Patriotism might be the order of the day, but it's not just a case
of slapping the stars and stripes on publicity material. Anita Chabria
reports on how to toe a careful line.
Perhaps for the first time since World War II, the sentiments of the
American public are strongly in tune with government policies. That
alignment has brought powerful themes of loyalty, unity, and national
pride to the forefront of American dialogue, and created an opportunity
for corporations to show their true colors - or at least hop onto the
patriotic bandwagon with PR campaigns showcasing flags, charity drives,
and tugs at consumer's heartstrings.
But brandishing Old Glory will only get companies so far with the
public, and even poses a danger of appearing nervy rather than
nationalist if campaigns step over the thin red, white and blue line
that separates empathetic outreach from self-serving promotion.
Before launching an initiative that taps into the patriotic mood of the
nation, companies need to closely examine their motives. Now is an
excellent time to "showcase a company's core values," says Tim O'Brien
of PA-based O'Brien Communications, but those values need to stand
alone, without being attached to promotional ploys.
A good PR strategy for today's climate highlights a single, streamlined
message that focuses on altruism and is scrupulously free of financial
gain. Any hint of commercialism will "backfire," warns Hill & Knowlton's
"It doesn't work. People see companies trying to benefit from this
tragedy and they just don't think very highly of them."
The right approach involves looking at the needs of the community and
the nation, and stepping in where there is an appropriate match between
the problem and the services or products a company provides.
In the days after the New York and Washington attacks, Mail Boxes Etc, a
national franchiser of postal services and supplies, noticed media
coverage of the lack of flags available for purchase. The company
responded by offering free color copies of the Stars and Stripes, and
has currently handed out one million of the flags at their 3,500 stores
That positive gesture raised the company's profile and garnered media
attention without overt gain on its part - a key to successful corporate
"Like any other company at the time, we wanted to respond," says MBE's
director of public relations Richard Hallabrin. "We were challenged to
find a response that was appropriate and wouldn't exploit the situation
in any way. We are truly an American company, and we are proud of our
The flag handouts were so well received by customers and media that the
company is now planning on giving out free Veteran's Day posters on
While contributing to efforts at Ground Zero is the most compelling move
for many companies, focusing in on local initiatives might be a stronger
statement in the long run. New York and Washington are clearly in need
of aid, but literally thousands of organizations have stepped in to
Looking at how communities closer to home have been affected and finding
ways to act regionally can help businesses highlight their commitment to
being caring corporate citizens.
Steve Valentine of Santa Monica, CA-based The Blaze Company took exactly
that approach when advising a local museum on ways to contribute. Rather
than donate to New York's relief efforts, Valentine suggested the
organization target its help to Los Angeles firefighters who went to New
York in the wake of the attacks, and who may be in need of medical and
"I think you really have to sift through the needs at hand," says
"If there is any kind of (local) anchor, and if you can find that tie,
then that should be the focus."
Companies should also look at alternate messages that tap into the
national mood. While patriotism is by far the strongest theme, the
public is also talking about the need for tolerance toward ethnic
communities, a desire to stay close to home, and President Bush's
mandate to get back to business.
As more time passes, these messages may grow even stronger than the idea
of patriotism, especially if public sentiment slips out of line with
"People get so enthusiastic about this war effort, that PR people should
be sensitive to the fact that there are Islamic employees in our
companies, as well as Islamic customers, and we don't want to offend
those people," adds O'Brien.
No matter where efforts are aimed or what the message, being subtle is
imperative for edgy consumers. Messages that are too forceful or overt
seem pushy and uncomfortable for the public, especially those who live
far from Ground Zero. Valentine points to his promotion of Blue Ice
Potato Vodka as an example of keeping it low-key. The American-made
libation is currently offering red cosmopolitans, blueberry martinis,
and plain "white" martinis at happy hours and events such as the VH-1
Valentine is careful to let the colored drinks stand alone without
additional patriotic embellishments or messages - something he says
would be "doing a little too much."
One area where PR pros can't do enough is internal communications. Aside
from patriotism, the national mood also contains increasing elements of
anxiety and fear. Many people are feeling depressed or overwhelmed in
the wake of the attacks and recent anthrax cases, and companies can
highlight their core values by helping employees deal with those
emotions. Providing employees with ways to contribute - such as blood
drives - can build morale and loyalty. Workers may even benefit from and
appreciate having access to counselors, or reminders of what mental
health benefits are available.
But once again, keep internal measures off the media radar. Publicizing
those efforts may seem self-serving.
1. Do think about ways to contribute to the local community
2. Do be altruistic. Let contributions stand on their own merit without
3. Do consider alternative themes to patriotism, such as tolerance or
1. Don't allow your patriotic messages to exclude ethnic Americans
2. Don't be overt. Subtle messages tend to work the best
3. Don't neglect internal efforts