Born and raised in the United States, Binna Kim grew up viewed as a foreigner. Kim, president at Vested, and a decorated PR leader, still couldn’t escape the systemic racism that comes from being an Asian-American woman.
“People often asked me where I was from, what type of accent I had, why my English was so good,” Kim said. “Because Asian women are sexualized—historically portrayed in film and television as quiet, meek women or dominatrixes—I’ve been told, even at networking events, how 'sexy Asian women are.'”
A year ago, when the pandemic hit, and phrases such as “China virus” and “kung flu” became mainstream, Kim noticed an increase in Asian racism.
“My friends began to encounter more hate speech at grocery stores and playgrounds,” she said. “People telling us to 'Take the virus back to where you come from.'" Today, Kim said she's "both energized that the community is finally waking up to anti-Asian sentiment and also saddened that it’s taken this long for this to happen.”
An explosion of support for the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) community surfaced this past week, after a 21-year-old white, male suspect took eight lives during three metro Atlanta massage parlor shootings March 16. This was not the first attack against the Asian community this year, but the killings prompted many to try to understand what fuels this rage.
PR and communication professionals are searching for the right words and actions to support the AAPI community. How brands and organizations respond can influence the national conversation.
Professional Organization Response
When national tragedies happen, some communicators seek guidelines from professional organizations. PR Council, PRSA, ColorComm and others have taken to social media, as well as emailing members, to provide messages of support and action items.
PR Council asked members to join a coordinated effort of posting support statements against anti-Asian hate across social media channels March 5, 9 a.m. ET. In addition, it provided a link to donate, GoFundMe.com/aapi, for those interested in immediate action.
PRSA denounced the hate crimes in a statement from its diversity and inclusion committee, urging members to become allies and not stay on the sidelines.
“The best way to fight racism and hate is solidarity. Be an ally. Be supportive. Be there for one-another and speak up when you see something wrong. It’s not the time to stay by the sidelines because you think someone else may do it or because you think it doesn’t affect you. It does. It affects all of us.”
ColorComm provided an action-based statement, which not only included historic context about the past year of hate crimes, but offered guidance on refraining from using phrases like “Chinese virus” in communication. In addition, it advocated showing support for colleagues by learning more about identity concepts and advocating for bystander intervention training.
Responsibility of PR
After the Atlanta shootings, Kim was surprised that few media outlets reported the victims as predominantly Asian. In contrast, communicators, she said, have an opportunity to provide reporters with necessary information to bridge that coverage gap.
“Acts of anti-Asian violence have not been as widely reported or covered in the media,” she said. “As communicators, we have a responsibility to listen, to become aware of the issues, and to be mindful and action-oriented on behalf of the companies we represent. One example...which I appreciated so much was an informational video on how to properly pronounce the Atlanta shooting victims’ names.”
Mitali Das, an account supervisor at BCW and co-founder of Asian-C, BCW’s Asian American Employee Resource Group, said the industry has a responsibility to respond and provide essential information, while listening to AAPI colleagues.
“In the face of racial injustice, the PR and communications industry has an important role to play in shaping public conversation, battling misinformation and amplifying minority voices,” Das said. “Many of us have turned to the news outlets we trust, the brands we support and the leaders we believe in to help make sense of our pain and understand how best to move forward. We must listen and learn from our AAPI colleagues and allow their voices and experiences to shape our path.”
One of Das’ suggestions includes treating these incidents as a crisis—prepare in advance.
“Unfortunately, the racially-motivated attacks we have seen over the past year against the Black, AAPI, Latinx and other communities will not be the last,” Das said. “Therefore, PR and communications professionals should also begin to formalize an approach to racial injustice communications, incorporating the best practices learned from the events of the past year.”
Where to Begin?
It takes time to formulate a considerate, authentic response for public-facing brands and organizations. It’s important to take time to evaluate if your company belongs in the conversation. Stakeholders expect meaningful commitments from brands, but credibility is also key.
Before speaking out, brands must ensure they have the authority to comment. They need to vet their internal practices and ask simple questions, Das said.
- “What percentage of the company’s workforce is Asian?
- How has the company stood up for or interacted with the Asian community in the past, if at all?
- Are there groups or specific resources within the company devoted to Asian Americans?"
"If such answers are hard to find, a brand should reassess internally before speaking out on AAPI issues externally,” Das said.
Timothy Chun, social media director at BerlinRosen, agrees that a perceptive audience will sniff out inauthenticity.
“Whether you’re brand-side or a PR comms/social media consultant, it’s key that you educate yourself on the current climate before putting out a statement because people can see right through performative activism,” Chun said.
A hollow statement can send the wrong message to stakeholder communities, so education is key.
“People shouldn't use the hashtag #AsianLivesMatter, because it is co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement,” Chun said. “It is important that we do not erase or forget Black oppression in this conversation, which is why #StopAsianHate should be used.”
While posting a statement of support is a start, what the AAPI community, and most stakeholders, really hope for is action. And this can take the form of education, philanthropy, volunteering or even internal communication.
Chun’s work in social media allows him to see some of the great digital resources and support growing for the community, which many times provide a necessary context of the situation and opportunity for education.
“There are tons of great resources out there, especially on social media—I recommend following Next Shark, Amanda Nguyễn and Dion Lim on Instagram,” Chun said. “The media and communications community can also amplify AAPI voices through the various channels that you lead, whether it’s supporting an AAPI influencer or tapping to an AAPI-led brand or organization for a partnership.”
Chun also sees the importance for brands, agencies and organizations to broadcast sources of action to support AAPI.
“The feeling of being unsafe is high amongst the AAPI community, so it’s key for brands to showcase ways they are supporting these issues,” he said. “Support can take the form of charitable donations...hosting a panel discussion with AAPI leaders, investing more toward a campaign that amplifies AAPI creatives, creating new roles or opportunities for AAPI to be better represented…the list goes on.”
And on a personal level, it’s useful to reach out to your AAPI colleagues. Some organizations, like BCW’s employee resource group, Asian-C, created diversity initiatives to allow fellow Asian employees to have a voice.
“Asian-C hosted a safe room conversation in February to hear from AAPI colleagues and allies and discuss our path forward as a firm,” Das said. “The group also spearheaded an internal Community Action Guide that was distributed to BCW offices globally, outlining employee assistance programs and suggested actions that each of us could take to better support the AAPI community. Asian-C also continues to partner with BCW’s I&D team and various account teams to conduct I&D audits and provide culturally relevant counsel to our clients.”
Kim sees opportunities surfacing through all the pain.
“There are so many great organizations and movements out there, working on behalf of social justice, for causes related to Asian immigrants in the U.S.,” she said. “While we have this moment in the headlines, can we help support these tireless activists and the meaningful work they are doing? Let’s imbue our words of support with investments of our own time, money and resources.”
Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal