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Op-Ed Piece: Essence Festival's PR Crisis: A Lesson in Power and the Art of Perception

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Essence Festival of Culture promo artwork

Can the Essence Festival Being Legally Right Lead to Being Publicly Wrong?

Consider the case of the esteemed Essence Festival, which has found itself in a legal dispute and a PR crisis with a small Black-owned bookstore and event organizers in the heart of New Orleans.

According to several news outlets, Essence Festival served a court order to Baldwin & Co. bookstore, forcing it to cancel an event celebrating Black authors during the festival. The festival charged the bookstore and organizers with violating a municipal law prohibiting competing events in certain tourist hotspots and alleged improper use of Essence's name and logo in marketing materials.

The bookstore collaborated with event organizer Tamika Newhouse and two other companies for an event spotlighting Black authors. The "pay to play" event charged authors up to $650 for the opportunity to gain increased exposure during the Essence Festival.

Essence Festival's cease-and-desist petition, filed on June 29th in the Civil District Court against Newhouse, Delphine Legacy Media, and Lit Diaries LLC., claimed the event illicitly used the Essence name in promotions and infringed the New Orleans "clean zone" law. Judge Richard Perque approved the restraining order and required the event organizers to refund all collected attendance fees.

Dernell "DJ" Johnson, the bookstore owner, was removed from the legal action after he denied involvement in the questionable promotions. On Instagram, he stated he did not create any marketing materials for the event, respecting the importance of trademark and copyright law. Despite this, Essence Festival continues its legal action against the event organizers.

While these legal matters will play out in court, there's another significant issue we must discuss - the storm brewing in the court of public opinion.

Full disclosure: I am a Black woman with a longstanding love for the Essence brand. As a PR, marketing, and branding agency owner, and an individual who has a client, a new author, who was approached for this event, I find myself in a unique position to offer perspective. There was indeed some ambiguity regarding whether the event was an Essence-affiliated or coordinated event. But, it's important to note that the marketing materials did state that it was not an official Essence event.

Nonetheless, this situation does not cast a favorable light on the Essence brand.

Throughout its existence, Essence, now owned by Richelieu Dennis, has been a beacon of unproblematic representation in our lives. Even during its ownership by Time Inc. from 2000 to 2018, we, the Black community, continued to support this cultural mainstay. The current situation, however, threatens to escalate into a full-blown PR crisis.

I presume that before Essence decided to take such a public and aggressive stance against a Black-owned bookstore and event organizers, there were extensive behind-the-scene discussions. Legally, they needed to protect the brand and send a clear message to others who might seek to capitalize on the Essence Festival. But I want to know if there was an equally thorough conversation with their crisis management team, the nerds in the background like me who scrutinize every word of a PR statement and intimately understand how to gauge the public mood before making a move?

In this scenario, Essence inevitably appears as Goliath against David as a wealthy festival operator against the smaller, community-focused bookstore. Or even the burly bully who is operating a mega-million-dollar festival and also seeking to snatch the collar of the kid standing on the corner across the street selling bottled water to passersby for $1.This situation paints Essence in a new and unfamiliar light, a perception of overkill and greed. As the wave of social media criticism grows, even local New Orleans politicians are questioning the wisdom of the "clean zone" law.

Operating a large corporate brand while maintaining an authentic connection with Black culture is no easy feat. One must navigate corporate decision-making while building rapport with the everyday, working-class people who've helped the brand flourish.

In my Monday-morning quarterback opinion, Essence could and SHOULD have done several things preemptively to prevent this PR crisis from happening, including being more transparent prior to taking legal action by publicly communicating their reasoning and clarifying their stand so they wouldn't appear so heavy-handed. They also needed to be locked and loaded with a crisis management plan that proactively addresses the public relations fallout. And at a minimum, they certainly should have done a better job of engaging with the community and their millions of followers on social media about this issue to maintain a positive image and handle any criticism constructively.

In flexing its corporate muscle, Essence should remember this critical rule - those with the most power must know when and how to wield it. Not to swing hard just because they can, but because it's right. Let the inevitable crisis management plan commence.

Moving forward, here are some measures Essence Festival should consider (Essence...y'all better run some of these plays - and put me a check in the mail.)

  1. Apologize for any missteps and Acknowledge the impact it's had: Start with an open, honest acknowledgment of the situation. Essence should issue a public statement expressing regret for the impact this situation has had on Baldwin & Co., the authors involved, and the community. Avoid legalese or corporate jargon; the language should be heartfelt and sincere.

  2. Clarify Intentions: It's important to clarify that the motive behind the legal action was to protect Essence's brand and not to undermine local Black businesses or authors. Reiterate Essence's commitment to supporting Black businesses, creatives, and communities.

  3. Engage in Dialogue: Essence should reach out to Baldwin & Co., the event organizers, and the authors affected. Engage in open conversations to understand their perspectives and concerns better. This engagement should be done privately initially, and a summary of actions taken can be shared publicly later.

  4. Public Town Hall Meeting: Organize a virtual town hall or a Q&A session on social media platforms. This allows Essence to directly address the concerns of their audience and answer questions about the incident. The tone should be humble, open, and engaging.

  5. Showcase Support for Black-Owned Businesses: Launch a series of features on social media and the Essence website highlighting Black-owned businesses, including Baldwin & Co., and authors affected by the canceled event. This classy measure demonstrates Essence's commitment to supporting the community.

  6. Revisit Policies: This is SUPER important. Review and revise the brand use policies to make them clearer and more accessible. Communicate these policies to the public and businesses to prevent similar incidents in the future.

  7. Partnership Opportunities: Explore possibilities for future collaborations with Baldwin & Co., the affected authors, and other local Black businesses. This could involve events, promotions, or features in the magazine, affirming Essence's longstanding commitment to uplifting Black businesses.

  8. Crisis Communication Training: Conduct internal training sessions to prepare for potential crises. (And I sure hope you're already doing this) Ensure that the team understands the brand's values and knows how to communicate them effectively in high-pressure situations.

  9. Community Outreach: Engage in community outreach in New Orleans and other cities, showing Essence's commitment to supporting local communities beyond the festival.

  10. Transparency: Keep the public updated about the steps Essence is taking to resolve the issue and prevent similar incidents in the future. Regular updates demonstrate accountability and a commitment to change.

Remember, the goal is not only to manage the immediate crisis but also to strengthen Essence's relationship with its audience and reaffirm its commitment to the Black community. Handling this situation with transparency, empathy, and respect will go a long way in rebuilding the public's trust....and mine.


A long-time, devoted fan - Pamela Berry-Johnson

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