Most of the passionate messages from CEOs in support of the Black community issued since the death of George Floyd are the brainchild of someone in PR. As you might imagine, brand managers are working overtime right now to make sure the companies they represent don’t fall from grace for saying the wrong thing in their official statements, or even worse, for saying nothing.
Some of the people who write these messages are Black. In our personal lives we’re processing death, navigating grief, and organizing to prevent future deaths in our communities. At work, we’re balancing our professional commitment to a brand’s success, with our disbelief at how the situation is being approached by our employers.
Companies are so busy worrying about optics that they’re fumbling their first opportunity to make change. How a business treats its Black staff while creating their brand’s messaging is a telling sign of how close they are to being an equitable company.
Some Black communications professionals are being asked their opinion for the very first time in response to this crisis, for example. Normally being asked to take a seat at the table would be a moment of celebration in someone’s career, but in this scenario, someone Black has to consider multiple versions of reality.
In the optimistic version, the opportunity to lead at work in this situation has multiple benefits. It’s a chance to potentially work with senior staff —which we all know is very unlikely to include Black executives—on a message of crucial importance during a historic reckoning. It’s a chance to be a part of supporting our community from inside a system that is set up to actively exclude Black people by taking up space in a business setting.
The realistic version of events isn’t so straight forward. For Black people in the comms industry, participating in the formation of company messaging right now can come with a subset of complex considerations.
It has us asking questions like: do I want to use my lived experience to help a company that doesn’t value me? Tone-deaf statements masquerading as expressions of solidarity are everywhere right now, and if more work environments fostered Black staff, fewer useless statements would see the light of day.
You know the kind I mean. They mention racism, but don’t specifically mention the Black community. They shy away from using words like murder to describe what happened to Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Andrew Loku, D’Andre Campbell, and countless other Black people who were inexplicably killed.
Being asked to contribute is an opportunity to intercept messaging that might cause further trauma. If I don’t, am I failing my community by knowingly letting more toxicity into the conversation through uninformed messaging? How can I maintain my integrity, sanity, commitment to community, and my professionalism — which are all being juggled in this moment? How much responsibility do I have the bandwidth and safety net to accommodate?
For some people, this can be an empowering opportunity. But not every employer has created a comfortable environment for their Black teammates, so engaging someone Black on staff in this moment isn’t automatically welcome or complimentary.
Compassion towards your Black comms colleagues right now could take many forms. Start with taking care of your own house before thinking about external messaging. Don’t let your team read about your next steps at the same time as the general public. Have an internal conversation. Remind your staff of the ways anti-racism is reflected in your organization’s values and practices. Acknowledge how the lynching of Black people reinforces a hierarchy that the company inevitably benefits from in some way. Bonus points if the conversation is not initiated by a Black teammate, and in no way involves relying on them for the educational component of the conversation unless those Black teammates have been trained in issues like anti-racism and oppression, or volunteer their input.
Consider giving your Black comms colleague the option to sit this one out. Recognize they might be exhausted, and while some people find conversation cathartic, others do not. If you don’t have anyone on staff with lived experience who is able to contribute, pay a Black person who is interested in offering their expertise to the company. Retain them during the ongoing work that you promise to do so your company doesn’t fail Black people moving forward.
My ability to write this belies my privilege. If you don’t think your Black teammate could comfortably voice the same concerns, then consider what you need to do to create that space, and start right now.