PR pros: Target's brand is loud and clear

As the retailer stays on target in messaging -- with near silence -- in the face of a growing boycott, PR pros analyze the brand and its low-key response, including Deborah Hamilton, who handles PR for the boycott's organizer.

Communications at Target is business-as-usual this week despite a snowballing boycott against the retailer after it issued a statement reaffirming its controversial "gender-neutral" policy, allowing transgender people to use bathrooms and changing rooms corresponding to their gender identity.

Target remains nearly silent on the boycott in the face of opposition and fiery debates on their social media channels, but PR pros say the road Target is taking is the road best taken.

"If Target was more aggressive, it would give the boycott more credibility than they want to give it," said Levick SVP Melissa Arnoff. "Anytime you breathe air into a story you extend the life of it."

Extending the life of this story might actually be helpful for Target, added Arnoff, as the consumer core they care about "likes what they’re doing it and share the same beliefs." She noted that Target is doing the right thing by knowing its brand and staying true to it.

The Target boycott, led by the American Family Association, has garnered almost 900,000 signatures in less than a week. AFA president Tim Wildmon told media outlets, "This is the best response we’ve ever had this quick."

Stoking concern that the retailer’s policy could leave female customers vulnerable to sexual predators is central to the message being delivered by AFA and its PR partner, Pennsylvania-based Hamilton Strategies, said the firm’s president and founder Deborah Hamilton.

Hamilton has been the AFA’s AOR since 2014.

"AFA gave people the chance to voice their opinions about the policy," Hamilton said. "Parents were worried about their daughters being in the bathrooms with the escalated risk of being attacked by predators; husbands were worried about their wives, and so on. This resonated with the heartstrings of America and the need to protect women and children."

Hamilton said this was not an issue about transgender rights. The Southern Poverty Law Center, however, refers to the AFA as "rabidly anti-gay" on its website.

In response to the boycott, Target’s group manager of PR Molly Snyder told PRWeek in an emailed statement that the retailer respects that there are a wide variety of perspectives and opinions.

"As a company that firmly stands behind what it means to offer our team an inclusive place to work — and our guests an inclusive place to shop — we continue to believe that this is the right thing for Target," Snyder said.

Stephen Macias, SVP and lead of MWW’s LGBT and multicultural practice, said the boycott doesn’t represent a crisis at all for the retailer, lauding their "proactive" statement.

"It understands its customers and consumer base and it understands how the majority of Americans feel about the LGBT community," Macias said. "The boycott will continue to amplify the need to have a conversation around the transgender segment in our community that people are maybe afraid of because they know nothing about the transgender community."

He added that the boycott is based on a lack of education and that while this kind of topic can be a rough one for companies to communicate to customers, it is a conversation that needs to be had.

"The transgender community will not be pushed back into the closet," Macias said.

Similarly, Arnoff said Target’s low-key response was appropriate and would help maintain the brand’s integrity, given their history of supporting LGBT rights.

Last year Target began installing gender-neutral signage. The year before that, it rolled out ads featuring same-sex couples.

"This is in-line with the brand they’ve been building," Arnoff said. "I have to think Target is the type of store that looks at data about its customers and that they thought long and hard before taking the strong stance they’ve taken."

Arnoff added that although Target may lose some customers over this, the retailer will gain even stronger loyalty from customers that support its decision.

Hamilton, however, said Target seems to be carefully considering what this boycott means for its business.

"They’ve actually changed, or added to the policy by first coming out with their transgender policy and then they sort of backpedaled on that and said they do have unisex bathrooms," said Hamilton. "So I think they’re concerned, and they should be."

In terms of the efficacy of boycotts, Macias noted that they "rarely" work.

A division within AFA called One Million Moms spearheaded a boycott in 2012 against Archie Comics for its depiction of a same-sex wedding that backfired spectacularly. The controversial issue of the 76-year old comic series sold out.

Shortly after that failure, the group again led another boycott, this time against JCPenney for its affiliation with Ellen Degeneres. That boycott too had its day in the news cycle, then died out.

"What we find in previous situations is that boycotts against companies in support of the LGBT community empirically don’t work," Macias said. "We live in a time where doing the right thing and increasing the bottom line are no longer mutually exclusive."

"A lot of these types of boycotts will drop off, but this one is growing," Hamilton contends. "The numbers are going up instead of down."

But boycott failures seem apolitical. When Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy said his company endorses the "biblical definition of the family unit," outrage rippled nationwide. Boycotts were mounted by marriage equality advocates.

Only days later, thousands flocked to Chick-fil-A, leading to record-breaking sales, the company said.

When asked if it were more important for a brand to stay authentic, rather than adapt the more popular opinion, Arnoff said, "As long as the brand’s authentic self is aligned with customers they want to have. That’s where a lot of companies lose their way — there are people whose minds you can’t change, especially in an issue like the one Target is dealing with. The people on the other side are not going to change their minds."

Hamilton credited the message of the boycott, its streamlined signature process, and AFA’s "traditional family values" brand as driving forces behind its growing success, saying it’s on track to break a million signatures by Thursday.

In the early stages of the boycotts, AFA and Hamilton Strategies were careful in navigating the media landscape before appearing on major news outlets, Hamilton explained.

"We selected media outlets that are the most family-friendly because they would be the most concerned about the same possibilities AFA was," she said.

Social media also had its role to play, with #BoycottTarget, "really taking off," Hamilton said.

"The process is only as good as the client makes it and AFA has a streamlined process for signing the boycott." she said.

When you click on the link provided by AFA to sign the petition, Hamilton said it can be completed fairly quickly.

"If people can’t click right through it, they’re likely to give up and forget it," Hamilton said.

When asked what differentiates this boycott to past campaigns, she said, "This boycott targets a nationally recognized store that isn’t a specialty shop. Everybody knows Target and resonates with what it has to offer. A lot of people would like to keep shopping there, but their values are more important to them than shopping at Target because they disagree with the policy."

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