By Karen Addis, APR

How can and should organizations be talking about hot-bed issues surrounding the murder of George Floyd, systemic racism, and racial injustice and inequality? Is it even appropriate for business to get involved?

On Aug. 4, the National Press Club Communicators Committee hosted a virtual panel discussion, “Candid Conversations: Navigating Conversations about Race, Internally and Externally,” where top communicators provided insight and advice about what works and what doesn’t work.

Moderated by NPC Vice President and AP Assignment Manager Lisa Matthews, shown above, panelists included: Vanguard Communications Vice President and Diversity & Inclusion Practice Lead Crystal Borde, Clarke & Associates President & CEO Priscilla Clarke, and Ben & Jerry’s Grand Poobah of Public Relations (yes, that’s his real title!) Sean Greenwood.

“It was a moment in a movement,” said Borde in reference to the killing of George Floyd. Communicators, she said, should be prepared for the long haul, noting that George Floyd was one of many such instances. She offered the following advice about issuing public statements : 1) make sure what you say aligns with your mission, 2) be authentic, and 3) be transparent.

Clarke spoke about her personal journey and early experiences with racism, starting at the age of 9. “It’s what drew me to the work I do [as a communicator].” She called the killing of George Floyd a “humanity moment,” noting that, as a human being people, regardless of their race, could not ignore what had happened. She said that consumers nowadays are holding companies they support accountable and expect them to speak out on these and other issues.

Greenwood said it’s in Ben & Jerry’s DNA to run toward confrontation and take a stand on issues, which is why the company was able to authentically issue its strong and powerful public statement after the death of George Floyd. But he acknowledged not all companies can ― or should — take that approach. “Do something that’s authentic to you. It can be something small and reasonable.”

All the panelists agreed that companies need to do more than simply issue statements condemning racial injustice and inequality. “You need to go beyond the sound bite of Black Lives Matter,” said Clarke. “You have to be able to back it up publicly.” 

But, cautioned Borde, companies need to be thoughtful, not reactive before they issue their statements. “Listen to the conversations taking place before you start talking.”

Yet when it comes to highly charged, emotional topics, many companies are afraid to make a misstep, said Greenwood. He advises organizations to bring in an expert, which is what Ben & Jerry’s has done on numerous occasions. “You don’t have to be perfect,” he said. “But you have to do the work, both internally and externally. That’s where organizations get into trouble.”

To ensure the candid conversations about race and racism continue and don’t slowly fade away, Borde said communicators need to create a plan, with milestones, and a commitment to achieving them. “Get uncomfortable. Get external help.”

“It’s no longer business as usual,” said Clarke. “Diversity and inclusion have never been a necessity [in business]. Now everyone has the spotlight on them.”

“Candid Conversations: Navigating Conversations about Race, Internally and Externally,” is available here.

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