When a community business goes tone deaf

Alternate Title: Why companies should only have trained professionals representing them on social media...

Or, perhaps: Why companies should put neighborhood solidarity above corporate image, and why all employees should be clear on what both of these things mean...

Earlier today Quintin Washington, a well-known journalist here in Charleston, posted the following on Twitter:

image via Quintin Washington

image via Quintin Washington

Much to his surprise, he received a response from Charleston’s Courtyard Marriott asking him “not to include the hotel in mother AME [sic] photos.”

The Courtyard Marriott's tweet has since been deleted and an "apology" issued.

The Courtyard Marriott's tweet has since been deleted and an "apology" issued.

When I saw this exchange I—along with much of the Twitterverse—was baffled. No one would have noticed the hotel in the photograph if they hadn’t responded. The image had nothing to do with them. 

A friend of mine happens to be in town this week doing research for her book, and since she’s staying at the Courtyard I sent her a text message suggesting she ask the front desk about the tweet. "We just want to keep the focus on the church,” is what the young woman working at the desk told her. 

“I said he just happened to include the hotel in the photo without commenting on the hotel,” my friend told me. “She nodded and paused and said, ‘we've been with them through everything they've been going through.’”

This particular hotel is located on the same block as Emanuel A.M.E., so yes, they have been through a lot. The hotel’s employees were undoubtedly shaken to the core the night Dylann Roof killed nine of the Mother Emanuel parishioners who were attending a weekly Bible study. Out-of-town family members stayed in this hotel during the aftermath that sent the entire Charleston peninsula—and state of South Carolina—reeling in a spiral of questions and grief. 

Having only lived on the peninsula since August, my husband and I have become a bit weary of the groups of people cutting through our neighborhood on tour buses and on foot to visit the church. Every day they stand in front of this important community cornerstone. They point as they recall details they’ve seen on the news. They take endless selfies. Sometimes I wonder if the congregation has grown weary of all of the attention. It’s been six months since they buried nine beloved members of their church family. The grieving process takes time, but how much does that process slow down when the building that supports it—and the grief itself—has become a daily tourist attraction? 

I’m sure many in Charleston have had similar thoughts, but the young twentysomething who explained the Courtyard Marriott’s reaction to Washington’s post was misguided and/or out of touch. Washington’s intentions were clear and heartfelt. He wanted to capture a shot of the stretch of road that was recently renamed “Mother Emanuel Way Memorial District” as it appeared on a warm, beautiful December day. As we later exchanged messages, Washington told me he’d never seen the Courtyard respond like this in regard to Mother Emanuel. My friend had heard the young woman tell another employee that she would “handle” questions about the tweet, and at one point she referred to actions on the account in the first person, but when asked if she was the person handling the account she said no. It seems to me that the young (I assume) person handling the Twitter account was—either on his or her own accord or in response to some corporate directive—trying to distance the hotel’s branding from the Mother Emanuel tragedy. When a backlash started to wash over the hotel’s Twitter account, she tried to backtrack and make it sound as if the reply had been out of concern for their neighbors rather than corporate branding. Even if the person managing the account was somehow acting out of a desire to protect Emanuel A.M.E., he or she clearly lacked the experience or public relations acumen to pull it off in such a public sphere.

I hope this doesn’t signal a leveling off of the swell of love and concern Charleston businesses and neighbors showed toward each other over the last six months. The city has proven itself capable of reaching great heights of transcendent love and empathy. I wish it hadn’t taken a tragic loss of life for these traits to be exposed to the world, but it would be a shame to let it dwindle now, when so many continue to reel over the seemingly unpredictable nature of this time in history.