In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, audiences are looking for signs that this time will be different.
There have been countless messages of support, solidarity and concern on social media and digital platforms. Some businesses have made new pledges to pursue more diversity and inclusion in their ranks. Others have been more reticent—perhaps hoping to avoid an issue that makes them uncomfortable.
The experts argue that such silence is a big mistake.
Courtney Newell, founder and CEO of Crowned Marketing and Communications, says that the first step is owning past missteps. For example, it was important for the National Football League and commissioner Roger Goodell to acknowledge how they have failed to address the issue of racial justice in the past.
“That’s the first step,” Newell says. “And it has to come from the leadership. It has to come from the CEO.”
However, statements aren’t enough.
“There really has to be more of a policy change and a mindset shift within corporations in order to be taken seriously, because the world is watching,” says Newell.
Don’t hedge your language
It’s important for communications not to play it safe or to shy away from the messages that consumers are looking for in this cultural moment. Generic statements about the importance of diversity and your commitments on equality for all now fail to meet the moment and offer full-throated support for the Black community.
“It’s important to make sure that brands are saying that they stand with the Black community,” Newell says. “Right now, ‘Black’ needs to be in there. I think that companies that are shying away from that are not really as effective as they could be.”
Newell says it is OK to connect messages about fighting racial discrimination to messages about gender discrimination, too.
However, statements of support should be tied to measurable action. Newell recommends digging into the policy of your organization to talk about how your platform and resources are being used to create a fair and just playing field for your stakeholders—regardless of their skin color.
As an example, she points to Sephora, which said it would dedicate 15% of its shelf space to black-owned businesses.
“Things like that are really what are going to move the needle,” Newell says, adding that she fears what is being lost in the conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd’s death is the gap in economics that has persisted because of discrimination and structural racism. Plus, focusing on your own organization and what it can do gives you a unique message to share.
“Coming up with programs that are unique to your own business and your own voice are important, too,” Newell says.
Lean on your ERGs
Newell says that leaders should be actively seeking feedback from diversity-minded employee resource groups.
“A lot of them have ideas that are unique to the company, and they’re just waiting to be tapped,” says Newell. “I think that those internal resources are great to tap into right now, especially.”
When it comes to diversifying the communications industry, Newell points to another tool: mentorship.
“When it comes to protégés, most people like someone to look like them,” Newell says. “Typically, you see your protege as someone who reminds you of a younger you–but it needs to go deeper than that.”
She says that attention should focus not only on senior white leaders helping young Black pros to advance in their careers, but in a more generalized approach to creating avenues for advancement and helping young Black PR pros envision their success.
“There’s that saying,” Newell says, “’You can’t be what you can’t see.’ … but I think that if someone sees something in you, then it’s more believable and even if they don’t look like you, you can start to see it within yourself.”
Diverse communications are paramount
Newell makes a strong case that diverse communications is more than a moral good, but rather a business imperative.
“The whole point of communicating is to make sure that every voice is being heard,” she says. “If you have diverse voices—Black, brown, white–everyone included in those conversations, then you’ll be able to more effectively communicate.”
So how can PR pros find new connections and make sure they are connecting with voices outside of their insular spheres of influence? Newell says that your intranet might be a great place to start—followed by other technological solutions. “Yammer has been a really big play right now for companies to have these conversations,” she says. Newell points to examples where companies have created Slack channels specifically dedicated to these topics. “There’ve been Zoom sessions that are created for open conversations, and then there’ve been a number of events—they’re popping up and almost every day now.”
For those who are comfortable opening up online, she says it can be powerful to invite people to start a conversation on social media channels. A message like, “Hey, I have some time today. Let’s talk if you have any questions,” has helped her open up a dialogue.
Role of a facilitator
Newell has a message for white colleagues who are turning to people of color in their network to process the current moment. “A lot of people are tired, and they feel like they don’t want to necessarily talk about it,” she says. “It’s not their job to educate people.”
Instead, being the facilitator of a wider conversation about race, equality and inclusion is a terrific pursuit for an organization’s communications team.
“There needs to be a platform that’s created, and it should be created by leadership, saying: ‘Hey, I’m going to create this platform for us,’” Newell recommends. She says it can be a Zoom meeting or Slack channel—someplace where employees can enter to have a dialogue. Once it is created, you can just see who comes in to share and participate.
“You’ll be surprised how many people are really just like, ‘I just didn’t know that this was a problem,’” Newell says.
It can also be powerful to bring in a third-party to address this topic. Newell shares the example of TOMS, which brought in outside counsel to create a text message hotline that gives employees access to counselors with whom they could share concerns and feelings in the workplace.
“Having someone step in as a third party is ideal because that way, everyone’s coming to the table, feeling like their voice can be heard,” Newell says. “You also want to be able to have some action steps as well—so it’s important to make sure the meeting isn’t just a venting session.” Venting is OK, and even necessary she admits, but you want to make sure you bring the conversation back around to actions to make changes in the organization.
We have an important opportunity to make change, Newell says, and we should invest in steps that ensure action is taken. “It’s really important to make sure that we put in policy and procedures to make sure that we don’t have to revisit this specific place.”