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Silence is golden: Business owners’ statements could harm livelihoods

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Everyone has an opinion.

But that doesn’t mean you have to let everyone know what it is, especially when it could lead to hurting your livelihood.

In the midst of one of the most divisive political and social climates ever, people are hyper-sensitive to comments that run counter to their own beliefs and convictions. And when those people are your customers, the impact of statements deemed crass or malicious, even if they support a particular party or ideology, can be devastating on a business.

Across the country, small business owners have broadcast their polarizing views through social media, only to suffer quick and damaging backlash as a result.

In a now infamous video posted to Facebook, Huntington, New York restaurateur Luigi Petrone called Black Lives Matter protestors “little animals” and “savages” and threatened to throw watermelons at them. The next day, a group of the protestors, who were angered over the death of George Floyd and other African Americans at the hands of police, showed up at Petrone’s Tutto Pazzo restaurant carrying watermelons and signs repudiating him and his business.

Though he issued an apology and said he was handing the restaurant over to his brother.

In Baltimore County, Maryland, Vince’s Crab House became the focus of protesters because of a social media post that disparaged protesters by owner Brenda Meyer’s son, Vince Meyer, following the police custody death of Floyd in Minnesota.

Protesters called for a boycott of the business both in Middle River, Maryland and other locations. Crowds gathered outside the Middle River location calling for it to be closed.

Brenda Meyer attempted to atone for the comments by closing the location for nine days — symbolic of the number of minutes Floyd was pinned to the ground before suffocating and dying, according to Pat McDonough, a former state delegate who organized rallies and media events for the business.

A couple of owners of restaurants in Freeport, New York were threatened with boycotts after they posted comments on social media about the ongoing BLM protests. More than 7,000 people signed an online petition endorsing the boycotts after its organizers claimed Jon Bracco, who owns Bracco’s Clam Bar and Capt. Ben’s Seafood Market, had glorified white supremacy and made derogatory comments about protestors on Facebook and Instagram. Another Freeport restaurateur, Ivan Sayles, an owner of Rachel’s Waterside Grille, angered BLM sympathizers by posting “if you don’t like the way you[‘re] treated by the cops, then hire a [expletive] lawyer.”

The posts have since been removed and while Bracco issued an apology and Sayles has tried to clarify his comments, the organizers of the change.org petition said: “Change starts when their business loses profit.”

In Port Jefferson, New York, George Wallis, owner of Roger’s Frigate ice cream parlor, has displayed “In Trump We Trust” and “Impeach Cuomo” signs on the building that have alienated a good portion of his former patrons. According to a poll on a Facebook page called “Long Island, New York,” more than 50 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t continue to frequent the business.

And while some may argue business owners also have a right to express themselves, experts say it’s generally not a good idea, especially if their expression is divisive.

“While people are entitled, even encouraged, to express themselves, it would be helpful for merchants to remember that their raison d’etre is to welcome customers, all of them,” says public relations expert Gary Lewi, managing director of Manhattan-based Rubenstein. “Why any merchant would post a message that further polarizes the community is unfathomable.”

This is especially true with social media management, a “new field for a lot of people,” Phil Andrews, president of the Long Island African American Chamber of Commerce, said. “People don’t understand how serious it can be. You have to be savvy. You can’t take it back once you put something out there. Have some restraint.”

Another accomplished public relations specialist, Katherine Heaviside, president of Huntington-based Epoch5 Communications, says comments about politics or race have become the third rail for business owners.

“Extreme political comments have the potential to alienate nearly half a business’s customer base,” Heaviside said. “For every outright racist comment made by business owners, who deserve the consequences of their actions, there are many more examples of a comment that could be misinterpreted, and having to clarify, revise or explain a misconstrued comment is a delicate high wire act.”

Though Heaviside acknowledges everyone has a right to express an opinion, she maintains that if you run a business and employ people, you have a responsibility to them as well as yourself.

“Every time you speak publicly, are quoted in the news, or post on social media with what is or could be interpreted as an inflammatory or racist comment, you are not only jeopardizing your livelihood, you are risking the livelihoods of the people who depend upon you,” she said.

Bill Corbett Jr., principal of Corbett Public Relations and a veteran communications consultant, says the rise of social media requires him to regularly consult with business leaders regarding their personal brands.

Though Corbett says social media gives everyone the opportunity to share their opinions, tell their stories, promote their businesses and build their brands, it also provides a platform for political opinions, religious philosophies and commentary on controversial issues.

“In a perfect world, these are all tremendous benefits of having the ability to communicate with dozens, thousands or even millions of people,” Corbett said. “However, we don’t live in a perfect world and speaking up by a business owner can be the end of their business. For business owners, social media is a minefield that they are likely never to navigate successfully without being hurt, and potentially financially damaged.”

And all it takes is “one misguided social media post expressing an unpopular opinion, or worse, some form of incendiary rhetoric” to trigger “an unwanted firestorm that can harm a company’s reputation and, quite possibly, its ability to do business,” said public relations veteran Don Miller, president of West End Strategies.

Miller said that “social posts should never be done in a moment of anger or passion because once you hit the send button, it’s out there for good. And, even though a harmful post may be deleted, any screen captures, and subsequent re-posts make it impossible to undo.”

That’s not to say consumers can’t be forgiving, especially in the face of an authentic and sincere apology.

Even those caught up in the fray may deserve “another chance,” Andrews said. “Maybe someone becomes a better human because this changes their life. They should not be penalized for life.”

There are plenty of opportunities and benefits to understanding other perspectives.

Andrews points out that this is a moment to “put yourselves in someone else’s shoes, to consider what if people in your community were killed for 400 years.”

And it’s a moment to learn. Recently, he said, the Long Island African American Chamber of Commerce participated in a virtual meeting with the Jewish Community Relations Council, whose listening session aimed to help people better understand racism directed to the African American community.

These moments can broaden our scopes, Andrews said. He pointed to Nelson Mandela, who after 27 years of prison, spoke of forgiving the Apartheid regime. Andrews said it’s been noted if the South African came out angry, “he wouldn’t have been able to become president of the country.”

But forgiveness doesn’t happen overnight.

“If you are posting racist remarks there is no public relations fix,” Lewi said. “Your first call should be to clergy because this isn’t about optics or media. This is about a profound and serious flaw in character that requires reflection, atonement, and a commitment to therapy. The idea that public relations can deflect or excuse racism is an anathema to anyone who practices this profession.”

A nuanced approach is key.

“A contrived apology written by an attorney read off a piece of paper is not the answer,” Corbett said. “For some the apology can bring on even more problems.”

Corbett said that “there is no cut and dry answer here – each case is different. Apologies or even acknowledgement of an insensitive post must be well thought out and both the upside and downside must be examined. Ask, will taking action do more harm than good? The answer again depends on the situation and context.”

Heaviside shared that sentiment.

“Looking at the once-thriving restaurant in Huntington now boarded up with its sign painted over, it’s apparent that the owner’s video apology a few days after his racist posting had little effect on public opinion,” she said. “However, in instances of less egregious or misinterpreted comments, sincere apologies that indicate a period of self-reflection, which are backed by positive action moving forward do go a long way to demonstrate that an inadvertent comment was not an indicator of a racist mindset.”

Messaging is key.

“Rebuilding brand and reputation will require dialogue with all of a company’s stakeholders – customers or clients, employees, vendors, public officials, and the community,” said Heaviside. “It’s sometimes a slow recovery for the business, but with time, effort and sincerity, it can be done.”

Bryan P. Sears contributed to this report.

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