When Waitrose Food’s previously esteemed editor, William Sitwell, had a personal Halloween horror by emailing a freelance journalist to suggest a series on “killing vegans, one by one”, he brought an abrupt end to a 20-year association with one the UK’s most progressive retailers.
Standing down “with immediate effect” after the email exchange swiftly got into the Twittersphere and mainstream media, Sitwell had committed the cardinal sin of forgetting that each and every communication we make in the digital age has the potential to come back and haunt.
Replying to an email pitch from Selene Nelson – who had suggested features on plant-based recipes and healthy, eco-friendly meals as “popularity over the movement is likely to continue to skyrocket” – Sitwell wrote: “Thanks for this. How about a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat?”
Once the exchange had become public, Mr Sitwell, who is also an experienced radio host and occasional guest critic on Masterchef, was at least swift with his apology, saying: “I love and respect people of all appetites, be they vegan, vegetarian or meat eaters – which I show week in week out through my writing, editing and broadcasting. I apologise profusely to anyone who has been offended or upset by this.”
But the damage had been done. The ensuing social media storm ensured that his departure was inevitable, with Waitrose itself thanking Mr Sitwell for his contribution to their business but unequivocal in supporting the announcement of his immediate departure.
One can only presume that Mr Sitwell thought he was exchanging some banter with a fellow hack, an exchange that he clearly – and extremely naively – thought would stay private.
Of course, Mr Sitwell’s real mistake was to hold such ignorant views in the first place. And before you ask, no, I’m not a vegan, or even a vegetarian for that matter.
But a career in food and drink media similar in longevity to Mr Sitwell’s has taught me a few things about both veganism and communication, not least:
I take no pleasure in highlighting Mr Sitwell’s plight, and I wish him well in rehabilitating himself into the food and drink media universe once he’s eaten and digested his (vegan) humble pie.
But he offers us a timely example of how all communicators must only share well-informed views efficiently and effectively at all times if they want to avoid a horror of their own – at Halloween or indeed any other time.
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