Mary Mickel and Ali Slutsky are two Texas PR professionals who wanted to start an agency specializing in the hospitality and restaurant industry. They named their new venture Strange Fruit – a title that’s also shared by Billie Holiday’s iconic song about the lynching of African-Americans.
The outrage on Twitter was immediate and widespread. To say the criticism was scathing was an understatement. During a time of heightened racial tension throughout the country, many said, to name your agency after a song that talked about the very worst parts of our history was grossly insensitive.
For a short period of time, Mickel and Slutsky, who are both white, tried to defend their company’s name. It was chosen, they said, in an effort to celebrate the unique culinary professionals they represent. In fact, their initial responses said, the name was progressive, inclusive, and celebrating all types of people.
The problem with this position is that as individual organizations, we don’t get to dictate what words or phrases mean to a larger community. This is particularly true when those words are evocative of deeply painful historical incidents. The lynchings that Billie Holiday sang about were not abstract once-upon-a-time stories to the Black community. These are the real life murders of husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, brothers and sisters – beloved by their family, friends, and communities. The suggestion that this could all be glossed over to serve the commercial interest of a PR agency is deeply offensive – and it’s also not a secret.
We live in a Google-enabled world. Mickel and Slutsky admitted to checking out the Strange Fruit name online, to ensure no other company had claimed it already – but that, apparently, was where their research stopped. This was a big mistake. Devoting just a little more time to reading would have revealed, one hopes, the unsuitability of the Strange Fruit name.
Twitter users proved to be more than adept at articulating their point of view. Within a very short time, the company that was founded to create positive buzz found itself in the middle of a full blown PR crisis. Mickel and Slutsky have announced that they will change the name of their business.
All of this could have been avoided. Doing research before you act, rather than after, is always a good idea. Remembering that we live in a global world, where history is more than a dusty series of facts trapped in a textbook and is instead real stories that happened to real people, and where words have meanings that transcend their literal definitions. There’s a reason we don’t see businesses named Final Solution, after all – and we shouldn’t see any named Strange Fruit, either.