Should the Head of the Nation’s Largest Hispanic-Owned Food Company Apologize for His Supportive Rose Garden Remarks?
7/10/2020 – – Robert Unanue is the president and CEO of Goya Foods. He oversees the enterprise founded by his Spanish immigrant grandparents in 1936. What began as a single store in New York is today the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the United States, employing 4,000 people in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Spain.
Yesterday, during a Rose Garden event focused on President Trump’s Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, Unanue announced that Goya will be donating one million cans of chickpeas and another one million pounds of its other products to food banks across the country in response to the continuing coronavirus crisis.
Minutes after Unanue completed his remarks, the hashtags #Goyaway and #BoycottGoya exploded on Twitter.
What went wrong?
It wasn’t Unanue’s first visit to the White House or first support for presidential programs. In 2011 Goya was honored by President Obama for its commitment to the nation’s Hispanic communities, and in 2012 Unanue helped launch First Lady Michelle Obama’s MyPlate/ MiPlato nutrition campaign.
No one can question the sincerity of Goya’s efforts. Through its Goya Gives charitable programs, the company has for decades generously supported food banks and provided scholarships to needy people in Hispanic communities.
The hummus hit the fan when Unanue said this:
“We’re all truly blessed at the same time to have a leader like President Trump who is a builder, and that’s what my grandfather did. He came to this country to build, to grow, to prosper. And so we have an incredible builder, and we pray for our leadership, our president, and we pray for our country that we will continue to prosper and to grow.”
Calls for a boycott came from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, celebrity Lin-Manuel Miranda (who is dealing with his own hashtag army offended by glorification of slave owners in his Broadway show “Hamilton”) and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, who chastised Unanue for “praising a president who villainizes and maliciously attacks Latinos for political gain.”
Pushing back, Unanue appeared on Fox & Friends this morning, explaining:
“It’s suppression of speech. I’m not apologizing for saying it, and if you are called by the President of the United States, you are not going to say ‘No, I’m sorry, I’m busy, no thank you.’ I didn’t say that to the Obamas and I didn’t say that to President Trump.”
Did the Goya CEO do something wrong?
No and yes.
It wasn’t a mistake per se for Unanue and Goya to attend yesterday’s event or participate in President Trump’s Hispanic Prosperity Initiative. Companies should want to be part of the solutions to societal problems whenever possible, regardless of who is president. And his decision not to offer an apology is defensible. An “I’m sorry” would just encourage new hashtags from people who support Donald Trump and embolden the people who are already furious at Unanue. Too often, an apology under pressure turns out to be what I call a “now we’ve pissed everybody off” strategy.
But here’s his mistake: In today’s toxic, hyper-partisan environment, successfully navigating the minefield of politics requires the tightrope-walking skills of The Flying Wallendas. When Unanue expressed personal admiration for President Trump, rather than limiting praise to the president’s programs, he lost his balance.
Politics, under the best of circumstances, is a very dangerous, unfair place for businesses leaders to be. As I emphasize in The Crisis Preparedness Quotient — Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm, the American public is about equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. Beliefs are passionate on both ends of the political spectrum, and there is little tolerance for opposing views. Taking a political stand automatically alienates and often infuriates half the population, and, if you market a consumer product, probably half your customers.
According to the Pew Research Center, 62% of Hispanic voters in the 2018 midterm elections voted for Democratic candidates. Only 27% voted for Republicans. So it makes even more sense for businesses catering to Hispanic consumers to stay clear of overt endorsements of Republicans, especially the uber-polarizing Donald Trump. At the same time, you should not misread this significant approval gap as a free pass to attack the other side. My guess is that Goya or any other Hispanic-owned company would not want to do anything to lose 27% of its core customer base. And that same Pew study found that 54% of white voters backed Republicans. I can personally attest to the fact that white people eat chickpeas, too.
Unless you are a member of the Wallenda family, you probably find these strategic cautions daunting. Is it even possible for an executive to accept an invitation from the White House without wandering into politics?
So, proceed with caution. Find ways to do good things and back worthy causes while being as apolitical as possible. That’s difficult but doable. With a light edit of his remarks, Unanue could have been cordial and supportive without spawning hashtags or requiring a next-day rebuttal on Fox & Friends.
All of this is very unfair and regrettable. Bullies at both ends of the political spectrum are silencing dialogue, shutting down debate and in a very real sense damaging democracy. However, that’s the reality corporate communicators are dealing with. Robert Unanue, unlike The Flying Wallendas, has a safety net. He’s running a family business owned by his family. He’s doing the right thing — for him — by sticking to his guns and not apologizing for his remarks. As he points out, he’s praised and supported the efforts of both President Obama and President Trump. But most CEOs of non-family-owned businesses don’t have the luxury of facing down a boycott threat without fear of termination.
I believe Goya will weather this storm, primarily because they market highly desirable products and have demonstrated a sincere commitment to the U.S. Hispanic community. That’s important. But as you watch this crisis unfold, take to heart a core tenet of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient: The easiest crises to navigate are those that never happen in the first place.