More than 1 million people came to New York City the last weekend in June to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the birthplace of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. For brands, this was an opportunity to connect with a highly coveted demographic group, one that is considered loyal and has a lot of disposable income. While earned media, including social, was a hit with Gay Pride Month and World Pride hashtags, activations and other types of coverage, the ability to connect with this community goes far beyond standard PR tactics.
“From a PR perspective, the most exciting thing about World Pride wasn’t simply the number of people attending the events but how those events focused the media’s attention,” said Curtis Sparrer, principal of Bospar PR. “Let me put this in perspective: According to our own research, only 15% of Americans know that the riots at the Stonewall Inn gave birth to the modern LGBTQ movement. But if you look at the media coverage World Pride secured, it approaches that of the Super Bowl. For professional communicators, the challenge was how to leverage that.”
Hours before New York’s Pride parade was to start, the Queer Liberation March headed in the opposite direction, in part to protest corporate sponsorship. Reuters quoted Indya Moore, from the FX television series Pose, as saying, “I don’t want anyone to be fooled by the colors in the streets, the rainbow glosses around the ads of T-Mobile or any of the other wonderful companies into thinking that we are free, because we’re not.”
In San Francisco, a similar protest took place, with a contingent of Google employees petitioning for the San Francisco Pride parade to revoke Google’s sponsorship, citing harassment and anti-gay hate speech on YouTube.
Meanwhile, a new report from Popular Information and Progressive Shopper identified nine corporations that both gave heavily to LGBTQ causes and supported anti-gay politicians in the last election cycle: AT&T, UPS, Comcast, The Home Depot, General Electric, FedEx, UBS, Verizon and Pfizer. In her article for Forbes, contributor Dawn Ennis asked her readers: “Are consumers so gullible as to actually choose to spend their money on a brand with a rainbow?”
“When communicating to any group of people, you need to calibrate your message so it passes the ‘sniff test’ with your target audience,” Sparrer said. “The most important way to do that is to ensure you have a story that is going to stand up to scrutiny. One way to do that is to have a community advisory board outside of your company that can give honest feedback on your approach and how it would resonate with them. You need spokespeople who are credible, who are from that community. If you don’t have those things, you should consider if this is truly the right moment for you to participate.”
Politicians and celebrities took advantage of the opportunity. Taylor Swift staged a surprise performance at the Stonewall on June 15. Three days later, former Vice President Joe Biden visited the bar and bought patrons a round of drinks.
“Brands can learn a lot from celebrities and politicians,” Sparrer said. “While there is a lot of media attention for the actual Pride March, there is so much interest in the event that Biden and Taylor were able to leverage it for their personal brands by getting there early, instead of being washed out in the vortex of media noise that soon followed. That led to more focused features instead of just mentions as part of a bigger trend.”
Some brands did break through with positive coverage. Newsweek reported on more than 50 brands that did more than just communicate with the LBGTQ community for Pride but actually gave back.
— Esquire (@esquire) June 12, 2013
“LGBTQ people want brands to participate in their lives,” Sparrer said. “Just this month we watched the Supreme Court give a partial victory to the owners of an Oregon bakery who refused to provide a cake for a lesbian commitment ceremony. The key is to participate with LGBTQ people in a meaningful way that doesn’t pander but rather enriches both sides.”