No Pitch Needed
One of my proud accomplishments in my long career was a highly covered campaign called Tappening. It was the late ’00s and we were all riding high on hope and change. My partner and I had this idea that maybe we could PR our way out of the economy’s nasty indulgence to cheap plastic that would sit in landfills for an eternity.
It wasn’t a complicated plan. The goal was primarily to educate the country on the virtues of tap water and we sold what became a trendy water bottle that people were actually proud to have rather than be seen with bottled water known for its detrimental impact to the environment, and in doing so, reduce the demand for bottled water overall. It didn’t actually solve our plastic problem. But we did put quite the dent in bottled water sales, albeit fleeting. The real problem, the one PR couldn’t solve, was the fact that consumers aren’t the ones demanding plastic bottles. The manufacturers are.
This past Tuesday, high school students across the Commonwealth of Virginia staged a walkout in protest of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s new policy mandating needlessly cruel treatment of transgender kids in state schools. While I may be willing to allow there are still some social norms to be ironed out with regards to the public existence of trans people, none of that ironing out needs to inflict further suffering on kids taking honest steps to be honest with themselves and with others by denying them their names and dignity, nor mandating teachers notify potentially unsafe families if a student comes out to a teacher.
The protest included upwards of a hundred schools and thousands upon thousands of students in a state with a smaller population than New York City, across diverse urban, suburban, rural, and mountain cultures. In the former capital of the Confederacy, in the state that led the charge of “massive resistance” against school desegregation, thousands of kids are walking out for trans rights.
Okay, so maybe Tappening was ultimately doomed, though they did actually change the plastic to be more environmentally friendly. It’s work I’m still proud of, but work that rested on a misunderstanding of where the problem actually lies. But these kids? These kids are nailing it. While it’s too soon to say if Youngkin will reverse, and it seems unlikely he’ll back down short of a court order, this is a massive show of support that is going to make a real, measurable difference in kids’ lives. How?
As we say in PR, it’s all about the optics.
Consider. Support for transgender rights has exploded since TIME Magazine famously declared the “Trans Tipping Point” in 2014. This kind of massive outpouring of support would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. It’s incredible to witness the speed with which trans people have not only stood up and demanded respect, but how willing we have been to change our minds. In much the same way as the rise of BLM catalyzed along lines of social media connection, the same vast, complex, digital web that has caused us so many problems also allowed for those willing to genuinely encounter one another to cohere, and the effects continue to ripple upward and outward from the younger generation. They are the ones who set so much of our national debate, and they are doing it with on-the-ground work.
These protests are better than hundreds of TV appearances I could ever make to pitch what briefly became a trendy water bottle. They demand attention, and yes, they demand respect. They have forced the governor to respond (albeit in the least helpful way possible) and have drawn fresh attention to the new anti-trans policy. Students are showing that they will support each other, and there is every reason to believe teachers will have their backs especially in light of both the public declaration and the steep price social media inflicts on hypocrisy. News covered it across the world. That’s the sort of earned media clients would kill for. But nobody had to go on TV and pitch these kids on standing up for their fellow students. They did it themselves, through their own social networks, through their own experiences with trans classmates, something that would have been almost unthinkable just a dozen years ago.
I still think Tappening was a good idea. Naturally it wouldn’t have saved the world, but maybe it could have helped in one small little way by showing people there was an alternative, by making it impossible to ignore. And maybe these kids won’t be able to stem the tide, but nobody can deny that we all know a better world is possible. They showed us yesterday.
They show us every day. Let’s follow their lead.