The words of MLK serve as inspiration for communicators

Comms pros seeking to build community, calm factions and find common ground should reflect on the civil rights leader’s teachings.

What communicators can learn from MLK

The challenges America faces as a country can feel overwhelming, particularly in these early days of 2021 as COVID-19 numbers continue to climb and a second impeachment is underway for a president with just days left on the job.

We are deeply divided. The presidential election of 2020 showed that even though the winner received more votes than any other candidate in history, the second-highest number of votes in history went to his opponent. And those political tensions erupted into chaos on Jan. 6 when protestors violently stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attack that left five people dead and many more injured.

These are extraordinary times for the American people—the kind of times that were uniquely captured in the speeches and writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We recognize the life and achievements of Dr. King every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but how often do we acknowledge the backdrop for his many powerful quotations? A civil rights leader who faced police violence, and violence from southern whites looking to preserve Jim Crow, King used words to try and bring people together around the cause of human dignity and equality. His message was one of love conquering fear, civility overcoming violence, good triumphing over evil.

It’s a message that resonates for audiences in 2021, and his words might help inspire you to lead with a message of love, justice and fairness for your organization and its people as we face the unknowns of a new year. Here are some passages for you to consider:

1. “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

Dr. King had a lot to say on the subject of using your voice to speak out against moral wrongs. His message is perhaps best encapsulated in the response to the death of George Floyd in May of 2020, as many organizations made commitments to fight racism and inequality and use their resources to uplift Black communities.

Communicators in 2021 can follow Dr. King’s advice by taking a close look at their core values and creating the structures to allow their organizations to have a voice and use their influence on issues that matter to stakeholders. Programs that tackle equity, diversity and inclusion should be at the top of the list, but it doesn’t have to stop there. Do the extra work to learn what your people believe you should stand for and be prepared to use your voice in a timely manner to speak out against injustice.

2. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Negativity, exclusion and invective won’t build the bridges necessary for your organization to find success in 2021. There’s no escaping the fact that the country remains divided, and the disparate experiences of audiences during the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated those differences.

To build community and find common ground, messages of empathy and love will be essential. And this community building work cannot be avoided, particularly for organizations that hope to speak to wide and diverse audiences. Take Dr. King’s advice, and focus on love.

3. “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Hate is a strong word for an even stronger emotion—and it can creep into professional settings. Disagreements and poor communication can allow dislike to fester into something much worse. For communicators, this quote is a clarion call to embrace your critics.

We all make mistakes, and at some time our actions are deserving of censure or rebuke. A good communications team will find a way to make things right, sticking with empathy and love as a guiding principle.

4. “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

After the year 2020, it’s tempting to search for quiet and ease. The onslaught of crisis, economic uncertainty and widespread fear has everyone looking for a brighter, more hopeful 2021. However, that doesn’t mean it will be an easy year.

There’s still a lot of work to do when it comes to advancing our goals around social and racial justice, economic security and unity. Communicators should look carefully at campaigns and messages that are reaching for a more stable and secure year and ask if they are really serving the needs of their organizations. Don’t move on just to keep the peace. As Dr, King says, true peace comes when audiences feel that there is justice for all.

5. “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Progress won’t happen overnight, whether that’s on achieving your DE&I objectives or driving revenue growth for your organization. You can’t do it all at once, so find the steps you can take to build towards the future you want to see.

6. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

It’s going to be another uncomfortable year for communicators and their organizations. Make sure that you don’t shirk the tough conversations but instead dig deep to find consensus around core values and shared objectives. Make sure that your crisis communications plans are adapted so that your organization is ready to have a strong statement on the social and political moment.

For communicators, this year will be a crucial time to provide essential counsel as business leaders step outside their comfort zone and audiences demand that they speak up on a range of issues.

7. “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

When confronted with issues of inequality, injustice or misconduct, it will not be enough for organizations to simply claim ignorance. Communicators must educate themselves and their colleagues on the many issues that face their organizations, from inclusion and equity to the future of the workplace. Make the time to learn something new, and stay curious for new information as you try to solve new problems.

8. “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Being a servant leader in 2021 might be the best framework for ensuring that your work is having the right impact. Think about how you can help your clients, journalists or colleagues within your organization. Can you be a mentor to someone who is trying to find their way in the industry? Are there other ways you can give back to your community? For the year ahead, find ways to be of service to others.

9. “Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude.”

What does it mean to embody forgiveness as a communicator? It doesn’t mean there isn’t accountability or consequences for mistakes and missteps. Maybe, it’s just taking a breath before firing off that angry email, or asking more questions when you feel like you aren’t getting the answers you need.

Maybe there are other ways you can help lower the temperature in the room. Stand your ground on what you believe in, but think about how you can forgive others around you with whom you disagree. Even harder, think about how you can forgive yourself for mistakes and errors you wish you could get back.

10. “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

These words of Dr. King can be a mission statement for the communicator in 2021. Help your audience get to know the “other,” and get to know itself. Help your organization have important internal conversations and break down barriers between groups both inside and outside the company. Build bridges. Fight fear.

Be the communicator we so desperately need in the year ahead.

Join Ragan’s Internal Communications and Culture Next Practices Conference to learn how to move the needle on DE&I objectives in 2021.

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