Honoring Culture the Right Way

June-July 2021
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"Elvis was a hero to most..."

If someone asks you who is the “King of Rock and Roll,” it’s a safe bet that Elvis Presley comes to mind. How could you blame them? Elvis was arguably the most influential artist throughout the 1950s and 1960s, becoming an international icon before his decline and untimely passing in the 1970s. 

Yet, there’s always been a cloud of skepticism surrounding Elvis’ cultural impact. Beginning in the late 1950s, rumors of a quote from Elvis claimed that he only saw value in Black people who could “shine his shoes and buy his records.” Even as it was debunked by Jet magazine’s associate editor, Louie Robinson, the allegations of racism have stuck to Elvis’ legacy decades after his passing. (In late May, legendary music producer Quincy Jones gave these claims fresh legs when he accused Presley of being racist in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.)

And with that, Elvis has fueled this long-standing debate about culture: Did he appreciate it? Or did he appropriate it?

PR professionals need to know the difference — for themselves and for the organizations we serve.

Appropriate (v): to take or make use of without authority or right

Whether your organization is participating in Pride Month, recognizing Juneteenth, or both, the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation can make or break how others perceive you. 

Appropriation often takes one or more of these forms:

• Using colors without context. Many organizations will associate Juneteenth with the colors from the Pan-African flag: green, red and black. When observing Black celebrations, defaulting to these colors is an easy cop-out. Imagine always seeing these colors associated with MLK Day, Black History Month and Kwanzaa. You’ll come off as having a shallow understanding of the Black American experience.

• Pulling content without crediting the source. If you’ve ever attempted to plagiarize, or if someone has plagiarized something you have worked on, then you’ll understand this feeling. Many cultural phenomena (rock-and-roll music included) originated from Black people in the United States and indigenous people from other nations. Unfortunately, many of these originators never reap the benefits of their contributions because someone, a group or an institution that’s seen as more acceptable to society takes their customs as if they are their own.

• Using cultural references for financial gain. When your organization is selling a product, service or event that’s tied to a holiday, be wary of using stereotypes in an attempt to assimilate with a culture you’re not associated with. For example, Pride Month has often encouraged organizations to sell products in rainbow colors. But if you don’t have a history of supporting LGBTQ+ communities beyond the month of June, then this can be seen as opportunistic for the wrong reasons.

Appreciate (v): to grasp the nature, worth, quality or significance of

In celebrating any cultural holiday, here are some ways PR professionals can ensure that their organizations do it right.

• Provide education on symbols. PR professionals are often responsible for the way an organization communicates with its audiences. Instead of using colors most associated with a cultural observance, your organization can take the opportunity to share what these colors mean. Just as each of the colors represented in the LGBTQ+ Pride flag represent important qualities, the same is true for the colors represented in the Pan-African flag. 

• Put originators at the front and center. Not every cultural holiday or observance needs to be an opportunity for your organization to talk about itself; in fact, it would be ill-advised to do so in many cases. Instead, your organization can make strides to build a relationship with diverse audiences by sharing the history that brought about the significance of a cultural celebration. Simply put, it’s your chance to give credit where it’s due.

• Highlight those still doing the work. Your organization can’t just celebrate the history of cultural holidays. PR professionals can counsel their organizations to be part of the solution to the present-day issues that are adjacent to the culture. Look for ways to partner with mission-oriented organizations and call attention to how they’re serving their communities. Just make sure it’s not a one-off collaboration.

As we’re working toward a more equitable world, celebrating culture should be more than just symbolic. PR professionals are uniquely positioned to provide the “why” behind the “what” we observe, give credit where it’s due and use the past to guide the future. After all, even Elvis admitted he could never match the talent of Fats Domino. 

Return to Current Issue Creating Your Personal Brand | June-July 2021
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