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A step-by-step guide to writing a compelling and sensitive corporate response to the George Floyd protests

LaToya Evans, PR
  • Companies and leaders of all kinds have been using their visibility to respond to the deaths of George Floyd and others and address the recent protests against police brutality.
  • Business Insider spoke with corporate communications and PR veteran LaToya Evans, who's worked for big-name brands like Cisco, IBM, Philips, Walmart, and Bank of America, for her best advice for businesses looking to send a message to their customers about the current situation.
  • Some brands that have developed thoughtful responses include Tapestry (the parent company of Coach, Kate Spade, and Stuart Weitzman), Nike, and Ben and Jerry's, Evans said.
  • Companies should be creating people-centric messaging that first show empathy, then solidarity, and finally, specific actions they plan to take, she explained.
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From Nike to Peloton, companies of all sizes and business leaders of all levels have been using their platforms to respond to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other Black lives and address the global outpouring of protests against police brutality. Joining broader conversations about race and racism, many are positioning themselves as allies in support of the black community.
And the world is paying attention.
"Whether it's the global COVID-19 pandemic or the murder of George Floyd, companies need to understand that people — including their employees, consumers, shareholders, and stakeholders — are watching their actions carefully during this time," corporate communications and PR veteran LaToya Evans told Business Insider, 
And whatever steps they take — or don't — "will not go unnoticed" added Evans, who has held roles as a corporate communications leader at IBM, Philips, and Walmart and served as vice president of media relations at Bank of America, vice president of communications at Compass Group, head of corporate public relations at Ally Financial, and head of communications, North and South America, at Cisco.
Now more than ever, it's critical for leaders to take a stand by acknowledging both the killing of George Floyd and the resulting civil unrest, she explained. And timeliness matters.
"People aren't just watching how you respond, but also how long it takes you to speak out about racial injustice," she noted, explaining that the time it takes is an indicator of how many diverse employees exist — and have a voice — within an organization.
Over the last several days, Evans — who now runs her own public relations and marketing firm with high-profile clients that in the past have included US presidential candidates Andrew Yang and Mike Bloomberg and companies such as Allstate — has received calls from companies who are continuing to focus on their products, services, and financial outlook, without considering the larger global context. These companies, she said, tend to be part of a group that hasn't taken social action against racism in the past or demonstrated their values publicly before. Brands like these are going to fall under the scrutiny of the Black community and its allies and be directly judged for how they handle this crisis, she added.
Evans shared with Business Insider the specific ways brands and businesses can join the current conversation on race and show support for the Black community — without being seen as opportunistic, out of touch, or insensitive.

Recognize that silence isn't an option

As recently as a year ago, many major companies hesitated to use the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, considering it a taboo, said Evans. "Now, companies are realizing that you can't not use it because your employees and stakeholders who are part of the Black community need to know they matter to you," she explained.
Some companies operating out of "fear and panic," Evans said, from feeling financially strained due to the pandemic may be motivated to focus on rebuilding the business they've lost instead of adding their voice to support the cause. But that can come at a different cost.
"By not speaking out, it will almost certainly be damaging to their business in some way," she said. "'Opting out' of being vocal during this time simply isn't an option."
Brands who remain silent, she added, for fear that they may alienate others "risk losing in the long run." She pointed to the premium consumers are willing to pay — and loyalty individuals are willing to offer — to support companies that align with their values.
"Similarly, they will go out of their way to not spend [money] with companies that have a history of silence or misbehavior," she said.
We have seen this play out in the past, with the backlash Starbucks received after an employee called the police about two black male customers, which resulted in a protest and the closure of its 8,000 stores for racial bias training. In the current climate, there's been a movement to support black-owned businesses.
Thanks to social media, there's also a "public feedback loop" where individuals can organize in support of or against company actions and deliver immediate results, Evans explained. The recent #WendysIsOverParty — a trending social media protest that took off on Twitter after a franchisee's donation of $440,000 to President Trump's reelection campaign became public — is a prime example of this.
Not only are individuals more capable of coalescing to mount vocal and effective protests of corporations through social channels, they're also more likely to use these public platforms to demand companies take action when employees' racist actions come to light, Evans said.
"Over the course of the past two weeks, I've also seen companies who specifically have products that cater to the Black community be called upon via social media and other forums to take a stance," said Evans. "Those organizations who didn't take action until they received the backlash" may have done long-term damage to their brands, she added.
That's why it's more important than ever to be proactive.

Respond with humanity and solidarity

Now's not the time for self-serving, congratulatory corporate messaging. Instead, companies looking to contribute to conversations on race and racism — without being perceived as furthering their own interests — can do so "by being genuine and acknowledging the time we're in, versus making the situation about them," said Evans.
Specific brands Evans pointed to for getting this approach right include Tapestry (parent company of Coach, Kate Spade, and Stuart Weitzman), Nike, Netflix, and Ben and Jerry's.

It's not a coincidence that these brands have a track record of stepping up to take action against racism, Evans explained.
"These are also companies that showcase acknowledgement when there is not a crisis, which is also key in creating a corporate brand that truly values diversity," she said. For example, Ben & Jerry's has regularly shown support for the Black community in recent years and partnered with organizations like Color of Change.
Evans, who highlighted that she's been "particularly impressed" by Tapestry's CEO Jide Zeitlin, recommended that companies take this moment to illuminate the real, authentic stories and experiences of Black CEOs and leaders.

"Many organizations may be tempted to rehash the work they do in the Black community — whether that's partnerships, donations, or even investing in employee resource groups," she said. "And while there is nothing wrong with acknowledging those strides, this moment isn't necessarily about patting yourself on the back as much as it is showing your solidarity for the Black community right now."
And when companies do invest in the Black community, "It's not enough to just donate and write a check to the causes to say you stand in solidarity," said Evans. Businesses need to commit to fostering ongoing partnerships, learning from these partner organizations, and putting those lessons into practice.
The most important thing to recognize is that this conversation should come down to "humanity," Evans said.
Adopting a "people-first" approach is critical during times of crises, as this has the power to shape how people view companies "for years to come," she added. Specifically, employees will be looking for reassurance that the companies they work for are supportive and shareholders and consumers are looking for confirmation that the companies they support financially are socially responsible.

Acknowledge the company's limitations

Companies that have never taken a stand in the past have the chance to change that.
"No organization is perfect, but you have to start the journey somewhere," said Evans.
Even companies with a history of racist policies or leaders have the opportunity to course correct.
For instance, in 2018, National Geographic publicly recognized its own racism in its reporting over the company's 100-plus years of history.
"You are allowed to be a part of this phase of evolution, even if your company's past has you in another chapter of the history books," said Evans. "If anything, this is the time to set a new path."
The way to move forward is to figure out how to address those injustices and actively communicate what's being now and what will yet be done in the future.
It's also OK not to have all the answers yet, she added. The important thing is to start out on the path to discovering them.
In the case of National Geographic, it received mixed feedback after its attempt — that the acknowledgement was "slow in coming," "powerful" but not something to be applauded, and fell short by continuing to perpetuate some of the same problems — something other brands can learn from.

Don't treat this like a one-time issue — put in place an ongoing plan

Evans shared that over the last several days, she's received many calls from companies that haven't prepared for this moment, and because of that lack of strategy, they've experienced delays in delivering messages of support out of fear of "saying the wrong thing or in general not knowing what to say."
Evans posed a question to companies such as these: "Why didn't you worry prior to this moment?" For companies unable to come up with a response, the likely answer is that they've been out of touch, she said.
Beyond demonstrating support in the moment, Evans said brands need to make their response actionable, and that action should include making diversity in leadership and being part of conversations about race ongoing priorities "when there isn't a crisis, not just when it's in the news."
"Companies should be asking themselves, 'What can I do to truly make inclusion part of my company's fabric and DNA?'" she shared.
The answer should start with diversifying the company's board, C-suite, leadership, and internal and external marketing and public relations teams and agencies, Evans said. In the short term, with many companies lacking Black leaders and PR team members or multicultural agencies, now's the time to elevate Black voices from within other areas of the company.
To do that, companies must first open the door, starting by acknowledging that difficulty of the current moment for the Black community in America, and begin internal conversations about what's going on, recognizing people may not feel comfortable being open about their experiences and honest opinions right away.
With all this, diversity should be more than a "buzzword" and diversity and inclusion teams should be empowered to "counsel and educate leadership on these matters," she added.
More than having a seat and a voice at the table, Black professionals need to know that they can "share their real thoughts, without the fear of their voices being silenced," Evans explained.
SEE ALSO: We're lawyers offering pro-bono services to protesters in Minneapolis. So far, we've received over 200 calls about arrests — here's what it's like on the ground.
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* This article was originally published here
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