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Party City's PR problem illustrates the need to be anticipatory about promoting tolerance

Ugly Valentine

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Party City is a huge chain of party supply stores based in Elmsford, New York, just five kilometres down the road from Sleepy Hollow, the setting for Washington Irving's famous short story published in 1820.

This morning, Party City's corporate bosses are going to wake up to the fact their company's got a nightmare public relations problem.

This is no creaky Nineteenth Century ghost story, alas, but a thoroughly modern tale about a homophobic slur in Edmonton, Alberta, which became big news when it went viral on social media over the weekend. That happened after an angry mom took to Facebook to ask what she should do about the defaced Valentine message her son received at the Party City store where he has worked for three years.

An image of the highly offensive message received by Degas Sikorski on his first shift of the year Saturday that was shown on Shelley Bramhoff Sikorski's Facebook post, and which was subsequently removed from the social media site, continues to be widely circulated. The message says he's losing shifts because he's gay.

The moment it went viral was probably when Kathleen Smith, who the local news media nowadays refer to as an "Edmonton social media personality," shared it with her close-to 19,000 Twitter followers. Smith, who Tweets under the handle @KikkiPlanet, says her message was re-Tweeted about 500 times.

Shelley Sikorski's original Facebook post was shared more than 500 times and gathered more than 2,000 comments. Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson Tweeted his condemnation. Pretty well all the major mainstream media operations in the Edmonton area covered the story, including the Edmonton Journal, the CBC and CTV. Then it started showing up in places like the U.K.'s tabloid Daily Mail.

So this is not a local problem in Western Canada any more that can just be ignored by Party City -- which already had a PR problem with costumes criticized for cultural appropriation or outright racism.

In other words, this is potentially a public relations disaster of the sort you can't just cross your corporate fingers and pray will disappear.

Because it was a long weekend both in Alberta and the United States -- Family Day here and Presidents Day there -- this will be the first business day head office staff at the multi-national corporation with more than $2 billion US in revenue and more than 900 stories in North America has to think about what to do. I imagine the company's public relations staff will be quite busy this morning.

Mainstream journalists were told over the weekend the company and the store are looking into what happened. That may be OK on a long weekend when a situation at one faraway local store is still unfolding, but it won't be good enough today when the reporters start calling back -- as they're bound to do.

Whatever Party City does, they're going to have to take this seriously. It will help their case if they don't try to blame someone else, deny there's a problem or try to wait it out. A situation like this to which large and growing numbers of people are paying attention requires a serious plan for ensuring employees aren't treated this way, by managers or other employers.

What Party City should have done was instruct their store managers and franchise owners in advance that homophobia and other forms of bigotry will not be tolerated. Inclusivity starts at the top, and there's never a better time to start being inclusive than right now.

If you do that, and something happens anyway, it will have a mitigating effect when you point to your efforts to ensure tolerance in your corporate operations. If they did do that, they need to tell us about it.

If there's a silver lining to this unhappy story it's that other businesses have the opportunity to pay attention and ensure the same kind of thing doesn't happen in their operations.

It's a different world now than it was even a decade ago. Thanks to social media, you can't just ignore the actions of a problem manager or employee because thousands, even millions of people can find out overnight. And when tens of thousands of people are angry at your business, and determined to do something about it, it really can have an impact on the bottom line, not to mention having the potential to cause expensive and inconvenient legal problems.

If the reaction to the Edmonton Party City uproar this weekend shows anything, it's that huge numbers of Canadians are moving beyond homophobia in particular and intolerance in general.

We already knew this, of course. There's plenty of evidence. But in the age of social media, corporations can't ignore this. And it's certainly something Party City in particular can't pretend didn't happen.

Time for all of us to wake up and smell the coffee!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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