Little Caesars, Black Lives Matter and the Challenge of Corporate Messaging

Matt Friedman, a public relations expert, says corporations can often productively contribute to the national dialogue around tense social issues — but it takes time and deliberation.

With a huge social movement pushing for changes to policing and calling for an end to police brutality, it’s not surprising that some companies and brands want to show support for demonstrators.

“If you’re a brand trying to sell anything by responding to this situation, you’re doing it wrong.” — Matt Friedman, Tanner-Friedman

Matt Friedman is a founding partner of public relations firm Tanner-Friedman. He tells WDET’s Russ McNamara that responding to a huge public outcry like this should not be taken lightly… or done quickly.

“We’re encouraging our clients to take their time to be deliberate, to get input from the inside of their organization and connect with diverse points of view,” Friedman says. “And by the way, if you’re a brand trying to sell anything by responding to this situation, you’re doing it wrong.”

But there may be a disconnect when a corporation publicly backs protests but may be involved in activities being demonstrated against. 

For instance, last week, Chris Illitch, CEO of Ilitch Holdings, the group that owns Little Caesars Pizza, the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers, put out a statement that said he supports African Americans and the African American community. But at the same time, Little Caesars arena was being used as a spot for processing arrestees

“Using a controversial taxpayer-funded arena for that purpose may send the wrong message in the community.”

Friedman says this shows the complexity of these decisions, and how it may be detrimental to prioritize speed.

“Within the realm of PR, there are different audiences and different considerations,” Friedman says. “So I can understand from a government affairs point of view, to be a good corporate citizen, you try to figure out the ways to say yes to the government that you have to work with, the law enforcement you have to work with, to keep a place like an arena safe.

But if some time had been given that to that decision, maybe somebody from community relations would have asked for more consideration, because using a controversial taxpayer-funded arena for that purpose may send the wrong message in the community.”

Click on the player above to hear PR tips for corporations expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.


Is it worse to say the wrong thing or to just say nothing at all?

“I think it’s a balancing act. And I think that there’s some organizations that have been afraid to say the wrong thing. So they’ve pulled back. You can’t be afraid to say the wrong thing. You have to focus on saying the right thing. When I do media training, I tell them don’t stress about the hard questions, focus on nailing easy ones. Now, this is not easy. But it’s saying the right thing is possible. What I have counseled clients against and warned against is putting out something that sounds either hollow or it could come across as pandering. Those are things that you want to avoid. So this is sophisticated, and this is nuanced. It takes intentional effort and it takes more time than almost any other kind of statement that a company would ever make.”

On sports franchises getting the message right

“Sports is one of the areas in our society where the relationship between races is on full public display. Generally speaking, the NBA and its franchises are way ahead of the rest of the sports industry on social issues. And so it’s not surprising that the Pistons and their counterparts in the NBA would have more to say, and would have a more developed statement than any of the other sports leagues. But at the same time, I saw some scorekeeping going on within sports media. There were Twitter accounts that were literally keeping track of which franchises had issued statements and which ones hadn’t. I think that’s unfair. As I said, I think this is the type of communication that needs to take time and input within an organization. And if any sports franchise felt pressure to get something out quickly, it’s not going to be as effective if maybe they had taken a little bit more time.”

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  • Russ McNamara
    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.