History Is in the Making, and We Can Help Shape It

May 25, 2020.

Will it be described in history books as the day America opened its eyes to the racism that still exists and started to pivot toward true racial equality? Or, will it be described as just one of the countless times in American history when racism violently reared its ugly head, resulting in protests on the backdrop of a global pandemic?

How stories are told and remembered depends on the voices who tell them. As public relations professionals, we know this all too well.

Since May 25, many Americans have been struggling with how to digest the videos showing the impacts of racism on two black men—George Floyd who was murdered by the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis and Christian Cooper who was falsely accused of threatening a white woman’s life after asking that she leash her dog in Central Park.

While some Americans continue to struggle with these images and stories of racism, others have lifted their voices loudly and strongly to say, “enough is enough.”

How will your company help shape the future narrative? Will it lend its voice or stay silent?

Here are a few recommendations and things to consider as you work with senior management to develop a corporate response or messaging to your audiences.

Understand silence is complicity

If your company has yet to speak on this topic, your employees and customers have already begun to assume your stance on racism and they are assuming the worst. Similar to the #MeToo movement, there’s a sense that clear lines have been drawn. You either acknowledge there’s racism and voice your commitment to being part of the solution. Or you stay silent, which sends the message that you don’t want to acknowledge racism or care that it exists.

Depending on the line of business, not all companies need to draft an external response. But, without question, you should send out an internal message to employees addressing recent events if you haven’t already. Employees—and not just employees of color—are paying attention to their company’s action or inaction during this time. How a company responds during this climate could have lasting effects on its corporate culture. So, how do you broach the topic with your leadership team and determine message direction? My suggestion is to start by revisiting your company’s values or diversity statement.

If you’re like me, in recent days you’ve received numerous emails from various companies addressing the recent racial injustices and stating their solidarity with black Americans to fight for racial equality. It seems everyone is jumping on the morality bandwagon. And as a black American, I’m OK with that. Given our current environment, it’s time and sorely needed for more companies to start taking a stand on social justice issues for the sake of a better humanity. 

Say you’re listening

When you communicate internally or externally on this topic, it’s important to show humility and empathy. This is a time when your company should be listening to the black community. When drafting a corporate statement or messaging be sure to convey that “we are listening and learning.” It’s not a time to reiterate all your company’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts of the past. It should be a statement of how your company will be an active participant in the solutions to come. However, if your company has taken immediate steps in response to George Floyd’s killing, such as donations to social justice groups, then those actions should be communicated.

Provide anti-racism resources

Many people are feeling emotionally overwhelmed right now. Some of your employees and customers may want to do something, but they have no idea what they should be doing or where to begin. Demonstrate your company is committed to being part of the change by providing your audiences helpful resources on anti-racism. If you have a diversity committee at your organization, be sure to engage them and have ongoing dialogue on the most appropriate and effective information to share. Here is a comprehensive list of anti-racism resources compiled by writer Alyssa Klein and activist/filmmaker Sarah Sophie Flicker that has been widely shared. It’s a good place to start.

Be clear on where you stand

I’ve seen some companies that have been intentional about adopting Black Lives Matter in their corporate responses and others that have voiced their solidarity without stating those three words. May 25 shifted how Black Lives Matter is viewed—no longer does the majority decry it as divisive, instead, now it’s viewed as necessary to racial justice. Being intentional about stating Black Lives Matter symbolizes that you support the movement even if you don’t fully understand the entire black American experience. It signifies that you recognize the shift that’s taking place in America, you’re listening and are willing to be an active participant in the solutions and advocacy toward racial equality.

I know this may feel like a lot to take in, especially in a time of unprecedented uncertainty and when many of us are still managing our COVID-19 crisis messaging. As a black PR professional, I can admit that the past two weeks’ events have been emotionally draining. I encourage you to be kind to yourself as well as to others around you. I also encourage you to not lose sight of the important role you play in being a voice that shapes change. Your professional and personal voices will determine how your great-grandchildren will read about May 25, 2020, in history books. Let’s work together to be part of the change.

Tara Deering-Hansen is vice president of marketing and communications at the Iowa Bankers Association in Johnston, Iowa.

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