UPDATE: Strange Fruit PR has released a new identity. CultureMap has the details here.
An Austin-based public relations firm is making headlines this week — and not because of its talented clients. Strange Fruit PR, the local hospitality PR firm that represents many of Austin's most popular restaurants, is under fire for its racially insensitive name.
On Saturday, a slew of tweets called out the company for using a name associated with the lynching of blacks in the South. Based on a poem by Abel Meeropol, "Strange Fruit" was made famous after it was recorded as a song by Billie Holiday in 1939. The phrase "strange fruit" refers to the bodies of black men and women hanging from trees.
Strange Fruit initially tried to assuage the public with an explanation via Twitter, but failed. "Our passion is telling the stories of hospitality professionals. We chose our name [because] these incredibly talented artists stand out in a crowd," the company wrote.
By Sunday, Strange Fruit's online presence had been removed entirely — except, that is, for growing backlash that continues to circulate on social media and in national headlines. The company deactivated its Facebook and Twitter accounts and took its website offline, but that didn't stop the viral nature of the story that has now been picked up by such outlets as USA Today and the Washington Post.
Strange Fruit PR shared its official statement with CultureMap via email:
We were wrong. We extend our deepest & sincerest apologies for the offense caused by the name of our public relations firm. This is very troublesome to us & was most definitely never our intention to draw any parallels to Abel Meeropol's powerful poem & the song that holds the name. We thought the term "strange fruit" really could stand for someone who stood out in a crowd, a talent that was different and remarkable — in a good way. Again, we were wrong. This implication behind the name does not convey the mission we have for our company, or our personal beliefs, & we are taking the immediate and necessary steps to change our name.
As the story continues to gain traction (and Strange Fruit attempts further damage control), it raises questions for the Austin restaurant scene and those represented by the now nameless firm. "Also hope clients have urged name change and/or left," charged Kathryn Hutchison of the Austin Gastronomist via Twitter. "That @StrangeFruitPR has had the name for 3 years is unacceptable for ATX food."
So far, very little has surfaced from Strange Fruit's roster of clients. Jack Allen's Kitchen has acknowledged the backlash via Twitter by responding to users with a blanket statement, "Thank you for reaching out. We are talking with them now." Similarly, Barley Swine responded to one Twitter inquiry ("Hey @BarleySwine, what made you think it was a good idea to hire @StrangeFruitPR, a company named after a term for lynched bodies? #Austin") with, "We are in communication with them now."
Strange Fruit founders Mary Mickel and Ali Slutsky would not release information to CultureMap regarding the status of a new name. Slutsky said via email, "We don’t have a new name yet. We are working on it feverishly."