Yup, that’s right. After days of near complete radio silence from Morgan Hill, the chief bigwig at Specialized personally traveled to Cochrane, Alberta, and put in an order for a healthy dose of crow at the Café Roubaix.
I, for one, say good on ‘im for that.
In a video posted on the shop’s Facebook Page (which as of this morning has 14,593 “likes,” by the way) Sinyard did about the only thing he could have in light of the complete PR meltdown his company suffered after news of Specialized’s heavy-handed approach to the small shop’s use of the “Roubaix” name, a trademark (which, as it turns out, Specialized doesn’t actually own, but uses with the permission of Fuji’s parent company, but I digress).
At this point, this is no longer a story about intellectual property and trademark law. It’s a story about public relations, knowing when and how to use the “big club” and how, in this modern media environment, the big guy is almost always at a huge disadvantage in bar fight.
Take some time to watch the video. It’s interesting for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that Sinyard kinda looks like he’s starring in one of those forced confessional videos the North Koreans stage before releasing – or executing – a prisoner.
The dynamic is clear. Sinyard is obviously tense and uncomfortable. He’s lost the fight (one he may not have even known he was in until it was too late) and he’s doing his best to retrieve even a shred of goodwill. In contrast, Café Roubaix owner Dan Richter, looks completely at ease. He should. He’s just played the role of David to Sinyard’s Goliath … and we all know how that one turned out.
There’s already been plenty of talk about the social media firestorm that a small news item in the Calgary Herald under the headline “War veteran forced to change bike shop’s name after threat from U.S bike giant Specialized.” Twenty-five years ago, that would have been it. The story would popped up in the Saturday paper. It would have pissed off a few cyclists in and around Calgary. Maybe someone, somewhere along the way someone would have faxed a clipping to a buddy in the U.S. and it would have slowly made its way around cycling circles and been fodder for a bit of back-and-forth on a club ride or two.
Not today. That story got posted last Saturday morning. By Saturday evening it was being Tweeted, Facebooked, blogged and otherwise distributed around that global neural network known as the InterTubes. Hell, it even woke me up enough to write an Explainer Column for the first time in months. I would bet that by Monday, anyone with a love of bikes and web access knew what a @#$%ing bully Specialized was. And therein lies the rub. Specialized, or more specifically its lawyers, are operating as if this were still the 20th (or maybe 19th) century.
“We take care of all of our trademarks, because we do have a lot of – you know – fake product out there on the market; actually it’s huge,” Sinyard explained to Richter. “So we always have our outside attorneys just monitoring things and when it goes, they just go off.”
Sinyard quickly added that he wasn’t blaming the “outside attorneys” because he correctly recognized that “it’s my responsibility.”
As part of that responsibility one would hope that the company’s entire approach to trademarking and trademark enforcement be put under internal review. It probably ain’t such a good idea to allow your attorneys to “just go off.” To continue in that pattern would be a disaster for the company.
Goodwill ain’t cheap
Part of the fall-out from the Café Roubaix debacle is that all of the company’s past and current sins were dredged up for public discussion as well. The whole saga of Specialized v. Volagi, et. al., was brought up, probably right around the time that controversy from a couple of years ago was finally being forgotten by cycling’s cognoscenti. Other examples of Specialized’s strongarm treatment of small companies found their way into news stories about the Café Roubaix fight, including attempts to keep Portland’s Mountain Cycles from using the name “Stumptown” (despite that being a common nickname for Portland and not an allusion to the Stumps that Specialized jumps) and an effort to force Epic Wheel Works from using the word “Epic” in its brand name.
Okay, let’s just ignore the arrogance of a company that trademarks words like “Roubaix,” “stump” and “epic” and go straight to Specialized’s position that it must “vigorously defend” its trademarks or risk losing them. I don’t necessarily buy that argument, but if it is the case it’s become readily apparent that using the big stick ain’t always the right approach.
Assuming that Specialized’s “outside attorneys” were legally correct in “just go(ing) off,” they sure-as-shit weren’t right, even when it came to their own client, Specialized. Think about how expensive it is for a company to generate interest and support among its customer base. That corporate “good will” is often one of a company’s most valuable assets. To generate that, a company has to spend millions on feel-good advertising and, in the case of a big bike manufacturer, sponsorship of teams, clubs and races. Think for a moment how many “I am Specialized” ads and how many pictures of a victorious Tom Boonen or other racer crossing the line on a Specialized it will take to offset the shit storm of this past weekend.
Basically, I am suggesting that when Specialized is in the market for “outside attorneys,” they look for someone with a bit of public relations experience as well. Failing that, at least hire someone who can think before they leap: “Sure, we can beat the livin’ shit out of this little guy, but it may not look so good if the video is then played on CNN, eh?”
Time to forgive … but not to forget
Personally, I think it’s time to cut Specialized a bit of a break here. To his credit, Mike Sinyard took the big step and personally visited and apologized to Dan Richter. I applaud him for that. I hope the decision has a ripple effect and causes the company to rethink its approach to other matters.
Toward that end, I offer something of a gift to Sinyard and to the staff and outside attorneys in his employ. To understand that gift, I think I need to offer a bit of background.
Just a few years ago, when I was in law school, my daughter, Annika, made a habit of producing covers for my course and exam outlines for every class I took over those three years. I have 34 of them and they are among my most treasured possessions. Annika was 10 when I graduated and she did her final drawings for the three elements of the bar exam, including something known as the “MPRE,” the Multi-state Professional Responsibility Exam. That’s the ethics test that you have to take in order to become licensed as an attorney. Now, ethics/lawyer jokes aside, I was especially touched by the beauty and elegance of what has since become known as “Annika’s Rule.”
Within the confines of a single sheet of paper – or more accurately, the lower left-hand corner of that page – Annika managed to sum up all of the ethics courses I took as a journalist, as a Senate staffer, as a law student and as a lawyer. It’s short, simple and to the point. It applies to law, business, parenting and life in general. It’s easy for anyone to comprehend and it’s a simple reminder that before you make a big decision you should ask yourself one question: “Would this violate Annika’s Rule?”
If so, don’t do it.
No, I don’t always succeed, but “Annika’s Rule” is prominently displayed in my office and I really do try to live by it.
Mike Sinyard, you made huge strides this week and I truly applaud your decision to visit Mr. Richter and to make amends. I hope it sets a pattern for the future of the company.
So, as a gesture of good will, Annika and I offer to you, Mike Sinyard and the rest of the crew at Specialized and all of your outside attorneys, full North American rights (including Canada, of course) to use the copyrighted image, the copyrighted text and our soon-to-be-trademarked moniker, “Annika’s Rule:”
Good luck. I think Annika would appreciate the gesture you made this week, Mike.
Now, keep it up.
The Explainer is supposed to be a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer (Pelkey gets sidetracked now and then).
If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at [email protected]. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.