Three Viacom television brands -- MTV, BET, and Comedy Central -- showed a brilliant grasp of PR and cause marketing when students across the country today walked out of their classes for 17 minutes today in support the Parkland movement. In the process, the television company showed an uncommonly subtle and effective grasp of PR by doing nothing.

Cause marketing can go badly wrong in several ways. Companies often seem exploitive, riding on the coattails of a movement or idea when there's no natural affinity. Or they can be clumsy in their execution.

But Viacom was emotionally intelligent in its approach. Instead of doing what many others will do, which is praise the students for their activism, the company turned off the feed on the channels at 10 AM and left them off for 17 minutes.

The brands literally did nothing. They walked out with the students.

If you know something about the television industry, you'll recognize how unusual a complete shutdown is. One of the rules-of-thumb is never to let things go quiet. When you do, there's the risk that the audience will get bored and drift off elsewhere.

Viacom planned for its three channels to do exactly what they're not supposed to. It effectively did what the students did and, in the process, called attention to itself by not being in sight.

The move was important to the company because of the audience demographics particularly on those channels. MTV targets a 12-to-34 audience. Comedy Central similarly targets those from 18 to 34 as well as 18 to 49, depending on the program and time.

The particularly smart inclusion was BET and an African-American audience of 18 to 49. The age range is older, but Viacom heard and recognized the criticisms that the Parkland students had received far more positive attention than Black Lives Matter. The company effectively included that movement in a way that many others focused solely on Parkland hadn't.

Could Viacom have done better? Perhaps. A press release went out ahead of time. It might have been interesting to wait until after to say what they had done, as the announcement could be taken as edging toward self-interest.

But that's a peccadillo. Overall, this was an outstanding venture into cause marketing, employing taste, restraint, inclusion, and effectiveness.

Published on: Mar 14, 2018
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