Is it too late for a business to talk about social and racial injustice?

August 6, 2020
Topics covered in this article:

Is It Too Late to Participate in the Movement to Support Social and Racial Justice?

Black Lives Matter: How Do We Talk About It? Black box with ? inside.

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:

  • Is it appropriate for our company to discuss what’s going on in society?
  • Isn’t saying nothing at all better than saying something that’s wrong?
  • Won’t we lose customers if they do not agree with our position?
  • How do we manage public discourse?
  • How do we say the right thing, anyway?
  • How do we communicate with our employees, vendors, partners, and customers about what we are doing or planning around social and racial injustice?
  • Our CEO has written a public letter in support of racial justice and Black lives, and we're anxious to do more. What are our next steps?

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.

Is it appropriate for our company to discuss what’s going on in society?

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.

Isn’t saying nothing at all better than saying something that’s wrong?

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.

How does a business say the right thing, anyway?

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?

Won’t we lose customers if they do not agree with our position?

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.

How do we manage public discourse?

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.

How do we communicate with our employees, vendors, partners, and customers about what we are thinking, planning, or doing around social and racial injustice?

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.

Our CEO has written a public letter in support of racial justice and Black lives, and we're anxious to do more. How can we take real, meaningful action?

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?

How to Take the First Step in Participating in the Black Lives Matter Movement, from a Content Strategy Perspective

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)

  1. Listen. Your business’ leadership may be so concerned about making a statement and saying the wrong thing that they freeze up. But really, the first step, especially for white leadership, is to listen to what’s going on. Seek out voices that are not your own.
  2. Take small steps, and keep taking them: Let your team know that you are actively listening, and that you want to discover ways to improve wherever you can.
  3. Be open-minded to new ideas. Discuss what you’re absorbing with trusted friends and colleagues. Write them down on paper. Be open to the idea that what you’re learning may be different than how you grew up or what you always thought was right.
  4. Be proactive: Reach out to your team and your community to understand how they feel how businesses can support social change and racial justice. Share what you learn.
  5. Be honest, transparent, and ready to evolve: People make mistakes. We all have biases and blind-spots. When you mess up, fess up, and work to resolve the issue. Whatever you do, don't say words you don't mean. It's pretty easy to spot hypocrisy.
  6. Take another small step: Take a stand and write an open letter to your employees, letting them know what you are learning, and how you’d like continue to make changes to improve workplace life, as well as the community.
  7. Revisit your company values and beliefs: Bring a diverse group of team members together to discuss your stated values and beliefs. If you don’t have one, it’s time to create one.
  8. Back up your statements of support with action: What can your business do to make this world a better place? How are you empowered to support the momentum, the work, and the

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.

Which resources do you enjoy regularly listening to or reading or watching that amplify the Black experience in the U.S? Please do share.

Let's keep listening, talking even if it's difficult, and supporting each other.

Related: Pybop Values and Beliefs: Here's Where Our Heart Is

Business Communication Resources for Racial and Social Justice

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

Study: Most Americans Say Brands Should Respond to Black Lives Matter Movement, Marketing Dive

U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism, Harvard Business Review

Five Ways Companies Can Make Real Change on Racial Equality, Business Insider

White Silence on Social Media: Why Not Saying Anything Is Actually Saying a Lot, CBS News

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

Why Your Brand's Commitment to Social Justice May Be Missing the Mark, Inc.

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.

Foundational Resources

The Movement for Black Lives

Showing Up for Racial Justice

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

About the Author: Shelly Bowen

Shelly Bowen, content strategist

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.

Follow Shelly on Instagram @pybop or connect on LinkedIn. More about Shelly and Pybop.

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