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In Brooklyn, Every Beer is Political

Add Roberta Flack to the blacklist that my friend Julie is building.

The diva, best known for hits like “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” landed on Julie’s list because she showed up at a recent meeting in Brooklyn to support the Atlantic Yards Project, a controversial real estate development that is anchored to a basketball arena.

“What on earth does Roberta Flack have to do with Brooklyn?” my friend asked.

That’s a good question considering Flack is from North Carolina and, based on my research, not a Brooklyn resident. Why, Julie and I wondered, would Flack lend her support to a project that is unrelated to anything involving her?

“Maybe she wants to sing the National Anthem at the arena’s opening,” Julie said wryly.

Julie and I have somewhat differing opinions on the Atlantic Yards Project, and I won’t bore you with the details. We both agree, however, that the issue is politically sensitive to the point that it could damage those who have come out in the support of the project, which critics say is an adventure in “corporate welfare” (think tax breaks for developers) that will push out businesses and residents. The prospect of the government asserting eminent domain is evident, and the wholesale destruction of a historic neighborhood is possible, critics suggest.

Julie’s blacklist, which includes a number of politicians and local businesses such as Brooklyn Brewery, is not the only one floating around my hometown, which I should point out would be America’s third largest city if you broke up the five boroughs that make up New York City. (Brooklyn’s population lags behind only that of Los Angeles and Chicago, and its population is 50% higher than Manhattan’s). Those with blacklists include individual citizens like Julie, businesses such as bars that now refuse to carry Brooklyn Brewery products, and organizations that are urging members to kick out city council members who are in favor of the Atlantic Yards project.

The Atlantic Yards project shows how local political issues can impact businesses and their customers’ perception of those businesses. Never a big fan of Brooklyn Brewery’s products myself, I decided to join in on Julie’s boycott because I felt that the company’s stance was motivated by nothing more than a want to be a major concessions provider at the new arena, and that it was turning its back on the community that has supported it so well.

Scott Turner of the organization Fans For Fair Play, which opposed the Atlantic Yards project, may have summed it up best in a weblog posting in February.

“Fans For Fair Play believes Brooklyn Brewery products should be boycotted. Brooklyn Lager’s taste may be one reason people drink it. But if you ask a Brooklyn Lager imbiber why she or he drinks it, the answer is often ‘I like supporting the local brand’ or ‘I like a beer made in Brooklyn.’ [Brooklyn Brewery President Steve] Hindy’s deal with the devil proves he cares far less for Brooklyn than his customers care for his beer,” Turner wrote.

While it is difficult to quantify what, if any, impact a grassroots boycott of Brooklyn Brewery has had, the company has taken a very public stance in support of the project, and that has created near-term negative headlines. Eventually, people will probably forget that Brooklyn Brewery supported the arena project (every day it’s more evident that the project will go through), and any lost business will be easily recovered.

Whether Brooklyn Brewery has a long-term strategy in mind here, I don’t know. They should have, however, recognized ahead of time that they could cause both short- and long-term damage to their business by taking sides on the Atlantic Yards project, and weighed the risk/reward of making their feelings publicly known. If they did not weigh the potential downside and upside of getting involved in a politically sensitive issue, it’s time for them to rethink their stance, and hire a good public relations firm.

Businesses of all sizes can be dragged into a political fray, and the potential for both damage and reward is high. While business owners or executives may support a cause, they must ask themselves if publicly supporting that cause in the name of the business makes sense. For example, I have been asked to appear on television to talk about the regulation of hedge funds. Many of my company’s clients are hedge funds, and I certainly do not want to upset them. By the same token, I don’t want to come off as a sycophant, and internally, we have disagreements related to the issue. I passed on the opportunity to speak about the subject, and I steadfastly refuse to comment on it publicly.

Public relations professionals must act as political filters, making clients and companies aware of what could happen if they put their weight behind an issue. While transparency is a good public relations tool (as opposed to backroom dealings), it’s important to remember that the health of a business is paramount to its employees, shareholders, partners and customers, thus wading into political waters can endanger that health.

On a local level, it is sometimes difficult to avoid political issues. Development and planning impacts businesses, and they often need to make their feelings known. A new road or commercial development could strangle or increase business, or a change in local laws could prove fortuitous or disastrous. What’s important is that when making a public stance on the issue, you have a real and valid concern. In the case of Brooklyn Brewery, what has irked many people is that Atlantic Yards is nowhere near the company’s operations, and that there is no downside for the company if the project does not go through.

In other words, Brooklyn Brewery’s only dog in this hunt is to sell more beer, and for some people who have been lapping up that beer for years, they are questioning whether they should switch brands as punishment for what they perceive as nothing more than greed.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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