One of our freelance colleagues – Sharla Farrell – recently published a heartfelt article about her experiences and challenges as a black woman in a previous company. It was driven by a discrepancy between that PR agency’s perceived stance on racial issues and actions occurring within it.
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In recent months, spurred by the murder of George Floyd by four police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a familiar and painful topic has again risen to the top of public consciousness: North America’s systemic racism targeting Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC). As a marketing and communications team, we are regularly faced with questions from brands on how to show their support for this movement. Missteps are easy, and there are countless examples of criticisms launched at companies for what many see as bandwagon support.
Brands across industries from all over the world have been weighing in on the conversation; some with carefully crafted statements, some with a black square posted to social media, and some saying nothing at all (this silence speaks volumes). Similarly, many companies have found themselves under intense scrutiny for their own racist policies or behaviours. To this end, PR teams have scrambled to action over the past several weeks trying to craft the perfect crisis communications.
We all have a responsibility to discuss and educate ourselves to be anti-racist supporters of justice and equity for Black communities everywhere. To have this discussion within our own team, we invited Sharla (founder of Toronto-based Easy Consulting Studio), to share her insights and expertise on what makes good—and bad—crisis communication in response to the Black Lives Matter movement (1).
Farrell’s advice to brands taking part in the #BLM discussion is simple, but it starts at the very beginning.
Crisis Communication Isn’t About PR Communication At All
The reality of communicating about Black Lives Matter is that public communication has little impact—and possibly negative impact—if not paired with a plan for real internal change. “The first thing to do is address the issues within your own company,” Farrell says.
To plot your communication scheme, begin by looking inward: how can your company be better?
“Ask what you can include or update in terms of diversity training, inclusion training and encouraging feedback from your BIPOC employees.” Farrell says. “Then, assess who you’re hiring and why; consider who your applicants are, and why.”
Ask yourself: do you cultivate an actively anti-racist work environment? Do you employ BIPOC? If you do, do they feel safe bringing concerns to management? Do you exploit or pay less for the labour of BIPOC? Has your company donated to Black Lives Matter, a bail fund, or another Black-led community initiative? How do you enable your employees to take part in this discussion?
Once you’ve answered these questions and created a detailed action plan, you may find there is information you’d like to share with the public. But this communication should happen only after you’ve done the hard work and begun your education. Issuing a brief statement which indicates your intentions can bridge the gap until you’re ready to share your work-in-progress anti-racist plan.
Don’t Talk the Talk without Walking the Walk
What do you call a black square posted to Instagram without an anti-racist company plan to back it up? Performative.
Performative communication occurs when companies purport to support a cause such as #BLM without making the necessary changes internally to truly back up this position. This may look like sharing a PR statement in favour of Black Lives Matter without treating their own Black employees with respect. “Create an environment where your BIPOC employees are not only treated respectfully, but where they feel comfortable raising concerns,” Farrell says. “Ask your employees what they think and what they need.”
For example, Farrell points out, L’Oreal was called out by model Munroe Bergdorf last month after the company shared a #BLM statement. Bergdorf, a Black model, criticized the company for terminating their relationship in 2017 after Bergdorf herself spoke out about systemic racism and white supremacy. L’Oreal’s actions were performative; disrespecting Bergdorf and the company’s wider audience by not more closely auditing company actions before making their statement only did more damage.
The fix? “Be honest and take ownership for the mistakes you or your company has made,” Farrell says.
The point of embracing Black Lives Matter as a movement is signing on to lifelong learning, not positioning yourself or your company as an anti-racist par excellence with nothing left to improve.
Plan for the Long Term
The opposite of performative communication, according to Farrell, is encapsulated by a brand like Nike, which conducted a diversity audit on its own workforce as part of its pledge to support Black communities in North America. They found that only 4.8% of Nike’s directors were Black or African American, while 9.9% of VPs identified as such (2). Committing to a re-evaluation of the company’s structural and processual makeup came in tandem with the company’s $40 million dollar pledge over the next four years to be disbursed to support Black communities in the United States (3).
Neither of these moves can be encapsulated in one PR statement just as neither of these moves will be accomplished in the short term. But they demonstrate a long term commitment to equity, fighting racism and leading by example—not only for individuals, but for companies, too. “We’re living in a pandemic,” Farrell says. “Companies might not be hiring right now, but they can use this time to plan for the future and develop comprehensive anti-racist policies."
Actionable Short Term Items for Today’s Business Owners
Not all companies have the resources to divert funds or overhaul hiring processes to create better diversity. But there are many ways companies can fight racism internally that do not cost millions. Farrell’s suggestions? “Give your employees time off to protest, like a long weekend” she says, “or create a dedicated Slack channel for circulating petitions, where employees can discuss and ask questions.” If your firm does have cash to spare, “offer to match employee donations; you can share the sum raised company wide with your audience,” Farrell says.
Similarly, making resources available—like purchasing books for your employees, or circulating resources via internal email—is valuable to creating a change in company culture. “The first thing to do is mobilize your employees,” Farrell says. “Focus on creating a collaborative space which encourages education and discussion. Getting everyone involved in that work together is very powerful.” Your employees may also be struggling with the constant news of violent protests and police brutality; if possible, offer them time off to recuperate. Being proactive and dynamic with your support as an employer is integral.
Measurables, Deliverables, Accountability
Once you’ve begun the process of transforming the structure, policies and processes within your company into anti-racist ones, you may choose to make a statement about that process. Avoid empty promises and platitudes; it shouldn’t be possible to confuse your statement with another.
In this statement, detail the specific steps within your company that you have taken or will take in the future and set deadlines. These deadlines can be used to ensure accountability and transparency both within the company and for the public.
This may sound intimidating, but this is why we began with the hard truth: crisis communications is not really about public relations communication—not until you’ve got your own house in order. It's the work done internally which creates real change, and real change is the only acceptable outcome.
1 Personal communication between Rose Agency and Sharla Farrell, July 2020.
2 Nike Purpose. “Nike Purpose: 2019 Representation and Pay.” Accessed July 6, 2020. https://purpose.nike.com/fy19-representation-and-pay.
3 Nike News. “NIKE, Inc. Statement on Commitment to the Black Community.” Accessed July 6, 2020. https://news.nike.com/news/nike-commitment-to-black-community.