Hallmark Channel’s uninspired apology—why the brand’s ad gaffe was a PR double fail

by | Dec 19, 2019 | Public Relations

Just as the Hallmark Channel and its corny, white-bread Christmas movies were getting parodied in a “Saturday Night Live” skit over the weekend for its outdated perspective on romance and relationships, the greeting card network managed to really blow up its image with a controversial move showcasing a total disregard for culture in 2019.

After airing a set of commercials for wedding company Zola for about a week, the Hallmark execs made the decision to yank a handful of the ads because they depicted a lesbian couple kissing—offering the wimpy excuse that Hallmark is “not allowed to accept creatives that are deemed controversial.”

The real reason behind the decision was not Hallmark’s ad policies—it was when a petition from conservative org One Million Moms with about 30,000 signatures complaining about the ads landed on the desk of a Hallmark exec, and before you could say “When you care enough to send the very best,” Zola was informed that the targeted spots had been pulled. Not surprising, the move shocked the LGBTQ community, who rightly viewed it as a definitive step backwards for an increasingly progressive media culture.

Zola then pulled all of its ads from the station, and the Hallmark Channel found itself the subject of some other cable networks—CNN and MSNBC—and ultimately getting brutally lambasted on social media. Not the kind of attention a family-friendly company like Hallmark was looking for.

Hallmark Channel’s uninspired apology—why brand’s ad stunt was a PR double fail

Hallmark Channel’s uninspired apology—why brand’s ad stunt was a PR double fail

How could Hallmark have handled this better in the beginning?

One thing they could have done would be to not let fringe groups call the shots in the first place. “They should have ignored the OMM petition. Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2015—society has progressed,” says reputation expert Jordan Cohen, chief marketing officer of New York-based comms firm North 6th Agency. “I doubt Hallmark would have taken the same action if a fringe group threatened to boycott an ad featuring interracial marriage. This was a major screw-up by Hallmark.”

And then, on Sunday, Hallmark did an about-face

Did company leadership have a judgment epiphany, or get some after-hours media training, or maybe realize its own laughable culture after seeing the prior night’s SNL send-up? No, it did not—the company saw the growing backlash, realizing its core audience wasn’t truly reflected in the OMM petition, and made the strategic and timely decision to reverse course.

“Yes, the backlash was severe and resulted in front page news coverage in major books like the Wall Street Journal business section,” Cohen offers. “Without the public humiliation, I doubt they would have taken action.”

Even on the heels of such embarrassing short-sightedness, the company’s apology came off as a humbling moment. But was it?

“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,” said Mike Perry, president and CEO of Hallmark Cards, in a Twitter statement. “We are truly sorry for the hurt and disappointment this has caused.” The company added that it would be “working with GLAAD to better represent the LGBTQ community across our portfolio of brands” and “reaching out to Zola to reestablish our partnership and reinstate the commercials.”

Though it appears to have achieved the desired outcome, it looked more like a form-letter apology

“I found this part of the statement unappealing: ‘We’ve seen the hurt it [their actions] has unintentionally caused.’ (emphasis added). It’s typical corporate hedging as opposed to taking full ownership of the mistake,” N6A’s Cohen told Bulldog Reporter. “It’s a major company. Something broke in the chain of command that resulted in a homophobic organization generating a kneejerk reaction on Hallmark’s part that doesn’t seem to have been vetted by a committee. (Or if it was, it was a major mistake). How could no one have sounded the alarm bells on this?”

On the surface, the crisis response worked: Zola announced it would be in touch with the company to discuss a return to advertising, and GLAAD acknowledged Hallmark’s decision to “correct its mistake” by not catering to “fringe organizations like One Million Moms.” And the Hallmark Channel story ultimately dropped off the cable news radar.

But there are some key reputation lessons from this botched episode that other brands can heed:

“First and foremost, we are two decades into the 21st century, live in a much more progressive era, and stuff like this just doesn’t fly,” Cohen explains. “Second, as I described before, this should have been put to a committee before a decision was made. With appropriate processes, guardrails could have been put up to prevent such a snafu.

“Third, apologies need to be decisive—never hedged—if they are to be believed. This apology and the token ’we’re going to work with GLAAD’ feels so generic, robotic, and corporate. People will see through it.”

What should happen next?

In Cohen’s opinion, the company has more work to do to correct these gaffes: “Hallmark needs to make amends by making a sincere apology, explaining where the breakdown occurred internally, explain how it won’t happen again, and make a much larger gesture than working with GLAAD (which they should have been supporting anyway) to prove that they take this seriously and will not tolerate bigotry and hate,” he suggests.

One event, two major fails. Let’s hope Hallmark Channel doesn’t go for the hat trick by not taking Cohen’s advice and fixing the damage. “The American family is evolving,” he concludes, “and they have to show that they are evolving with it if they want to stay relevant.”

Thumbnail photo source: eonline.com.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter


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