What the Trayvon Martin case should teach PR pros

Last week, I was on a call with a girlfriend living in Paris talking about the issues of race here in the States and there in France when she said, "Well at least it looks like blacks at home are finally having their Tea Party moment in Sanford, FL."

Last week, I was on a call with a girlfriend living in Paris talking about the issues of race here in the States and there in France when she said, “Well at least it looks like blacks at home are finally having their Tea Party moment in Sanford, FL. It's about time. Let's just hope it lasts.”

When she said it, of course I knew exactly what she meant. However the idea of blacks having a “Tea Party moment” caused my mind to race about the real impact on how we approach developing advocacy, issues management, and even consumer PR campaigns.

For almost a decade, conventional wisdom in our industry has been that people of color do not identify themselves chiefly as African American, Hispanic, Asian American, or Native American as much as they identify themselves as being moms, environmentalist, senior citizens, etc. Honestly, I am the first to say that there is some merit to this school of thought - that is, when you are talking about approaching these segments to build affinity for coffee or cleaning supplies. In those cases, yes, individuals are much more inclined to think individualistically about their own self-interests.

However, in times of crisis, particularly in respect to people of color, all of that conventional wisdom goes out the door. Individualism becomes collectivism, and that child down the street becomes my son sleeping in his bedroom. 

The killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL, has ignited a fire in the African-American community, one that we have not seen in many years. What Monica, my friend in Paris, was referring to with her categorization of the activities in Florida appearing to be blacks seizing the opportunity to have their “Tea Party moment” was in reference to the demonstrations of unification. What Monica and the rest of the world is witnessing is a determination to organize and a demand to be heard, not as individuals but as a cohesive community with a shared cause and value system calling BS on the idea of a “post-racial” society.

The jury is still out on whether the momentum in Sanford will actually translate into an organized lobby or a political group capable of influencing legislation like the Tea Party. If marketers take nothing else away from what is happening in Sanford, it should be that issues of race will galvanize and unite communities of color like nothing else. Blacks who have journeyed to Florida to rally for all of the Trayvons in our country cross all socioeconomic, education, gender, political, religious, and generational demographics.

To be lulled into thinking we are indeed in a “post-racial” “melting pot” America where race is a secondary issue for people of color is a comforting fallacy. I would simply say to my fellow PR pros, look at the unification of African Americans who have traveled to Sanford as evidence to the contrary of the aspirational “post-racial” misnomer. Further, there is a real correlation with the community reaction to the Trayvon Martin killing and the recent backlashes seen this week against brands for producing ads that would otherwise seem innocuous. Because of this heightened sense of vulnerability, I would caution brands to tread lightly, err on the side of reason, and as they say in the black church, “Please govern yourselves accordingly.”

Terri-Nichelle Bradley is chief strategist at Playground Public Relations.

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