The past few weeks have been intense, fast-paced, and emotional.
An upswell of justified anger has forced businesses, governments, and individuals alike to reckon with the inhumanity and ugliness of racial injustice. Social media is a modern-day mirror being held up to our faces; we’re seeing in gruesome, excruciating detail how the power structures we’ve built and benefitted from treat the most vulnerable members of our society.
That dark reality has always been there. It’s not new. But now, those of us privileged enough to be “stuck” at home with more time and information at our disposal than ever before are bearing witness – minute by minute – to the shame that is the treatment of Black people, Indigenous peoples, and other people of color (BIPoC). That shame is a collective burden; everyone and everything with privilege plays a role in perpetuating it.
All of us are guilty – and that means all of us, individuals and institutions alike, have a responsibility to be a meaningful part of the solution.
That can be a daunting prospect, particularly for businesses. Some are too gargantuan to nimbly adapt to an issues landscape that changes on an hourly basis; some are fearful about saying or doing the wrong thing. Others are painted into a corner by an enormous, uncomfortable gap between their record and what they wish to say.
All of this is compounded by the gravity and consequence of this moment in time – one in which most brands would be better off pitching the old playbook out the window than skimming it for guidance. What worked in the past may not be a blueprint for what works in the future. That means we have no choice but to embrace new ways of thinking, behaving, and communicating, lest the new world Millennials and Gen Z are building leaves us all in the dust.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. When it comes to implementation, there are practical considerations that must be factored in and questions that must be asked. What’s appropriate? How do we strike the right notes? And how do we successfully convey the sincerity and genuineness of our intent?
Here are some recommendations and insights to help you get started.
Now isn’t the time to fake it until you make it.
In my experience, most brands genuinely mean well and want to have a positive impact on people and the planet. But in our line of work, we’re occasionally exposed to corporate giving that puts PR results first and human impact second. This is a huge contributor to cynicism about corporate participation in public discourse and skepticism about phenomena like “rainbow washing” and bandwagoning. Donating for the sake of being able to say you donated can actually hamper your communication goals, as the public is much more inclined to reward brands that reach into their pockets with authenticity, with humility, with genuineness, and most importantly, with purpose.
Acknowledge and accept that this moment in time doesn’t belong to you.
June is Pride Month – but leading LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations like GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign are calling for people to focus their Pride activities on elevating Black voices and embracing an intersectional understanding of the community. In the context of Pride, that means the rainbow product you had planned may be less meaningful this year than honoring the struggle and sacrifice of trans people of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, whose herculean efforts made it possible for us to take for granted that a Pride parade could even take place. Accepting that this moment isn’t yours means respecting that there are other, more important voices that should take precedence over what you find expedient. You may have to alter existing plans and approaches – in some cases, drastically – in order to be respectful. The moral of this story: what’s happening in the streets of Washington and Minneapolis and Los Angeles is about people, first and foremost. At most, brands are guests.
These issues are incredibly complex and intersectional – but they are also underpinned by enormous generational tension.
While protestors of every age and lived experience have taken to the streets, the outrage we are witnessing across the border and here at home is being driven in large part by Millennials and Gen Z. According to the New York Times, Millennials and Gen Z are far more likely to: be supporters of Black Lives Matter; say they believe that police are prone to racist behavior; and approve of NFL players’ right to kneel as a form of protest. As a group, they are generally well-connected to their peers, stay informed, and are deeply concerned about social justice. All of these factors influence their outlook on the world and by extension, their purchasing behavior. With young people driving the narrative around these issues, all brands – and particularly those who have or would like to have more young customers – should consider what this means for the language, tone, channels, and actions they choose.
You are not expected to be an expert, and you certainly shouldn’t pretend to be one – but you are expected to act with genuine empathy and speak from the heart.
Few people expect brands to be authorities on the subject matter, but at a minimum, the young demographic shaping today’s issues landscape – a large cohort born between 1981 and 2012 – expects the brands they support to share their values. For businesses, that may mean adopting (within reason and where appropriate) more emotive, progressive language rather than defaulting to a safer, more reserved dialect. But more importantly and fundamentally, it means showing, rather than telling; living your values instead of listing them. Remember, lifelong activists of all ages and lived experiences, supported by Millennials and Gen Z, are the vanguard of this movement. They’re angry, upset, and less interested in stopping the wheel than they are in breaking it altogether. They will actively punish brands whose words cannot be reconciled with past behavior or future commitments.
Criticism will come, and some of it will be harsh – but coexisting with your discomfort will help you learn and make your brand stronger.
Let’s face it: most businesses are not well-equipped to engage in an issues landscape as emotionally charged and fast-moving as the one we’re in today. Try as we might to mitigate them, mistakes will be made. Even statements and actions that took you days, perhaps weeks, to finesse and funnel through internal approvals will be heavily criticized. It can be disheartening, but if you’re ready to coexist with your discomfort, you will learn about new perspectives, words, and experiences that will enrich your thinking and benefit your business. No one becomes an expert overnight; in fact, many people who have spent their lives on the front lines of fights like these are still loath to call themselves experts. But the best way to respond to justified criticism is by learning from it. If six months from now, your brand is written about as one that put its money where its mouth is – not just in the heat of the moment, but as part of a long-term commitment to be a better citizen and do right by BIPoC – even the harshest criticism will have been worth listening to.