Laura Petrolino

How to Talk to Your Clients About Racial Justice

By: Laura Petrolino | June 8, 2020 | 
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How To Talk to Your Clients About racial justiceAs Travis Claytor said in our Agency Jumpstart call last week, “At this point, if you are a brand that doesn’t think it needs a crisis communications plan, good luck to you because you deserve what you get.” 

If we can thank 2020 for anything, it’s for reminding us that crises happen.

They happen to organizations that do everything else right. They happen when you least expect them. And they happen because you can’t predict them. 

An unknown crisis will hit your organization and all you can do is have a plan on how you are going to deal with it. 

That’s your only defense.

The Communications Industry Needs Diversity 

Last week we ask our community members how they are currently advising clients; what are they doing to help them navigate and speak out about racial justice and the movement ignited by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. 

One note I want to add here: most of the voices you’ll see here are white.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t valid or the advice given is not useful. It is. But during a time that it is so important to lift up black voices, it is important to note. 

The communications community is overwhelmingly white. That’s a tragedy the entire industry.

If any industry requires diverse voices, it’s one whose job is to speak to and for people and organizations. All people and organizations. Not just white ones.

A greater amount of valued diversity in our industry is one of the things it will need to survive during the next several years.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to help raise those voices and help us evolve. 

Here’s what the community had to say. 

Walk the Talk

Suze Carragher’s first piece of advice is to “walk the talk” and engage in real activities.

“Be genuine. Walk the talk. Engage in real activities that help reconcile (don’t just slap a black screen up and think you’ve done your part).  Sadly, I think that’s what happened on Blackout Tuesday. It didn’t improve the matter. And most marketers just picked up their interrupted messaging plans the next day.  INSTEAD, if companies offered opportunities for employees to learn first hand and understand about cultures, wow! What a powerful story that could be.  That’s my two cents, and I could be wrong.

Here’s a story of that in action. 

A long time friend of mine is a pastor at a church. 

One long time parishioner who is a person of color sheepishly told them that someone in the church told her in essence, “Your kind doesn’t belong here.”

My friend pressed her to tell him who it was. 

She refused. 

So this Sunday, he plans to share that parishioner’s story from the pulpit to help people understand this is not distant, but racial justice is needed right in their own community. He is also sharing a resource, “Be the Bridge” by Latasha Morrison with all of us and encouraged us to read and do the work. 

Communications lesson:

  • Become aware of a challenge/problem/offense
  • Realize we haven’t done enough/it was a blind spot
  • Quickly identify and act upon immediate actions to stop the slide
  • Identify mid term and long term actions to address challenge/problem/issue. (Particularly when the audience is forever changing, eg new members, returning members.

An Extension of Your Brand and Values

Travis Claytor says brands shouldn’t think about speaking about racial injustice “as ‘taking a stand’ but as an extension of your brand and core values.”

Here are his five tips:

  1. Know your core values. If you’re considering taking a public stance on any issue or topic, ensure that it clearly aligns with and supports your core values.
  2. Stay true to your mission. The mission of your company is your north star and aligns your teams to ensure everyone is pushing in the same direction.
  3. Express those values, and that mission, in a meaningful, authentic and transparent way. If you want to take a stand, be open and transparent about what stand you’re taking, and communicate clearly about why you’re taking that stand.
  4. Be open to feedback and listen to your customers to communicate in an authentic and meaningful way, you have to hear feedback, good or bad, and adjust as necessary.
  5. Have an ongoing dialogue. If it’s important enough to align with your core values, then invest in making sure you have an ongoing dialogue with your stakeholders.

Only Stand Up If You Mean It

Betsy Cooper adds:

We believe that you (clients) should be taking a stand, but only if it’s legit. Don’t say something because you should, say it because you mean it, and are backing it up. Whether you’re committed to educating yourself/your staff/customers, volunteering or supporting with funding, you need to be doing something.

Eden Spodek agrees:

Since the lockdown began, I’ve been sending all clients a weekly email. This week’s was a departure and focused on sharing Black Lives Matter resources, letting them know what we’re doing on our channels, suggesting they consider a similar approach (but only if it’s sincere/heartfelt, and providing them with guidance as best we know how…and it’s not easy.”

It’s Not Right for Every Company

Toni-Anne Blake notes some times it just doesn’t fit a company, their values, or what they do, and it’s better for them not to engage. 

I have not given my company any advice on the most recent happenings. As a B2B telecommunications manufacturer with no established corporate social activism/responsibility program in place, I think any response would be reactionary and unhelpful. Also, as one of only two black people in the company, I would see any statement as disingenuous. This does give me a new opportunity to raise adopting the CSR program I’ve been pitching for years.

Don’t Just Hijack a Trendy Hashtag

Jack Monson tells it like it is:

Do something to make your community better, then tell your story. Don’t just hijack the trendy hashtag of the week. We are all tired of your “thoughts and prayers”. 

To go along with this, I see a lot of brands putting out ambiguous, blanket statements that “elude” to issue but don’t speak in specifics.

If you are going to do that, just stop. Don’t try to have it both ways.

If you are going to take a stand, be specific, name names, clearly say how you are addressing issues of racial justice and how you feel about institutionalized racism. 

You can’t make everyone happy with issues like these so it’s a time you need to decide what you believe in and stand up for it clearly and specifically. 

Just Try

Hinda Mitchell believes sometimes brands get paralyzed wanting to say the exactly perfect thing when really they just need to start.

Follow your values, be genuine, align behind what is consistent with your brand and story. If you haven’t done enough but want to do more, say that. If you don’t know exactly where to start, say that also. Try.

This situation has definitely been a testing ground for brands who have casually included “diversity, “equality,” and other buzzwords in their values. They are now being called out because their actions clearly don’t align.

Hopefully, this situation will help brands better recognize that their stated values can’t just be pretty to look at, they need to stand behind them, even when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient. The brands that have during this have my respect. The others…

What Do You Think?

What advice are you giving clients right now? What are you doing yourself? What role do you feel communicators play in supporting racial justice?

Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.