When it comes to an exercise in futility, I’ve learned there’s precious little to choose between dealing with the PR arm of a coffee shop chain and banging your head against a brick wall. I may not always be too quick on the uptake, but a fortnight in I’ve decided it’s time to stop.
Two weeks ago, the Head Of Customer Services at Caffè Nero wrote to me and offered me a meeting, or a chat over the phone. I’m not daft, I know she only did that because my letter to them had gone viral. On top of that, other people were writing to them to say they wouldn’t use their shops either, and that meant my letter had become something they had to answer, rather than ignore. So, I was sent a letter.
I read it, chose the meeting over the phone call, and asked that it be on the record. Immediately after that, things got complicated, and increasingly slow.
By now I was dealing with Caffè Nero’s Communications Manager. She emailed me to say that before there was any possibility of talking on the record with me about their tax affairs, there were three things I needed to know. Firstly, they needed a private dialogue with me, as this would help them to understand my frustrations. Secondly, Caffè Nero was a company which didn’t seek publicity. Thirdly, they didn’t want to get involved in a public point and counter-point about tax.
I responded to her first point by assuring her I wasn’t frustrated and I didn’t need understanding, just answers. The second claim? Well, that wasn’t really credible, seeing as Caffè Nero’s CEO had been all over the business pages of the Daily Telegraph in early April talking about the company’s success and their plans for future expansion. Her third point? I had no doubt whatsoever that was true.
But – despite two weeks of email ping-pong – Caffè Nero won’t budge. They insist on this private dialogue, with the possibility of a talk about tax at some unspecified point down the line. To me, that sounds a lot like kicking the whole thing into the long grass. While I’ve been trying to arrange a meeting, they’ve been responding to other people who wrote to them about their tax affairs, saying how frustrating it is to see an incomplete picture of their situation in the press. Given the opportunity to redress the balance, you’d think they’d bite your hand off. Instead, they’ve become inexplicably coy.
My reading of this? I think Caffè Nero have decided they’ve weathered the storm. The social media furore has died down, and there’s nothing to gain – and possibly a great deal to lose – by going on the record just because a poet wants you to.
Fortunately, that’s neither here nor there. Over the past couple of weeks, two independent finance and tax experts have – separately – taken a good look into how Caffè Nero works. Their results have provided the rational analysis to complement my emotional sense that, while what Caffè Nero are doing may be legal, it isn’t right. And that when Caffè Nero claim all their profit is eaten up repaying interest to UK banks, that really isn’t the whole picture.
These past few weeks end as they started. I’m still just an ordinary bloke who wrote a letter which happened to strike a chord with a lot of people. The only reason Caffè Nero ever sat up and took notice was because thousands of people shared it and re-tweeted it. That surprised me, and it surprised Caffè Nero too. Over the past two weeks, it’s become clear it’s probably the one thing we’ve got in common.
Right now, I suspect someone somewhere in Caffè Nero’s PR machine is feeling pretty pleased with themselves. I suspect that may be a mistake. Whatever happens from here on, though, I’ll be drinking my coffee elsewhere.