3 PR lessons from Whole Foods’ ‘Yellow Fever’ crisis response

The grocery chain’s partnership with an Asian eatery with a provocative name has drawn online fire. The retailer has deferred to chef/owner Kelly Kim to reply, but how wise is that strategy?

The restaurant owner insists the name isn’t racist, but the social media outcry over a new partnership is hitting Whole Foods just the same.

A California pan-Asian restaurant was given floor space in a Long Beach Whole Foods location, and some aren’t happy with its name, Yellow Fever, which to some recalls an infectious disease and to others suggests white sexual fantasies about Asian women.

The Washington Post reported :

[Owner Kelly] Kim, who said that before this week the name wasn’t an issue, did not take the term to have an overtly sexual or even negative meaning, adding that it is more nuanced than what critics have said.

The term implies “an attraction or affinity of Asian people or Asian things,” such as Korean pop music or karaoke, she said. “I never took it to a have deeper meaning. … It’s a little tongue in cheek, but I never saw it as offensive or racist or anti-feminist,” she said.

Kim, who is also the executive chef, said she discussed the charged nature of her restaurant’s name with Whole Foods, but could not recall if her partners or the company raised the issue.

On Twitter, users have been vocal in their disapproval.

Whole Foods has remained silent, allowing Kim to speak for her restaurant.

Fortune reported :

“I think it’s been silly, and I think it’s a bit funny that it’s all of a sudden a big deal,” Kim told the Daily News .

Kim added that she was re-appropriating the term and that the issue actually came up while working out the details of partnering with Whole Foods . The supermarket chain had Kim change some of the ingredients in her dishes, the Daily News reported.

“I hope that once they come in and try our food and see us for who we are and who we’re trying to be, that they’ll realize that they’re picking on the little kid, you know?” Kim told CBS.

What can PR pros learn from Whole Foods’ and Kim’s crisis response?

Here are three lessons:

1. Choose your public face wisely.

Although Kim doesn’t work for Whole Foods, letting her do the talking about the partnership generally—and her restaurant in particular—is a smart strategy. Kim brings cultural authenticity to the public discussion about the name “Yellow Fever” and the complex related issues for the Asian-American community.

Buzzfeed wrote :

“Yellow Fever celebrates all things Asian,” Kim said in a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News. “We have been a proud Asian, female-owned business since our founding over four and a half years ago in Torrance, California.”

Company branding materials provided to BuzzFeed News acknowledge the name’s associations but say the restaurant aims to instead “embrace the term and reinterpret it positively for ourselves.”

“The old definition will eventually become an obsolete anachronism, and that should be our collective goal; that is when we will have succeeded,” the branding statement said.

2. You must say something.

Though Whole Foods’ has tried to sidestep the controversy by letting Kim take the lead in responding, the company’s failure to comment can read as tone-deaf—or, worse, indifferent.

Social media users say the fault still lies with Whole Foods, as someone in authority there should have flagged the problematic name.

A statement in support of (or deferring to) chef Kim would have allowed the grocery chain to let her speak for the restaurant without Whole Foods’ appearing uninvolved. Instead, it seems Kim has been left to fend for herself and, perhaps, to take action based largely on public opinion.

3. With Twitter, all bets are off.

With a female, Korean-American chef, you might think you’ve consulted the demographic that might find a name offensive. However, no group ever completely agrees with a given way of thinking, and with social media users ready to sound off, a crisis is always lurking around the corner.

It appears Whole Foods executives knew “Yellow Fever” was a risky name for a partner.

Reuters reported:

A year ago [Kim] told the Argonaut, a local Los Angeles news outlet, that Yellow Fever means “love of all things Asian” and that public push back over the name had not been as drastic as expected.

Communicators should have been ready to deal with this issue—or insist on changing the name to avoid courting controversy.

How would you advise Whole Foods to respond, PR Daily readers? For that matter, how has Kim handled the controversy?

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