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.