Is there such a thing as bad publicity?

In the age of social media, was Oscar Wilde right about the only thing worse than being talked about? If you’re a publicity-hungry proprietor using social media to promote your business, is there a line you should not cross? Is there a point beyond which your hunger for controversy damages your brand? Or is everything you say – no matter how offensive – just grist for your own publicity mill?

A man who definitely seems to believe there is no such thing as bad publicity is Paul Stenson. He’s the proprietor of Dublin’s White Moose Café and he recently stirred up an online storm by making what could only be described as deliberately offensive and misogynistic comments about banning women from breastfeeding in his restaurant. (This is a moronic and illegal policy: mothers breastfeeding in public places are protected under the Equal Status Act (2000).)

Stenson has been at this all month. I’ve just trawled back through his social media accounts and dear God it’s depressing that a grown man gets his kicks mocking women, saying the word “tits” and setting his followers on anyone who calls him out on his bizarre prejudice.

Two weeks ago, he was on Newstalk to double-down on this idiocy. The journalist Suzanne Campbell was listening and tweeted a quote from him: “If you want to breastfeed go out to your car or to a public toilet”.

The journalist and food critic Tom Doorley responded “The White Moose Café. Remember the name. And avoid it.” When Campbell suggested “Only childless hipsters welcome”, Paul Stenson replied “Sick of old boring farts like you, Suzie. Keep those tits in ya hear me?”

Attacking women, by using misogynistic language and telling people they need to get a sense of humour, appears to be standard operating procedure for Mr Stenson, as a dip into the open sewer that is his restaurant’s Twitter account will show. (One tweet sees him actually mock a woman over the size of her nipples. This guy’s a real prince.)

Stenson’s followers were quick to come to his defence, the most articulate of them howling that his comments were clearly humourous and meant as satire. On Facebook they told Stenson that they found his sub-Trumpian trolling to be hilarious. On Twitter, they lined out to tweet abuse at Campbell and Doorley, and Stenson wasn’t slow to endorse their behaviour by liking and joining in.

The journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes – who is married to Suzanne Campbell – did a Companies Office search on the White Moose Café and discovered that one of that company’s directors is Anne Stenson. He decided to write to her and ask her how she felt about her son’s online behaviour.

Aside from the comedy value of telling Stenson’s Ma on him and imagining the atmosphere at the next board meeting, Boucher-Hayes says there was a serious purpose to his letter.

“I brought it to her attention that the social media accounts of the business she was lending her reputation and support to was abusing women,” he said last week. “As her son has shown he’s deaf to the requests of civilised society, I asked her to talk to him about how it is and isn’t acceptable to talk to women generally and mothers in particular.”

(Before going to press on Tuesday, I asked Boucher-Hayes if he had received a reply from Anne Stenson. Nada.)

In the interest of fairness, I asked Mr Stenson on Twitter “Did you think at all about moderating your misogynistic language and your business’ illegal prohibition of breastfeeding?”

He replied “Nope. Did you think at all about moderating your ability to be a self-righteous wank stain?”

An unambiguous answer, I think you’ll agree. Still, though, I suppose I did manage to distract him from the woman-hating, if only for one whole tweet.

Interestingly, the barrister Fergal Crehan tweets “Once (met) someone who worked in the White Moose Café, said it was classic David Brent situation, they all hate the boss, he thinks they love him.”

To be fair, it is at least possible that the person Crehan met was a one-off unhappy employee, but the mention of Ricky Gervais’ character does seem apt. There is a strong David Brent vibe running through all of Mr Stenson’s attention-seeking social media pronouncements, a lack of self-awareness and a resentment which is shot through with an awkward, giddy and tone-deaf neediness.

Paul Stenson can’t be faulted for trying to raise his business’ profile. However, he has done so by being abusive to women, which is an interesting way of communicating with just over half of your potential market.

Such behaviour is sometimes based upon what psychologists refer to as “Male Superiority Complex”, whereby feelings of inadequacy are countered and masked by delusions of superiority. Thus, male insecurities tend to manifest themselves along predictable lines of rage and misogyny and find expression in aggressive bluster such as shouting “this is my business” or “this is my sense of humour”.

Ultimately, for all of his boorishness, Mr Stenson’s behaviour is attention-seeking and, in writing this, I am open to accusations of playing right into his hands. I concede that point and argue that it’s worth it if there is such a thing as bad publicity.

In the midst of this latest furore of his own making, Stenson rather defensively tweeted that his was the most “liked” café on Facebook. It will be interesting to see if he can translate that notoriety into business or if he’ll be left with a busy Facebook page and an empty restaurant.

Paul Stenson’s online fans – many of whom seem to be small, right-wing accounts based overseas – like what they see as his political incorrectness. It remains to be seen whether Stenson will be able to monetise their approval, especially if those of us who actually live in Ireland and whom he would accuse of lacking a sense of humour – i.e. those of us who think misogyny has no place in public discourse – decide to stay away in our droves from an establishment run by a man who – by the evidence of his online behaviour – thinks very little of women.

I won’t be supporting the White Moose Café. That might have something to do with my respecting and liking women.

I don’t know about you. What do you think?

Is there such a thing as bad publicity?