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A case study of keeping it cool amid a sensitive environment

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The human body can trigger a “fight-or-flight” response when faced with a stressful situation. According to Harvard Medical School, this is when humans release hormones to react quickly to life-threatening situations.

Just like how individuals have mechanisms in place to guide their response when threatened, companies should also be prepared to act when disaster strikes.

How a company responds to Internet outrage, warranted or not, can be the final line of defense before spiraling into “cancel culture”. One upset consumer may not be newsworthy. But, when thousands band together (virtually or in-person) it’s usually in a company’s best interest to acknowledge it’s aware of the concern and not just look the other way.

A look at a recent Trader Joe’s debacle

In 2020, a 17-year-old launched a change.org petition criticizing Trader Joe’s for selling products with what they deemed as racist label names. The creator of the petition called for the products to be removed or changed, claiming the names create “a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes.” Others agreed, as the petition quickly garnered more than 5,000 signatures.

The grocery store chain responded, releasing a statement that it is committed to removing products that it believes do not contribute to the welcoming customer experience.

So, then what happened?

Less than a week later, Trader Joe’s released another statement via the Customer Updates section of the company website. Titled “A Note About Our Product Naming,” this statement took a harder stance.

It said, “We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions. We make decisions based on what customers purchase, as well as the feedback we receive from our customers and Crew Members. If we feel there is need for change, we do not hesitate to take action.”

The creator of the petition accused the company of releasing contradicting statements. But, one might argue that Trader Joe’s handled the situation with professional poise while avoiding being lost in a broader conversation.

We find ourselves in an immediately responsive and certainly emotional climate with the Internet and social media. As much as we love both, they can exacerbate feelings with the ability to react to anything in the palm of our hands.

This is why it is imperative for companies to periodically pause, assess and ask the basics. Who and what: Who is raising the complaint and what is the complaint?

This seems basic, but when a company perceives it is under attack, that hypothetical “fight-or-flight” response kicks in. And, if not prepared with the correct basic information, negative and sometimes knee-jerk decisions will follow.

Trader Joe’s first statement bought the time needed to properly assess the situation and react in the best interest of the target audience. The company conducted an internal assessment of product names. Then, it reviewed the sentiment among its consumer base. And, finally, factually concluded that no necessary changes needed to be made.

In a statement to CBS News, Trader Joe’s spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel said, “We are continuing to evaluate products remaining in our stores that have a name variation of the Trader Joe’s brand. If we find they don’t resonate with customers, we will change or discontinue them. If we find they do resonate with customers, they will remain on store shelves.”

While this conclusion may not please everyone, businesses need to take concerns seriously. Acknowledging an issue, clarifying intent and delivering its internal and external truths, Trader Joe’s covered its bases. The petition has since been taken down and the company has continued its beloved way of doing business in the months since.

Does your business need guidance on how to stay cool in a crisis? Contact The Firm Public Relations & Marketing today at newbusiness@thefirmpr.com or 702.739.9933.

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I’ve had the opportunity to work with The Firm for more than a decade, and throughout that time, they have been an indispensable part of the Boyd Gaming PR team. Their guidance and counsel has been invaluable in helping Boyd Gaming and our local properties raise our profile in a highly competitive local media market. This is a creative team of outside-the-box thinkers that knows the Las Vegas media inside and out – and they are all genuinely great people to work with! I cannot recommend them highly enough.

David StrowVice President, Corporate CommunicationsBoyd Gaming Corporation