A Sad Tail!
By Patrick F. Cannon
People in charge of public relations for major organizations – particularly those with hundreds or even thousands of locations – live in constant dread of that one employee who has the power to ruin its reputation in an instant of clueless stupidity.
Such was the case recently when a manager at a Naperville, IL Buffalo Wild Wings asked a group of 15 African-American customers to move to another area of the restaurant because their current table was too close to a regular white customer “who didn’t want to sit near black people.” Predictably, they took umbrage to this request and eventually their business elsewhere. And, just as predictably, hired a lawyer and made their outrage public.
The wing king’s predicament brought memories of similar shocks I suffered during my more than 20 years managing public relations and other communications functions for the International Association of Lions Clubs. When I retired in 2001, it was the largest community service club organization in the world, with some 40,000 clubs and 1.3 million members. It still is, with even higher numbers.
Considering those numbers, there were very few public relations catastrophes during my tenure, but I didn’t escape unscathed. I remember these in particular.
Although he was re-elected, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to survive the publication of a photo showing him with brownface and a turban at a costume party when he was a teacher. As you may recall, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam had to admit being in blackface at a medical school party. Their tribulations remind me of a Canadian Lions club in a remote area of Saskatchewan that put on an annual minstrel show using, you guessed it, blackface. Almost inevitably, a big city newspaper found them out, and outrage ensued.
After I contacted them, they agreed to find another fundraiser, and even publicly apologized for being insensitive. Another club to the south in Montana never quite understood what they had done wrong. This time it wasn’t a fundraiser, but, to their minds, a public service. It seems their area was infested with Prairie Dogs. Now, as you’ll agree, these are among the cuter rodents, but apparently can be a real nuisance in their millions. To help the cause, the club said it would pay a 50-cent bounty for every Prairie Dog tail produced on a given weekend.
To gain maximum participation, they advertised their intent in the local paper. A member of the ever-vigilant People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) saw the item and blew the whistle. A very loud whistle as it turned out, but too late to save the pesky rodents. As it happened, this was not our first experience with PETA’s outrage. Over the years, Lions clubs had sponsored circuses with animal acts, and – particularly in the west and southwest – rodeos.
We could, and did, advise clubs that they might want to reconsider sponsoring such events, but, as they were perfectly legal, could do nothing to prevent them. Eventually, PETA got bored with us and found someone else to hector. But early in 1989, I learned how truly clueless a Lions club could be.
David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, ran for a vacant seat in the Louisiana legislature. As I recall, it was a largely white New Orleans-area district, and Duke eked out a narrow victory. To celebrate his victory, his supporters rented a local Lions club hall. Now, these Lions routinely rented out the hall for social events, and used the income to support their charitable programs. And likely no one would have noticed the Lions connection, except that the club neglected to remove their handsome Lions logo from the podium.
To cover the event, the New Orleans Times-Picayune sent a reporter and photographer. The next morning, the paper’s front page had a very large color photograph of Mr. Duke, smiling above a large and unmistakable Lions emblem. Many other papers around the country, including the New York Times, picked it up. I can still hear the phones ringing!
I wrote a letter over the then-president’s signature explaining the association’s non-political policy and the Times and many others published it. But, as you probably know, letters to the editor are nowhere near the front page. Buffalo Wild Wings has apologized and fired the offending employees. But, as they’ll find out, that won’t be the end of it. I learned that lesson all those years ago, and didn’t in those days even have to contend with Facebook, Twitter and all the other insidious branches of the internet. But maybe they’ll think of better ways to wing it.
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon