And the Rockets’ Red Glare

Here’s what you need to know…

As our nation celebrates its 244th birthday, we remember the tremendous achievements of our country and the great sacrifices made by many men and women to ensure America remains strong, independent, and free. While our 2020 festivities may look different than years past, they may still involve the time-honored tradition of fireworks illuminating the night sky.

These days, however, a lot more goes into creating fireworks than imagined by the Chinese monks who accidentally invented them more than 1,000 years ago. In our modern times, bringing fireworks to the people requires navigating a complex public affairs environment that is  a far cry even from 1777, when John Adams suggested we celebrate America’s freedom with “Bonfires and Illuminations.”

Between a complex regulatory landscape, competing pressures from a diverse array of stakeholders, a supply chain reliant on China, and an operating landscape impacted by COVID-19 and recent social unrest, the fireworks industry’s public affairs challenges may seem all too familiar to many of you. So if you are like 80% of Americans hoping to watch some much needed “Bonfires and Illuminations” for Independence Day, here is what you need to know about the challenges the industry navigated to brighten your holiday.

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  • Complex Regulations That Vary Greatly Across State And Local Jurisdictions: Just as fireworks colors and displays vary wildly, so too do the laws that regulate them. At the federal level, fireworks are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and are defined by two categories: “display fireworks” and “consumer fireworks.” At the state level, most states permit some or all types of “consumer” fireworks, but three states (Illinois, Ohio, and Vermont) limit them to sparklers and other novelties, and one state (Massachusetts) bans the use of consumer fireworks all-together. Within states, many counties, cities, and towns set their own additional rules on the purchase and use of fireworks. It is important for suppliers and consumers alike to be aware of the laws, which often include age and time restrictions.
  • Pressures From A Broadening Range Of Stakeholders With Competing Interests: Despite being largely viewed by Americans as a fun summer activity, the pyrotechnics industry has faced mounting pressure by a diverse array of activists with a range of concerns. Environmentalists complain air pollution and alleged traces of chemicals that could be harmful to animals or bodies of water. Other pushback has come from veterans’ groups worried about fireworks triggering PTSD in veterans, as well as animal rights activists who claim the loud explosions can spook pets, causing them to run away. These advocates often argue that Americans should seek alternatives to fireworks, like laser light shows or limiting flames to the barbeque grill.
  • Potential Tariffs And Other Supply Chain Challenges: While most see fireworks as a quintessential American tradition, nearly 95 percent of the fireworks that are detonated in the U.S are imported from China. That is why many in the industry were concerned last summer as President Trump considered including fireworks in a round of tariffs on Chinese imports. Ultimately, they were excluded from the list, but the reliability and safety of its supply chain remains a challenge for the industry. Companies must constantly evaluate the reputability of Chinese suppliers, and remain on-guard for potential counterfeiting that could endanger consumers. Because of the high demand and hyper seasonal nature of the industry, many fireworks suppliers place their orders a year in advance—which has saved suppliers from COVID-19 related inventory issues, but that left the industry exposed to other economic impacts from the virus.
  • Economic Impact Of COVID-19 Lockdowns and Cancellations: Because many suppliers place orders a year in advance, many are now vulnerable to oversupply issues as lockdowns and social distancing regulations have many municipalities cancelling their annual Fourth of July fireworks events. This reality has been extremely painful for businesses that execute professional displays, with one Pennsylvania based company losing over 400 of their events this year, and leaving it unclear if companies in this industry can survive until next year without assistance from the federal government. In contrast, consumer fireworks retailers’ sales have boomed more than 200% higher than last year.
  • Caught In The Middle Of A Social Movement: Like many brands trying to do and say the right things in the current moment, fireworks have become an unintended flash point. In densely populated areas, 9-11 call centers have been overwhelmed by calls complaining about unauthorized fireworks. Some panicked residents are falling prey to conspiracy theories, fearful it could be coordinated police responses, attempts to frame minorities, the early signs of an impending civil war, or gun violence. The reality, though, may be much simpler, with officials pointing to boredom after months of quarantine leading to early, unauthorized observances of the summer holiday. In a time when even such long-held traditions can have new meaning – real or imagined – public affairs professionals must be mindful of how their product is perceived by the public.

With many communities canceling traditional fireworks displays due to the ongoing pandemic, Americans have flocked to the stores to buy their favorite bottle rockets, sparklers, and Roman candles, causing further public safety concerns the pyrotechnic industry and its public affairs representatives may need to address. So, as you safely enjoy fireworks displays with friends and family, remember the pyrotechnic industry has carefully navigated regulatory and reputational terrain that is all too familiar to those in other less explosive industries just to bring us these bright displays in celebration of our Independence.

From all of us here at Delve, have a happy and safe Fourth of July!

p.s. – Want an even greater information advantage at your holiday soiree? Check out 2019’s examination of the plant-based meats joining Independence Day barbeques across the nation, or 2018’s look at the reputational scrutiny facing Bourbon.