespersons too often give the “right” apology only after they’ve botched the first one. In so doing, they undercut the effectiveness of their second apology, which the public tends to believe was “forced” rather than genuine.

In the end, they did the right thing. But it took too long to get there – and as a result, the magazine will almost certainly suffer more than they needed to.

Note: I called VegNews media contact Colleen Holland yesterday afternoon and asked her to return my call for this story. She has not yet returned the call.

UPDATE: APRIL 21, 2011, 3:15pm: Colleen returned my call this afternoon, and we spoke for 15 minutes. She said they were in such emotional shock when this story hit, that it took a couple of days to lose any hint of defensiveness and align their response with their readers. She said that they had never had crisis communications training and didn’t reach out to an external crisis pro, which likely prolonged the crisis. What did VegNews learn from this crisis? “You HAVE to get an outside perspective,” Colleen said. It’s clear to me that the staff of VegNews were well-intentioned and had no intent to deceive. But reality and perception are two different things in crisis, and their earlier response – aligned only with the reality – failed to satisfy critics. Self interest aside, I advised Colleen to consult outside help for crisis planning. It’s a piece of advice that applies to all businesses, even those (like VegNews) that think this can never happen to them. Finally, she told me they lost very few subscribers over this, something she attributes to their second response which candidly admitted, “we screwed up.” Hopefully, that statement ends this crisis for them; I suspect it will.

You can see additional “vegan” photos at the QuarryGirl site here.

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