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Barilla, Russia, and the high business cost of ignorance

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Russia's anti-gay law and Barilla's bumbling president are both bad for business, and show that blame and apologies often have little to do with the outcome of such debacles.
Russia's anti-gay law and Barilla's bumbling president are both bad for business, and show that blame and apologies often have little to do with the outcome of such debacles. - (Thinkstock / Joe Ross)

Business is complicated. You're constantly juggling corporate policy, public image, private lives and government laws. That's why it's important to remember that nothing in business can ever be unsaid.

It's that fact that fuels the public relations industry. Saying the right or the wrong thing can make or break a business overnight. At a minimum, it can dominate the narrative about your firm for a long time after.

Last week, the president of Barilla Pasta, Guido Barilla, told a radio host he would only feature "traditional" families in his advertisements, explicitly saying he would never consider including a same-sex couple in a commercial.

This is a blog, so I get to say what I think about that.

I see homophobia and any other oh-my-god-they're-different-than-I-am aversion as a major and defining character defect in a person. It is, to me, a signal that their outlook on the world is underinformed and their moral compass is disturbingly misaligned.

There is no ethically defensible position that professes the inferiority of lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, transgender individuals, or anyone else who identifies as queer or is objectively or subjectively different from anyone else.

And passive, "we prefer traditional families" crap is just as bad as overt hate-mongering, because it attempts, deliberately or indirectly, to normalize the dismissal of gender-based civil rights struggles with a muted but no less destructive rhetoric of oppression.

Put simply, I'm in the market for a new pasta brand.

But it doesn't matter what I think. What matters is that, when you're running a business with any competition at all, every misguided quote and misunderstood statement can dramatically affect the coming quarter's bottom line. And saying you're sorry probably can't change that.

Chris Isidore reports at CNN's Money blog that a video apology from Mr. Barilla (embedded below) did little to quell bad sentiment aimed at the company, as is clear from the more than 7,000 comments beneath the video on Facebook.

OregonLive.com did a poll in which 64 percent of more than 1,700 respondents have said they plan to drop Barilla for another brand, and HuffPo has at least one post telling folks which brands are more friendly.

Sometimes, your business might suffer even when you are not the one making stupid reactionary comments. That's what's happening to some vodka brands in the wake of Russia's passing of a law prohibiting exposure of children to any conversation, literature or other material about same-sex relationships or rights. Boycotts and protests are being aimed at brands perceived as Russian, whether they are or not.

Boycotts in these cases, some suggest, may be based on faulty logic, or may even do more harm than good for those for whom they're meant to show support.

But everyone agrees that hatred, whether it's expressed in actively passing alienating legislation or passively stating alienating preferences for "tradition," is bad for business. If you've got an ignorant executive, or someone whose positions are obviously likely to be taken as offensive, keep them away from microphones and cameras whenever possible.

No apology, or explanation that your brand isn't even associated with the offender, can undo the brand damage done by being juxtaposed with an attitude of condescending social prejudice.

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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@njbiz.com

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