Quick answer: NO: it's not too late. Clear and honest communication with our multiple audiences is more important than ever before. And racial injustice isn't going to disappear any time soon, as much as we want it to.
So many questions on this topic have come in recently, and I wanted you to hear them, in case your team has similar questions, too:
This is a powerful time for equal rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement is not going away. It can’t. People’s lives and livelihoods and wellbeing are at stake. They always have been. Silence is not acceptable. For anyone. Business leadership can do something. But what?
I suggest we figure it out together. As a first step, let’s take on each of these questions one at a time.
Your company is part of society, yes? It’s made up of members from the community. You might work within a technology company or a medical device health care organization, but in any case, the service is for the benefit of people right?
It is not only appropriate to start a conversation, it's imperative. Start with your team. Listen to what they are thinking and feeling. This will be the basis for your brand’s strategy to support and create a plan of action around social and racial justice.
No. Saying nothing actually speaks volumes. It says you’re not paying attention. It says you don’t care. It says you are afraid of taking a stand for what you believe in. Or worse, that you believe in the status quo. Speaking up shows your employees, partners, and customers that you support them and that you support social and racial equity. (Don't take my word for it; see communication resources at the end of this article.)
Will you say something wrong? Owning up to mistakes is part of what makes great brand leadership. Your PR and social media experts can help here with your communication strategy. A professional writer can help you express it the way you mean to.
What you communicate internally and externally deserves a concentrated focus by your leadership team, with lots of participation from diverse people and departments.
An outside facilitator can help your organization work through difficult conversations and diverse opinions to hone in on your brand values, beliefs, and promises to your audience, so that you can move forward together in solidarity.
A series of virtual workshops, surveys, customer/client interviews, and discussions about your discoveries will lead to a written position statement and actions you can stand behind.
Will it be exactly right? No, because a content strategy is a living, breathing thing. As soon as you "finish," it evolves as the business, your audience, and the world evolves.
But who says you can’t adjust your brand messaging as you grow as a company that is actively supporting equality, diversity, and racial justice?
That seems likely. I know that I boycott companies that invest in or support movements that I don't believe in. But do you really want to provide a valuable product or service to a customer that is holding back social and racial justice? Do you want to give them your support, in the interest of financial gain? Of course not.
The biggest challenge here, really, is when your customers misunderstand or misinterpret your position. Saying nothing or speaking/writing without proactively listening, researching, and discussion can certainly lead to misunderstood communications.
But even if you communicate clearly and concisely, there will always be the trolls, the haters, and the uneducated, which leads us to the next question.
Exceptional PR and social media strategists can help here. People will always speak out against or for what you’re saying or representing, regardless of the topic, and it’s important to respond appropriately to show you are listening and that you value your relationships with your audience.
Be sure your content strategist and your PR and social media strategists are aligned with your brand messaging goals.
The magic happens when you get people involved in the process of discovery and decision (I call this the Magic Layer of content strategy). Ask questions. Invite opinions and ideas. Then begin the more formal communications and brand messaging efforts.
Businesses and thought-leaders are empowered to support positive social change. Corporations can take a stand against racial injustice. It’s uncomfortable for many, I know. For me, I am learning to leverage my position, as a white woman who has had many advantages and as a business owner who helps other businesses improve their communications, speak out against racism, and do something positive, even if these positive things are small. I believe taking even baby steps in the right direction is better than nothing, and these small things can really add up.
Many journalists have written about this one, and the steps reach far beyond the world of honest and proactive communication and content strategy. Check out these ideas from Inc., Time, CNET, SF Gate, and AdAge's Live Tracking of Brand's Responses. Then develop your own that align with your business's area of expertise and your commitment to help.
This is a tremendous opportunity for all of us to stand in solidarity to end racism and racial injustice. But how do you get started?
This list is a beginners’ draft; I hope that you will email me and point out what I’m missing or misunderstanding, from your experience and research. From there, this list for businesses will evolve, and every time it does, I’ll change the date on it.
I thank you in advance. (As of August 6, 2020)
At Pybop HQ, we have NPR running pretty much all the time (except for writing time!). NPR has been doing a great job across the board in bringing Black voices to the forefront. I so love Sam Sanders’ It’s Been a Minute. And so many others.
Let's keep listening, talking even if it's difficult, and supporting each other.
By no means an exhaustive list ... but a place to start digging in, and to see where I've been, in no particular order:
Writing and Editing Style
National Association of Black Journalists, NABJ Style Guide
Additional Style Guides on Diversity and Writing, compiled by Writing Diversely
12 Racist and Offensive Phrases that People Still Use All the Time, Business Insider
5 Ways to Help Your Writing Be Sensitive and Inclusive, Intelligent Editing
The Call to Action Against Racism
U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism, Harvard Business Review
Five Ways Companies Can Make Real Change on Racial Equality, Business Insider
We're Entering the Age of Corporate Social Justice, Harvard Business Review
Black Lives Matter: Why Are So Many Brands Silent?, The Marketing Society
‘Silence is not an option’: What CEOs Are Saying About Racial Violence in America, The Dallas Morning News
The Problem with Inauthenticity
Are Brands Capitalizing on #BlackLivesMatter? Black Influencers Weigh In, Black Enterprise
Black Lives Matter: Do Companies Really Support the Cause?, BBC
When a Brand Stands Up for Racial Justice, Do People Buy It?, Harvard Business Review
Most of these resources are from June and July 2020.
Upcoming Virtual Events on Communicating with Sensitivity
Unconscious Bias: How to Beat the Bias That Gets in Your Way: Orange County Society for Technical Communication, August 11, 2020
Conscious Content: Bringing Awareness to Language and Voice in Digital Spaces, Content Strategy Los Angeles, August 12, 2020
A Path Forward: How Do We Talk About Race that Unifies Us as a Society, NCRC, August 20, 2020
Shelly Bowen, MFA, is a content writer, content strategist, and founder of Pybop.
For decades, Shelly has written for businesses on complex topics from disease prevention and medical devices to alternative energy and leveraging data. Today, she's hyper-focused on supporting B-B technology businesses. In her spare time, she hikes, kayaks, draws, and works on her T-Bird.
A wide variety of brands rely on Shelly as an essential freelance writer and content strategy resource.