The Complexity of Brands Taking a Stand at This Time

The killing of George Floyd coupled with the disproportionate devastation that COVID-19 is having on Black and Brown communities have coalesced the nation into a moment. It's also left brands in a quandary about what, if anything, to do and communicate about diversity and inclusion (D&I).

Just look at how brands reacted to Blackout Tuesday, June 2. Some, including PR firms such as Porter Novelli and APCO Worldwide, closed their virtual offices that day. Others remained open, but shut their sites completely or reduced the cadence of social posts. Still others, including PRNEWS, reduced the cadence of posts all week, but remained open for business. Another group of companies closed June 4, to honor the memorial to Floyd, while some took cues from the NAACP, which urged an 8-minute, 46-second moment of silence at 3:45pm ET that day.

"Brands are struggling to find their place in the public dialogue," admits Meredith L. Eaton, head, N. America, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. Adds Evan Nierman, founder of Red Banyan, "Many don't know what to do or say externally or how to talk internally to employees [about D&I]."

Spotty Record

Part of the reason is that corporate America generally has had a spotty record on D&I. This moment has not helped, despite a parade of virtue-signaling as companies issued myriad tributes to Floyd and statements supporting the protests."Most of these corporate statements were put together by the marketing team that was trying not to offend white customers and white employees," says Dorothy Brown, a law professor at Emory University. "It's complete B.S.," she told the NY Times, June 6.

Indeed, corporations, intentionally or not, contribute to structural racism. The combination of all- or mainly white boards and senior leadership, plus a lack of diverse staff is the epitome of structural racism. In the same article, the Times noted the senior leadership team of the nation's largest healthcare company, CVS, has no black people on it. Ditto Bank of America, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo. In tech, the Times reports, there are no black people on the senior leadership teams of Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon.

Brands have several options:

1. Companies that wish to avoid the sometimes-difficult steps of addressing their diversity can instead write a check to the NAACP, the National Action Network or a similar group. This is coupled with a supportive statement on social media and then it's business as usual. The brand has done its part for D&I.

Many have taken this route. Corporations have pledged $40 million+ to social justice organizations in the past two weeks, according to Forbes, which has set up a donation-tracker list.

Some companies forego the donation and post supportive statements only. Several have turned to diverse employees to tell their story on social.

The problem, of course, is that words without action are empty. "Participating in what’s trendy on social media or posting gimmicky branding may help lend more voices to the cause and spread awareness, but it’s the bare minimum," Eaton says.

Dance Partners

It's a delicate dance for social justice organizations too. These organizations, at least the ones that accept corporate money, appreciate the funding. On the other hand, many of them fight structural racism, so they are opposing a system beneficial to some of their donors.  Says Tom Roberts, an NAACP executive, “[A corporate donation] is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. It never has been, and never will be.”

Certainly, McDonald's and Amazon, for example, have pledged generous amounts to social justice recently. In addition, they've posted supportive statements on social. Yet the pandemic exposed both to charges of paying workers poorly and failing to provide them with adequate protection against the novel coronavirus. You could argue both companies' business models depend on low-wage workers. In the case of McDonald's, it's also dependent on low-wage workers as customers.

Do Nothing...

2. Similarly, companies with no interest in pursuing D&I can remain silent at this time. They, of course, run the risk that employees, social justice organizations or media might call them on this stance.

3. Some companies have C-suites that believe the organization is diverse and inclusive. Still, they choose to remain quiet, at least externally. This is reminiscent of standard PR strategy from several years ago. At that time, companies were told to avoid aligning with social causes. The thinking was you're bound to alienate at least some of your customers.

Most PR pros agree things are different now, owing to "empowered employees" with social media platforms and "curious customers," says Allen Shapard, a partner with Broadreach Partners. While he continues to advise brands to avoid "pure politics," such as endorsing candidates, Shapard says speaking out now "is a requirement." This is even true for companies without a history of diversity.

"The public will forgive you if you apologize and say you want to be more diverse," he says. Such companies, he adds, must marry their promises with action. If not, they risk being exposed.

Or Do Something Meaningful

4. Mid-size and small companies that genuinely want to improve their D&I can do the work in recruitment and retention, for example, and remain quiet externally. The risk: Will the public perceive a company’s external silence as a signal that it thinks the status quo is fine?

In this case, internal communication is needed. Black and Brown workers at these companies are "the most important audience," not the general public, says Nierman. He advocates not issuing a press release saying, 'We're not diverse, but we're working on it.' Instead, such companies should make concrete plans to improve their diversity, communicate them internally and then make it so.

5. Another possibility is that the moment has moved a large company's leadership. As a result, the C-suite wants to improve the company's diversity and inclusion (D&I). Most of the PR pros we spoke with advised large companies to work on D&I quietly, but be prepared to issue an apology quickly, should the media or employees hurl charges.

6. Another option involves a company apologizing reactively, after employees and/or media call it out. That's what happened at Bon Appetit today, in the wake of its editor's abrupt resignation. Similarly, fitness company CrossFit apologized in the wake of its CEO's departure.

A Bold Move?

7. Companies can make a statement with a bold move, or what they perceive as one.

Examples include NASCAR banning the confederate flag from its events and relaxing restrictions on kneeling before the national anthem, 153-year-old Harper's Bazaar naming its first black female editor-in-chief and HBO removing "Gone With The Wind" from its offerings. The film will return shortly with a discussion about "its historical context and a denouncement" of how it depicts Black people and slavery, HBO said.

Moreover, earlier in the week Netflix and BritBox removed the comedy series "Little Britain" (2003-2005) from their services. Little Britain depicted transgender characters. In addition, Netflix pulled other series that used blackface makeup. Netflix has yet to issue a statement about why it pulled any of the series. Networks also pulled police-based reality series "Live PD" and "Cops." ABC decided to choose a black male for its popular "The Bachelor" series for the first time in the show's history.

Twitter, Square, Vox Media and Nike, among others, plan to made Juneteenth (June 19) a paid holiday for staff. The day honors the end of slavery in the US.

It is an open question, though, whether or not these moves are one-offs or are part of a larger plan to address D&I. Time will tell.

No Need to Speak

If you believe your company is diverse, you could choose to say nothing externally. As the owner of the NY Knicks, NY Rangers and Madison Square Garden, James Dolan, wrote to employees recently, “We are not any more qualified than anyone else to offer our opinion on social matters. What’s important is how we operate. Our companies are committed to upholding our values, which include creating a respectful workplace for all, and that will never change.”

As PR pros know, there's no such animal as an internal memo anymore. Media obtained the Dolan note and published parts of it.

News reports said some of Dolan's employees, including Knicks players, were "furious" with his refusal to issue a statement about Floyd or public support for the protests. The next day, Dolan attempted to calm staff. He sent another internal email to clarify his reasoning. Again, it leaked (see below). Earlier this week, Dolan finally issued a statement that condemned the Floyd killing.

Authenticity Wins

While it seems a difficult time to be a brand communicator, one lesson is that authenticity wins. Another is that words without action are empty. Brands that intend to improve D&I and approach the work and the communication of it honestly can prevail. Sounds straightforward. It's not. Many factors are at play.

Silence or Not?

A consensus seems shaky among communicators about taking a pubic stand. “If your company culture and business practices do not echo the movement, it’s best you remain silent," says Katie Kern, a partner at Media Frenzy Global.

Taking a stand in favor of the protests without a good record on diversity can backfire. Similarly, taking a supportive stand without working to promote diversity is not recommend, Kern believes. Taking a stand without really meaning it shows "you are an opportunist and out of touch," Kern says. On social, some critics are blasting brands for co-opting the moment to sell their products.

In addition, some PR pros are counseling silence, especially before posting your stance on social. For Hana Bieliauskas, VP and digital lead at Inspire PR Group, brands "being silent [on social at this time] can indicate they are taking time to listen, learn and reflect...it shows that they are aware this is not a time for business as usual."

Silence or Not? Part II

Yet silence isn't always golden. A new (June 5-7, 2020) survey from Edelman shows 60 percent of Americans say they will make a decision to boycott or buy  based on brands' response to Floyd’s killing. Similarly, a survey from Kantar showed 68 percent of consumers want brands to take a stand.

Yet Edelman's Trust Barometer, the yearly benchmark, consistently says a majority of consumers don't believe corporations have the public's best interests in mind. Just 21 percent of global participants believe brands have the best interests of society in mind. “Too many brands use societal issues as a marketing ploy to sell more product,” 56 percent of respondents told the Trust Barometer.

Integration

Integration, particularly with a large company, is another potential issue. For example, look at AT&T. CEO Randall Stephenson spoke eloquently and intelligently about structural diversity on CNBC recently. Going beyond a statement of support, Stephenson waded into structural racism and political change. "We’re asking our policymakers...[and]...political leaders to step up and recognize and just say it: ‘We’ve got a problem.’ We have a big problem, and it needs to be dealt with.”

One complication is a piece of AT&T's history. The company has supported Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), who advocated using military force to disperse the protestors. AT&T, reports "Popular Information," gave some $20,000 to Cotton's campaign through its corporate PAC. Other brands that have taken stands in support of the movement and aided Cotton financially include Wells Fargo, PwC, Coca-Cola and Bank of America.

Update: June 25, 2020: Another integration example involves a "large entertainment" brand. The brand crafted its support of #BLM and at the same time asked publisher Vice Media Group to keep its ads away from stories with words like "Black people" and "George Floyd" in them. Perhaps that's an example of integration and hypocrisy.

Forgiveness

The NFL was quick to support diversity and offered condolences to the Floyd family May 30 (see below). Yet its stance was ridiculed in light of how the league treated Colin Kaepernick, the now-former quarterback who protested police brutality and exclusivity during the 2016-2017 NFL season. Six days after the May 30 statement, league commissioner Roger Goodell apologized for the brand's stance. His apology seemed sincere, though he failed to mention Kaepernick's name.

For some, though, the league's apology was too little, too late. For example, the influential black leader Reverend Al Sharpton blasted Goodell as he delivered the eulogy at George Floyd's funeral last week.

Leadership

Other brands have taken a pro-diversity stance, though, upon inspection, there are issues with their practice of diversity.

Nike, for example, like the NFL, was fast to take a stand, producing a well-watched and acclaimed video.  Just days later, though, highly regarded "MarketingWeek" columnist Mark Riston called out the brand for having an all-white leadership team.

His June 3 column, "If Black Lives Matter to Brands, Where are Your Black Board Members?," featured a chart, with pictures, of 9 Nike leaders (6 men, three women). The chart included chairman emeritus Phil Knight, executive chairman Mark Parker and John Donahoe, president and CEO.

"Despite focusing on sports that have a significant skew toward African American athletes," Ritson wrote, "despite making much of its North American profit from black consumers, despite signing many of the world’s most famous athletes of color as spokespeople, its leadership team is about as black as I am."

Plans Upset

You might recall Nike's leadership and succession plans were thrown into disarray two years ago. Officially, the heir apparent to Knight, then-president Trevor Edwards, retired. Unofficially, his departure stemmed from the fallout over widespread "inappropriate workplace behavior" at Nike. The catalyst was a group of women at Nike raising complaints of bro culture, including harassment and a lack of opportunity for women and minorities.

The Nike video touched rival Adidas so strongly, it retweeted it, adding the comment, "Together is how we move forward. Together is how we make change.” Ritson's article also includes photos of six Adidas leaders. They also all are white. Ritson writes, "If you care about black lives, you don’t get inspired by an Instagram post. You get inspired by black faces in the boardroom. Companies need to become the change they are tweeting about."

Listen and Learn

Brands without a diverse culture "should use this time to listen, learn and work on their internal and external race relations," Kern says.  "The revolution will not be branded. This is a people’s movement."

Indeed, Black and other leaders are blasting certain brands for their statements of support, which can seem empty coming from companies without a diverse culture or plans to create one. Those called out include Zillow (no black leadership members), as well as AppleFacebook and Target.

"Talk is cheap and brands need to show action. Audiences today are so in tune with brand authenticity, that if a brand isn’t able to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk, they will be caught out," Eaton says.

Four socially progressive social media activists, Lexie Perez, Julian Cole, Stephanie Vitacca and Davis Ballard, looked at 100+ brands' reaction to Black Lives Matter. PRNEWS obtained a copy of the 133-page report.

The aforementioned Nike is described in the report as a brand that "is no stranger to creative grandstanding." Nike's $40 million pledge to "support the Black community," is noted, though "it's unclear if Nike aims to reform its diversity initiatives at the executive and corporate levels." The brand, it says, was called out on social for "corporate hypocrisy."

The report, which is circulating around the social justice community, praises some brand, but calls out others, like the clothier Vans, which posted a supportive message, but has taken no other action, according to the report.

Authenticity

Being authentic suggests that if a company can't point to its diverse and inclusive culture it should say nothing. Yet, several PR pros argue this particular moment is different. "Saying nothing can be construed as not supporting equal justice and the right to protest," says Arthur Solomon, a former Burson-Marsteller executive. "Activists could use that against brands."

In the end, though, authenticity seems the best route. Look at the police chief in Portland, OR, who stepped down and urged the city's mayor to consider her black deputy as a replacement. At the time, chief Jami Resch's resignation was considered an exemplary move. Turns out not to be so.

While communicating her resignation, Resch failed to mention that she'd received a letter from three black leaders blasting her for having an all-white command. The media obtained the letter and ran with it.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider