16 April 2012

Who Is Kyle Melrose and Why Is He Trying to Poison Professional Critics Against Your Restaurant?

As documented in a recent post on Eater Boston, some local character going by the name of Kyle Melrose has been emailing local professional restaurant critics and editors to talk trash about certain restaurateurs around Boston, and apparently has been doing so for years. I got my first email from Mr. Melrose a couple of months ago:

"From: Kyle Melrose, bostonwriter2010@gmail.com
Only becuase [sic] I like you and what you are doing, you should know I overheard Joe Casanelli [sic], the owner of Posto and Painted Burro really bashing you BIG TIME and very publically [sic]. Was not cool.  KM"

I quickly replied: "Kyle -- Thanks for the tip! Seems kind of ungrateful, as I've said very nice things about Posto. But it's to be expected: not everyone is going to love you when your job is trying to paint an unbiased picture of restaurants on behalf of consumers."

At first, I took the message at face value, having initially confused “Kyle Melrose” with another Kyle I know casually. Also, it’s easy to believe a restaurateur might be cursing a professional restaurant critic: maybe I had reviewed their place harshly, or hadn’t reviewed it yet (which is the case with Pizzeria Posto and The Painted Burro), or perhaps dissed a previous employer. (For instance, Cassinelli once worked at Stella and Mistral, two venues I’ve occasionally criticized.) As a reviewer, you strive to be fair, honest, thorough and accurate. Earning the enmity of some industry folks is just part of the job.

Then I had an email exchange with Cassinelli’s public relations people at 451 Marketing in which I recounted the Melrose story, which they protested wasn’t true. That got my antennae up, and when Aaron Kagan at Eater Boston mentioned getting a similar email, I decided to poll a few other professional critics and food website editors in Boston. Sure enough, one prominent local reviewer also got a “Joe bad-mouthed you” email from Melrose. Another responded, “That guy? Haven’t heard from him since 2010 -- he was bad-mouthing MET Back Bay then -- but he’s supposedly a local PR guy who trashes competitors and their clients.” The jig was up: I was actually late to the party in recognizing this Kyle Melrose as a fraud.

Most of the time, I have fairly sensitive radar for this kind of “negative shilling”, a slam from a bogus source. It's inevitably someone with an ax to grind: a competitor (like the Harvard Square pub owner who is notorious for posting one-star Yelp reviews against his neighbors), a disgruntled former employee, an ex-paramour. And as I said to The Painted Burro's PR people, I wouldn't let a hostile owner affect my impartial assessment of the restaurant; his or her opinion of me is irrelevant to whether my readers might enjoy the place. But until this incident, I hadn’t considered that such a story might be the invention of a rogue PR person trying to prejudice my perceptions. I routinely work with PR professionals in my day job outside of the restaurant industry, and have never seen this shady tactic used there.

Judging from Melrose's targets, I have a pretty good idea of who he is, though I haven't any proof. Further, many of the industry folks I've talked to about Melrose, both on the restaurant and PR side, suspect the same culprit, though nobody will go on the record about it. Any way you slice it, it's sleazy, unethical, possibly criminal behavior. At the very least, it would be extremely damaging to the reputation and business of any PR firm proven to be engaging in it. What restaurant would ever hire an agency that was known to slander its former clients?

To be fair, some anonymous sources turn out to be reliable: a self-described insider's predictions that Kingfish Hall was closing imminently proved to be true, despite the adamant denials of Todd English’s PR team. But thanks to Mr. Melrose, I’ll be a bit warier of anonymous tipsters with bad news from now on, wondering if in fact the source might be an ethically-challenged PR agency that is bitter about being dumped and not above some lowdown backstabbing. When it comes to anonymous bile, whether spewed on Yelp or poured into your Gmail inbox, caveat emptor.