Say what you mean and mean what you say.
When you distill all the advice that’s out there about what to do and say to make a difference during these transformational moments in society, that’s what it comes down to. We must be direct and honest about these issues and behave in a way that is consistent with our statements to drive change.
My colleague, Max, recently shared what he learned from a Public Relations Society of America webinar about responding to racial injustice. PRSA has a Diverse Dialogues series where business and public relations leaders share insights and actionable steps to meaningfully engage with diverse communities “during this moment and beyond.”
As Max shared, there is not one single or easy solution for resolving injustices. It is important to continuously educate ourselves in this space as a starting point to what we know is key: action.
“Diverse Dialogues” continued
I recently participated in a similar PRSA webinar focused on how companies and brands can engage to drive change. Overall, the discussion solidified for me that the intersection of race, culture and communications is complex and changing. While some organizations may have a long history of putting diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront, others are just starting. While not every brand is getting it perfect the first try, there is evidence of honest and ongoing efforts to do better.
There have been lots of questions about the future: Is DE&I just trending in this moment or will these conversations continue to be a focal point going forward? Panelists agreed: We don’t know yet. But it does feel like there’s something very unique happening with how big the dialogue has been. That is a welcome and positive sign.
As conversations continue, the experts in this webinar had sound advice about whether an organization should respond to injustices. They also discussed how to figure out what to say and what basic steps companies and communicators can be taking now.
Yes, you should speak out
If you’re questioning whether you have the right to speak about these issues, stop. You do have license, and you should say something. If you are suggesting a position of neutrality, you’re wrong. To help explain, I liked the following quote one panelist shared:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
This was made abundantly clear throughout the webinar: Not saying something is speaking volumes as a leader or company. Know that stakeholders are making choices based on what your brand does — or doesn’t do. One speaker’s research showed 60% of consumers across all demographics feel companies should talk about injustices. She said therefore brands have an obligation to respond. Not only is a statement expected, actionable items must follow: Walk the talk.
As communicators, we are often at the table with leaders for these transformational moments. We have a role in what’s going on, not just to help strategize the message and communicate it, but also to push the organization to back up what they’re putting out there. There’s a level of accountability on us because we are also the ones responsible for responding to backlash if the organization doesn’t follow through.
Your values are your guide
If you’re not sure what to say, start with what is in your heart and on your mind. Whatever you say needs to be genuine and part of your values system.
The panelists pointed out that as communicators and change leaders, we often feel we need to have all the answers, but sometimes you just have to trust and have faith that you know what you’re doing is right. The idea is that with true intentions, there’ll be true outcomes.
Furthermore, it’s easy to get caught up in semantics and focus so much on finding the right word. And to some extent, yes, word choice is very important. But also, sometimes it’s best to keep things simple. Being simplistic is humanizing.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, there’s not always the opportunity for perfection. In rapidly evolving situations, you have to take care of things as they happen. The right words can hold you back from where you need to be moving. Understand that in times like this, there’s some allowance for mistakes if you can own up to and learn from them because we all know these are complex issues.
Back to the basics
One panelist shared a lot of companies are looking both within and at the big picture to drive positive change. To start, many are having conversations about the basic definitions of equality, equity and systemic racism to get a broad base of understanding for all its people. Companies need to ask: Does racism exist within my organization. If so, how does it exist?
“Listening tours” are a trend for executives right now, but they should be for communicators, too. There are times where we get a little disconnected and spend more time with leadership than we do the audience. We need to hear these stories ourselves to really uncover and understand the layers involved and develop empathetic communications.
As companies figure out how to move beyond words and financial donations to create meaningful differences in a community, it’s important to continue to help leaders understand cultural nuances and improve cultural competencies. They don’t have to be experts, but they do need to be culturally curious, understand the realities of the world and be willing to stand behind their values to make a difference.