Massive protests have made silence about racial injustice a non-option for most businesses. Or as one communications expert put it, “Silence is leaden”.
“Silence is not an option. You think you’re being silent, but you’re speaking loudly,” according to Avanna Robinson, a reputation management expert with Porter Novelli. “You may actually be making the opposite statement of what you want to say” and risk alienating consumers and employees.
Robinson was part of four-person online webinar hosted by Ragan.com that discussed brands taking a stand amid calls for an end to social and racial injustice.
Brandi Boatner, who leads IBM’s social and influencer communications, said, “Organizations, based on their values and their ethics and what they were founded upon, have an obligation to say something.”
Carol Russell, CEO of a Minneapolis PR firm, said, “These are difficult times, but they also are brand-defining times.”
Mike Paul, president of Reputation Doctor, said the time has come for more than empty rhetoric. “Go beyond the statements. That’s step one. What else are you doing? Are you ready to hire senior executives of color?” Paul added, “Know what we’ve been doing for generations? Talking. We’re done with talking. It’s not on us to educate you.”
Boatner offered three specific suggestions – speak with inclusive language, listen to black employees and community members and learn “why systemic racism is such a problem, and how did we get to this point.” Russell added that it’s important to engage, not just listen and “elevate and amplify those voices versus taking and translating it.”
The panel address the twin challenges of addressing racial injustice while still navigating the COVID-19 communications crisis. They said it was important not to limit either discussion by artificial deadlines or allow the conversations about these topics be overwhelmed by something else, whether it’s economic recovery or the 2020 election.
“We, as communicators, need to be at the forefront to make sure the dialog continues,” Robinson said. This moment of national attention “will diminish over time if there’s no follow-up, Russell said, as she reinforced the need for “action to follow words”.