By Trinity Hunter | June 30, 2022
Every June, members of the LGBTQIA+ community are uplifted and recognized for their identities. With the ever-growing social media market, pictures of Pride celebrations and testimonials have flooded the internet. As visibility increases and acceptance grows, brands are recognizing the community as an important public to engage.
At the same time, concern about the insincerity of brands has risen considerably over the past few years. With everyone having a different opinion and expectation, how can public relations professionals and other communicators make sure they are not missing the mark? To answer this question, we must critically analyze the history of our field to work toward a better present and future.
What is the history of Pride?
Leaders within the LGBTQIA+ community point to the Stonewall Riots as being the catalyst for influencing how the United States addressed activists. Beginning on June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Uprising was a series of clashes between LGBTQIA+ people and the police in New York City. With homosexuality being a criminal offense in 1969, bars were specifically instructed not to serve alcohol to gay individuals. Raids of gay bars and other gatherings were regular occurrences throughout the country, and on June 28, police officers entered the Inn to begin interrogating people within the establishment and arresting those they found to be in violation of the law.
This news of this event spread throughout the city and caused a six-day dispute between the LGBTQIA+ community and the police. Though reports differ on the exact people who were at Stonewall, the consensus is that lesbians, drag queens, transgender and non-binary people, as well as area youth, are credited with organizing the protest.
The first Pride marches were held in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles on the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The existence of Pride Month and other achievements by the LGBTQIA+ community can be heavily credited to the Stonewall Uprising and other prior events.
Where did public relations and Pride meet?
Earlier this month, I interviewed Jeff Winton (he/him), Chief Executive Officer & Founder of Jeff Winton Associates. Winton remembers when the world of PR was not open to the existence and celebration of people like him.
At the beginning of his career in New York City, Winton distinctly remembers an older professional telling him that if he went to any social networking event, he should only bring women with him. According to this employee, the optics behind bringing a man would not bode well for his career. Though eventually he gained the courage to bring his partner with him to a company event, the warning from his former colleague had proven to have truth to it. Winton is aware of at least one promotion that he did not receive because of his decision to bring a man with him.
He recalls the unfolding of the AIDS epidemic as marking a moment when the country could no longer ignore LGBTQIA+ individuals. Winton had begun working with the pharmaceutical industry, and he served as the first in-house advocate for people living with HIV/AIDS. He struggled with determining how to best represent those in his community, particularly when he himself was not “out” yet.
It was not until he expressed this internal conflict with a counterpart that he felt emboldened to live boldly in his identity, even within the workplace.
“’In order to be effective and an advocate of the people, they need to know who you are,’” Winton recalled his friend saying. “They need to know the true you.’”
For Winton, the possibility of being viewed as “fake” and having his work viewed as a “lie” was more fearful than being openly gay. He committed to being open about his experiences and connecting across the aisle with the group of people he wanted to serve.
Though this time was more than grim for LGBTQIA+ individuals, Winton credits it with being the key moment in which organizations began understanding that these people were not an invisible public. For instance, pharmaceutical companies were responsible for the research and treatment of people struggling with HIV/AIDS, meaning that they had a vested interest in this group of people. As more corporations recognized the irrefutable impact of having LGBTQIA+ support, strategies were tailored to account for their desires.
So, what does public relations and Pride look like today?
After gaining a historical analysis on pride and public relations from Winton, I wanted to determine how people outside of the public relations field perceived Pride Month communication by corporations.
For Maggie Jutze (she/her), a bisexual student attending The University of Alabama, strides in Pride Month messaging have been frustrating. Specifically, she points to the practice of “rainbow washing.” Jutze defines this term as an organization changing logos, merchandise, packaging and other aspects of its brand to a blanket rainbow color. Though she appreciates that Pride Month is more visible now, she believes that companies must commit to doing background work alongside their rainbows. With little else done outside of this tactic, she finds this form of marketing to her community to be “performative.”
Jutze also spoke about how companies must go further to gain the trust of LGBTQIA+ people. Donating to LGBTQIA+ organizations and initiating equitable hiring practices are important aspects of genuinely supporting her community. To Jutze, “rainbow washing” and similar practices do little to show genuine support for LGBTQIA+ people, especially when this support ends on July 1.
“Rainbow washing minimizes the sacrifices that queer people have made to be heard,” Jutze said. “And it’s disappointing to see so many companies continue to do the same thing year after year.”
Angel Narvaez-Lugo, advisor for the Student Government Association at UA, shared similar sentiments to Jutze. As a gay, Latino man, Narvaez-Lugo feels like most of the current marketing from corporations to the LGBTQIA+ community has been “pandering.” He pointed out brands that had missed the mark in their messaging during Pride Month. In addition to rainbow washing, as both he and Jutze acknowledged, Narvaez-Lugo brought up a campaign by Skittles a couple years ago. Skittles, a popular candy brand, decided to make all their treats black and white in reference to their slogan: “Taste the Rainbow.” This move was met with both confusion and backlash, and it immediately called for the brand to redirect their strategies in later years. Another area that both Jutze and Narvaez-Lugo agreed on stemmed from the political involvement of brands and their subsequent campaigns during Pride Month. The discovery that a brand supports anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation through donations to politicians, while at the same time marketing themselves as supportive of Pride Month, leads to the belief that the brand is insincere among the very individuals they are attempting to reach.
What can we take from this?
Though both Jutze and Narvaez-Lugo expressed their frustrations concerning Pride month and the communications world, they appreciated companies and organizations that put the less glamorous work behind their statements and campaigns. For Narvaez-Lugo, the best public relations campaigns are those that make genuine representation and visibility the focal point, as opposed to the aesthetic.
Jutze expanded on this idea about representation and visibility, pointing out that more LGBTQIA+ people need to be in the creative direction process of creating messaging during Pride Month. To her, intersectionality is an imperative in moving forward with visuals during Pride, as it is transgender women of color who were heavily credited with pushing for the rights enjoyed by members of the LGBTQIA+ community today. Yet, Jutze also points out that most representation in media focuses on white, cisgender, able-bodied, upper-middle class individuals, and these people remain the protagonists of Pride Month programming as well.
“Representation that does not honor the entirety of the LGBTQ+ community is not representation at all.” Jutze said.
As we reach the end of Pride Month, it is crucial to understand that in the flurry of celebrations and social media campaigns, there is genuine work to be done to reach peak inclusivity for LGBTQIA+ individuals. A great portion of this work can be accomplished internally.
After asking Narvaez-Lugo and Jutze about what companies could do to support their LGBTQIA+ employees, both pointed to intentional recruitment and hiring practices, as well as more mandated DEI programming. Education and encouraging authenticity can create an environment where all people within this marginalized group can live freely and be celebrated year-round.