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Values-Based National Holidays — Marketing Fodder or Tacky Virtue Signaling?

As we approach Earth Day, our team has a lot we could and want to say about sus­tain­abil­i­ty. But we had to check our­selves recent­ly, as we often do with our clients, ask­ing things like: What is our role in this con­ver­sa­tion? What’s appro­pri­ate for us to say? Why would our audi­ence care to hear this from us, and how could this be mis­con­strued in our mar­ket­ing efforts?

These ques­tions and oth­ers often come up around nation­al hol­i­days tied to val­ues as our clients nav­i­gate their role and voice in impor­tant con­ver­sa­tions. Brands today know that that emerg­ing gen­er­a­tions of con­sumers care deeply about the val­ues of com­pa­nies they patron­ize and want to ensure they align with their own. But in effort to demon­strate align­ment, we’ve all seen virtue sig­nal­ing blun­ders, and brand mis­steps can range from appear­ing oppor­tunis­tic or inau­then­tic, to down­right hyp­o­crit­i­cal and offensive.

So began a con­ver­sa­tion at Bell­mont Part­ners about con­sid­er­a­tions for how, when, why and what to avoid when del­i­cate­ly approach­ing val­ues con­ver­sa­tions in PR and mar­ket­ing. While the most defin­i­tive answer we can give is “it depends,” my col­leagues had some help­ful insights to share with a few themes ris­ing to the top.

Show before telling.

Bri­an Bell­mont said it well: “Liv­ing your organization’s val­ues should be a pre­req­ui­site for talk­ing about them.” Account Super­vi­sor Johan­na Hol­ub agreed, not­ing, “Com­pa­nies need to be able to back up their val­ues with proof – it’s not enough to talk the talk, you actu­al­ly need to walk the walk.”

Dig­i­tal Strate­gist Sarah Schiltz said it this way: “What are you doing the rest of the year that is reflec­tive of the val­ue you’re putting out there on a hol­i­day?” She says, “For exam­ple, in March there are com­pa­nies that tweet about Women’s His­to­ry Month, but have a not­ed gen­der pay gap and lead­er­ship that is only men.” Sarah argues that today’s savvy con­sumers will sniff out this disin­gen­u­ous engage­ment quick­ly. “Younger gen­er­a­tions can see right through tac­tics that are clear mon­ey grabs. Turn­ing your logo into a rain­bow in June because you want to sell more, or because you feel like you have to will be obvi­ous. Brands have to actu­al­ly do the work, have the con­ver­sa­tions, make sweep­ing changes in how they con­duct busi­ness, and real­ly walk the walk if they want to con­nect with audi­ences’ val­ues on this lev­el.” She advis­es, “Either go all in, or don’t go in at all.”

On a sim­i­lar note, authen­tic­i­ty – as it relates to your brand and the team behind it – is critical. 

Offend­ing your audi­ence is cer­tain­ly some­thing to cau­tion against, but even more mild­ly – you may down­right con­fuse them if you’re join­ing con­ver­sa­tions that have lit­tle to do with who you are or what you’re about.

Tone is impor­tant, too, as com­pa­nies con­sid­er which hol­i­days or con­ver­sa­tions align with their val­ues or even brand per­son­al­i­ty. Is your con­sumer brand more light­heart­ed and whim­si­cal, or is your enter­prise solu­tion a bit more but­toned up and for­mal? Your audi­ence will have some expec­ta­tions and all con­tent should point back to who and what your brand choos­es to represent.

Account Direc­tor Megan Ander­son explains the table stakes: “The com­pa­ny needs to have a strong con­nec­tion to the nation­al hol­i­day or con­ver­sa­tion that is tied to val­ues. For exam­ple, if a com­pa­ny is going to join the con­ver­sa­tion about Earth Day (through a media pitch, social media posts, blog post, etc.), they should have strong – and unique – sus­tain­abil­i­ty ini­tia­tives to point to, and not just join the con­ver­sa­tion because it’s time­ly.” Unique might be the oper­a­tive word, she explains, as these hol­i­days tend to gen­er­ate a lot of noise in gen­er­al. “If a com­pa­ny has a new or dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on the top­ic to share, great, but don’t just repeat what is already being said.”

Know how it fits in your strategy. 

Hol­i­days, sea­sons, busi­ness cycles and more can be use­ful to turn to as PR and mar­ket­ing pros cre­ate a sub­stan­tive pipeline of con­tent and look for cre­ative and time­ly ways to engage their audi­ences. Even the goofy or more triv­ial hol­i­days can be fun to join in on – espe­cial­ly for social media or inter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Senior Account Exec­u­tive and for­mer jour­nal­ist her­self Krista Kuz­ma says, “Jour­nal­ists like these hol­i­days – whether well-known or not – to craft sto­ries around them. They can be ben­e­fi­cial to get the word out about spe­cif­ic cam­paigns or brand messages.”

Jour­nal­ists can take such a strong inter­est in these hol­i­days that they may even save a pitch or sto­ry idea for when they can tie it to a nation­al hol­i­day. This recent­ly hap­pened with client MnFIRE when our team pitched a media sto­ry about the Home­town Heroes Assis­tance Pro­gram. “Three jour­nal­ists from com­mu­ni­ty news­pa­pers respond­ed to our pitch say­ing it would be good info to include in their Nation­al First Respon­ders Day issue in Octo­ber. Because we were hop­ing to gen­er­ate cov­er­age ear­li­er than Octo­ber, we sug­gest­ed they tie it to Inter­na­tion­al Fire­fight­ers Day on May 4, instead, which allows us to pitch and poten­tial­ly get infor­ma­tion out sooner.”

On the flip side, Megan Ander­son advis­es clients to think strate­gi­cal­ly how they engage with media. “Many times, jour­nal­ists will express their frus­tra­tions on social media about get­ting yet anoth­er pitch about Nation­al ‘fill-in-the-blank’ Day,” she says. Being selec­tive is wise to ensure you main­tain trust with media and your tar­get audi­ence and don’t fatigue them with con­tent that’s not as relevant.

Stay hum­ble and be ready to pivot. 

Bri­an Bell­mont says, “Com­pa­nies, and espe­cial­ly their PR part­ners, need to lis­ten to and absorb a vari­ety of fac­tors to deter­mine how, and whether, they par­tic­i­pate. And they need to be open to adjust­ing their approach if new infor­ma­tion or con­text presents itself. In gen­er­al, the more a nation­al hol­i­day is part of a larg­er con­ver­sa­tion, the more like­ly an orga­ni­za­tion should con­sid­er adding their voice to the con­ver­sa­tion. If it’s on their stake­hold­ers’ minds – whether it’s cus­tomers, part­ners or employ­ees – then it could make sense to acknowl­edge it on owned and social platforms.”

Sarah Schiltz always asks, “What would it say if we don’t say any­thing?” as this can be a help­ful frame­work for clients to consider.

Johan­na Hol­ub reminds us that our own inter­nal bias­es or blind spots can hin­der some deci­sions on these top­ics and advis­es get­ting a wide vari­ety of opin­ions on some­thing if you’re con­cerned about how it might come across. If it doesn’t feel right this time, Johan­na encour­ages clients to con­sid­er why it doesn’t and what you can do to be bet­ter pre­pared for the next time the con­ver­sa­tion is in the spot­light. Maybe you refrain from join­ing a con­ver­sa­tion around a nation­al hol­i­day in 2022 and do some lis­ten­ing instead, while mak­ing con­scious steps to take action between now and the hol­i­day in 2023, when you will be more pre­pared to join the conversation.

In an ever-more trans­par­ent world, with increased con­ver­sa­tions around val­ues tak­ing place online and “IRL” (in real life), self-aware­ness for humans and for brands has nev­er been more impor­tant. Start with hon­est, self-reflec­tive ques­tions, bring in diverse per­spec­tives, and when need­ed, tap an out­sider as you deter­mine when to step up to the mic and when to step aside.

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