Petsmart Shows the Risk as the Stampede of Corporate Virtue Regarding Black Lives Matter Takes Place

A damaged Petsmart sign hangs after a storm moved through the area in Tulsa, Okla., Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017. A possible tornado struck near midtown Tulsa and causing power outages and roof damage to businesses. (Tom Gilbert/Tulsa World via AP)

 

One offshoot of the current movement in the country is corporations have still not learned their lesson on activism.

As we are enduring the ongoing strife of the call for racial unity in the nation, in between the violence and property damage, an aspect that is grating is the calling out for collective guilt to be felt. On social media, we see a call for people to admit their racism or end up becoming called racist for denying it — a handy consequence for activists. On television, we are scolded that apathy or abstinence from the argument is tantamount to perpetuating hate, and electing to stand aside is aiding the supposed enemy.

One ridiculous sidelight to this ‘’silence is violence’’ narrative is that companies are being compelled to flood the zone with their ‘’appropriate’’ messaging in order to be viewed as correctly woke. There has been no shortage of corporate missives, mission statements, and manifestos that properly come forward and declare how they oppose racial strife. This is becoming both a risible practice but also a minefield for businesses wishing to be viewed properly.

Companies inspired to declare that they are on the record as opposing racism sound ridiculous. Do any avidly SUPPORT racism? Of course not, but when they come out now and boldly declare this is a corporate stance it sounds like there was either a question behind the matter, or that opposing racism is now a new stance for the company to take. I am rather confident a business does not want to send the message of, ”We have finally come around to understand that racism is not a good idea”.

Last week, it was declared to be Blackout Tuesday and there was an endless string of corporations and businesses coming out with their version of compulsory signaling. Business social media accounts posted pithy catchphrases or resorted simply to displaying black squares, basically doing the bare minimum to show they were doing something. This group effort was perfectly satirized by The Babylon Bee.

Joining in this practice is a new entry, one from the animal supply chain Petsmart. I think most would agree that when it comes to accepting guidance on the inflammatory issue of race relations we all turn to the country’s fishtank purveyors on what is proper comportment. When picking up mealworms and the painted replacement shells for your hermit crabs, who has not lingered at the register, in town square fashion, to exchange ideas on addressing the systemic challenges facing rural blacks impeding their pathways to secondary education?

This letter, from Petsmart CEO J.K. Symancyk, is a jumble of platitudes, each designed to portray all of the proper stances regarding the race issue, all while managing to be contradictory and ending up painting the company in a negative fashion. The first paragraph is undistilled white guilt, complete with the phrase, ”my experience as a white male makes me ill-equipped…’’. Paragraph two describes how the company shares all the proper values, and thus should be seen as being on the side of Black Lives Matter — and possibly by extension a tacit plea to not loot their stores.

But then Mr. Symancyk launches into the plan for his company to address the issues we as a country are allegedly facing these days.

Now is the time to be clear in words and actions…to say plainly that Black Lives Matter and to do our part to ensure that this is the truth, not just a phrase. Right now, we are working on taking actions that include:

  • Broader communication, events and activities in partnership with our Mosaic Associate Resource Group to create platforms to further this conversation;
  • Enhanced development, reporting and recruiting activities to further improve representation;
    Establishment of annual scholarship/tuition aid for black associates and their families;
  • Additional funds from PetSmart Charities to specifically address support for pets and pet parents in underrepresented communities.

Now here we see the trap that Symancyk has set, ensnaring himself in the process. In the desire to show the ‘’proper’’ amount of corporate support, he has basically made the admission that his company has NOT done the proper thing. Essentially what he intends to appear as a noble corporate effort is instead a list of things they have not been doing, an almost supplicant admission that Petsmart has been racist all this time. Not the kind of confession that will help your image, especially in this climate.

This is the minefield that companies have shown a desire to tapdance through over the years. It seems that PR divisions have taken on a greater influence over the CFO offices. A number of companies fall prey to the bait that social media outrage translates to adverse market effects. The truth is most of the time the digital yelling is a microscopic representation of the buying public and is mostly composed of those who are not customers. Yet we’ve watched numerous companies entering this current fray with enthusiasm.

Some were pathetic in their wan efforts, like when Playboy Magazine announced it was not going to post any content, as a sign of support. ”Our channels will be silent over the coming days as we mourn the unconscionable loss of Black Americans at the hands of police violence,’’ announced the magazine. Thus, not doing anything will be regarded as a brave accomplishment. ”We are working to develop a long-term plan to rally our resources to support the radical changes needed to dismantle centuries of racist policies and systems.’’ Maybe they could have done so 150 years ago if it was so easy. (Okay, granted they have only been in existence since the 1950s — so ‘seventy years’ then.)

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream has also weighed, delivering a long corporate letter that was myth-filled and error-prone, and a prime example of why wealthy white liberals are rather daft and out of touch on racial issues, all while invoking them at every single opportunity that surfaces in a conversation. Petsmart, meanwhile, has delivered a grand object lesson here for other companies.

While it might feel like you are required to make some kind of gesture and corporate outreach on the current racial matter, you need to be EXTREMELY careful in how you frame your boilerplate open letters. Sometimes, what you think is a noble gesture of what you intend to do on the subject becomes a declaration about what you have not been doing all this time. That can become your insurrection, in the eyes of the activists.