The one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s killing occurs three weeks from today (May 25, 2021). In anticipation, communicators are pondering several scenarios. Below is a paraphrased collection of some we heard:
- ‘Should my company, which responded with social media support for Floyd and #BLM one year ago, mark the anniversary date? If so, what should we say or do?’
- ‘We want to mark the anniversary, sure, but we also want to communicate our continuing DEI commitment. Since last summer we’ve published diversity goals and released data about our journey. We’ve added diverse board members, leaders and employees and appointed a head of DEI. We think we’ve done a lot, but we want to communicate authentically and without seeming opportunistic. How do we do it?’
Certainly, there are other questions.
- ‘Our company was vocal last summer and we sent a large check to a social justice organization in June. But we’ve not done much since then to reform our hiring practices. And our leadership and board aren’t very ethnically diverse. We continue to support legislators who vote against measures promoting diversity and in favor of acts that seem to promote structural racism. How transparent should we be on May 25? Should we admit that we have work to do or remain silent? Do we do this internally only or send external messages too?’
- ‘Our company hasn’t done much on DEI or #BLM. We stayed out of it. But, we realize now we need to. Should we mark the anniversary and risk getting called out for doing nothing until now?’
- ‘I’m worried that there’ll be a consumer reckoning on May 25. Like nearly everyone else, our company supported #BLM in 2020 with social posts and sent a check. We’ve made progress on diverse hiring since last summer, but the pandemic slowed our hiring. We had a hiring freeze. If we mark the anniversary, will social media say we haven’t done enough? I think we could be in trouble.’
And then there are companies like Amazon, whose activities around DEI and #BLM seem rife with contradictions.
For example, the online giant promptly posted support of #BLM on its site last summer after Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were killed ( see tweet below). In addition, an early June 2020 post noted Amazon’s donation of $10 million to “organizations supporting justice and equity.”
The money was part of big tech’s $1 billion+ pledge to racial justice in 2020, a year that saw many in the sector bank record profits.
Later that month, Amazon’s then-CEO Jeff Bezos sent a note to employees urging them to observe Juneteenth. In the missive, the planet’s richest man revealed he’d been “thinking” about systemic racism. He felt strongly enough to clear his calendar on Juneteenth. “I encourage you to do the same if you can,” he wrote to Amazon employees.
Bezos received hate mail on social for his pro-#BLM stance. He was happy to lose such people as Amazon customers, he said.
On the other hand, some companies, such as Nike and Target, made Juneteenth a paid holiday. Amazon did not.
For most of Amazon’s Black employees, about 25 percent of its US staff, Juneteenth was just another day of work for an hourly wage, the NY Times reported. The Times’ story portrayed several Black employees saying Bezos could honor Juneteenth more effectively by paying workers a better wage and improving working conditions.
The paper’s June 24, 2020, story also noted Bezos’ senior leadership team of 22 lacked Black executives. [Two months later, Bezos added one.]
In addition, later in the year Amazon urged shareholders to vote against proposals for transparency on racial and gender pay inequities.
Moreover, the company worked hard to defeat unionizing an Amazon facility last month.
Such actions seem to smack of preserving systemic racism, critics contend.
Politics and More Complications
Complicating all this, of course, is politics.
Possible issues for companies around May 25 include voting rights legislation and whether or not they’ve spoken out about it and how quickly. Some see aspects of these state laws as maintaining systemic racism.
Meanwhile there are issues of cancel culture and wokeness, which are outside the scope of this story, but important aspects of it.
For example, a study of 1,000 consumers from Savings.com shows:
* Consumers are 50 percent more likely to boycott a company now due to its political positions than they were last year; and
* In 2020, 1 in 4 American consumers (50 million+) stopped purchasing from a company owing to its support of a presidential candidate.
Things got to a point where Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell warned companies to exit the arena and leave politics to politicians. Federal and state legislators mentioned punishing so-called ‘woke’ companies for their stances.
While PR pros we spoke with about May 25 offered plenty of advice, their tone largely was positive. The takeaways:
- It’s not too late for a company to begin its diversity commitment, provided it’s undertaken honestly and encompasses demonstrable change.
As FINN Partners’ DEI chief Helen Shelton notes, “This is a 400 year-old issue.”
So, while she gives props to companies that moved early and authentically on DEI, Shelton says racial equity is a lengthy process, “not a day trip.” Communicators, she says, should convey the idea that May 25 is “just the beginning.”
FleishmanHillard chief John Saunders agrees. “This isn’t about one day,” he says.
On the other hand, Shelton says, DEI is not optional. “Companies have to take a stand...because George Floyd’s murder laid bare a diabolical phenomenon: Open season on the lives of Black people.”
- Most of the PR pros do not believe there will be a major consumer outbreak, or ‘day of reckoning,’ on May 25 against companies that spoke out last summer and are judged to have done too little since.
On the other hand, companies will not get off without scrutiny. Several PR pros anticipate a rise in accountability this year.
“The stakes are high, and in the next few weeks, organizations and corporate leaders must prepare for inevitable questions and gain clarity about where they are on their diversity, equity and inclusion journeys,” Saunders says.
In addition, the push for accountability will not come from consumers alone. Stakeholders “in the larger sense” of the term–staff, investors, customers and the media–will seek accountability “and action” from companies, says Jenny Wang, a VP at Clyde Group in Washington, DC.
As such, Wang counsels companies to speak with stakeholders on a regular basis, updating them on DEI progress and communicating openly where more work is needed.
Natasha Lamb, managing partner and co-founder at Arjuna Capital, an investment firm that tracks corporate activity on racial equity and sustainability, is eyeing the spring proxy season anxiously.
“[Spring] will be a litmus test to see how companies respond to their investor demands for real action on racial equity,” she says. “The question is whether or not the rubber will meet the road, because corporate statements of solidarity are one thing; meaningful change is another,” Lamb adds.
Some responsible investors and other stakeholders believe companies should conduct racial equity and gender pay audits through third parties en route to creating meaningful change. So far, corporate reaction to these demands is mixed. Ostensibly a supporter of diversity, Google is the most recent recipient of such demands.
Behemoth BlackRock said April 1 it will undergo a racial equity audit. The move could prompt other companies.
- The final takeaway is that there’s no one-size-fits-all way for companies to deal with May 25.
Whatever a company does that day–crafts a message or remains silent–nearly all agree its actions should reflect the organization’s values, brand pillars, culture and whom they serve. In addition, the message, if there is one, should be consistent with the company’s previous tone.
Communicator Melissa Vela-Williamson, founder, MWV Communications, counsels companies against using May 25 “as a stage...to externally declare where you are in your [DEI] journey.”
Instead, companies should mark the day with a solemn, kind-hearted message of remembrance. May 25, she says, is a solemn anniversary commemorating a death “that forced us to look at systemic racist practices that we have been too complicit in.”Treat the day respectfully is her advice.
A Day of Reckoning?
66%: Percentage of companies in the S&P 500 that issued statements supporting racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in 2020
36%: Percentage of S&P 500 companies that made financial contributions to racial justice groups
14%: Percentage of S&P 500 companies that said “Black Lives Matter”
$90 million: Black Lives Matter’s fundraising total in 2020
$100 million: The value of Apple’s Racial and Justice Equity Initiative, announced Aug. 13, 2020
$55.3 billion: Apple’s 2019 profit ($100 million is 0.18% of Apple’s profit)
3.6%: The fall in Black workers’ hourly median earnings, adjusted for inflation, since 2000; Black workers’ hourly wages are 75.6 percent of what white workers receive; median income for full-time working women in the U.S. is 80 percent that of men.
$12 Trillion: The amount closing U.S. minority and gender wage gaps 20 years ago could have generated in additional national income, according to Citigroup estimates.
Sources: As You Sow, “S&P 500 Racial Justice and DEI Scorecard,” March 2021; Associated Press; Arjuna Capital; The Verge
May 25 and Employee Needs
Veteran brand communicator Charlene Wheeless, now senior advisor for equity and justice at APCO Worldwide, notes the mental health needs of May 25.
“A day of remembrance can help employees who continue to struggle with the trauma” that George Floyd’s murder and Derek Chauvin’s trial and verdict brought, she says.
In addition, Wheeless is concerned that additional police encounters have left people “struggling to make sense of what is happening in a society many thought had come farther than this.”
She urges communicators to ensure leaders recognize that the anniversary “may lead to new difficulty for employees and their well-being.” Companies, she says, should “allow people to have space to process.”
Both Wang and Wheeless suggest companies decide whether small or large meetings work best for them.
It might be more important for a company leader to address a small contingent or an ERG (Employee Resource Group), Wang says.
Topics can include DEI progress the company has made, how employees are feeling and what employees and the company can do together to achieve progress, Wheeless says.
Focusing Forward and Creating Trust
For communicators crafting talking points for leaders who plan to mark the date, Wheeless recommends “focusing forward...reiterating the recognition that social and racial injustice exist, confirming your and the company’s commitment to making change and backing up words with an explanation of how the company is “taking sustainable action.”
The anniversary is an opportunity, she adds, for leaders “to create a new kind of trust--one built on deeds, not dialogue.”
Similarly, Shelton is advising companies to make May 25 “a day of reflection and action.” She also urges companies that were active early “to re-pledge and re-commit themselves.” This could include partnering with additional advocacy groups and/or providing new funding to them.
A Social Media Pause
Vela-Williamson says communicators should plan now concerning deploying social and other messaging May 25.
“Social posts that day should not be too light-hearted, cheeky or appear tone deaf in any way,” she advises. Moreover, if the message you’re sending isn’t vital, “particularly if public sentiment leading up to that day seems charged or pained, it’s best to pause regular content that day,” she adds.
Whatever a company decides about May 25 messaging, she advises “definitely have a diverse group of staff, one being a PR pro, review the copy and accompanying visuals.”
Accentuate the Positive
For companies that haven’t done much or anything DEI-related since May 25, the communicators urge caution, though not silence in every case.
Acknowledge that you’re late “and then get to work making change happen,” Wheeless says.
Similarly, Wang says if a company has made little progress since May 25, 2020, “it’s tone-deaf to start putting out statements now. That just raises valid questions from stakeholders...if you haven’t done anything since last May 25, that speaks volumes.”
And if a company issued statements without taking action, releasing another statement this May 25th “is just more words...and it’s corporate performative allyship,” Wang argues.
Alternately, Wheeless cautions against focusing on what a company hasn’t done DEI-wise, “especially when the opportunity to do something is in front of you. Start the journey!”
Companies that have done little or nothing on DEI since last May can take basic steps to start their journey, the PR pros said. One relatively easy move is getting inclusivity training for employees. Another is committing to do volunteer work with a social-justice organization. Forming ESGs to promote inclusivity is another possibility.
Vela-Williamson makes an interesting point about the importance of including diversity in everything a company does. DEI, she says, encompasses how a company recruits, hires and promotes, of course, but also “includes how and whom a company highlights, how it creates products and services and for whom and generally how it approaches human relationships. It’s complex but should always be explored, particularly within our organizations.”
As we noted above, our interviews found nobody expects a May 25 consumer reckoning against companies. Consumers, though, will “‘look under the hood’” of organizations that made or make statements and lack a history of promoting social justic, Vela-Williamson says.
It’s more likely, though, that a mix of consumers, activists and other stakeholders will call for transparency, especially if a company publicly shared a declaration, pledge or promise a year ago.
“Rather than waiting for that demand, companies or organizations that made statements about change initiatives or pledges would benefit from preparing to share their progress proactively,” Vela-Williamson says.
She adds, “This must be done with great sensitivity, and I’d recommend it only if the organization had made such a pledge before, so they aren’t accused of appropriating this anniversary for their own gain.”
Saunders believes there’s a delicate line for companies to consider. “Perfection” on diversity, he says, “cannot be the enemy of real progress. But, authenticity in action demands that companies decide what side of history they are on. Their credibility hinges on saying what they mean and doing what they say.”