Although House Bill 2 was consigned to the history books with a stroke of Gov. Roy Cooper’s pen, the cloud that the controversial bill cast over the state’s brand will linger awhile longer.
That’s the opinion of local communication experts.
They say the state’s image has been badly bruised by the now-defunct law that forbade local governments from enacting anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people and required people in government facilities to use bathrooms matching the gender on their birth certificates. The toll included: becoming the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows; canceled shows by a host of popular entertainers such as Bruce Springsteen; the loss of NCAA and other sporting events; and companies like Deutsche Bank and PayPal scrapping expansion plans.
To be sure, HB2’s impact on the state’s brand – think of it as the state’s essence, what distinguishes it from other states – differs somewhat depending on your political perspective.
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“There was not, is not and will never be one single answer about how HB2 affected the brand,” said Roger Friedensen, a partner at Forge Communications, a Raleigh research and communications strategy firm.
But even though Republican lawmakers insisted that the law wasn’t hurting the economy, the Associated Press estimated it would cost North Carolina more than $3.76 billion in lost business over a 12-year span if it remained in effect.
A quick-fix campaign of some sort just isn’t in the cards even though HB2 has been scrapped.
“This isn’t the kind of issue that you can advertise your way out of,” said Rick French, chairman and CEO of Raleigh public relations and advertising firm French/West/Vaughan. “In other words, you couldn’t run big image-based campaigns saying North Carolina is open for business. That won’t work.”
The good news: “Brands that have built strong equity over the years, and North Carolina is one of them, can recover easier and faster than those with little or no brand equity,” Friedensen.
“If you have a strong brand, it will get you through tough times,” concurred David Baldwin, the CEO of Raleigh advertising agency Baldwin&.
At the same time, however, the fact that the compromise legislation that replaced HB2 also has critics, especially the LGBT community, will complicate any steps taken to upgrade the state’s image.
“They’re continuing to voice their concerns statewide and nationwide,” French said. “That doesn’t help our brand.”
Indeed, although the NCAA said last week that the new compromise law was enough to get the state back in the competition for hosting championship events, it noted that its governing board “reluctantly” agreed to consider the state’s bids. And LGBT-rights groups, the NAACP and others blasted the NCAA for its decision.
The N&O asked a handful of communications experts what next steps the state should take to improve its image now that HB2 is off the books. Here are a few of their suggestions:
▪ Apologize. “I think it’s standard practice, from a PR standpoint, that you acknowledge you were wrong (and) apologize for it,” said Doug Holroyd, founder of The Norgay Group, a Chapel Hill marketing strategy and branding agency. “I think there should be some sort of public apology.”
The logical official to deliver that message, Holroyd said, is the governor – even though he only took office in January and therefore didn’t sign HB2 into law.
Holroyd added that the state could back up that apology by taking actions “that demonstrate that we are a tolerant state and an inclusive state,” such as creating a scholarship for LGBT people.
▪ Harness the power of the people. “One of the tenets of a good PR campaign is, who are your best advocates and ambassadors?” French said. “In theory, they should be the people of this state. They want the state to grow. They want jobs.”
French proposed that the state should “provide content and messaging” that the state’s citizens could share through social media – and encourage them to do so. One way to do that is create a “North Carolina branded channel,” an online site “where the state could control the messaging, post its videos and content and economic development news ... and make it engaging and interactive.”
Getting people to share that information would pay dividends.
“For every one person, they are connected to hundreds or thousands of people that they can help influence. It’s a multiplier that is more powerful than anything you can buy in terms of paid media,” or advertising, French said.
▪ Leverage the halo effect. State marketers should identify and highlight “existing initiatives that already cast a positive halo on the state, particularly those initiatives that are by their nature inclusive,” said Jeremy Holden, chief strategy officer of Raleigh branding and advertising agency Clean Design. “What you do is actually more important than what you say.”
Examples he cited include the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual festival held in Raleigh and the effort to attract a Major League Soccer team to the Triangle.
▪ Promote that the state was able to struggle through HB2 and come out the other side.
Although any compromise is bound to leave people disappointed on both sides, said Friedensen, “the fact is that a Democratic governor and a deeply divided legislature governed by Republican super majorities were able to hammer out an agreement that put HB2 in our rearview mirror.”
“We were able to solve a problem that is emblematic of many of the deep divisions across the country in politics and society,” Fridensen added. “We were able to move forward.”