By Gina Rubel and Sarah Larson
The killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer sparked protests that swept the United States and even spread to other countries around the globe. It also renewed a national discussion about race that quickly spread from activists and organizations to include businesses of every size and industry.
The leaders of companies from Comcast to Target to Ben and Jerry’s issued statements and quickly created ads expressing their positions on racial injustice and highlighting donations to nonprofits focusing on racial justice. For many business leaders, however, this was new territory. Many were not prepared to speak publicly, or even internally, about the sensitive topics of racism and racial injustice.
As the crisis and communications strategists for a wide range of clients, the Furia Rubel team mobilized to support our clients located in cities across the United States. While many were still working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, others were back in the office or were still serving their clients and customers in cities where riots had broken out.
We reached out to the leaders of every one of our clients to see how they were and how we could support them. The steps, actions, and resources that came out of those conversations can be a helpful resource for other companies trying to pivot to address high-stakes issues in their workplace and the world.
Immediate Crisis Management Steps
In the early days of the protests, our team asked our clients specific questions, some related to safety and personal security and others that should be addressed in every crisis plan. Further explanation of each step follows below, but they include:
- Is everyone from your company safe?
- Have you reached out to Black and brown employees (or those with family members of color) to make sure they are okay and to find out how you can be supportive?
- Have you revisited your nondiscrimination and anti-racism policies?
- Have you revisited your social media policy?
- Have you communicated these policies to your employees?
- Are you prepared to enforce your policies?
- Have you paused your unrelated social media and electronic communications?
- After listening to the public dialogue, do you now have something to add to the conversation?
Is everyone safe?
The first priority in any crisis should be to ensure that your people are safe. After Floyd’s death, millions of protestors took to the streets. Many of these protests were peaceful but some turned violent. While protests and riots have happened before in this country, this time, they came amidst widespread stay-at-home orders put in place to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Since many offices were still closed due to these restrictions, most of our clients had few, if any, people physically present in the office buildings.
Physical safety is one of the elements addressed in any good crisis response plan. While most of our clients have crisis response plans that they activated and implemented during the protests, many companies do not. Crisis plans – or “incident response” plans as they are often called – are essential planning tools for leaders to be prepared to handle whatever may come their way, from hurricanes and extended power outages to pandemics to public disturbances.
Here are resources to help guide organizations that do not have a crisis response plan already in place:
- Why Does Your Business Need a Crisis Management Plan?
- Planning for a Crisis
- Elements of a Crisis Management Plan
- What You Need To Know About Small Business Crisis Management
Have you reached out to the people of color in your company to make sure they are okay and to find out how you can be supportive?
“I just witnessed the lynching of a Black man, but don’t worry Ted, I’ll have those deliverables to you end of day.”
So read the subhead of a searing piece by Shenequa Golding published just days after Floyd’s death, entitled “Maintaining Professionalism In the Age of Black Death Is…A Lot.”
“Your Black employees are exhausted,” Golding wrote. “Your Black employees are scared. Your Black employees are crying in between meetings. Your Black employees have mentally checked out. Your Black employees are putting on a performance.”
“Forgive us if our work isn’t up to par, we just saw a lynching,” she continued. “Pardon us if we’re quiet in the Zoom meetings, we’re wondering if we’ll be the next hashtag. Spare some grace if we’re not at the company happy hour, because the hour of joy that most adults look forward to has been stolen from us due to the recent string of Black death.”
Lattice.com, the performance-management software company, notes that, “The protests surrounding the police killing of George Floyd underscore our society’s long-standing struggles with race, privilege, and prejudice. As citizens, we’ve responded with feelings of anger, grief, frustration, and hopelessness. As employees, those emotions can’t be left at the door come Monday morning. Finding the right words for times like these is seldom easy. But through meaningful action, companies and their HR teams can support and stand in solidarity with Black employees.”
The company asked the more than 9,000 HR professionals who are members of its Resources for Humans community to share how they and their companies are supporting Black employees. Their suggestions ranged from being clear about where the company stands on anti-racism to giving employees time to step away from work to putting the corporate money where its communications mouth is. See the full list here.
Have you revisited your nondiscrimination and anti-racism policies?
Policies are more than stuffy corporate speak. Yes, they are designed to protect companies, but good policies also should encapsulate what the company believes in. In that vein, every company should have a nondiscrimination and anti-racism policy. Having a policy in place makes it clear that the company will not stand for racist behavior, and then enables company leaders to discipline employees whose conduct violates that policy. Zero tolerance is a must.
Before the Black Lives Matter movement, most policies focused only on diversity. Now, they must include language about anti-racism. An example of more inclusive language can be found in our What We Stand For statement.
When updating your policies, include diverse members of your team in the discussion. Then, go outside your internal borders and beyond the recommendations of the EEOC and other governing bodies. Reach out to diverse leaders outside of your organization to make sure your language is clear and inclusive. Resources can be found at:
- AFL-CIO (Policy example)
- Human Rights Campaign
We reached out to our friend Reggie Shuford, executive director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, for input on our statement. He shared that inclusion is not enough; companies must provide people with a work environment where they have a sense of belonging.
When addressing the language in your policies and statements, ask:
- Is this the right time to act?
- Is this the best language?
- Could our sentiment be misinterpreted?
- Have we received feedback from a diverse audience?
- Should the message be shared internally only or should it be shared externally?
From uneducated and implicitly biased jokes and statements such as “all lives matter,” to the deplorable behavior of white men in N.J. mocking George Floyd’s death at a protest, an individual’s behavior during their off hours still reflects on their employer. A Delaware County, Pennsylvania man was charged with ethnic intimidation after video was posted to Twitter of him shouting racial slurs and threats at participants of a peaceful rally in Aston Township. Twitter users identified him, found his LinkedIn profile, and began deluging the bank they thought he worked for – the bank has since said he is not an employee – with comments on Twitter and on Facebook.
The bottom line: a clear and unambiguous anti-racism policy helps educate employees about what is and what is not acceptable and gives company leadership tools to hold everyone accountable.
Have you revisited your social media policy?
A good social media policy provides clear guidelines as to what employees should and shouldn’t do when posting and interacting with the community on a day-to-day basis. It’s also likely to help leadership feel more comfortable with the less–formal nature of social media by letting them establish clear boundaries for social media use.
If your organization has a policy, revisit it now to ensure that your company’s policies against racism, discrimination and harassment are spelled out in the social media policy. And if your company does not have a social media policy, what are you waiting for?
Download a SAMPLE SOCIAL MEDIA POLICY to get started.
Have you communicated your policies to your employees?
If you want to walk the walk, then you need to look at your policies and make sure that you’ve not only updated them but also have proactively educated your employees on their relevance. In addition to employees, we recommend that leaders share their policies with anyone working on behalf of their company, including freelancers and vendors. The public does not see a difference between your firm and the group that runs the kitchen, answers the telephones, or staffs the front desk. Even if they do not actually work for you, they represent your company to the public.
Sharing your policies also supports anyone who fits within a protected class, making them feel safer. They feel as if somebody is listening and supporting their work. This education also can help to promote the sense of belonging that Shuford referenced.
Are you prepared to enforce your policies?
From a corporate liability perspective and a crisis communications perspective, companies must be prepared to fire people. If a company’s policies say a certain type of behavior is not acceptable, when an employee violates those standards – and it will happen – the policy arms business leaders with consequences to hold employees accountable.
Unfortunately, these types of incidents happen at all education levels, all locations, and all types of businesses. A public case study of this is the racist incident with Amy Cooper, Christian Cooper, and Franklin Hamilton. Amy Cooper was fired within the day of the incident in Central Park.
Have you paused your unrelated social media and electronic communications?
Social media increasingly is the digital front door to your company, even more so than your website, so being aware of other things that are happening in the world is important to your overall social media strategy.
When any major event or social issue captures the public’s attention, we typically advise clients to pause their existing social media and electronic communications. Content that was developed before a hurricane hit, or the stock market crashed, or a pandemic forced stay-at-home orders, or racial justice movements swept the country is likely to be viewed as tone deaf by the public. Messaging and communications, in all forms, must pivot to address the here and now.
Things that a social media manager should consider pausing during crisis include:
- Scheduled social media posts on all platforms
- Digital advertising
- Syndicated content
- Email newsletters
- Text marketing campaigns
After listening to the public dialogue, do you now have something to add to the conversation?
Pausing unrelated content to really listen to what the community is saying is important. Rejoining the conversation with something valuable and relevant to say is then equally important.
Evaluate what your organization can add to the conversation. If you’re a law firm with a pro bono practice dedicated to civil rights, post about how citizens can protest safely. If your business takes a strong anti-racist stance, say so. It is time for us all to listen and to learn to do better.
If your company is committed to opposing racism, it is important to acknowledge that simply updating your policies is not a quick fix. Words matter – but actions matter, too. An important part of this commitment is putting those policies and what they stand for into action. Leaders must evaluate how their organization runs, how it hires and retains and rewards its employees, how it treats its customers, and the training and education that it offers, in order to create lasting change.
We have gathered anti-racism resources from a wide range of thought leaders and sources, and we continue to listen, learn, and contribute to the conversation when we can. Please join us.
For more DE&I resources, please visit our Diversity, Inclusion, Equity & Anti-Racism Resource Center.