Navigating the Spectrum: Rainbow Washing in PR Strategies and Beyond

10 mins read

In recent years, the term “rainbow washing” has emerged as a buzzword in public relations, initiating conversations about the thin line between genuine support for LGBTQ+ communities and opportunistic marketing tactics. As companies strive to align themselves with inclusive values, the pitfalls of misusing rainbow symbolism have become increasingly apparent. 

In this comprehensive guide, we will dive into the nuances of rainbow washing, its case study, exploring how to use it responsibly for public relations (PR) purposes, addressing false accusations, and offering alternative approaches.

What Is Rainbow washing?

Simply put, rainbow-washing is the practice of using rainbow-themed symbolism in branding, advertising, merchandise, or social media, apparently to support LGBTQ+ people during pride month, but without the active true support of LGBTQ+ people’s identities or rights. This phenomenon often occurs during Pride Month or other LGBTQ+ awareness events when companies seek to capitalize on the heightened visibility of these issues.

When Done Right: Authentic Inclusion

Before delving into the potential pitfalls, it is crucial to know that genuine efforts to support the LGBTQ+ community are commendable and encouraged. 

Authentic inclusion involves more than just surface-level gestures. It requires tangible actions that contribute to a more inclusive workplace and society. Companies should actively engage in LGBTQ+ advocacy, support relevant causes, and foster an inclusive environment for employees and customers alike all the time and not only during the Pride Month.

Case Study: Rainbow washing Gone Wrong

Before this year’s Pride celebrations, the organization Data for Progress released a list of companies that, in the United States, have hypocritically prepared Pride PR campaigns while also donating to politicians and organizations that actively discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. 

The most striking among these companies are Toyota, AT&T, Amazon, and Comcast, who altogether have donated over $1.1 million to candidates with anti-LGBTQ+ agendas. It is inappropriate for these companies to use Pride symbols to raise public awareness when their funding works against the fight for equal rights that Pride represents.

As another example, Starbucks banning pride decorations and changing the union healthcare policy is a clear example of corporate rainbow-washing. On June 13, 2023, Starbucks Workers United announced that multiple Starbucks stores across the United States have banned Pride decorations, despite the corporation’s empty claim that they are an LGBTQ+ ally. 

In addition to removing decorations displayed for Pride month, Starbucks has apparently also changed their union healthcare policy in ways that deny care to transgender people.

Using Rainbow Washing Responsibly for PR

Meaningful support of Pride should tie back to its roots: Pride is not just a celebration, but a moment to collectively demand equal rights, treatment, and opportunities for LGBTQ+ people from governments, organizations, and people alike. This can take the form of using one’s voice and platform to demand change, donating to organizations that advance LGBTQ+ rights, or providing opportunities for LGBTQ+ people in the workforce, where they often face discrimination. 

Here are some practices we can share for you to avoid falling into color washing:

  • Be an ally every day

Of course, you can create something special for these festive dates, but don’t forget to show commitment for all 365 days of the year.   

  • Educate Your Team

Before incorporating LGBTQ+ symbols into your branding or marketing materials, ensure that your team is well-versed in LGBTQ+ issues. Sensitivity training can help prevent inadvertent missteps and ensure that your company’s initiatives are respectful and well-informed.

Support education and opportunities for all. Showing solidarity through fundraising is also a plus.  

  • Partnerships with LGBTQ+ Organizations

Collaborate with reputable LGBTQ+ organizations to amplify your impact. This not only provides financial support but also demonstrates a genuine commitment to the cause. Highlight these partnerships in your PR campaigns to showcase your company’s dedication.

  • Transparent Communication

Clearly communicate your company’s LGBTQ+ initiatives and the steps being taken to foster inclusivity. Transparency builds trust with both consumers and employees and helps differentiate authentic efforts from mere symbolism.

  • Not Expect Praise

In fact, the response may be suspicious and cynical. Businesses can only prove values over time and by withstanding times when they are put under stress.

Example of the Responsible PR Campaign

Ikea demonstrated an example of a good PR campaign:

With its post regarding the International Day against Homophobia or Transphobia, IKEA supports the LGBTQ+ agenda. With a look at their catalogs, already in the times before social media, IKEA appeared already quite progressive. They offered different gender perspectives in contrast to other companies’ catalogs—as it included female and male people in situations without attributing stereotypical roles, like females or traditional couples preparing dinner in the kitchen and men using tools to repair a device, to them (Dumetz, Zanolini & Morgan, 2020).

Figure 13. – IKEA post23 Twitter (2019).

This case illustrates an example of a company being aware of its social responsibility and role in meaningful support of diverse groups in society and therefore counteracting rainbow-washing.

Dealing with False Accusations

The lesson is very simple: it’s worthless to adapt a flag when you don’t understand the nuances of what you’re defending. If giving visibility to those minorities is a good idea, the change has to start from the inside. That is how you can effectively support a movement and go beyond what is “trendy”.

But still, in the age of social media activism, companies must be prepared to address false accusations of rainbow washing. Here are some strategies to navigate such situations:

  • Proactive Communication

If your company is wrongly accused of rainbow washing, address the issue promptly. Use social media platforms and official channels to communicate your genuine commitment to LGBTQ+ causes, providing evidence of ongoing initiatives.

  • Employee Testimonials

Feature testimonials from LGBTQ+ employees who can speak to the inclusivity within the company. Authentic voices add credibility and help counter accusations of insincerity.

  • Highlight Past Contributions

Showcase your company’s historical contributions to LGBTQ+ causes. This could include donations, partnerships, or initiatives that predate the current accusations.

Alternatives to Rainbow Washing

Rather than relying solely on rainbow symbolism, consider these alternative approaches to demonstrate genuine support for LGBTQ+ communities:

  • Policy Changes

Implement LGBTQ+-inclusive policies within the workplace, such as non-discrimination policies, diverse hiring practices, and employee resource groups.

  • Representation Matters

Feature diverse LGBTQ+ representation in your marketing materials, advertisements, and leadership positions. Authentic representation goes beyond symbols and fosters a sense of visibility and belonging.

  • Educational Initiatives

Develop educational campaigns to raise awareness about LGBTQ+ issues. Use your platform to educate your audience, promote understanding, and advocate for positive change.

Conclusion

Rainbow washing poses a risk to companies seeking to capitalize on the visibility of LGBTQ+ issues without genuine commitment. By understanding the nuances of rainbow washing, leveraging it responsibly for PR, addressing false accusations, and exploring alternative approaches, companies can navigate the delicate balance between authentic support and opportunistic marketing. 

Remember, true inclusion extends beyond symbols — it requires tangible actions that contribute to a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive world.

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