PR Failure #23: Hallmark Channel’s Zola Ad Decisions

Aaron Blank / January 24, 2020

 

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PR Failure #23: Hallmark Channel’s Zola Ad Decisions

For a company built on happy memories and good times during the holidays, Hallmark earned nothing but bad tidings in 2019. It’s taken years to build its brand equity and only seconds to damage a good reputation. The disconnect between its brand values and internal decision-making resulted in lumps of coal being lobbed at the company from all directions.

Storylines of LGBTQ people living and loving are portrayed in on-screen advertising and programming. In fact, according to GLAAD’s 2019 ‘Where We Are on TV’ report, about 10 percent of recurring characters on any TV show are LGBTQ, which is a new all-time high. All around us are signs that society has moved from merely accepting LGBTQ people to celebrating and including them.

The community and its allies are passionate and loyal supporters of brands that reflect their values. Those brands included, until recently, Hallmark and its associated divisions. The company’s Hallmark Channel holiday movies have a large audience of both proud fans and those who watch as a guilty pleasure.

The network began airing holiday fare in October. The average same-day viewers for each of its 16 new movies averaged 2.9 million. And in November, CEO of Crown Media Family Networks Bill Abbott told The Hollywood Reporter that “We’re open to really any type of movie of any type of relationship.”

Movies, maybe.

Advertising? Not so much.

 

 

 

The Story:

With love stories being a staple of Hallmark’s holiday movie lineup, wedding planning and registry company Zola bought six ads for the season, four featuring same-sex couples.

Hallmark Channel’s Zola Ad

The ads rotated from December 2nd until the conservative activist group One Million Moms (1MM) saw a spot showing two women kissing at the end of a marriage ceremony. The group, a wing of the American Family Association, was offended and contacted the network directly to demand they take down the ads and backed up its request with about 30,000 signatures supporting the move.

Executives at the network caved.

On December 12th, Zola officials received an email from Crown Media Family Networks that the four same-sex ads were being yanked because they ran afoul of the network’s policy of not airing anything it found “too controversial”. Never mind that other Zola ads featuring same-sex couples had aired previously with no complaints from the network or viewers. The decision prompted Zola to pull all its advertising from the network to show its support for and solidarity with couples of all sexual orientations.

One Million Moms crowed about its victory, noting that Abbott told them the ad “aired in error”. But before they could hang a Mission Accomplished banner, those supporting same-sex couples responded with a swift and resounding “Bah, humbug!”

The LGBTQ community, its allies and advocates took to the web to amplify the hypocrisy of a network that supposedly supports love and family discriminating so blatantly. Soon, the #BoycottHallmarkChannel hashtag was flooding timelines, fueled by private citizens, celebrities and even other media companies.

Hallmark Channel’s Zola Ad

Advocacy groups also took action. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) immediately started a signature campaign urging members and social media followers to “send [Hallmark] a message. Join HRC in calling them out by adding your name to our letter.” More than 60,000 people signed the letter – twice the number of the 1MM appeal. It also suspended the Corporate Equality Index (CEI) score for Hallmark Cards Inc., the network’s parent company. The CEI is a trusted reference for job seekers researching companies that support LGBTQ inclusion and equality.

GLAAD expressed similar dismay over the decision, taking the network to task and launching another signature campaign. An organization representative also appeared on CNN to discuss the decision and the response.

Hallmark Channel’s Zola Ad

With a full-blown crisis now on its hands, Crown Media announced on December 15 its decision to invite Zola back to the Hallmark Channel.

The move so outraged 1MM that the group instructed its supporters to take over the #BoycottHallmarkChannel hashtag and began another signature and boycott campaign as a strong rebuke.

The Failure:

Hallmark’s problems started before 1MM objected to the ads. The entire process showed a serious lack of the following:

  • Integrity. The original decision to pull the advertisements illustrates that Hallmark is out of alignment with its own brand. The company’s official statement reads: “Our mission is rooted in helping all people connect, celebrate traditions, and be inspired to capture meaningful moments in their lives. Anything that detracts from this purpose is not who we are.” Except, of course, it seems to be exactly who they are because they made the decision in the first place.
  • Audience knowledge. Hallmark misunderstood its larger audience and the general public – and how those groups would respond to canceling the ads. They chose to bow to a small-but-vocal group without (apparently) giving any thought to how the decision would play with a broader audience. The post-decision statement notes that the Crown Media team was “agonizing over this decision as we’ve seen the hurt it has unintentionally caused.” Had they only put similar emotional energy into deciding whether or not to honor 1MM’s request, this hurt could have been mitigated or avoided altogether.
  • Social media. The network team appears to have been caught off guard by the social media storm. Did they really think they could pull the ads without anyone noticing when 1MM was crowing about its success? Or that Zola might announce the situation and let the social networks do the heavy lifting?
  • Accountability. Instead of taking responsibility, the Hallmark organization first told 1MM that the ads “aired in error”, then told everyone else that removing the spots “was the wrong decision”. You can’t have it both ways, of course, and these responses make the network look – at best – like it has no idea what it’s doing. Saying they’ll work with GLAAD is great, but until they publish a report with action steps and results, trust won’t be restored.

The Lessons:

We can take four key lessons away from this holiday hullabaloo:

  1. Ensure alignment between decision-making and core values. The start of the year is a great time to review your business’ mission, vision and values and make sure PR and marketing operations align with them. If they don’t, invest in revising principles or processes. If your internal team doesn’t have the bandwidth to perform this audit, talk to an outside agency about leading the effort.
  2. Review how creative is approved. Whether you’re placing ads or running them, establish clear criteria – including audience insights – to help your team decide what meets standards and supports the mission and what doesn’t. A clearly stated set of operating principles with examples makes it easier to follow the guidelines and understand that every employee’s goal is to support your mission, vision and values.
  3. Know your audience. If you haven’t done audience research in a while, survey your customers and prospects to understand their values, measure sentiment and gain deeper insights into what makes them tick. Use this data to inform PR and marketing content. Your PR agency can help you create and deploy a survey and institute ongoing social media monitoring so you always know what your audience is thinking.
  4. Be prepared. When you make PR, marketing and advertising decisions that could be controversial, create holding statements in advance that clearly outline how and why the decision was made and illustrate how the decision supports mission, vision and values. Anticipate pushback and address those items as directly as possible. This empowers you to respond quickly should any backlash arise.

Brands are more than logos – they are communities with beliefs and values. Being clear on what your organization stands for and why – and supporting that through the decision-making process builds brand loyalty and improves your reputation.

Until we celebrate the next PR failure,

Aaron Blank
CEO & President
The Fearey Group

 

 

 

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Aaron Blank

CEO & President, Partner

Aaron has been engaged in the conversation since the late 1990s, where he discovered his love of media while working at local radio stations. After five years as a radio reporter, anchor, producer and promoter in New York and Connecticut, he and his wife, Lacey, ventured west to begin his career in PR. Soon he caught the attention of industry legend Pat Fearey and the rest is history. Two decades later, as CEO and owner of The Fearey Group, Aaron leads with tireless enthusiasm and contagious drive. In 2014, he became the next generation owner of the firm. He takes his breakfast at 4:30 AM and never eats lunch alone. You can find him working to connect the next business with tomorrow’s leader.

Personal philosophy: do something amazing every day and be fearless!