The old adage “Marry in haste, repent at leisure” is good advice not only for relationships, but also—as recent events have shown—making corporate statements on social issues. Although emotions understandably ran high following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, some of the companies that rushed to issue a statement or social media post came to regret it.
As well intended as these companies were, there were often problems with the timing, tone and, in some cases, the companies themselves. While consumers are demanding companies address systemic racism more than ever before, they need to do so carefully and thoughtfully. Ahead of making any public statements on racism or other social issues, it is imperative to consider the following:
1. Make sure the house is clean.
When companies fail to examine their own practices and communication while drafting a statement or social post, they open themselves up to criticism at best and public humiliation at worst. No matter what the issue, a wise company will first conduct a sensitivity audit, poring over the website, internal and external communications and policies, procedures and past behavior to ensure everything is in harmony with a proposed statement. For example, in an editorial about the disparity between corporate bluster and actual practices, The New York Times pointed out how companies publishing diversity reports invited scrutiny. For instance, only 1.5% of Facebook’s tech force is Black and Black employees only make up 8.3% of Amazon’s managerial positions.
No matter how beautifully worded a statement is, it will be quickly discredited if the company doesn’t practice what it preaches—potentially causing more damage to its reputation than if it said nothing. Acknowledging past mistakes is a good first step, but it is best combined with specific steps the company is taking to rectify them.
2. Put money and time behind your words.
Amazon and Disney were two of many companies that received online backlash for issuing empty statements. Consumers, employees, partners, shareholders and industry watchdog groups expect more than pretty words—they want to know the company is paying more than lip service to the cause, and pressured companies making Black Lives Matter statements to open their purses. Unless a company is willing to include concrete actions it is taking internally and externally to lend support and enact change, it should expect to be called on the carpet.
Actions can be financial, but as The New York Times editorial mentioned, a one-time donation is not as effective as sustained support. If a company feels strongly enough to issue a statement, it should consider elevating the cause as one of its strategic giving pillars—not only providing sustained financial support, but also giving employees time off for volunteering and encouraging them to serve on the boards of organizations focusing on the cause. Executives should lead by example by getting actively involved.
3. Consider whether your company needs to be heard.
Writing about the recent bandwagon effort to post black squares on social media, Variety said, “…this rush to virtue-signal support without providing substantive aid is an all too familiar instinct on social media, where an issue can become a trend that people feel the need to address in some way, whether or not it makes sense or does any actual good…using the language of protests for the sake of it is just another way of co-opting the very real pain that inspires movements like #BlackLivesMatter in the first place. If you’re willing to stop talking so Black people can be heard, maybe just go ahead and stop talking.”
The column referred to companies and individuals who used #BlackLivesMatter in their social media posts, clogging feeds and effectively drowning out Black voices. In this case, their efforts were counterproductive. Mistaking silence for condonement of injustice, some companies experienced backlash after their rush to join what they saw others doing.
Even when a company feels it can contribute to the dialogue, it should carefully consider which voices within the company to spotlight. Traditional company spokespeople may not be the best voice for the issue; perhaps those most closely involved with or affected by the cause are the ones that will best represent the company. With some advanced coaching and media training, they can be a credit to the organization. (When professional media training isn’t an option, Aker Ink has a variety of useful articles in its newsroom.)
4. Don’t make it all about you.
Twitter excoriated several celebrities for being performative in their statements, and The Washington Post showed how jumping at the chance to digitally display wokeness backfired for commercial brands. Companies walk a fine line between being supportive and appearing opportunistic, and they need to be sensitive and thoughtful in how they approach any issue. It’s wise to get input from a variety of people inside and outside the company, and again, having relationships with organizations connected to the cause helps ensure your message will be well received.
In the cancel culture era, companies have less room for error. Following these steps will help them avoid backlash, but all will receive negative feedback at some point. Responding appropriately is key, and, on occasion, apologizing goes a long way in making amends. Both can be difficult in the heat of the moment; getting counsel from a neutral party with communications experience (often a PR agency like Aker Ink) goes a long way in ensuring all statements are appropriate, sensitive and effective.