by John Trybus, Managing Director

Social strategist Cathy Renna has not only witnessed – but played a major role in shaping – the LGBT movement in the U.S. for more than two decades.

When 21-year-old Matthew Shepard lay dying in a hospital as the victim of a brutal hate crime, Cathy was on the scene in Laramie, Wyoming working to shape accurate media coverage on behalf of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). She served the organization for 14 years as spokesperson and national news media director.

When Ellen DeGeneres announced her sexual orientation to the world on her sitcom series, Cathy was working to gain support for the show in Birmingham, Alabama, the only market in the country which refused to air the episode.

And those are only two examples.

“I’ve been absolutely blessed to feel as if I’ve had the opportunity to play a role in what are many pivotal and historical moments of visibility for the LGBT community,” Cathy told me in our interview conducted via phone from her home on New York’s Shelter Island.

Today Cathy is the founder and managing partner of Renna Communications, a consultancy she created six years ago to focus solely on building communication strategies on behalf of LGBT issues. The consultancy particularly focuses on several topics that are close to Cathy’s heart: youth, family and homelessness.

Although Cathy says she “wakes up everyday kind of amazed by how much progress” the LGBT movement has made, she also believes there is much work ahead. Here’s a preview of what PR practitioners interested in this human rights topic need to keep in mind to bring about future successes through the power of communication:

  • It’s (still) all about the stories:  We have all heard time and again that causes are more effective through stories and the same principle holds true for advancing the LGBT movement, according to Cathy. “I feel like the work that we do is about telling stories,” she explains. “And that to me is the way that we reach people who may not understand or know, or even have hostile feelings toward LGBT people. It’s about storytelling and having people get to know us in a new way.”
  • Combat ignorance with education: Over the years Cathy says that reporters have gotten more sophisticated about covering LGBT issues. Yet, she still receives many of the same (and frequently ignorant) questions over and over again. “Battling decades of misinformation, myth, lies and stereotypes” is not easy to overcome she explains. In media relations, it is not simply about placing stories but also about educating reporters about LGBT issues which will hopefully result in stronger coverage, long-term relationships plus increased understanding.
  • Embrace the diversity and change the messaging: Much of the movement’s messaging, especially related to gay marriage, has suggested that people who are LGBT are the same as those who aren’t. Cathy believes this is a mistake because it’s not true. The fact of diversity should be celebrated and instead she recommends messaging that speaks to the theme of “we have more in common than we don’t.”

I was also interested in Cathy’s take on what PR professionals should know about engaging the LGBT audience in an authentic and successful way, especially as it relates to CSR initiatives.

“If you treat us with respect and reach out to us with both language and images that are inclusive, respectful and diverse…if you see our community not just as a market but in many ways a very unique population because we are a microcosm of the larger culture” that’s when successful engagement ensues, says Cathy. The result will be support from an incredibly loyal audience she adds.

American Airlines, JET Blue, Progressive Insurance and Absolut Vodka are among the companies that Cathy believes are engaging LGBT audiences responsibly, authentically and “put their money where their mouth is” through productive partnerships and far policies in the workplace.

Listen to my interview with social strategist Cathy Renna to learn more about how communication and CSR can advance the LGBT movement.