Aloha Poke cease and desist has created a negative publicity nightmare

Chicago-based poke chain has angered hundreds of Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians after an activist said the chain sent out cease and desist letters to other restaurants for using the word “aloha.”

In May, lawyers for Aloha Poke Co, sent cease-and-desist letters to a native Hawaiian family business in Anchorage, Alaska, ordering it to stop using “Aloha” or “Aloha Poke” in its name, Aloha Poke Stop. Aloha Poke Co had done the same to other shops around the country, including at least one in Hawaii, where poke originated.

Now, Hawaii residents are calling on poke to stop using “Aloha” in their business names. They are also accusing the company of cultural appropriation. There is also a petition calling on Aloha Poke to change its name. The residents’ contention is that aloha is a word that dates to the origins of Hawaii and serves as both a greeting and a way of life there and it has no business being owned by anyone, especially by a white, non-Hawaiian.

Aloha Poke’s CEO Chris Birkinshaw said in a statement that Aloha Poke isn’t challenging other businesses over the use of “aloha” or “poke” and has only tried to stop “trademark infringers” who use its trademarked name, “Aloha Poke.”

In a statement, Birkinshaw also said:

“A significant amount of misinformation” was being shared on social media. The chain has not attempted to “own” the words “aloha” or “poke” and will not attempt to do so in the future. We know that this misinformation has caused a considerable amount of anger and offense among those who care very passionately about their Hawaiian culture. First, we want to say to them directly how deeply sorry we are that this issue has been so triggering.”

Birkinshaw added:

“Second, there is zero truth to the assertion that we have attempted to tell Hawaiian-owned businesses and Hawaiian natives that they cannot use the word Aloha or the word Poke. This simply has not happened, nor will it happen. We truly celebrate Hawaiian culture and what makes it so wonderful, which is very much the reason why we branded our business as we did.”

Right or wrong, Aloha Poke has gotten itself into an unintended publicity nightmare. Bad publicity can come in the wake of an exposed lie or “a significant amount of misinformation”. Expectations can be carelessly overblown, revealed as false in the form of bad publicity and lead to disappointment and a loss of trust. When an organization fails to follow through with promises, customers, employees and partners are more likely to question the truthfulness of all the organization's current and future messages.

Public relations nightmares can come in varying degrees of severity – from a negative review on Yelp to Facebook or Instagram.

According to Shira Bernstein, principal at Surge Synergy, Chicago-based digital marketing agency:

“The most important thing about surviving a public relations crisis is planning ahead.”

Bernstein also recommends business owners brainstorm a list of things that could go wrong (as in the food industry think salmonella, price increase, or negative press from a disgruntled employee or an unhappy customer). Once you have a list, appoint key people who will help handle the crisis.

“You need to establish who will be the face of the company; you don’t want reporters hearing conflicting messages from several members of the company; you need a point person,” she says.

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