PATRIOTISM AND SENSITIVITY: Tapping into the public mood

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

Ron Hartwig.

"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

November 11.

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

financial assistance.

"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

government action.

"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

Fashion Awards.

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

attached marketing

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

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