TAA PR Founder Aba Kwawu Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“I didn’t have time to think or feel. I jumped into the fire. That’s what we do,” says TAA Public Relations founder Aba Kwawu. When streets filled with people protesting anti-black racism and police violence following the killing of George Floyd, restaurants and other businesses rushed to react or express solidarity on social media. Kwawu’s clients called around the clock asking for advice.

“I was thrown, in the middle of the night, into writing statements,” she says. “My first question was, ‘How do you feel?’ I didn’t want to put words in anybody’s mouth. Once they told me what their true feelings were, I could say, ‘OK, how do we convey that in words?’” 

Even her restaurant clients who sustained property damage wanted to express compassion for others. “There was truly heartfelt care for the family of George Floyd, for the people who were in pain or are in pain,” Kwawu says. “It wasn’t bullshit. It was good for me to start from that place.”

Because public relations professionals like Kwawu craft messages for a living, they can recognize what’s sincere and what’s lip service. It’s part of the work they do year-round. 

“We talk to our clients about racial injustice, anti-racism, and diversity constantly, because it’s part of our job to be a strategic advisor,” says Ashley Mason-Greene, a freelance public relations strategist and owner of Evergreene Group Public Relations. “A lot of that work is done behind the scenes. It can be steering a client in another direction or vetoing a name or idea they have. It’s insisting certain bloggers and writers are invited to events or calling clients out in moments where something offensive occurs.”

City Paperasked Kwawu, Mason-Greene, and three other black publicists who represent clients in the D.C. hospitality industry to assess restaurants’ public statements in response to recent events. Some rushed to scrawl lukewarm messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement that weren’t tied to anything actionable. A few admitted mistakes and pledged to do some soul searching.

“People don’t know what to say or do right now,” Kwawu says. “In real time, there are mistakes that are going to be made.”

What kinds of messages did you react positively to? 

Whitney Stringer, principal at Whitney Stringer PR & Events, wants to give businesses who tried participation trophies. “There’s a number of restaurants I frequent in my neighborhood that haven’t said anything,” she says. The silence is deafening. “If you tried, that’s one tick in your box.”

That said, Stringer most respects restaurants that donated time or money, committed to taking action, or said they’re taking steps to listen to their black employees and customers. “I know restaurants are struggling right now and aren’t in a position to donate,” she says. “I’m not judging the size of your donation. You can even refer people to organizations worth supporting.” 

When restaurants clearly describe what steps they’re taking to fight for racial justice in the workplace, it makes it easier for the public to hold them accountable in the future. “I’d love to see a check-in report on Juneteenth 2021,” Stringer says. “You can’t change overnight.” 

Three 8 Communications founder and chief publicist Adra Williams agrees restaurants should get credit for trying “even if they got it wrong.” She also notes that some restaurants made donations or fed protestors quietly in lieu of posting on social media. “Whatever it is you’re doing to help energize the movement, I’m all for it, whether you’re posting or not.” 

Mostly though, Williams looks for restaurant owners who confessed to perpetuating systemic racism in their industry. “What moved me are messages of self-realization,” she says. “People who said, ‘I’m guilty of things that are being placed in the forefront.’” 

Several publicists held up restaurateur Erik Bruner-Yang’s post as a good example. “I think it is important to reflect and then acknowledge my role in systematic racism and the role I’ve played in it,” he wrote on Facebook on May 31. “The times that I have not spoken up because it would impact me financially or the times I have poorly led my company and made decisions that weren’t racist in intent or nature, but in the end made someone feel less than and marginalized. It is not just about realizing my privilege but holding myself accountable for my role and the times I have failed.” 

“I truly appreciated someone like Erik saying, ‘Wow, this is a moment of reckoning—before I can tell other people what to do, let me start at home,’” Kwawu says. “That’s so real.” In his message, Bruner-Yang commits to doing the work to make dining rooms and kitchens safe and equitable spaces for people of color. “Like #MeToo, this is another huge moment,” Kwawu continues. “Another culture shift for restaurants.”

“We all have space to grow,” Stringer adds. “If they’re willing to say, ‘These are the steps we’re taking and how I’m looking at myself’—I’d much rather you do that than give $1,000 to NAACP.” 

What messages disappointed you? 

“After no message at all, it was all of the black squares,” Stringer says. On June 2, which became known as #BlackOutTuesday, Instagram was awash with one solid black tile after another. Some posts tagged #BlackLivesMatter, making it harder for those leading protests to organize. 

Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, black women who work in music, created the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused to ask their industry to pause to consider how corporations and people in positions of power capitalize on “the efforts, struggles and successes of black people.” They sought to change the conversation, not mute it, and never called for people to post black squares or tag #BlackLivesMatter. 

While most posts were well intentioned, the squares were an easy way for brands to feign solidarity without resolving to change.  “They needed to be accompanied by some messaging on what you’re doing,” Stringer says. She would have been satisfied if brands accompanied their squares with a vow to share their action plans in a few weeks. “When something doesn’t feel super genuine, that feels like an additional blow,” she says.

Savor PR founder Charissa Benjamin agrees black squares with no significant comment don’t go far enough. She compares #BlackOutTuesday to when Americans posted vanity shots in front of the Eiffel Tower after the 2015 attacks when terrorists killed more than 100 people in and around Paris. “When I talked to clients who wanted to say something or do something, my advice was just that—the squares are an empty gesture,” she says. 

Some businesses elected to couple their statements with advertisements attempting to sell products. It was jarring to read emails from restaurants that opened with statements condemning anti-black racism and continued on to promote their latest tasting menu or natural wine selections. 

“My guidance would be not to conflate messaging,” Stringer says. “If you’re talking about Black Lives Matter, the rest has to be about amplifying black voices. Promotions shouldn’t be tied to your social justice conversation.” 

Williams calls it opportunistic and cautions restaurants against diluting messages. “There are a lot of people who are making sacrifices to move the movement forward without pushing for their own personal gain, which shows true solidarity,” she says. “I’m not mad at you for trying to make money, but don’t attach it to something that has nothing to do with it.” 

She’s worried this moment is not going to last, so businesses must make every word count. “We have to be as diligent as we can in capturing people’s attention,” Williams says. Accordingly, she was most bothered by business owners who used their platforms to complain about the damage their buildings sustained during the protests. 

Mason-Greene believes some restaurants have an even greater responsibility to tackle the tough topics. “The messages that disappointed me the most were from brands that I feel benefit from black culture that aren’t black-owned,” she says. “It seemed again that they were using black people as props, black culture as a prop. The ones that didn’t have any action attached to them were disappointing to see.” 

She attributes some missteps to rushing. “I’m willing to consider that maybe they needed a few more days to think about their role in all of this,” Mason-Greene says. “We’re going to see a lot more squares on Instagram that are apologies and action plans based off of former workers calling them out because the business hasn’t lived, in their daily interactions, that black lives matter to them.”

What advice do you have for restaurants moving forward?

Benjamin likens watching social media posts from restaurants roll out over the course of a week to going through the stages of grief. “Things were happening at such a fast pace,” she says. “I advised our clients that it was best to wait until you had a better understanding of what you wanted to do and for it to be as meaningful as possible … I think everyone jumped on the bandwagon quickly. The gravity of the situation requires a serious response and a meaningful message. You don’t have to be first.”

Going forward, Benjamin advises business owners to ensure their messages are followed by forward progress. “It’s not simply about hiring more black, indigenous, or people of color,” she  says. “Are you treating them fairly and equally? Are you looking at your own biases that exist? People aren’t doing enough emotional digging. It’s a messy and ugly topic, but part of moving forward has to be cathartic. We need to have open discussions of rights and wrongs.” 

She also urges people in top positions to get ahead of the narrative. “I can’t shake the feeling that there are a lot more scandals to be uncovered, and businesses owners and leaders should be proactive,” Benjamin says. “If an owner or someone in a leadership position has said or done hurtful things in the past, get ahead of it and own it before someone outs you on Twitter.”

“Do the work,” Stringer advises. “It might take you scrolling through articles, listening to podcasts, speaking to employees, and speaking to friends who are willing to talk to you. If it doesn’t come to you in your Instagram feed, you have to go get it. This is D.C., there are black people all around you.”

“If you’re a restaurant owner who’s torn over what to do, ask people in your circle,” Williams says. “We don’t expect people to continue donating. If you have that gut feeling that maybe there’s something wrong with your staff, that it looks a little non-diverse, make changes like that. Acknowledge the thing in your head where you play favorites. Face it head on and get rid of it.”

What would you like to see from the journalists you work with? 

Publicists are an important resource for journalists and business owners. They pitch ideas in hopes of getting their clients’ work highlighted and they facilitate interviews and other requests for information when reporters can’t get a chef on the phone. But not everyone can afford to have a PR firm on retainer, especially small mom and pop restaurants. 

“Make a concerted effort to make sure black and other voices are part of the conversation,” Stringer tells writers. “I recognize the difficulty. It’s hard to correspond with restaurants. That’s why it’s easy to work with a publicist. You try to call and no one is answering. It’s harder work finding black- and brown-owned restaurants that don’t have great strategic communications or a point person. I know it’s harder, but the effort to make sure they’re included in those conversations is so important.”

Williams wants to see black chefs get a fair shake even if they can’t afford a publicist. “I know the flow of information to journalists is partially to blame for that,” she says. “But it’s up to journalists to step outside their inbox to taste and see and meet people.” Doing so comes with the added bonus of boosting readership. “People in the black community don’t feel connected to news. If where they patronize doesn’t get covered, why would they read it?” she asks. 

Mason-Greene and Kwawu feel frustrated when they see black-owned businesses grouped together in listicles or relegated to round-ups. “There’s this everyday lack of acknowledgement of us as equal people that I feel is prevalent in every system we live in, including food media and education,” Mason-Greene says. “I want the media to keep their foot on the gas. This is lifelong work.” 

“Don’t just say, ‘Here’s a list of black-owned places,’” Kwawu emphasizes. “Who is the person who owns the coffee shop? How did a chef come up with their recipes? Cover it the same way anyone would be covered. Tell our stories. We have a lot to say.”