The Brand That Started a Weekend Boil

As we hit the dog days of summer, and as Shakespeare warned us, tempers will flare.

But, unfortunately, it seems to me that it’s not just the dog days of summer that have led to this moment.  As political fires burn at town hall meetings across the country, and as LGBT activists continue to struggle to understand why our issues always seem to fall to the wayside, more and more people appear to be taking the “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to questions.

The brand that started a weekend boil. (Image from change.org.)

The brand that started a weekend boil. (Image from change.org.)

The latest example is the firestorm that a misguided Tim Hortons franchisee started when his Rhode Island franchise apparently agreed to sponsor “Rhode Island’s First Ever FREE Celebrate Marriage & Family Day” (brochure).  This, almost predictably led to an astoundingly widespread, loud denunciation of Tim Hortons, the Canadian-based doughnut and coffee chain.

As I noted Sunday on Twitter, I am somewhat concerned with this.  Not at all with the end result or with folks noting that the Rhode Island franchisee was wrong and misguided, but with the way in which the nearly universal LGBT online response was to just take aim at anyone in their sights — from the National Organization for Marriage to the franchise to the entire “mega-giant” chain.

A franchisee went outside the authorized sponsorship guidelines.  As I tweeted, I’d think a call from someone to the folks at Tim Hortons could have taken care of this.  Instead, everyone everywhere maligned the company itself all weekend — with most posts not making very — or at all — clear that, so far as we knew, this was the action of one franchisee.

Now that it’s Monday and the management folks at Tim Hortons are back at work, there was an immediate notice that the Rhode Island franchisee’s actions to sponsor the event were outside the sponsorship guidelines and, accordingly, no such sponsorship would be happening.

Some are arguing that this is a show of the power of social media — and it very well may be a show of the loud, rapidly raised voice that we now can muster — but I don’t see any reason, in this situation, not to believe that one phone call to the PR folks at Tim Hortons would have had the same result.

After a lengthy, excellent phone conversation with a fellow blogger about these issues, it seems to me that this situation has lessons for everyone living in the “new media” world:

  • Companies:  PR is no longer a Monday through Friday 9-5 job.  You are failing your company if you don’t have someone keeping up on mentions of your company in newspapers and on TV — but also on blogs and Twitter.
  • Organizations and Elected Officials:  Same for you.  For example, there was a virtual blackout of news regarding the Tel Aviv LGBT center shootings because no U.S. organizations that I could find had out statements until Monday.  You quickly can be viewed as a leader on an issue by providing measured, careful reactions that filter through the slow news stream of the weekend.  New York City Council President Christine Quinn, in fact, was the only elected official or organization who — that I saw — issued a statement over the weekend.
  • Bloggers:  News doesn’t stop on the weekends.  You can add much more to the dialogue — and become a more trusted resource — by having the capability to respond to breaking news over the weekend.  But, your role as a trend-setter by providing weekend breaking-news coverage must be balanced with the limitations faced by the lack of an ability to get responses from companies, organizations or elected officials during the weekend.  Rather than “shoot first, ask questions later,” perhaps a “prepare for the worst but hope for (and consider the possibility of) the best” policy would lead to more nuanced breaking-news coverage.  Rather than imputing ill motives and assuming the worst, being careful with the facts can allow you to both motivate and inform your audience.

If nothing else, situations like this — just look at the Twitter feed for “Tim Hortons” today — show us that social media has created a new reality that empowers people way outside the traditional PR world to both begin and dramatically influence public opinion on an issue.  No matter your vantage-point, things have changed.  We all can benefit from thinking carefully about the rules and roles (or lack thereof) involved in these changes — and taking actions accordingly to benefit our long-term aims best, regardless of what they are.

This topic obviously has many implications — far outside the LGBT world — that folks are dealing with in every sector.  Please, use the comments to add your thoughts.

[UPDATE: Apologies to Benjamin Dorsey, whose sensible comment -- "Tim Horton's needs to keep a tighter leash on its franchisees." -- I had meant to include in this post as example of a balanced, but strong, view on what was happening with Tim Hortons.]

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About the Author

Chris Geidner is the award-winning senior political & legal reporter at BuzzFeed and has written for Metro Weekly, The Atlantic Online, The American Prospect, Advocate.com, Salon and other publications, as well as at his blog, Law Dork. He has appeared regularly on television commenting on current affairs, including MSNBC, PBS, HLN & Current. Prior to moving to D.C. in 2009, he served as an attorney on the senior staff at the Ohio Attorney General's Office and had earlier worked for a leading Columbus law firm. An extended biography can be found here, and you can follow him on Twitter.