So much has changed since we launched a campaign to mark LGBT+ History Month. February already feels a lifetime ago, for reasons I need not explain. Yet in a world more awake and more divided around issues ranging from #BlackLivesMatter to the wider inequalities in society, the work we did then and the lessons we learned feel more relevant now than they ever were.
It all began in 2019 we posted the rainbow flag on our social media pages for Pride month. We were immediately met with a torrent of online abuse and politely, but robustly dealt each troll in turn.
We later learned that it was this- responding to the negativity and not taking the hate lying down- which had the greatest impact on our existing LGBT staff members, some of whom contacted us to thank us for taking a more proactive stance on the issue of homophobia than simply posting a picture of a flag.
This year, we decided to take that principle one step further and use some of the hate we’d received and use it for something good – a video (below) which highlighted the prejudices many people identifying as LGBT+ still face in society.
The video and associated campaign went on to become the most successful thing we’ve ever done- in bare reach for sure, but in actual campaign outcomes too.
It’s also the thing which we feel proudest of as a team and which has made the biggest impact on some of the staff we worked on it with.
So here’s some things (seven, just like the colours in the rainbow) we learned:
Be honest about what you want
I’d never heard of the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ before we embarked on this project. I had to look it up.
Whilst it’s become a tiresome go to taunt for anyone trying to do something nice online, in rare cases those wielding the woke-ist weapon of choice have a point.
There are plenty of organisations out there which are only too happy to stick a rainbow on their profile picture, or send out a token tweet to mark this day or that, when their own records on equality, diversity and inclusion leave much to be desired.
So we had to be honest with ourselves about why we were doing this. Was it for likes, comments and views? Was it so we could claim victory in the battle of the vanity metrics? Or was it for something else?
We decided that with a clear goal to increase the number of LGBT+ people registering their interest in a career in the fire service, it was definitely the latter.
We know that a more diverse workforce creates better, more successful organisations. This campaign was really just a continuation of our efforts to achieve that, in a sector which is still struggling to catch up in this area.
Involve the right people
We learned through our work on campaigns around International Women’s Day and Black History Month before this, that involving the very people at the heart of the message in what you are trying to achieve was key.
For us, that meant speaking to representatives from our LGBT+ staff group and trade union LGBT rep to explain our approach. It was so, so important to us that our bold approach didn’t back fire, particularly on staff who might feel isolated or unsure about their own place in an organisation still seen, rightly or wrongly, as a bastion of straight, male culture. The advice they gave us on tone and messaging was absolutely key to us pulling this off.
We always look outside our organisation and our sector for inspiration for our work.
We loved the brave, funny, self-deprecating style of Channel 4’s Complaints Welcome ad and thought we could apply the same fearless principles to our own work.
We adapted their creative vision to fit our own context, wrote a script based on the hateful comments we’d received the year before and lined up key staff from across the organisation to appear in our own version of what they did.
We prepared more for this launch than for anything we’d ever done before. We briefed key leaders before going live, published guidance to staff explaining why we support causes like LGBT+ History Month and signposted LGBT+ staff to places they could seek support.
Importantly, we also lined up pre-prepared responses so that as a comms team we were armed and ready to respond with one voice to any nastiness we received online. This made us feel ready and empowered, but also helped to avoid any sticky situations where we responded in haste with a zingy retort we might later live to regret.
Follow it through
The reaction to what we did was overwhelmingly positive. Thousands of people commented to support what we’d done and several contacted us directly to tell us about the impact our video had had on them or someone they knew.
But having gone to the effort of creating something so bold, we couldn’t exactly stay quiet when some of the inevitable abuse rolled in.
That’s why we took the time and effort to respond to each of the hateful comments we received, so show once more that we were serious about following through on what we stand for as an organisation.
Hate is organised
Something very noticeable about some of the more extreme abuse we received, was its coordination. It took a few hours for the usual suspects to jump upon the video we’d put out, but once they did the messages and abuse were fairly relentless. A second wave of hate arrived a few more hours after that, as links to our video were (presumably) shared on accounts and message forums across the Atlantic. It’s something we’ll be more aware of next time.
Measure the right things
The video has been viewed more than one million times across our social media platforms, attracted thousands of comments, achieved huge online and media reach and generated unprompted praise and solidarity from advocacy groups around the globe.
Much more importantly though it contributed to a 110 per cent increase in the number of people identifying as LGBT+ registering their interest in a career in the fire service.
We wanted to say something about who we are and what we stand for as a service. The fact that it’s resulted in people who may never have considered a career in the fire service before wanting to work for us, was the ultimate goal though.
Written for Alive by Alexander Mills, Communications Manager, South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue