(Most) Brands Avoid PR Fails on MLK ‘Dream Day’

In an honestly surprising turn of events, we’re glad to report that the vast majority of brands avoided any serious embarrassments related to yesterday’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

For the most part, they did it by staying vague. But we can learn from the exception in this case—and our friends in the blog world have collectively named this Golf Channel message the day’s worst:

This tweet is wrongheaded for several reasons, the most blatant being that golf has long been “a famously segregated sport“, especially during Martin Luther King Jr.‘s era. (Yes, Obama plays a lot, but these are different times.) Still, that’s not the biggest problem.

The message obviously wasn’t meant to be offensive and we feel like the follow-up apology was great, but it’s the specificity that bugs us. What did “Dream Day” have to do with golf? Absolutely nothing. Brands enter dangerous waters when they try to co-opt sensitive cultural touchstones—and the deeper people’s feelings about the person or event, the greater the risk. Remember when Epicurious ran Boston-themed promo messages in the wake of the marathon bombing? Oh yeah. But like our headline says, most brands did just fine yesterday. Here’s an example of a well-crafted message:

It’s all about advocacy, it’s specific to the organization’s mission, and it’s not promoting any consumer product. Appropriate. Now for some of that vagueness we mentioned above:

There’s got to be a way to be less specific, but we can’t think of it. Here’s another one that might be even safer:

That’s about as edgy as a glass of warm milk. But back to the bad: The Golf Channel wasn’t the only brand to make the self-serving Twitter mistake. This one comes with a big hat tip to Mr. Media Training (follow him on Twitter):

Tone. Deaf. See, again, the brand is using the message to sell rather than celebrating the message. So remember:

  • Don’t use an event as an excuse for direct promotion. Tread very, very lightly.
  • Show that you appreciate the gravity of the occasion and what it means to others.
  • Write something memorable. If you can’t do that, go for bland but reliable. It worked for eBay, didn’t it?