A Hallmark Apology

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    Strong crisis communications salvage a sticky situation for the brand as the holidays get into full swing

    It’s no secret that the holiday season is incredibly important to retailers, and that means big brands are trying to tread carefully to avoid becoming the next subject of an outrage outbreak. Hallmark stepped right into one, however, when it pulled its ad celebrating same-sex marriage from wedding site Zola.com after pressure from a conservative group…and that was only the beginning. As you might have expected here at the end of 2019 – a year that’s seen its fair share of marginalized groups striving for recognition – yanking the ad quickly drew even more upset stakeholders. Before you knew it hordes of internet and social media users, a hefty sprinkling of influencers and celebs among them, were chiming in to tell Hallmark, along with parent company Crown Media Family Networks, that the ad needs to stay.

    The pressure poured in, and it didn’t take long for the powers that be to get the message. Indulge me in this terrible wordplay as I invite you to read the apology below, which has all of the Hallmarks (okay, sorry, it’s out of my system now) of great crisis management communications.

    Image capture from Hallmark’s Zola.com ad (YouTube/Zola.com)

    KANSAS CITY, Mo. (December 15, 2019) – Earlier this week, a decision was made at Crown Media Family Networks to remove commercials featuring a same-sex couple.

    “The Crown Media team has been agonizing over this decision as we’ve seen the hurt it has unintentionally caused. Said simply, they believe this was the wrong decision. 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. We are truly sorry for the hurt and disappointment this has caused.” said Mike Perry, President and CEO, Hallmark Cards, Inc.

    Hallmark is, and always has been, committed to diversity and inclusion – both in our workplace as well as the products and experiences we create. It is never Hallmark’s intention to be divisive or generate controversy. We are an inclusive company and have a track record to prove it. We have LGBTQ greeting cards and feature LGBTQ couples in commercials. We have been recognized as one of the Human Rights Campaigns Best Places to Work, and as one of Forbes America’s Best Employers for Diversity. We have been a progressive pioneer on television for decades – telling wide ranging stories that elevate the human spirit such as August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship, both of which highlight the importance of tolerance and understanding.

    Hallmark will be working with GLAAD to better represent the LGBTQ community across our portfolio of brands. The Hallmark Channel will be reaching out to Zola to reestablish our partnership and reinstate the commercials.

    “Across our brand, we will continue to look for ways to be more inclusive and celebrate our differences.” Perry said.

    What really caught my eye with this piece of crisis communication is the complete and utterly open apology at the top. While you can’t always do this, for example when litigation is involved, falling on your sword fully right at the top of a message is one of the fastest ways to get folks who are on the fence about whether you’re a decent organization at your core to understand that you recognize you made a mistake, you truly do regret it, and you’re working to set things right.

    Joining the ranks of Peleton with a holiday crisis management scare, the folks making up Hallmark’s C-Suite and crisis team probably had a rough couple of days. That said, everyone makes mistakes and people are willing to forgive – IF the apology is right and IF you walk your talk after the fact. Hallmark is off to a good start and, especially considering that we’ve not seen the last of the holiday-time reputation threats, I’d guess it’s on track to escape the naughty list fairly quickly here.

    [Erik Bernstein is vice president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy.]

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