The Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas Turns into a Countdown to Crisis

Pulling Zola Ad Reveals Company’s Unpreparedness for a Predictable Challenge            

12/31/19 – – The Hallmark Channel, known best for its binge-worthy holiday programming, provided one of the final and most valuable crisis lessons of 2019. In mid-December, mimicking the recurring romance found/romance lost/romance found again plot line of its movies, Hallmark alienated viewers holding a broad range of religious and social beliefs. Bowing to pressure from the right, Hallmark pulled a commercial by Zola (online wedding planning and services) featuring a same-sex couple and within 72 hours, bowing to pressure from the left, apologetically reversed that decision.

Here’s how things played out:

Facing a petition started by the conservative American Family Association urging Hallmark to “please reconsider airing commercials with same-sex couples,” Hallmark pulled the Zola ad, explaining to the Associated Press: “The debate surrounding these commercials on all sides was distracting from the purpose of our network, which is to provide entertainment value . . . we just felt it was in the best interest of the brand to pull them and not continue to generate controversy.”

Predictably, banning the ad only worsened the storm.

Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), responded by pointing out that, “LGBTQ families are part of family programming,” suggesting that Hallmark Channel advertisers “question whether they want to be associated with a network that chooses to bow to fringe anti-LGBTQ activist groups, which solely exist to harm LGBTQ families.” Ellen DeGeneres tweeted: “Isn’t it almost 2020? @hallmarkchannel, @billabbottHC…What are you thinking? Please explain. We’re are all ears.”

Zola stated its very reasonable case: “We stand behind this commercial 150%. We want all couples to feel welcomed and celebrated and we will always feature all kinds of love in our marketing.”

Having reconsidered the appropriateness of the company’s initial response (and I’m sure weighing the potential damage of a boycott during the Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” season), Mike Perry, president and CEO of parent company Hallmark Cards, issued a statement headlined, “Hallmark Affirms Its Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion”:

Earlier this week, a decision was made at Crown Media Family Networks to remove commercials featuring a same-sex couple. The Crown Media team has been agonizing over this decision as we’ve seen the hurt it has unintentionally caused. Said simply, they believe this was the wrong decision. Our mission is rooted in helping all people connect, celebrate traditions, and be inspired to capture meaningful moments in their lives. Anything that detracts from this purpose is not who we are. We are truly sorry  for the hurt and disappointment this has caused.

To which the “disappointed” American Family Association responded, “This is an enormous mistake that will cause a majority of its viewership to turn the channel . . . We continue to urge the Hallmark Channel to return to the family-friendly content it has always been known for.”

What a mess, summed up well by this headline in the December 17 Wall Street Journal: “In Three Days, the Hallmark Channel Managed to Pretty Much Upset Everyone.”

What can we learn from this still unfolding case study as we head into 2020?

Above all, Hallmark’s piss-everybody-off response is a symptom of unpreparedness and procrastination. They are not alone. Far too many companies fail to address crisis-worthy issues simmering in plain sight. So, when a triggering event thrusts their sensitive challenges into the headlines, they are unprepared to respond with confidence or clarity. They react hastily to the first, loudest voice in an effort to “not continue to generate controversy.”

Both the content of and public reaction to the Zola ad should not have taken Hallmark by surprise.

In late November, just a couple of weeks before the Zola ad controversy exploded, a story in the Hollywood Reporter headlined “Hallmark Channel Struggles to Give Diversity a Home for the Holidays” focused on the channel’s commitment to adding more leading roles for minorities. Hallmark Channel CEO Bill Abbott insisted, “In terms of broadening out the demographic, it’s something we’re always thinking about, always considering.”

My bet is that they were considering inclusion of LGBTQ roles as well. They were not operating in a social bubble.

In his statement announcing Hallmark’s reversal of the Zola ad ban, Mike Perry pointed out, “We are an inclusive company and have a track record to prove it. We have LGBTQ greeting cards and feature LGBTQ couples in commercials. We have been recognized as one of the Human Rights Campaigns Best Places to Work, and as one of Forbes America’s Best Employers for Diversity.” He went on to announce that, “Hallmark will be working with GLAAD to better represent the LGBTQ community across our portfolio of brands.”

Hallmark’s final decision to welcome back the Zola ad did not represent some 72-hour epiphany. The company was apparently working on getting to the right place regarding diversity. But confidence in that issue and a plan to activate and articulate Hallmark’s position had not progressed adequately through the organization by the time the American Family Association complaint arrived on their doorstep.

In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Where Crises Come From”), I discuss nine of the most common causes of crises, including procrastination and policies.  Experience has taught me that the vast majority of crises simmer before they boil. Allowing a known problem to fester, a small issue to grow larger, or an important need to go unaddressed is often the prelude to crisis. And I encourage companies to regularly ask themselves if their policies are in tune with the expectations and tenets of contemporary society. Waiting for a triggering event that’s out of your control to get your arms around reality is not an acceptable strategy.

Like all Hallmark Channel movies, this crisis will probably have a happy ending. TV programing and advertisements featuring same-sex couples are accepted by the vast majority of viewers. My guess is that embracing contemporary diversity within the optimistic, family-friendly standards of the Hallmark Channel will build audience, not chase it away. It’s just too bad Hallmark was not ready to confidently express its position and values at a time and in a manner of its choosing.

And with that cautionary tale, I wish you a happy, healthy and crisis-free new year!



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