A PR disaster that has me outraged

Which is worse: founding a company and giving it a name without doing any check on the name or phrase, and then finding out later that the name is associated with a horrible time in history and is deeply hurtful to many people, OR, knowing the name is associated with a horrible time in history and is deeply hurtful to many people and using it anyway?

I really can’t decide.

I know I’m late to the outcry over the reprehensible public relations firm founders in Austin, Texas who decided to call their company Strange Fruit PR – they recently changed the name to something else, after the outcry over the last 48 hours. But I only just found out about it today, and I have to comment. I have to.

When I thought this was a case of people naming a company without doing any background check, I was nonetheless outraged. Trembling with outrage, in fact. One of the things any public relations person knows is that, before you name any project, initiative, program, company, WHATEVER, you research what the name, phrase and any acronyms might already mean. You type it into Google and Bing and Wikipedia. Then you type in the name again along with words like racist and sexist and criminal and scam, just to see what comes up. You get a group of employees or volunteers or clients together and ask them their reaction to the name. If these two people hadn’t done all of the aforementioned, how in the WORLD were they in the public relations business?!

But it turns out the founders of Strange Fruit PR knew exactly what the name meant – and still used it for TWO years. They dismissed the people that brought up the inappropriateness of the name to them. It was only after a recent and widespread outcry online that they decided to change their name.

Here’s what the founders of this PR firm learned when they looked up the name online, and they still chose the name for their company: Strange Fruit means lynched Black Americans hanging from trees. It’s the title of a song made famous after it was recorded by Billie Holiday.

They knew that, and still chose to name their company “Strange Fruit PR.”

And then there is this non-apology from the founders of this PR company – note that they are not apologizing for their mistake but, rather, that you might have been offended.

We sincerely apologize to those offended by the former name of our firm. As of today, we have renamed our firm to Perennial Public Relations. We have always prided ourselves as open-minded individuals and we remain committed to serving our clientele and community. In no way did we ever intend for the name of our firm to offend nor infer any implication of racism. We are grateful for and appreciate the ongoing support of our clients and community.

Cringe-worthy, I know. I shuddered the first time I read it.

I’m a PR consultant. Here’s the apology that this firm should have written:

We sincerely apologize for the profoundly inappropriate name we have been using for our firm. There is no excuse for our choosing that name, let alone using it for as long as we did. It should not have taken this national outcry for us to change our name – we should never have named it that in the first place. While we can assure everyone that we did not choose the name to imply any support of racism or for one of the darkest periods of our nation’s history, to offer any explanation as to why we chose that name would contribute to the perception so many people now have of us: that we are thoughtless and uncaring. And that perception is, at this point, justified.

We have a great deal of work to do: to continue to provide quality services to our clients, to repair our reputation, and most importantly, to educate ourselves about racial and historical sensitivities and to demonstrate that we have learned, and that we do care, deeply, about all people. We welcome your contributions to help us on this journey.

We are so grateful for and appreciate the ongoing support of our clientele and community. Thank you.

And then this agency should call every organization in Austin, Texas that addresses racial inequalities or black American culture, apologize, and ask each if they would be willing to meet and help this agency start its journey to reconciliation, realization and forgiveness. And it should regularly blog about that journey.

Followup: an example of how to apologize.

Also see:

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