This spring our inboxes were flooded with sympathetic messages and thoughts on the reckoning America is experiencing on racial inequity and justice, largely spurred by the death of George Floyd and the numerous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some companies released public statements, others sent internal messages to employees. Still other companies didn’t chime in at all.
Many of the statements sounded similar, with words of support, calls for unity and promises to do better. Some also included more tangible actions taken or plans for the future.
As public relations practitioners, we play the exciting and important role of helping companies communicate with the world, so we paid close attention to how different organizations responded. While some firms released powerful statements, others struggled to get it right. We recognize “success” in these statements means different things to different people. But from our perspective, the strongest messages led with led with learning, authenticity, humility and action. Following are observations about how some messages achieved those qualities.
The urgency of now
When sharing a message around an emotionally charged topic, it can be difficult to know where to begin. While many may fear speaking out at the risk of saying the wrong thing, saying nothing also speaks volumes. Those who entered the conversation with an acknowledgement of its delicacy and chose words carefully were able to avoid wading into the weeds of “us vs. them.”
This was uncharted territory for firms that don’t typically issue statements on topics not directly related to their industry. Successful statements served as an acknowledgement that the company is part of a greater community, reflecting the real people working within them and those the firm serves.
Without a clear path on how to proceed, many leaders put together a plan as a starting point. It can be comforting to identify first steps and to remember that the process may take time. A strong plan addresses the steps a company will take in the short and long term, both externally and internally.
Take care of your house first
With employee advocacy on the rise, companies of all sizes are increasingly finding that their biggest critics can be internal voices. Failing to adequately recognize and address them is a mistake that, for some companies, had the potential to further complicate an already delicate situation.
Successful messages were authentic to a company’s values. They also reflected the voices of more than just company leadership.
Sending an internal message and focusing efforts on employees first can help companies genuinely see where their efforts are needed most, learn from the people most greatly affected and “test run” their external messaging. Mercer Advisors CEO Dave Welling demonstrated a powerful example of this when he shared his recent note to employees on WealthManagement.com.
Going beyond platitudes: shaping external messages
Whether going it alone or collaborating with other leaders in your industry, following are some elements that affected the strength of external messaging.
- Anchoring around the company’s North Star Successful messages we observed were framed around the company’s authentic voice, brand, identity and values. Statements that appeared to jump on the bandwagon and repeated what others said came off as disingenuous and often attracted criticism.
- Channeling Goldilocks Not too hot, not too cold. Successful messages stated what the company wanted to express with conviction but didn’t cloud the overall message by wading into contentious territory. Adding a caveat or tone-deaf comment had the potential to undermine a successful message. Our guess is that the most effective statements were well vetted and run past several people with different perspectives.
- Not just checking the boxes Statements that read like the fine print under a job ad raise the question, Shouldn’t you be doing that anyway? Successful statements were outwardly focused and not just about the company patting itself on the back or regurgitating what they were already doing. Strong statements provided outward context to the company’s place in the conversation in order to express how it planned to address the situation. Those who were too inwardly focused came off as self-serving.
- Addressing “what now?” Words matter, but without action, their weight can be diminished. Heartfelt messages were a good starting point, but just that- a start. Inevitably, a statement lacking concrete action or steps prompted the question, “Now what?”
- It was important for companies not to promise unrealistic outcomes or set lofty goals without a clear action plan, and it was okay to not immediately state or know exactly what action a company would take. Part of an action plan may be an internal review of a company’s values and practices, which may set the tone for future actions. By recognizing that more action was necessary, companies could begin the work towards establishing goals and holding themselves accountable.
- It’s okay to not have all the answers. In a recent webinar on diversity & inclusion in the workplace organized by Ragan, Heidi Brooks, senior lecturer in organizational behavior at Yale School of Management, encouraged leaders to employ the power of curiosity. Strong statements from company leadership demonstrated that they were learning and admitted they didn’t have all the answers. They revealed their values and led with learning.
- Lean into the fact that there is no one “right” way of going about this. The strongest statements we observed were guided by humility and transparency. They appeared to reflect perspectives from a variety of sources and backgrounds, especially fellow employees, friends and industry colleagues.
A note on social media
If companies weren’t on the social media bandwagon before this spring, many found it necessary to reconsider their communications strategy.
On a recent webinar on social media and the upcoming elections hosted by Johnson Financial Group, guest speaker Andrew Bleeker of Bully Pulpit Interactive stressed the importance of social media for amplifying important messages during times of social upheaval.
Social media is an increasingly important channel to be able to put out statements and respond to important events in a timely way. One alternative, distributing a press release on conventional channels, can take longer and be viewed as too late or too slow. If even just a company’s employees saw the social posts, that likely still had an important impact.
Issuing a statement isn’t the end, but rather the beginning of a larger conversation and journey. America’s current conversation on racial justice is ongoing, providing many opportunities to participate and continue to shape your message.
Articles on responses from throughout the industry and resources for further reading: