NAACP CCO, CMO Urges Authentic, Steady Progress on Racial Justice

It was arguably one of the most transformative moments in modern corporate communication. George Floyd’s murder prompted an unprecedented outpouring of solidarity and strenuous search for solutions to institutional racism in many board rooms.

I asked Aba Blankson, the NAACP’s chief marketing and communications officer, what has worked or not worked.

One of the most remarkable lessons learned, Blankson says, is the importannce of calibrating responses to reality.

While companies may feel enormous pressure to issue a major diversity announcement, tectonic shifts rarely work.

Instead, acknowledge what the company has, or, more importantly, has not done on racial justice previously.

“If you haven’t said anything before, be transparent about it. And [then] create a realistic plan and a timeline to hold [the company] accountable.”

Another lesson: Authenticity is essential in the DEI space. Customers, shareholders and stakeholders closely follow companies’ voices, visions and values. They will be among the first to point out a dearth of prior action.

Instead, acknowledge your fledgling effort and act accordingly. Make pledges for serious action, but allow room to learn and grow.

Change is not going to happen overnight and the expectations set in your communication should reflect how long and hard this struggle will be.

I was surprised when Blankson shared that some companies, after making a small donation, wanted to know why progress was not faster and going farther.

“The first legislation that NAACP worked on [beginning in 1909] was antilynching laws...[it] took until the Kamala Harris and Cory Booker age of the Senate to see progress,” Blankson says.

To that end, Blankson emphasizes that change will require more than a financial donation. While many businesses made donations last year, fewer built ongoing collaborations with organizations working on the ground.

Those longer-term projects and relationships are invaluable for expanding impact and avoiding potential issues.

This is an area where communicators can, and now truly must, help drive concrete change within their organizations.

Blankson shared an example where instead of producing its self-laudatory #BlackLivesMatter commercials, a company co-created ads with the NAACP. The company and cause both emerged stronger.

- Brett Bruen

Brett Bruen teaches crisis at Georgetown University and served as President Obama’s director of global engagement. He is president of the Global Situation Room.