Public Relations Debacle

Texas PR firm suffers its own public relations nightmare over 'Strange Fruit' name

Texas PR firm gets hard lesson in crisis communication over name

Strange Fruit PR
The founders of Strange Fruit PR have announced the firm's new identity. Photo via Twitter

The Austin public relations firm that made national headlines for its racially insensitive name now has a new identity. On December 9, Mary Mickel and Ali Slutsky, founders of what was formerly known as Strange Fruit PR, announced that their firm will now be called Perennial Public Relations.

The name change came after a whirlwind of controversy sent the PR firm — which represents many of Austin's most popular restaurants — into its own public relations nightmare.

It started on Saturday, when a slew of tweets called out the company for using a name associated with the lynching of blacks in the South. Based on a poem by Abel Meeropol, "Strange Fruit" was made famous after it was recorded as a song by Billie Holiday in 1939. The phrase "strange fruit" refers to the bodies of black men and women hanging from trees.

Strange Fruit initially tried to assuage the public with an explanation via Twitter — but failed. "Our passion is telling the stories of hospitality professionals. We chose our name [because] these incredibly talented artists stand out in a crowd," the company wrote.

By Sunday, Strange Fruit's online presence had been removed entirely; the company deactivated its Facebook and Twitter accounts and took its website offline. But that didn't stop the story from getting picked up by such outlets as USA Today and the Washington Post.

In a statement issued Monday, Mickel and Slutsky expressed regret for the "offense caused" and called the situation "very troublesome to us," adding they never intended to draw parallels to the poem or song.

"We thought the term 'strange fruit' really could stand for someone who stood out in a crowd, a talent that was different and remarkable — in a good way. Again, we were wrong," they wrote. "This implication behind the name does not convey the mission we have for our company, or our personal beliefs, & we are taking the immediate and necessary steps to change our name."

As the story continued to gain traction (and Strange Fruit attempted further damage control), it raised questions for the Austin restaurant scene and those represented by the firm. Clients such as Jack Allen's Kitchen and Barley Swine acknowledged the situation via Twitter with statements such as, "Thank you for reaching out. We are talking with them now."

On Monday, Slutsky said via email that they were working "feverishly" on a new name. By Tuesday, they issued another statement via email:

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.

Although unwanted, the situation did provide the PR firm with a valuable lesson in crisis communication.