Memorial Day is both a somber holiday and the joyful unofficial start to summer, making it ripe with potential PR pitfalls for the uninitiated. Many a well-intentioned company has put their foot in it on the day when Americans remember those who died in service to the country. Those who labor in public relations should think through the potential pitfalls of any campaign, but when orchestrating programs around this holiday, it’s important than ever to be extra vigilant, as the stakes tend to be high.
Drawing from the PR missteps of others over the years, here are three pitfalls to avoid this (and every) Memorial Day.
Being distasteful or disrespectful. Retailer PacSun learned this lesson the hard way last year when it drew flak for prominently displaying a black t-shirt featuring an upside-down American flag in store windows over Memorial Day weekend. Customers quickly lambasted the brand on social media for being disrespectful on a holiday meant to honor those who died for the flag, and the store quickly withdrew the product. Creative expression and style is subjective, to be sure, but consumers do tend to be more sensitive to signs of patriotism (or the opposite) around certain key moments.
The takeaway: if freedom of speech or creative expression is a value your company holds, perhaps there are better times to showcase that edginess than a day meant to commemorate the fallen.
Missing the forest for the trees. The swanky Standard Hotel in New York enjoys enviable brand recognition, but zealousness for maintaining its stylish standards (no pun intended) hurt its reputation last Memorial Day, when a bouncer refused entry to a sailor in uniform due to its strict dress code. The sailor’s friends, dressed in more “appropriate” attire, appealed to the manager and others, and the incident drew the attention of bystanders and the New York tabloids. Denying servicemen and women an evening of leisure any time of year because of a dress code isn’t the greatest PR move, but doing so during Fleet Week and Memorial Day weekend, when the entire city rolls out the red carpet for sailors in white, is glaring error. The Standard eventually issued an apology, a public statement, and extended an invitation to the rebuffed sailor to come back any time.
The lesson here: encourage discipline in sticking with agreed upon messaging and protocol, but keep the “spirit of the law” in mind above all else. Also make sure those representing your brand on the front lines are empowered to use their judgment, and well prepared for the spotlight.
Losing sight of the occasion. When hosting an event attended by media, it can be tempting to cater to what media want, to make a good impression and attempt to maximize coverage. But journalists covering the event should be held to the same standards of respect as everyone else. CNN host Anderson Cooper got this right when, while covering a commemoration for shooting victims in Canada, he reprimanded another reporter who approached him and asked for a selfie.
We’ve known clients in the past who have decided against media opportunities on this holiday, even though they would have earned media coverage, out of a sense that it wasn’t the right time to be taking advantage of the spotlight. While it’s a personal, nuanced decision, that can be a commendable choice, too, and makes its own statement.