What Should We Say?

If your brand decides to weigh in on matters pertaining to racial injustice during these extraordinary and volatile times, your voice must contribute to the discussion, not be the subject of it.

Well meaning PR pros are racing to develop messaging of sympathy and support out of personal conviction, a sense of responsibility, or an edict from the boss. But beware: missteps are easy, and may attract more negative attention than they normally would (just do a Google search for tone-deaf social media, or take a look at the mocking meme below).

Here are some tips to help you message your brand’s social values:

1) Are you sure you have something to say?

There’s no law requiring that you issue a statement about the protests and racial inequality. Every organization must make an individual decision not only about what to say, but about whether to say anything at all. Organizations facing questions from their employees, customers, the media, or the community may have greater incentive to join the discussion.

2) Back it up

A cornerstone of the Black Lives Matter movement is the notion that words are no longer enough. The movement demands meaningful commitment; tangible solutions to the problems that have been plaguing our society for generations. Aspirational messaging rings hollow, but proof points resonate. If you are proud of the African American representation in your C-suite, say so. If you need to do more, admit that and set a goal.

3) Avoid generalities

This moment in time is specifically about African Americans, not minorities in general. Well-intentioned but vague messages of diversity and inclusion will invite blowback from those rightfully demanding justice for George Floyd and black Americans everywhere. It’s the same reason that “All Lives Matter” is no substitute for “Black Lives Matter.”

4) Be humble

If your organization recognizes the need for change but still hasn’t decided exactly what that looks like, it’s OK to admit it. A PR pro I respect enormously advocates the phrase, “We know we don’t have all the answers…” Of course, this strategy works best when you genuinely believe you will have something to offer (grants, scholarships, hiring changes) soon.

5) Consider the future

A client asked me this morning whether issuing a statement on the George Floyd case and its aftermath might set a precedent requiring them to weigh in on similar events in the future. This case seems different; a breaking point. We’re seeing protests not only nationwide but all over the world. Nevertheless, strong reluctance to get involved in the next major social crisis may be a good reason to sit this one out, too.

Mark Bernheimer

Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN correspondent and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an internationally renowned media training and consulting firm.