By Lisa J. Huriash
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In the world of public relations, Publix is having a challenging week.
The company, one of Florida’s largest employers, first drew headlines for censoring a “Summa Cum Laude” graduation cake. Soon after, it faced heavy criticism over its donations to gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, a Republican who has referred to himself on social media as a proud supporter of the National Rifle Association.
And Stoneman Douglas student David Hogg, who has risen to prominence as a gun-control advocate, has arranged to have “die-in” protests at Publix stores on Friday, calling for people to lie on the floors of the supermarkets.
Crisis-management and industry experts agree that Publix has become the latest company in the U.S. being forced to carefully consider its responses to calls for gun control and to take a public position one way or the other.
“Without a doubt, this is a public crisis,” said Jolie Balido, co-founder and CEO of Roar Media, a public relations and internet marketing agency in Miami. “In today’s climate with social media, things go viral.”
“Companies live in glass houses,” she said. “You have to be prepared [to ask]: What will the perceptions of my actions be? [The Parkland students] have shown they can get brands to effectuate change. They have power. They are not going away.”
Balido said that “all eyes will be on Publix how they treat this sensitive issue right now,” especially since there are “other options where folks can purchase their groceries.”
Publix has various supermarkets near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. There, a gunman on Feb. 14 killed 17 and wounded 17 more.
Erik Bernstein, of Bernstein Crisis Management in Colorado, noted how supermarkets are viewed as family-oriented, so anything that appears to clash with that image could lead to a publicity crisis.
“I’d drop [Putman] like a hot potato,” he said of Publix. “I think there’s a problem on their hands, especially given where they are — they have to consider the audience is scared and worried for their children.”
Putnam, now the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture, wrote on Twitter “I’m a proud #NRASellout!” in July.
The Tampa Bay Times newspaper recently reported that Publix political contributions to Putnam reached $670,000 in the last three years, giving more money to his gubernatorial bid than any other candidate since at least 1995.
Nicole Krauss, a Publix spokeswoman, said Thursday the company’s position hasn’t changed since the controversy erupted over the political contributions. She shared a statement, which read in part: “As a result of this situation, we are evaluating our processes to ensure that our giving better reflects our intended desire to support a strong economy and a healthy community.”
Hogg took to Twitter on Thursday evening to ask Publix to “donate double the money they gave to Putman to the Stoneman Douglas Victims fund,” asking the company to contribute $1 million. And he also asked Publix to “never support an A rated NRA politician again.”
Hogg also has urged his hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter to participate in a “die-in” event at 4 p.m. inside Publix stores, including one in Parkland and one just outside Parkland, on Friday, a scheduled day off for students in Broward schools.
Some Twitter users bristled at Hogg’s idea, defending Publix as a staple of the community. One of those replying on Twitter said, “They also have amazing customer service, clean stores, and make delicious subs which I highly recommend.”
Krauss would not address whether the planned protests would be allowed on private property. Still, South Florida law enforcement agencies were gearing up to intervene if they’re asked for help.
“The Coral Springs Police Department is aware of the event and is working on an operational plan,” said police Sgt. Carla Kmiotek, an agency spokeswoman. “We will be working with Publix to address any needs they may have, as well as ensuring the safety of all our citizens and visitors.”
“We’re aware of the protest,” said Joy Oglesby, Broward sheriff’s spokeswoman. “We will respond, if necessary.”
The Center for Political Accountability, based in Washington, D.C., is among the groups that coach companies on the ramifications of their political spending.
While they are “agnostic” whether companies should donate at all, “our message is when you engage in political spending you have to do it very carefully, manage the risk that is associated with political spending,” said Bruce Freed, the group’s president.
He said companies need to look at the whole “package that they are endorsing through their contributions … when a company contributes to a candidate, it is associating itself with all the positions the candidate is supporting.”
After the Parkland massacre, “you have a community that is very concerned, to put it mildly, and is very sensitive to this. You can’t separate that.”
Freed referenced Dick’s Sporting Goods, which changed its policy and will no longer sell assault-style weapons, high-capacity magazines or any firearms to anyone younger than age 21.
He also pointed to Delta Air Lines, which announced in February it would no longer offer discounted fares to NRA members to attend their annual meetings, and asked the gun rights group to remove any references to its company from the NRA website.
Randi Sims, a business ethics professor at Nova Southeastern University, suggested that corporations will never achieve a point where they can find universal agreement among their customers.
“I think the hard part is you can’t win with something like this,” Sims said. “They should probably get out of the whole donation business.”
Publix also was in the headlines this week when a bakery in South Carolina overlooked a mom’s instructions on a graduation cake that a computer flagged as obscene. The cake was supposed to read: “Congrats Jacob! Summa Cum Laude class of 2018.” But Publix censored as an obscenity the word “cum” on the cake (it’s the preposition “with” in Latin), substituting it with three hyphens.
For its part, Publix reportedly offered to remake the cake and gave the mom a $70 refund as well as a store gift card.
On Thursday, Putnam declined to talk about the Publix controversy.
Meredith Beatrice, Putnam’s spokeswoman for his campaign, would only tell the South Florida Sun Sentinel that “he supports Publix.”
“I’m so proud that Publix calls Florida home,” Putnam said in a statement Thursday. “They got their start in Polk County and are consistently ranked as one of the top places to work in the nation. They provide more than 100,000 jobs for hard-working Floridians and are the epitome of customer service and quality. I’m a proud Store No. 3 shopper.”