October 2, 2017
NY Village Responds to Seal Controversy
Sometimes, all it takes to create a PR crisis is time. Things change, people forget, and the world moves on. Then, a new generation sees something, perhaps for the first time, and finds a message entirely different than those who have come before. Take, for example, the case of the village of Whitesboro, New York.
Mr White – The Wrestling Legend
As legend has it, this pleasant burg was founded by a settler named Hugh White. Mr. White is famous – or infamous, based on who you talk to – for wrestling with an Oneida Indian and besting the native in the grappling contest. By all reports, this was fun and games. There was no malice or any kind of conflict involved. Just a couple of guys competing in what passed for local sports two centuries ago in relatively rural New York. Being as how this is the kind of story that gets passed down by town fathers and mothers through the generations, at some point, the famous wrestling match was depicted on the village seal.
As happens these days, someone saw the seal and was offended. Town leadership began receiving complaints, and someone started a social media campaign, calling the image “racist” and “insensitive.” That movement gathered steam, and the social media unrest led to a petition, which led to a non-binding town vote. The vast majority of villagers wanted the seal left alone, at least by ballots counted. That may have been the end of it, but someone at The Daily Show got wind of the story, and the political comedy program gave the incident its special brand of satire. Then, other media outlets picked it up.
Town Leaders Make Tough Call
Pressure began to build as people across the country registered their disapproval of the seal. Eventually, town leaders decided to make a change. Working with local Oneidas and descendants of White, the town created a new seal. The new look still includes White and his Oneida opponent, but the pair appears more evenly matched, and native’s clothing is more historically accurate.
So, will this be the end of the story, or is the new seal too much like the previous one to appease the people outside the town who are angry about the old look? Time will tell on that, but, at least for now, it appears like Whitesboro has found a way to make just about everyone happy. Sometimes, all it takes to put the pin back in a potential PR grenade is a little bit of listening and working together.
Ronn Torossian is the Founder and CEO of the New York based public relations firm 5WPR: one of the 20 largest PR Firms in the United States.