For Martin Luther King Jr. Day of this year, Hennessey, a cognac brand, released a press release titled “Mixed Drinks MLK Jr. Would Be Proud Of,” which talked about a list of cocktails that could be enjoyed during the holiday.
Needless to say, there was backlash, proving that this attempt at publicity was, without a doubt, a #PRfail.
The general public understandably shamed Hennessey for having the audacity to affiliate their brand with one of the greatest human rights activists known in American history for the sake of attention.
Despite popular opinion, however, Hennessey’s biggest failure wasn’t their insensitivity—it was their lack of awareness and ignorance to the opportunity their brand had towards creating a public dialogue about diversity and racism, both past and present.
In essence, Hennessey’s motives weren’t bad. Unless they were socially suicidal, they wouldn’t have gone through the lengths to craft a press release or publish it, accidently or not, with intentions to downgrade any respect MLK rightfully deserves. Rather, they failed to communicate their intentions, which, like ideas, are worthless on their own. In this case, it’s the authentic actions of strategic communications branched off of them that would have resonated with the public.
By listing cocktails that they believe to be something MLK would be proud, they’re indirectly stating that his opinion would have been something to be valued, that the approval of Hennessey’s the mixed drinks by such a public hero would result in a sense of achievement. They, are essentially claiming that they care about what he would have thought, which in hindsight, is quite the opposite of disrespect.
The solution to miscommunication isn’t silence—it’s more communication. I think that brands, including Hennessey, need to be more transparent about both their messages and the intentions behind it, especially with topics as sensitive as human rights and race.
Hennessy’s PR mistake is one of the best examples that prove how important diversity is in such a globalized world made possible by the introduction of social media. It is no longer acceptable for French representatives to be excuses for unintentional cultural misunderstandings. More importantly, however, it is no longer acceptable to ignore the myriad cultures, ethnicities and sexualities that beautifully make up the American identity.