Greenwashing Black Pete?

The annual children’s tradition Sinterklaas has been overshadowed for the last couple of years by the discussion whether Sinterklaas’ helper, called Black Pete, is a racist character or not. The opponents of Black Pete claim that the character is a caricature of black people and descends from our slavery history, while the defenders of Black Pete claim that Black Pete is an old innocent tradition and should not be changed. In a recent blog by Anne Sofie Tieman she explained how the large television production company RTL Nederland decided to change Black Pete into a more neutral character in their television programmes. I wanted to further elaborate on that and the way they framed it, because I question RTL’s sincerity and think it was just a PR trick to prevent any reputational damage. 

Author: Cees Hoogvliet

Source: YouTube

Agenda set to St. Nicholas’ Eve

RTL framed the removal of Black Pete, and replacing it with Chimney Pete, by saying that we should respect each other and thought the character was not appropriate. However, prior to the discussion, RTL used Black Pete for years and never claimed it to be inappropriate. This has everything to do with the reversed agenda setting theory, which claims that public issues can influence the media agenda. When Black Pete became a big topic of discussion, RTL decided to replace Black Pete with a more neutral character in order to avoid negative reactions from their stakeholders and possible reputational damage. If they really thought it was racist and inappropriate, they would have changed it before it was a hot topic.

Play the frame game

According to research, many organizations have adopted public relations in order to achieve certain organizational goals by getting media coverage. By framing information about the organization in a certain way, the organization is able to let the public believe the news the way you presented it. RTL framed the change of Black Pete in a way, so the public would think they were against racism and be supportive of everyone’s opinion.

Source: Wecycle

Greenwashing their motives

But sometimes organizations engage in CSR activities just to increase sales or gain a more favourable reputation and not because they are concerned with society. This is called greenwashing and I think that is the case with RTL. RTL released a statement regarding the change and said they respected the opinions of both the opponents as well as the defenders of Black Pete and that they would use a more neutral character in the future, which would be acceptable for both sides. However, the motives of RTL to change Black Pete are questionable. RTL was probably well aware of the fact, that if they would continue using Black Pete in their programmes, a large group would be offended and have a more negative attitude towards RTL. This could result in losing viewers, negative reactions and reputational damage. By using a neutral character, RTL hopes to retain their favourable reputation.

How do you perceive RTL’s decision to change Black Pete? Am I too distrustful towards RTL’s motives or do I have a point? Let me know in the comments!

About the author:

Cees Hoogvliet (23), a soon-to-be graduated master student in corporate communication at the University of Amsterdam. Interested in social media, branding, PR, beer and preferably a combination of those.


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