Imagine for 10 weeks one of the Washington area's most popular radio stations devoting time to calling your company's practices racist.
It happened to James F. Halpin, CEO of Dallas-based CompUSA Inc.
For 10 weeks, radio and BET commentator Tavis Smiley led an electronic protest campaign against CompUSA for what he alleged were discriminatory ad-buying practices.
Smiley, whose commentary on "The Tom Joyner Morning Show" is aired locally on black adult-contemporary radio station WHUR-FM (96.3), targeted CompUSA as one of several large advertisers that took their black consumer base for granted.
The tiff began in Washington but soon spread across the country, creating a classic case of crisis management over one of the stickiest of American issues: race.
Claiming CompUSA had stopped advertising on black-oriented media, Smiley asked his 7 million daily radio listeners to send in their CompUSA sales receipts as a demonstration of their spending power. Thousands of receipts were boxed, bundled and shipped to CompUSA's Halpin. The company was also flooded with phone calls, faxes and e-mail.
In CompUSA's case, the lack of urban radio advertising was part of a broader business decision prompted by slumping sales, according to company spokeswoman Suzanne Shelton.
But lacking such an explanation, Smiley's campaign against CompUSA gained momentum, eventually becoming a threat of a national boycott.
It took a face-to-face weekend meeting with Smiley and Joyner to break the impasse. Halpin asked Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, a personal friend who also knew Joyner, to intercede. The problem was resolved.
Halpin emerged from the meeting comfortable enough to appear on Smiley's show last week, where he announced the company's plans to hire a black advertising agency within the next three weeks and to offer a 10 percent discount to Joyner's and Smiley's listeners who had mailed in their sales receipts.
The entire episode highlights the failings of traditional corporate PR strategy when confronted with such an attack.
Thomas S. Williamson Jr., a partner with the law firm Covington and Burling, has experience with companies that have fallen out of favor over racial issues. He heads Texaco's Task Force on Equality and Fairness, which was created after the oil company settled a $176 million race-based employment discrimination suit.
Williamson said the perception within corporations tends to be that it's fairly easy for individuals or groups to raise spurious charges against a large corporation, but harder for the corporation to publicly refute those charges without looking like a bully.
Williamson said CompUSA's slowness to react to allegations in the media is not unusual. A response could generate even more publicity. The company's instinct is to remain quiet, investigate the allegations and, finally, wait to see how far the accuser is willing to go.
Situations involving protected groups can be especially frustrating, Williamson explains. "There will always be a certain number of people who take advantage of their protected group status [to raise unwarranted allegations of discrimination]," he said. "Still, there is plenty of discrimination in this country."
At the end of the ordeal, Smiley and Joyner described Halpin as a nice guy who received bad advice on how to respond to the concerns of a significant segment of his consumer base. Halpin explained that the advertising decisions were "not about black and white, but green."