It takes a lot more than splashing a rainbow across your logo, social media accounts or products to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and show your brand’s support during Pride Month — or throughout the year, for that matter.
Judging by the virtual sea of colorful corporate communications during the month of June, businesses continue to work to acknowledge sexual and gender complexities, concerns, challenges and issues — or sometimes simply to capitalize on them, in the eyes of critics, who sometimes refer to shallow corporate activism as “rainbow-washing.”
One thing is certain: Companies are routinely being called out for efforts that ring false, run counter to other demonstrated corporate behavior, aren’t backed by any real policy or behavioral efforts or are just patently ridiculous (a lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato — LGBT, really?! — sandwich by one retailer came in for particular scoffing).
As Fast Company magazine pointed out, consumers are demanding more than once-a-year marketing stunts, and companies that want to have a voice in the public conversation need to support LGBTQ+ causes from July through May, too.
Potential pitfalls can arise when communicating about other social issues, special occasions and holidays, too. Companies and brands must be thoughtful and strategic when addressing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); recognizing important cultural touchstones; and honoring federal holidays such as Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.
A common, and longstanding, misstep is often seen in companies’ recognition of Memorial Day. While the national holiday is observed to remember and mourn the men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military, there is no shortage of corporate messages wishing consumers a “happy” Memorial Day or offering half-price linens and dishes or bonus cheesecake with the purchase of a pasta entrée. Problematic communications can sometimes be seen, too, in the way companies communicate about other observances, such as Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and a somber occasion incompatible with “happy” messaging and well-wishes.
With all of that in mind, what can companies do to make sure their communications on important issues and holidays aren’t tone-deaf, at best, or potentially damaging, at worst? A good rule of thumb is to make sure your messaging is authentic, actionable and accountable.
Does it make sense to even speak out on the issue? Does your corporation live the values it’s ready to espouse?
Some pretty big brands have been put on blast, for example, by reporters, social media influencers and bloggers for launching high-profile Pride Month campaigns while at the same time donating millions of dollars to support legislation or candidates opposed to LBGTQ+ rights. Other companies have been called out for their lack of diversity among board members and top corporate leadership, while also being quite vocal about the importance of DEI efforts.
Taking a good look at your own house and being willing to speak authentically about the work that’s being done to address shortcomings can go a long way toward having a more authentic voice in the conversation. Consider, too, who should be part of an authentic strategy and conversation. If the company has a DEI committee, are its members involved in the planning and execution of corporate messaging? Are members of your team who have lived experience with the issue at hand invited to be part of the messaging strategy?
Without action, corporate communications about important social issues or key observances are often seen as mere lip service, and rightly so.
Is the company taking steps to address these important issues? Consider whether it makes sense to talk about the measures, policies and practices you’re putting in place. Has the company made resources available to employees? Have you taken a look at hiring and promotion protocols? How are you supporting progress on this topic, both internally and externally? What commitment of time, money and resources has the company made? What commitment is the company considering making in the near future?
At a minimum, before deploying corporate communications on a social issue or commemoration, be sure that you’re taking the right steps to have your house in order. If you can incorporate your action steps into your communications in a thoughtful way, all the better.
A company doesn’t need to be perfect before it can have a voice in the conversation. But it does need to be accountable.
Signing a DEI pledge, for example, and making it part of your communications — sending out a press release, touting this step on social media and so on — can be the right thing to do. But it falls flat if it’s not followed up by meaningful work on problematic hiring practices, vendor relationships, funding models or supply chain sourcing.
Another accountability disconnect cited by the Forbes Coaches Council: Repeatedly apologizing for, and then re-engaging in bad behavior.
This applies across the board — words have meaning, and they require accountability. Does your social media campaign images incorporate consumers who use wheelchairs? Are your facilities correspondingly ADA-compliant? Do you thank U.S. veterans in your advertising but fail to honor Veterans Day as a company holiday?
Message like you mean it
Communicating on important issues can be tricky. Let authenticity, action and accountability be your guide.