Racism is a systemic ill and a generations-old national nightmare.
As protests of its deadly effects continue in all 50 states following the murder of George Floyd, merely the latest in a seemingly endless line of black people killed by police officers for non-capital crimes — if any crime is even committed — companies have tried to explain their stances to customers. The results, to be charitable, have been mixed.
Positive examples include ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, known as much for its progressive politics as it is for its wacky flavor combinations. “The police officer who put his knee on George Floyd’s neck and the police officers who stood by and watched didn’t just murder George Floyd, they stole him,” Ben & Jerry’s said in a strongly-worded statement. “They stole him from his family and his friends, his church and his community, and from his own future.”
Countless other companies, however, have stumbled. The most common misstep is illustrated by this darkly hilarious tweet: a brand issues a bland statement comprised of passive text that condemns racism but fails to cite specifics or solutions — all in a white font on a black background that’s meant to communicate a supposed air of gravitas.
A statement from [Brand]® pic.twitter.com/XT9tXF9hvz
— Chris Franklin (@Campster) May 31, 2020
Entrepreneur Amber Williams, a black woman who owns and runs branding firm Punkyflair and recently-launched communications consultancy AmberWilliams.co, says boilerplate language doesn’t even begin to cut it when addressing the problem as a company.
“The ongoing issue of racial injustice in this country, and the uprising we’re experiencing, really feels like the second pandemic of 2020,” she says, using words like “heartbroken” and “angry” to describe her state of mind. “It’s been gut-wrenching to watch, and impossible to process.”
She spoke in particular of her loved ones — her father, her husband, her son — and “facing the reality that, in this country, what happened to George Floyd could happen to them one day. It’s a real possibility.”
Despite a career helping other business owners communicate, Williams admits that even she has struggled to find the right words in this moment. For other companies that wish to release a statement, but are unsure of the best approach, she advises the following:
Ask yourself: do you truly know what’s going on?
If not, here’s a short list of things that are harder to do if you’re black in America: get a job, get a promotion, buy a house and, as this article points out, just get through everyday life activities like buying coffee or exercising. And for the female founders in our audience, black women entrepreneurs face a whole host of challenges while trying to launch and scale that their white counterparts are far less likely to experience, including accessing capital (either from VCs, banks, friends and family contributions or personal savings).
Understanding the ways in which racism impacts every facet of life is key. “You have to first listen closely to what’s happening, and why it’s happening,” Williams says.
And if your business allows for discussions on comment boards or its social media pages, owners “must not [silence] people in your community trying to express themselves” in the interest of “positive vibes” or keeping the peace. Rather, “you want to create an open, safe space [with] different perspectives about what’s happening.”
Some of those interactions might feel awkward, but “you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable” in order to reach a place of heightened understanding, Williams notes.
Then, Williams says, CEOs need to “clarify what your position is — how you feel about [systemic racism], and what you want to do.”
She points to this as “the step I see being missed by a lot of business leaders out there” — the ones who fall back into those monotone graphics that say nothing and accomplish even less. And that’s the best-case scenario — in some cases, “in an attempt to hurry and get the message out, you’re not even clarifying the thought or intent behind it,” which could potentially cause more harm than good.
Owners must know exactly where they stand, and be able to articulate it to customers. “That has to happen,” Williams says.
3. Speak Up.
Once your principles and message are clear in your head, you have to actually share them with the masses.
Your customers care about this, Williams says. “When it comes to this, people want to know something simple: are you racist, or anti-racist? Are you committed to fighting this fight, or will you stand on the sidelines?”
When you go to craft your message, don’t look to others — no matter how well they may have stuck the landing. Repetition is “disappointing, and inauthentic, and people can see right through it. You have to write an honest note that feels heartfelt, from you. That’s what speaking up looks like.
4. Act Offline.
After that, CEOs have one more job to do: walk the walk.
“The real work is not done on Instagram, or through your email list — the real work comes offline,” Williams says. There has to be follow-through in order for a shift to occur, she says– and that might even mean having some uncomfortable looks in the mirror, as well as at your executive board.
“The system is set up so that the people in power, with influence, all look and think the same. That’s what landed us here,” she points out. “When you think about your business, and the leaders of your business, if they all look and think the same, you have a systemic issue as well.”
And it can make responsibly navigating this moment difficult — after all, no one wants to be the person who has to issue the dreaded and oft-derided social media apology. “Leaders have to look and see if their team is diverse enough to market and communicate to the audiences they aim to reach,” Williams says. If not, “then you have to re-work that structure.”