A Candid Conversation with Communicators about Race and Racism: How Should Companies Respond?

How can and should organizations be talking about hot-bed issues surrounding the murder of George Floyd, systemic racism, and racial injustice and inequality? Is it even appropriate for business to get involved?

As a member of the National Press Club Communicators Committee, I recently had the opportunity to work with my colleagues to put together an engaging and thought-provoking panel discussion. “Candid Conversations: Navigating Conversations about Race, Internally and Externally,” brought together a diverse group of communications professionals from a variety of backgrounds who provided insight and advice about how to tackle these challenging and often difficult conversations.

AP Assignment Manager Lisa Matthews ― a former PR professional herself — moderated the session, which included panelists Crystal Borde, Diversity & Inclusion practice lead for Vanguard Communications; Priscilla Clarke, president and CEO of Clarke & Associates; and Sean Greenwood, grand poobah of public relations (yes, that’s his real title!) for Ben & Jerry’s.

“It was a moment in a movement,” said Borde in reference to the killing of George Floyd.

Communicators, she said, should be prepared for the long haul when it comes to crafting these types of public messages, noting that George Floyd was one of many such instances and won’t likely be the last. She offered the following advice about issuing statements: 1) make sure what you say aligns with your mission, 2) be authentic, and 3) be transparent.

Clarke spoke about her personal journey and early experiences with racism, starting at the age of 9. “It’s what drew me to the work I do [as a communicator].”

She called the killing of George Floyd a “humanity moment,” noting that, as a human being, regardless of race, people could not ignore what had happened. Consumers nowadays, she said, are holding companies and brands they support accountable, and they expect organizations to speak out on important societal issues.

But that’s easier said than done for some organizations. In the case of Ben & Jerry’s, however, the company has a long history of “running toward confrontation” said Greenwood. The ice cream manufacturer is known for speaking out publicly on a variety of issues, which is why the company was able to authentically issue a strong and powerful statement after the death of George Floyd, said Greenwood.

But he acknowledged not all companies can ― or should — take that approach. “Do something that’s authentic to you. It can be something small and reasonable.”

Everyone agreed that businesses need to do more than simply issue statements condemning racial injustice and inequality.

“You need to go beyond the sound bite of Black Lives Matter,” said Clarke. “You have to be able to back it up publicly.”

But, cautioned Borde, companies need to be thoughtful, not reactive before they go public. “Listen to the conversations taking place before you start talking.”

Yet when it comes to highly charged, emotional topics, many companies are afraid to make a misstep, said Greenwood. He advises organizations to bring in an expert, such as the NAACP, which is what Ben & Jerry’s has done in the past.

“You don’t have to be perfect,” he said. “But you have to do the work, both internally and externally. That’s where organizations get into trouble.”

To ensure the candid conversations about race and racism continue and don’t slowly fade away, Borde suggested communicators create a plan with milestones and a commitment to achieving them.

“It’s no longer business as usual,” said Clarke. “Diversity and inclusion have never been a necessity [in business]. Now everyone has the spotlight on them.”

As difficult as it may be for some organizations to have these “candid conversations,” it’s clear that it is not only appropriate for businesses to speak out in today’s climate, but it will also be a business imperative going forward. Consumers won’t accept anything less.

And, as communicators, we play a central role in helping to guide and counsel the C-suite on how to effectively navigate these difficult and challenging conversations, whether they be about race or other emotionally charged issues. The need for professional communicators has never been greater or more essential.

Contact us if your organization needs assistance with its internal or external communications.

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