Ahead of Pride Month, PRNEWS caught up with Ben Finzel, Founder of RENEWPR and The Change Agencies; Kevin Wong, SVP of Communications, The Trevor Project; Ben Dorf, VP Marketing and Comms, The Ad Council; and Cathy Renna, Communications Director, National LGBTQ Task Force.
In a wide-ranging conversation, we discussed the evolution of LGBTQ+-related comms, how organizations can best support their LGBTQ+ stakeholders and advice for brands looking to do better for these communities.
The discussion was edited for length and clarity.
PRNEWS: How have you seen the communications industry change over the course of your career, in terms of its messaging around, and toward, LGBTQ stakeholders, both internally and externally?
Cathy Renna: If you had talked to me when I was just getting started in the late 1980s, early 90s, it's completely transformed. That's been of great benefit to our community in many ways, and it also has presented some real challenges, especially if we're talking about the climate that we're living in now…
We really have to pivot in terms of how we talk about ourselves, how we talk about our community, and how we talk to broader audiences. I was just on a call with all the national comms people from all the different LGBTQ organizations, and the message that we're trying to get out there is that yes, there are hundreds of these horrible bills, and the impact is terrible. But we're also winning more than we're losing. And that's not necessarily getting through.
Ben Finzel: Thinking about the agency industry, in particular, it is much better. We now have openly gay CEOs of PR firms; we have big network PR firms.
…It is still not as easy as it should be for openly gay folks to be successful in the industry…As we've seen the industry change and evolve, the independents, the smaller and mid-sized firms is where a lot of that is happening… There is some good stuff happening at big agencies, but it's spotty. We've gotten to the point where it's okay to be like me, a cis white gay guy in PR… but I think it's probably a lot harder for women, trans, non-binary folks and people of color. The industry needs to move beyond talking points into action points.
PRNEWS: What can organizations be doing differently to protect their stakeholders, both internally and externally?
Kevin Wong: If you are going to be counseling brands, if you're an agency, or if you're in house…It’s really building up your internal practices.
There are many contributing factors: staff, executive or senior leadership teams, diversity among your board … and consideration for intersectionality. There's so many things that you do internally, including policies; after you figure out some of these things, you can start to see the fruits of labor that come through in messaging or that come through in campaigns that can account for different types of external audiences.
If you were pushing a product or a service or goods, and you know that your target audience is XYZ, wouldn’t you want a staff and internal policies that help reflect that, to help inform what that messaging is?
Ben Dorf: As folks in the comms industry, we all have such incredible power to normalize positive narratives and realistic, authentic narratives about LGBTQ+ people across the spectrum. And if there's nothing else that we can do, we can show that you could include a queer family in an ad on something that's not selling HIV meds. We are people that live and work in this country. And that is one of the levers that we have to pull, which any brand, any partner can do... A lot of that starts with internal soul-searching for brands that haven't done anything…
Start with the small things. Create an ERG, if you haven't, and work with the ERG leads so that you're not picking on individual people that you know, or think, are queer in your company, to start getting feedback on the policies that we can incorporate into the corporate culture... Some of the feedback you get, you might not be able to act on, and that's fine, but at least you're hearing it out and making an effort to show up for your employees and your teammates.
PRNEWS: What if you're an organization that really does not have a reputation for being open and welcoming, and you don't have anyone who's out at work, but you still want to try to do better?
Renna: That internal work is important, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because if you want to try and reach the LGBTQ market, we do our homework. Every study or survey I've seen bears this out; before folks make purchases, before folks patronize a business, they do their homework—they look and see what the corporate policies are.
And what Kevin said also rings very true to me. We have to be more sophisticated, more inclusive and more intersectional in the work we do…taking our various identities that we bring to the table, whether that's economic, racial, ethnic, gender, gender identity, gender expression.
It's all happening really fast. And I think that's where companies get caught up and are afraid to get started. And then they're afraid that if they get backlash, what are they going to do about it? So being ready is really one of the most important things that they can do.
Dorf: If your [organization is at the beginning of its journey] it's that soul searching phase. Why has nobody at the organization come out? Because chances are, there are queer people on your team. And you have to ask yourself, what have I been doing or not been doing? What have I been saying? What actions have I been taking where these folks don't feel like they're comfortable to show up as their true selves?
Maybe it is starting with some of the partners that Cathy mentioned, to have organization-wide training so that you can have a consultant look at your policies, everything from your hiring, to your HR, to your dress code, to your mission to where you're putting your money.
Have somebody from the outside come in to give that look, if you don't feel equipped to do it.
Finzel: …It becomes incumbent upon you, as an organization, to figure out how to make your organization a welcoming, or at least acceptable, place for folks to want to be.
Sometimes we hear from folks, “oh, this is so hard, and we don't know how to do it.” When you make it about politics, you give yourself an excuse to not engage and feed into the anti-DEI/anti-woke [narrative].
When you reframe it to be about honoring people and acknowledging who people are and what they need, and what's happening in the world, then it becomes more about you being a leader, because you're acknowledging what is happening in the world, what might be happening among your staff, among your customer base…
Maybe that requires a little bit of an evolution, but you have to start somewhere. So let's acknowledge, we're here. We want to get there. How do we do that? There's plenty of straight people in organizations that would love to stand up an ERG, would love to be an ally, and making it safe for them to do that as well is also really important.
Wong: Part of probably all of our jobs is speaking engagements, and some of the things that we have to do around Pride Month naturally gravitate towards some of those things. I've spoken at many comms agencies…and then, typically, after, the comms agency person will be like, “Oh, my gosh, that was so great. So and So came out, or somebody wants to start an ERG or somebody wants to do XYZ.”
Renna: …What we're bumping up against are companies getting spooked...Prides are not seeing the kind of corporate sponsorship; we're seeing people take a stand, but they don't keep a stand if they get any pushback…
PRNEWS: What’s your advice to those brands?
Renna: Look to the ones that have been truly courageous, because they're not suffering. They had to weather the storm, but they've only continued to grow and learn and expand the way they do things. Target is a good example…Their Pride section every year is bigger and better. It's more diverse. It's invested in our community, because they use vendors and companies that are queer-owned and queer-operated.
[Editor's Note: In light of the recent Target backlash, which occurred after the roundtable discussion took place, PRNEWS reached out to Renna for commentary about her support of the retailer. While originally supportive, the brand has continued to cave, says Renna. "This is an unfortunate turn of events and very disturbing. We expected better from Target, and this sets a terrible precedent for other businesses that may be targeted by extremists," she says.]
There are so many different ways that companies can be working with the community, and year-round is absolutely key. Pride [groups]…have events all year…You don't have to just come and be there when we're having a cocktail party or a parade. Be there when we're doing trainings. Support the work that we're doing on the ground…
And the media…[should] try and just make our community less abstract; make us real to people. It's like what they do at the Ad Council; Ben, you reach such a general audience. That's really hard to do. But you've managed to do it with messages about very diverse, and what Ben [Finzel] and I would characterize as divisive topics, culture war topics. That's not an easy thing to pull off. But it can be done.
Finzel: The folks who don't, quote-unquote get in trouble for their LGBTQ engagement are the folks that do things consistently year-round, and who stand by them when challenged.
…If you think about brands that consistently engage with our community, they do it because it's part and parcel to their brand identity. And folks respect that because…it doesn't feel performative. It doesn't feel like you're just slapping up a rainbow in June and never seeing you again. Even people who are opposed to or are uncomfortable with LGBTQ rights sort of respect that that's what a company believes.
…The second thing I would say is, you need to stiffen your backbone...Think about George Floyd…[and] about the very real act of a Black man being killed simply for who he was. Think about all of the trans women of color who are constantly under threat for their very lives and that's being made worse by these actions by state agencies and by localities…
If you as a company or a brand can think about it from that perspective, maybe you can find the place where it makes sense for you…to engage in in a constructive, ongoing, consistent way that's going to help, as opposed to hurt.
Renna: Pre-Covid…I went to the offices of Intuit in Silicon Valley, where they had a trans summit. And I was there with a client, GenderCool. They're teenagers who have affirming families..and they say, … ‘I'm the future of the workforce, so you're gonna have to find a way to deal with the fact that I'm who I am and I'm bringing my full self to work…’
…As Ben was saying, grow a spine, have courageous conversations…because the only way we're going to change any of this dynamic is by actually educating people and opening their eyes and ears….
…And that's where companies can really be helpful. Like the GenderCool kids…have worked with Nike, they've worked with major brands…
Wong: …Acceptance from at least one adult helps decrease risk for suicide attempt by up to 40%. By public health standards, 40% is a bananas number…When you think about what a brand can do, what a company can do, what somebody's comms and marketing team can do…if you're engaging in certain ads, or the models reflect who you are, or you're working with partners who have a little sign up at the register where you can do a give back or a roundup at the register, year round, that really means something to you, even if you're not out… That is so helpful for you as a young person.
PRNEWS: What is one thing that an organization that hasn't been part of this conversation can do to start their journey?
Finzel: You have to get your house in order first...do an audit…And then from there, it's really about thinking about what your brand stands for, and where the intersections are with various pieces of LGBTQ advocacy or engagement. That's going to be different for every company.
…This conversation is not one dimensional…We have to think about protecting LGBTQ+ kids, too, and the parents of LGBTQ kids. That might be a way for some organizations to find a way in, because those are their customers, their employees, their colleagues.
Renna: And if you're going to take that first step, partner with an organization…I don't buy anything unless money's going back to somebody…
So start a relationship…It's just the right thing to do. It's also good business. We're super loyal. Once you're good to us, we stick with you.