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Under Unwanted HB2 Spotlight, Some NC Businesses Promote Inclusivity

Jorge Valencia
A mural outside Poole's Diner, at West Cabarrus and McDowell streets in downtown Raleigh

It’s hard to imagine an industry in North Carolina that hasn’t somehow been affected by House Bill 2.  Restaurants say they’ve lost business. Hotels have seen conference organizers cancel conventions to protest the law. And start-ups say some investors are steering clear of North Carolina. But much of the work of dealing with the unwanted attention has been left to small businesses that don’t want to be associated with the law.

HB2 earned more than $31 million worth of media coverage, resulting in an estimated 38 billion views, according to Cision media metrics cited by Visit North Carolina.

The best-known part of HB2 restricts the bathrooms that transgender people can use. But the law also prohibits someone from suing in state court if they believe they were discriminated against and fired from their job. It also prevents cities from passing their own non-discrimination ordinances.

All of this has been a huge headache for North Carolina’s tourism industry. Marketers such as Carrboro-based New Media Campaigns, which helps companies craft their public identity, worried quickly after the law’s signing that it promoted an image of the state they didn’t want to be associated with.

The company’s designers created a website to collect tweets critical of the law from businesses across the state. They also made a logo, uploaded it to their website so anyone could use and printed out hundreds of stickers and distributed them to businesses. Initially, the designers drafted a version of the logo highlighting the slogan “Businesses Against HB2,” but quickly opted to create a design that emphasized a different message: “Everyone Is Welcome Here.”

“We wanted to put out more of a positive message,” said Clay Chassow, a co-founder of New Media Campaigns. “Also, we were hoping that HB2 wouldn't become this thing that everyone knows. So we thought, ‘Why lead with that?’"

Credit New Media Campaigns
New Media Campaigns, a marketing agency in Carrboro, made this logo and gave it away for free after the signing of HB2.

But HB2 did become a brand of its own.

Chris Sacca, a famous venture capitalist, suggested he would no longer look for investment opportunities in North Carolina, and Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, canceled a visit. Startups across the state quickly responded with a petition to repeal the law.

Matt Williamson, president of the Durham software start-up Windsor Circle,  signed the petition. He said the negative attention associated with HB2 was quickly undoing years of promotion he and other local entrepreneurs worked on to make the Research Triangle attractive to people from different backgrounds, highly skilled workers and investors. But he said he has a bigger problem with a law he believes puts a class of people at a disadvantage, so perhaps the negative attention is necessary.

“If I've gotta lose a contract or if I've gotta not have Steve Case come to Durham, and people feel the pain of that, let's feel that pain," Williamson said.
The bad press is something that came up at a recent meeting of advertising professionals close to the capitol in Raleigh.

Vernessa Roberts, diversity chair of the Triangle Advertising Federation, helped organize a workshop about HB2, including discussions with lawmakers who support and oppose the law. The federation took no formal stance on the law, but Roberts said it’s clear the attention it has brought has marred the state’s reputation.

“And it's not an easy fix. There's not a way to spin your way out of it,” Roberts said. “There's not a way to kind of buy your way out of it."
Rep. Darren Jackson, a Democrat who represents Wake County, tried to do exactly that—by amending the state budget to repeal the law and set aside $2 million to market North Carolina as “Back Open For Business.” But House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, blocked the move, saying it was out of order to include a policy change in the state budget.

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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