Avoid rainbow washing, celebrate intersectionality and more.
As Pride month continues to celebrate the lives, bravery and love of LGBTQ+ people across the full spectrums of gender and sexual orientation, PR Daily reached out to a variety of comms pros who are proud members of these communities. We asked them a variety of questions about best practices for reaching queer audiences year-round, how far the industry has come on issues of representation, and which organizations are doing it right.
The overall responses offer deep insights from each participant’s lived experience, but some broad takeaways every comms pro can use include:
- Recognize the diversity of the LGBTQ+ diversity, including their intersectionality with other marginalized groups as well as the differences between each letter in the acronym (and don’t forget that +!).
- Engage with these audiences year-round, not just during Pride.
- Activate employees to ensure you’re hitting an authentic note — and make sure they’re supported within your organization.
- Rainbow washing isn’t going to cut it. Back up your messaging with concrete action.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and style.
When crafting messages for the LGBTQ+ consumer, what are some of the most important keys to keep in mind so that your message resonates and is authentic?
Lisa Manley, vice president, Sustainability, Mars
It’s pretty obvious when a company sees Pride month as an opportunity to capitalize on a cultural moment, rather than doing the work to authentically engage LGBTQ+ audiences. As a communications professional and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I think credible engagement comes down to two fundamental things:
- Be intersectional. The rainbow flag represents the diverse range of voices that compose the LGBTQ+ community but simply putting a rainbow on a product or a logo doesn’t automatically make it inclusive, nor does it mean it will resonate with LGBTQ+ audiences. While the LGBTQ+ community is considered a minority group as a collective, it represents a range of intersectional, and often marginalized identities that bring unique experiences and perspectives. And each sub-group requires, and deserves, communications targeted and tailored to those individualities.
- Be consistent. Pride month is an important moment for national recognition and celebration, but it shouldn’t be the only time the LGBTQ+ community hears from your brand. The LGBTQ+ community is one of the fastest growing minority segments with close to $1.4 trillion in spending power — beyond deserving mainstream recognition, there is clearly a business case for engagement. But without strategic and intentional integration, it will appear strictly promotional and fall flat. Incorporate LGTBQ+ audiences into your base-level strategy and include a regular cadence of engagement throughout the year. And make sure LGBTQ+ community members are sitting at the table when you’re building your strategy.
Aaron Radelet, global chief communications officer and senior vice president, Walgreens Boots Alliance
In many ways, these keys are the same no matter what audience you’re trying to reach. Ensure your actions match your words. Truly understand and listen to what the consumer wants. Avoid the perception of just trying to profit.
A few ways to achieve these goals with the LGBTQ+ consumer (and avoid “rainbow washing”) are:
- Involve your LGBTQ+ business/employee resource group and seek their opinions.
- Ensure your marketing and communications teams reflect your consumers, including LGBTQ+ team members.
- Donate to and support LGBTQ+ organizations (not just during Pride month, but all year round).
- Benchmark where your company stands with HRC’s Corporate Equality Index.
- Anchor to your unique purpose.
- The LGBTQ+ community is rich with diversity and intersectionality, so ensure that you’re speaking not just to one segment but to many individuals (and every letter in the acronym) who count themselves in this larger group.
Chip Garner, EVP, Digital Advocacy, BerlinRosen
Always be authentic. Allow LGBTQIA+ people to see themselves and their storylines represented. Narratives that speak to our unique and specific identities, concerns and triggers are the ones that will be uplifted and shared. Discarding played-out stereotypes and going beyond “feelgood-ism” to reflect the multiple facets — the beauty and the pain — of our lived experience make messages practical and relatable. Importantly — and I can’t stress this enough — ensure that LGBTQIA+ folks are integral to the story making: messages and campaigns without direction and input from our community are glaring in their inauthenticity and will fail.
Spotlight intersectionality. Be inclusive by being specific. Messaging needs to reflect the fullness, complexity, and diversity of the LGBTQIA+ community. You do this by centering representations and stories that uplift marginalized identities. We have an alphabet soup of a name — lean into all the letters! And for so many of us, being Queer is just one of the identities we claim. Brands and orgs that default to two 28-year-old white guys in speedos just won’t cut it anymore.
Michael Kaye, associate director, global communications, OkCupid
Remember that the LGBTQ+ community represents a diverse, expansive group of people with their own unique experiences and identities. What resonates with a person who identifies as gay might not with someone who identifies as lesbian, nonbinary or transgender. On OkCupid, we match people on what matters to them through in-app questions. Because everyone has their own interests and priorities when it comes to dating and relationships, we’ve created localized questions in over 30 countries around the world, and questions created by and for the LGBTQ+ community. Meaning, queer users on OkCupid have a whole series of questions that only they see, and within that list we even have questions specifically for gay daters, lesbian daters, etc. It’s all about making sure each person on our app feels recognized and understood.
Let’s say you’re counseling an organization that has not done very much, if anything at all, in terms of outreach to the LGBTQ+ community. What is the best place for them to start?
Cathy Renna, communications director for the National LGBTQ Task Force
Do your homework! Look into diverse organizations, local organizations and one that fit your brand or market. Get to know them, invite different groups to speak to your staff and marketing teams. The community is very much under attack and understanding the scope of that and the real people behind the work is important. Engage your LGBTQ and allied employees. So many more parents and families of LGBTQ youth and relatives are engaged in the work. Our allies are a huge audience to reach as well. Finally, remember that the LGBTQ and allied market is a very informed and intentional one — make sure your company is providing all the benefits and protections they should to LGBTQ employees, we do our homework before supporting companies reaching out to us.
Kevin Wong, vice president of communications, The Trevor Project
I would ask them to start by looking into their company’s track record of support regarding LGBTQ issues and the community, as well as its treatment of LGBTQ staff — from culture and inclusion to health benefits and resource groups. If the company feels they are at a place internally where they can authentically engage in external promotion of their support of the LGBTQ community, then I would suggest engaging an LGBTQ organization that can help guide their messaging, support, outreach, marketing, activations and, hopefully, donations.
Mike Doyle, president and CEO, Ketchum and member, Board of Directors for GLAAD
The best place to start is just to start … and get to work. With our clients at Ketchum, we first counsel them to embrace the fact that they are embarking on a long, intentional journey -– not a one-time (or one-month) moment. And to remember that they have the scale and the ability to influence so many stakeholders -– including, and importantly, their employees –- in pursuit of accelerating acceptance. Corporate voices matter in this mission.
The first step to becoming an advocate is to listen and learn. Talk to people who are responsible for doing the work. Do not jump right into being a voice within a conversation you have no education of or experience in. At OkCupid we’ve spent years cultivating relationships with the ACLU, the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood. When we speak to the LGBTQ+ community, they know we’ve been catering to them for nearly two decades.
Generally speaking, as compared to, say, five years ago, do you feel there has been notable progress in brands’/organizations’ effectiveness to communicate with the LGBTQ+ community? Please explain your answer.
In a survey of over 40,000 LGBTQ youth, more than half said brands who support the LGBTQ community positively impact how they feel about being LGBTQ. When companies communicate their support of LGBTQ organizations, they have a real opportunity to make a positive impact on the communities in which they live and work. More and more companies are learning that there are best practices when communicating to the LGBTQ community — including year-round support from companies, incorporating a donation component to help the community, and updating their internal policies and employee engagement tactics to match their commitments.
Over the past five years, we’ve started to see more and more brands work with and communicate to LGBTQ+ audiences. That’s progress! But it has yet to break into the mainstream, as evidenced by the fact that Pride month is still the primary cultural touchpoint where we see corporate engagement. Much more work needs to be done to bring inclusion of this community beyond Pride month activations. Engagement should not be occasional, promotional or transactional -– it must be intentional and integrated. And we’ll only know culture is truly shifting when there is evidence of LGBTQ+ community considerations influencing communication strategies throughout the year, across different channels, and segmented across diverse markets.
There’s no doubt we’ve seen a marked improvement in how brands and organizations are communicating with the LGBTQ+ community; however, there’s an acute need to accelerate this work. We know that representation leads to better understanding and acceptance, yet according to reports from the Geena Davis Institute and Nielsen, less than 2% of mainstream advertising/marketing content produced includes LGBTQ+ representation. Consider this: nearly 21% of Gen Z adults in the U.S. identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. In other words, almost a quarter of these voters, buyers and believers identify as LGBTQ+, so not only is it a moral imperative to urge and create opportunities for LGBTQ+ representation in all forms of communication and content, it’s a business imperative for us all.
I think companies have shifted, as the country has shifted. Support for LGBTQ+ rights are at all-time highs, and one major reason is that more people than ever know openly LGBTQ+ in their lives (i.e. friends, family, colleagues). Familiarity creates understanding.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have lived through this massive transformation in our profession, and in our society as a whole, over the course of my career and life.
Yes and no. For every organization that engages and celebrates the community with informed, specific, and authentic messages, there’s a Burger King ad with two top buns. It’s the norm now that there’s a deluge of corporate marketing in June, but the prevalence of rainbow washing is not only self-defeating, it’s depressing.
Excluding your own organization and/or clients, please highlight a campaign/program from the past year or so that you feel truly exemplifies the best in LGBTQ+ messaging.
One of the best, most inspirational examples I have seen is the collaborations with Gendercool and the Phluid Project. As a time when the trans community, especially youth and POC, are under attack, the positive and powerful visibility of these is vital. Gendercool, a trans youth led organization doing amazing work, is partnering with Nike, the Gap, Dell and others to increase representations of trans and non-binary youth who are thriving with family and community support. And the Phluid Project is bringing their product line with messages of gender and transgender rights and community empowerment to huge and accessible audiences with products in Target, Kohls, Macy’s and other retail outlets.
Macy’s has a longstanding history of supporting LGBTQ young people, and they lean into their brand and strengths as a company. Since they’re a clothing retailer, we collaborated on a Styles of Pride campaign that centers LGBTQ youth voices in an authentic way, and focuses on how style can be an important form of expression. The hero video emphasizes the diversity of LGBTQ youth that The Trevor Project serves, and shows young people expressing themselves freely.
I’ve long admired brands with an established history of engagement with the LGBTQ+ community like Absolut. Beyond inclusive marketing, Absolut has supported the community for over 40 years through representative partnerships, sponsorships and millions of dollars in donations to local LGBTQ community centers and organizations.
I was excited last year to see LEGO step forward with the “Everyone is Awesome” campaign. A play on the “Everything is Awesome” theme song used in one of their movies, LEGO released a set with 11 figures each designed with its own hairstyle and distinct color from the Pride flag. The purpose of the launch was to draw attention to the diverse identities that compose the LGBTQ+ community. I thought the campaign was not only authentic to the brand, but also authentic to the community.
And LEGO built on it this year with “A-Z of Awesome,” which was a community-centered social media project that centered LGBTQIA+ voices and invited members of the community to share their individual stories. This included donating $1 million to various LGBTQ partners and collaborating with international festivities, advocacy and educational organizations like Workplace Pride, Open for Business and Stonewall.
Through each iteration of LEGO’s campaign, I’ve seen it evolve and improve as an example of how a brand can take steps to engage with our community in a meaningful and intersectional way that not only brings value to the business, but also authentically celebrates and elevates the community.
As a member of GLAAD’s Board of Directors, I celebrate the important work initiated by GLAAD’s inaugural Social Media Safety Index. Released in early 2021, this was the first study of this kind across the five major social media platforms to truly gauge LGBTQ+ user safety, and it found the entire sector was essentially unsafe with a prevalence of hate speech and harassment. It created from these findings a responsibility platform checklist that offers recommendations for all organizations in the sector.
This one, from Miller Lite, checks many of the right boxes:
- It’s on brand and makes a logical connection to the product.
- Provides a service by highlighting a wide swath of LGBTQ+ history.
- Partners with a respected member of the LGBTQ+ community (Pulitzer Prize nominee and LGBTQ+ historian Dr. Eric Cervini).
- Proceeds went to the Equality Federation.
- Creative, fun, interesting.
For larger brands and campaigns, I really dug the H+M “Beyond the Rainbow” campaign – a terrific multi-platform, digital-first campaign that eschews cliches and reimagines the rainbow as a vehicle for inclusive, emotional, authentic storytelling.
Tinder and the Human Rights Campaign are working together to end LGBTQIA+ blood donation bans in the United States by encouraging users to take part in the ADVANCE survey that could help end the harmful policy.
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