Thursday, October 13, 2016

Remember Your Audience: How Evolving Holidays Affect Communications

By: Caitlan McCafferty

Communications and marketing professionals often plan messages and campaigns around holidays. You will always see social media posts wishing you a happy Fourth of July or an ad announcing the President’s Day Sale. But, what if attitudes toward certain holidays are changing? 

If you had off from work or school this past Monday, Oct. 10, you probably called the holiday Columbus Day. But, in many states this is changing. Due to a movement to support Native Americans’ contributions to the United States, many communities have changed the holiday’s name from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day. The movement started in big cities such as Seattle and Albuquerque and, over time, extended to smaller municipalities and school districts. In fact, in the year since 2015, 14 communities have joined a growing list of towns and cities that now use the day to honor the history and voices of indigenous people.

The actual holiday of Columbus Day may not affect you – only 23 states and Washington, D.C. recognize it—but the shift away from celebrating Columbus represents a larger movement to reevaluate American history. The history of Columbus Day is littered with controversy. It is widely accepted that Columbus did not “discover” America, and he was responsible for the death and mistreatment of innocent indigenous people. Native Americans have been protesting the holiday since FDR made it a federal holiday in 1937 , and the conflict came to a head in 1992 with the 500th anniversary celebration that brought protests from around the world. 

Martin Luther King Day similarly remains controversial for some parts of our country. Martin Luther King Day was first observed in 1986, but it wasn’t a federal paid holiday in all 50 states until 2000. The last state to recognize the holiday was South Carolina. However, Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi observe MLK Day (federal holiday) and Robert E. Lee Day (state holiday) both on the third Monday in January. In each of these states, there continues to be a battle over separating the two holidays, as many find it wrong that a Confederate general and a leader of the Civil Rights Movement are celebrated on the same day. 

So what are the implications of such controversies for professional communicators? For one thing, the debate reminds us that different parts of the country approach the history of our country and its culture differently. It makes sense that cities with larger Native American populations, such as Albuquerque, changed the holiday’s name to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It’s a good reminder that what might be a common touchpoint for one market segment of the country may not resonate in the same way with another region.

When the next holiday rolls around, then, remember your audience. Are you posting a Happy Columbus Day tweet? Or a Happy Indigenous Peoples' Day tweet? Understanding the cultural differences at play will help you craft a communications initiative that does not inadvertently offend your target audiences. 

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