In the heat of the protests calling for racial justice following the death of George Floyd, a client called me frantic asking for guidance on what to say.
“Where do you stand,” I asked. “What action are you going to take? What will you change? What values will you uphold in your business?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “ I am struggling to find the right words and images.”
His company is a growing consumer brand that puts out fresh and consistently topical social media content but was stomped this time. His digital team bought time on #BlackoutTuesday (June 2) by posting black tiles on Instagram with the hashtag, but no statement. It was a politically correct way to speak out without really talking about it. But it said nothing about the actions, changes in company policy or donations that would go to groups fighting for the important cause of equality. Silence can be a statement onto itself.
Messages from the heart
Nearly a week later, my questions were still unanswered. The messages I suggested were not his own, and so they felt wooden. Because the right messages must come from the heart, from the values and principles that guide the people at the helm of an organization.
“There is no such thing as a neutral position on racism,” I said and quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.:
A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice . A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.
The urgency of the moment, coupled with the ongoing global pandemic, pushed my client through the impasse. The result was a sincere and well-articulated statement that no lives matter until #blacklivesmatter, and the promise to work for safety, opportunity, and happiness for all Americans, with specific actions defined.
Go beyond the corporate statement
My client was not alone in his soul-searching for the right words and actions. Millions of organizations and their leaders are looking for ways to take action on the matter of race—beyond the corporate statement and featherweight diversity and inclusion policies. It’s not easy to navigate the myriad viewpoints on race and inequality during this emotionally charged moment, and safeguard business interests at the same time.
Yet many organizations have already had a dramatic and swift reckoning with racism. Here are just a few examples: NASCAR said it would ban the Confederate flag from its events and properties. The Paramount TV network removed, “Cops,” the long-running reality show from its schedule, as protests nationwide call for an end to police violence. HBO Max removed “Gone with the Wind” from its classics catalog, citing the film’s romantic portrayal of slavery in the Civil War-era South. And the American dictionary Merriam-Webster updated its definition of the word racism after a young black woman asked that it include a reference to systemic oppression.
Responses and actions vary widely with one common thread: the desire to join the righteous fight against systemic racism and injustice.
Time to learn, listen and engage
The C-suite cannot remain silent at this time; silence speaks volumes. Executive leaders set the tone for their companies and their words are powerful. The role of the spokesperson becomes critical during crises when human suffering requires human responses.
This is a time for leaders to learn, listen and engage in peaceful actions and conversations about racism and discrimination of all types. But perhaps most importantly, it is the time to speak up, take a stand, and be better together by helping to lift up black voices and ultimately equality for people of all colors everywhere.
This blog is part of my Crisis Conversations Series: useful articles to help you manage critical conversations during turbulent times. Here are the links:
Better Virtual Meetings during Covid-19 and Beyond
10 Communication Tips for Navigating a Crisis
Crisis Communication Leadership
Bad Public Speaking: Gambling on Trump
10 Tips to Look Your Best on Video Conferences
To view specialized communication coaching designed to help you navigate the pandemic, visit COVID-19 Resources.