Look before you leap on the bandwagon

Editor’s note: Crisis communications managers have been challenged by issues other than COVID 19  in recent weeks. Racially-charged incidents in the of the United States have propelled almost every organization to think about its own relationships with diverse communities.

Many organizations have issued statements deploring the deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement and pledged their support to racial, social and economic injustice. You may work for, or be involved in one or more of these organizations that have done this recently. Do you know how those statements have been received? Have you asked if your message will be believed? Did your leadership leap on the bandwagon too soon, however well-intended? Have you enhanced your public image or damaged the fragile bonds of trust, especially with disenfranchised communities?

Like all of you, I’ve received statements from a wide variety of organizations and they have evoked a variety of visceral and professional responses. One large utility company put their CEO – a rarely seen individual normally – on a long video lauding its work as a champion for racial, social, gender, sexual orientation, disability, access etc. etc. Basically, they tried to cover it all and, in my opinion, it rang false. Then I got a note from, of all things, a cooking blog I subscribe to and somehow, she hit all the right notes, coming across as sincere and genuinely interested in listening, understanding and learning. I’ve seen many others – from a yoga studio, a bank, a bike store, a real estate company, a resort community, an eco-justice charity, an investment fund and on and on – and began to puzzle on why some seemed to work and why others didn’t. If your organization is contemplating making such a statement, here’s my thoughts:

  1. If your organization elects to make a statement at this very volatile and emotional time, do so carefully and humbly. Acknowledge the problem and if appropriate, acknowledge your organization’s role in it. Stop right there and say nothing more…for now.

  2. Take the time to actively listen. What is being said, by whom and to whom and what does your organization particularly need to pay attention to? You may even formalize your ‘active listening’ work with a survey, focus groups, employee round-tables, open houses etc.

  3. Now formulate your communications plan AND, even more importantly, your organization’s action plan. What exactly are you going to do to combat the problem? Don’t issue mushy sentiments of ‘shared mourning’ or ‘standing together’ without being crystal clear on what concrete steps your organization is going to take to make a difference.

  4. Test-drive both your comms plan and your action plan with key stakeholders. Again, move humbly and with great sensitivity.

  5. Listen some more and seek out experts to deepen your understanding of the problem and how your organization can address its specific role in it. Be prepared for some candid discussions and perhaps, to hear that all you need to do is shut up and listen for now. You may also learn your work may be strictly internal and will not have a public component at all.

  6. Now engage in dialogue, first internally and then in your external forums. 

  7. Demonstrate your organization’s sincerity with action, not empty promises. If you say you’re going to do something, do it.

  8. Be in for the long-term. Earning trust in this charged atmosphere will be challenging. Many marginalized groups are justifiably very suspicious. Many feel we’ve heard it all before, seen it all before and nothing has changed.

  9. Don’t try to edge into the limelight with insensitive ‘virtue signaling.’ It is a very human reaction to want to sympathize and empathize by sharing your own story, but now is the time to listen, not to talk about yourself.

About the Author

Deborah FolkaDeborah Folka, APR, FCPRS, LM, is an independent consultant in Vancouver who has specialized in crisis and issues management for over 25 years. She is the editor of No Good Deed, a regular column about ethics in the public relations profession.