Leading Through Crisis: Addressing Anti-Racism in the Workplace Amidst Protest and Pandemic
Join us as we go On Record with members of the Furia Rubel Communications team, including Gina Rubel, Sarah Larson, Caitlan McCafferty, Jennifer Simpson Carr, and Danielle Gower Adamski, to discuss crisis communications as they relate to inclusion, diversity, equity, and anti-racism. Originally our discussion was only intended to serve as a starting point for an article, but as the discussion evolved, we felt that it fit within what we stand for as an agency and as a team. In this episode, we changed up the format to discuss what is going on the in world, the questions we are receiving from clients, and how we are supporting our clients through crisis.
In the early days following the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent unrest, our team reached out to all of our clients to check in and have a crisis conversation. During these conversations, we discussed crisis communications as they related to inclusion, diversity, equity, and anti-racism. Specifically, our team addressed:
- Key questions during a time of crisis
- The impact of Coronavirus restrictions on crisis response
- Non-discrimination and anti-racism policies and language
- Social media awareness
- Donations and publicity and more
Most of our clients are in areas where they were not only having peaceful demonstrations, but there were also violent protests and some riots as a result. The very first question we asked was, are you safe? And is everyone in your office safe?
It’s important to start with that question because if clients feared for their safety, their staff’s safety, or their client’s safety, whatever the case may be, that has to be secured first before they can start talking about communications. It’s critical to understand if they are in the middle of something right now, in which case we could have rescheduled the conversation for a bit later or helped to connect them with resources. It was a really good question to start with in general for everyone’s anxiety.
This particular crisis was an anomaly – we’ve never had a stay-at-home order across the country (many clients were still in the red or yellow zones) resulting in a significant number of offices being closed with most employees were working from home and only a few commuting into the office. What happens if a crisis, such as a riot or looting, happens while people are in the office or commuting? How does that change the conversation?
If we were not under stay-at-home orders, physical plant issues would have been top-of-mind first. For our clients that have offices in a large multistory building in the middle of downtown, they would have a lobby with security officers and security gates. How are those being implemented? How are their people getting into the building safely? Most of our clients have plans to address some of those issues, but some do not. Being able to raise that as a concern that they should be looking at, I think was helpful for particularly some of our smaller clients.
Clients also must think about what happens if violence comes into the workplace. If a company does not have a violence-in-the-workplace crisis plan or policy, there are a few things to think about.
The first thing is preparedness. Know who is on your crisis team and have a list of potential scenarios, needs, and resources including plan A and plan B. What are you going to do? Who’s going to be responsible for the safety of the employees?
Included in the response plan is, how are you communicating internally? How are you communicating externally? And some of the things that you need to do immediately, which are assess the risk and contact security, or the police. It’s hard to say contact police when you’re rioting against the police. Which creates a whole different challenge, which we haven’t faced before.
Even in places where the protests remained peaceful the entire time the police were protesting along with the community. Then it’s not an issue of they are rioting against the police, it’s that the police are otherwise occupied. They’ve got other things that they’re handling right at that moment. A good step in that preparedness plan would be what’s plan B. If if the official police force cannot respond or can’t get through what’s plan B?
One of the other things to address if people were in the building during that level of unrest, the national recommended response, especially in an active-shooter response is run, hide, fight. Runaway from the danger, hide from the danger, and if you are physically in danger, fight. It’s not really what we wish to be telling people, but that’s the truth in crisis response.
Let’s get back to what we did deal with because we are in coronavirus, which gave us a little bit of a difference in this scenario. We called our clients and fortunately, everyone was safe. Not everyone’s buildings were safe, in those cases, they worked with their landlords on building safety.
We also then started talking about revisiting their policies specifically their non-discrimination and anti-racism policies. Why is that important to revisit at that moment?
Every company that is working hard to build its culture needs to have a policy that spells out very clearly what they expect and what they will not tolerate. Those policies can come into play in things, where employees of other companies are acting on their personal time and in their personal lives in a morally reprehensible way to that company’s ideals and behaviors and what they expect from people on their team. Having that policy in place then allows the executives and officers to go back to that team member and say, this is unacceptable, and then take whatever measures they’re going to take after that.
Coming from the legal side, most policies did not actually have the language “anti-racism” in them. Before the Black Lives Matter movement, it was always “diversity.” We focused on diversity and even that language has changed to “equity, equality, diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism,” which is something we did at Furia Rubel. We decided to draft a statement, what we stand for, which mirrors much of our nondiscrimination policy, but we wanted to make it very clear that it was important to include the anti-racism statement. That’s one of the things we recommended to all our clients, is to go back and look at your policies. 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 the next question was, once you’ve updated them, what are you doing with them? A lot of companies will update their policies and never proactively share or educate their employees. This was the time where you not only update it, but you share it.
As we were updating our policy, we had a team discussion that changed the language. We went beyond what’s recommended by the EOC and other governing bodies and changed “sex” to “gender identity” and included “sexual orientation.”
Furia Rubel’s policy now reads, “We believe in fostering an authentic sense of belonging through the diversity of thoughts, ideas, beliefs, experiences, and the inclusion and equality of people regardless of their gender identity, race, color, sexual orientation, language, national origin, religion, disability, or age.”
Why did you feel so strongly about making edits to the policy? What is the importance of using language like sexual orientation?
I found that language from the Human Rights Campaign. It’s important to go to leaders on these issues and know that you’re not always an expert. You have to expand your group to something bigger than just your company and go to the people that are, for lack of a better word, trailblazers in these areas. This also goes back to updating your policies as language changes over time. It’s important to look at things once a year or biannually, whatever works best for your company, just like you would a strategic plan. Things will evolve, especially in 2020. Something that was fine to say six months ago may not be fine to say six months from now.
I think that’s so exciting. Our language evolves as our ideas and our thinking and our approaches to life evolve. This whole process has really brought to life for me that famous quote by Maya Angelou “I did then what I knew how to do now that I know better, I do better” as we learn more, as we know more than we try to do more.
That change in language from just “non-discrimination” to “anti-racism,” that is very vivid. That is a very clear movement. That is not just, “we are not racist. We are not discriminating.” That is “we don’t tolerate racism or discrimination.” It makes that action so much more visible. It really made me think hard about the voices that are in my life. And like Caitlan said, the resources and the groups that I have listened to, and Jennifer and Danielle shared some great resources on national black leaders, human rights campaigns, and organizations to follow. We are always looking for more voices to help us know better and then do better.
I appreciate both of those perspectives. One of the things we also did, which I shared with you is that we shared our new statement with a very diverse audience African American, Asian American, LGBTQ, disabled, people with more senior ages, and millennials. We took what we drafted to put out there and said, teach us what we do not know. One of the things I really loved was shared by Reggie Shuford, executive director of the Pennsylvania ACLU who talked about not just inclusion but promoting belonging. He was very specific, that it is not just about being inclusive. It’s about having people feel that they belong.
So much of the conversation and some of the things I’ve read recently, which really hit home as a white woman were things first-person accounts, including Reflections from a Token Black Friend, about being the one African American person with a whole bunch of white friends. Ramesh Nagarajah’s story really hit home because I went to a private school for a while when I was young and can see how that can be true. Even if your friends don’t tell you. So now it’s time for us to learn more and do better.
In speaking to our clients, we have been working on sharing these resources. We’ve put together a list of these resources that we’re all reading, listening to, and people that we’ve started to follow so that we’re learning more and doing better.
Next, we told our clients that they need to share your policy with your employees, your contractors, and anyone who works in your building. For example, if you outsource your kitchen team, reception, security, or other services you need to share it with them as well. Why is it important for any company to share its policy with everyone?
From the side of a customer or a team member, if you are working on behalf of that company, you represent that company rightly or wrongly. Nobody really knows the divisions between your firm and the group that runs the kitchen, answers the telephones or staff the front desk. Even if they do not actually work for you, they represent your firm. If you hired them and they are working there on your behalf, what they say and do is a reflection on you. Having certain standards, even for your contractors, is important.
I would like to add two other things. One, anyone who fits within a protected class feels safer. They feel like somebody is listening. Number two, from a corporate liability perspective and a crisis communications perspective, be prepared to fire people, because you’ve now said this is not acceptable so when it happens and it will happen, you can go back and say, “look, I told you, we have a zero-tolerance policy”. Unfortunately, we have seen that with companies where they have had to let people go because even if they thought it was a joke, it was not a joke. These are things where you can work in the most educated corporation in America with the most educated employees. Somebody could put something out there that may not have been intended to be harmful, but that is. It is our job to teach them if they did not know better.
It is quite similar to the growth we saw during the #metoo movement. Not the issues themselves, but the way that we are changing, the way our dialogue is changing. There must be repercussions for bad behavior. What we now categorize as bad behavior. It was bad behavior before, but nobody called it out and there were no repercussions, and everyone just continued. Well, now a lot of these policies have a bigger purpose of really putting in place some consequences.
A huge part of that is not just HR, it is social media policies because what you are doing in your own personal platform reflects your company too. A public case study of this is what happened with Amy Cooper, Christian Cooper, and Franklin Hamilton. She got fired within the day which is a case study for this type of instance.
That gives us the opening to address the difference between first amendment rights and self-expression. You are welcome to your opinion, but you are not safe from the consequences of sharing your opinion.
It is fascinating how blind people can be to what, how a post could be perceived by others. Another thing is starting to educate your employees and your teams. We know about IQ, but what about EQ? What about your emotional intelligence? How responses can be shaped by language, images, and the media. We spend a lot of time in companies and law firms working with business development coaches and all sorts of leadership coaching. I’ve been advocating for years to teach people emotional intelligence. Take the time to read everything you can on emotional intelligence and look at the resources to learn these issues, to learn what black lives matter means and to teach others what that means.
Danielle Gower Adamski
I completely agree about emotional intelligence, one of the other pieces is key to that is education. Something I have seen to be effective in workplaces is learning about other cultures, that initiative, and an organized structure for it. In one organization had a cultural competence committee, that met regularly and did education for their team, which was a great resource for folks to learn and grow and realize different areas that they weren’t seeing and how to be more effective and better understand each other.
My daughter shared a wonderful analogy, if you went to a fundraiser for breast cancer, you are there to raise money for breast cancer. It is not that no other cancer needs fundraising, but you are there for breast cancer. When we talk about Black Lives Matter, we are there to solve that cancer. And there is a cancer in society. That is what we needed to teach our employees. It is our job to lead that way.
Jennifer Simpson Carr
I’ve been thinking about a recent episode with Tim Corcoran and it was on how law firms can survive and thrive in a coronavirus world. A quote that he said regarding the result of Coronavirus and the implications and impact on law firms is “One the tough lessons that some law firms are going to walk away from is saying ‘Maybe we’ve had the wrong criteria for what it means to be a leader or manager in our business.’” I feel like he may not have realized it at the time, but that quote is applicable across the board. Maybe this is the time for business to take a hard look and evaluate the criteria that they have in place for their website, social media, and communications generally about what they are conveying in the world, who they are, and what their business stands for.
When we called our clients, we also asked, “are you aware of the social media blackout?” Why did we do that? What was the blackout on social media? Why was it important?
The blackout ended up being more convoluted than it intended on being but the origin of it was the music industry was going to blackout and amplify black voices. Leading up to the day, it sort of got co-opted generally as a social media blackout which many activists ended up criticizing because it was difficult for protesters and people involved in the movement to get information that was very much needed. For brands, it was important to not post because you would come across incredibly tone-deaf and that your brand was not of this world that we are all living in at the moment.
Social media is becoming, even more, your front door then your website is sometimes how your audience is first introduced to you, and it is important to be cognizant of other things that are happening. Because at the end of the day, your new rate on a mortgage or your new practice group manager is just not the best information that someone needs that day. It is important to know that as you go into your social media strategy.
If we were to brainstorm just very quickly on a checklist of things that a website manager or a social media manager should be thinking about, it’s your scheduled posts, it’s your digital advertising because that’s still going on in the background. It’s your syndication, your syndicated content. For example, at Furia Rubel, we work with a syndication company called JD Supra, which amplifies our message. We wanted to make sure that anything we posted on our blog as a placeholder, didn’t get picked up and shared out during the week that we chose as a team to remain silent on social media and to listen. As white women, we decided we are going to listen and learn this week. And that is what we did.
For social media managers, the important question is “Is there anything that we can add to this conversation?” Because at the end of the day, there is a lot of organizations that can add something to the conversation, which is important. If you’re a law firm with an entire pro bono practice that’s dedicated to civil rights, join the conversation, post about how to protest safely. If the conversation is directly linked to how your firm advocates for people, then get involved. If you are a corporate law firm that only does corporate law, there’s probably less that you have to say that day.
Is there anywhere else a social media manager must be thinking about for example, what about if a brand partner is tagging you, your company?
That opens a very sensitive conversation with your partners who tag your brand. By reaching out to the brand partner and saying, we respect you, but we’ve opted to only share XYZ type of content this week. Would you consider holding these posts? It’s important to have the conversation because if you just un-tag people may automatically assume you’re mad at them or distancing yourself or the brand.
The conversation can also include, “how can we change this post so it’s more relevant to people right now?” and “how is this relevant to the time we’re living in today?”
Do you just stop everything (social, blogs, syndications) and stay there? Or do you go back to sharing other relevant information? What type of language would you recommend when you restart?
Before the George Floyd killing, we had drafted some content around COVID and going back to the office and we decided to pause that last week, but we will share it now. However, we are going to it with some tempered language.
The way you share things, as Caitlan shared has to be, how am I contributing to the conversation? And as you always say Gina, how are we helping people? How are we providing resources to those people who need it?
Just being transparent and honest is the best way to go about that by acknowledging, “We know that there are lots of things going on right now, but here’s one thing our clients are still asking us about. here’s the resource that we developed to answer those questions.” With that, it’s important to continue to have a mix of content around all of the issues that we’re all grappling with right now. In my mind, it’s not a stop and start, it’s a pause, wait, listen, contribute, and keep sharing all the other things too.
The issues are not going away for us, we’re not suddenly going to not care about anti-racism anymore. This is a change and it’s going to be permanent. We’re going to be looking at the way we do things for hopefully a really long time to come, but we still have other things to do within the daily work we do for clients that are still relevant.
In some cases, these issues are even more relevant. When we reached out to clients last week, every one of them wants to do the right thing and they want to make sure they get it right. They come to agencies and people like us and say, all right, this is the language I’m thinking about using – what are the concerns? how could this be misinterpreted? Are there better words that I could use, and how can I share it?. It’s important to note that what the way you talk internally, needs to be consistent with the external messaging. The way the relationship that you have with your audience is going to influence the way you approach the message.
Absolutely. On social media, which Caitlan brought up, everyone is your audience. Leaders need to think about the biggest picture possible.
Don’t assume that something you send internally is not going to be an external communication. And we tell all of our clients that if you write it one way, assume that you might change the introduction if it says, dear employees, it could be changed to statement to the public, but everything else needs to be the same because it’s one message.
For clients who want to make a difference, and are going to be donating to a particular cause, what kind of publicity are you recommending around those donations?
This was another thing that came up in my conversations with clients. Typically, we like to promote these activities not to pat ourselves on the back, but to promote the nonprofits. In this instance, I said to the client, just do it. Do not talk about it. If the non-profit wants to thank you, that is on them. But given the circumstances and given the need for educated communications now is not the time to do the traditional public relations on giving to a nonprofit that supports anti-racism.
That covered all the questions that we received and the issues that we addressed with our clients. Is there anything else you would add?
I would just reiterate that what Sarah said, this is not a one week pause on social media. If you are serious about being anti-racist, it is a lifelong commitment or a business long commitment to those ideas and those actions. It is not a quick fix and just updating your policies. An important part of this commitment is putting those policies in action. People have to understand that it’s not fixed just because you changed the language in your policy.
And it is not just fixed because you made a nice public statement. All these things are an important step. First, we wait for companies to say something. Then it has to be followed by action.
One of the things that we’ve seen certainly over the past 10 days or so is that all levels of companies, not just multinational local brands are taking a stance. Our local craft brewery has never said anything about anything other than beer. They wrote a three-paragraph solid manifesto explaining why they have been silent in the past. Sharing that they were not sure that it is their place but have come to realize that we all have a role to play in this. And that requires us all to learn and to change. They are donating a portion of our proceeds from sales this weekend to Black Lives Matter.
Danielle Gower Adamski
Something that came up on our call with a client recently was authenticity of voice, making sure that what you’re drafting aligns with your policy and your brand and how you’re communicating and putting it out is so important.
And if you’re white, you are going to have to be vulnerable. You are going to have to realize that you are going to need to unlearn a lot of things that you have learned throughout your life. Which brings me back to one of the reasons we’ve been sharing a lot of these resources is we’re all learning and everything new that we read, maybe changes a little bit of the way we think about something and that will create new action for us moving forward. I love to see this conversation evolving. I feel like I have learned so much just in the last 10 days.
I love what you say about vulnerability. I have never felt more vulnerable as a business owner and while I have believed, and I still believe that I am an ally. I know that I am privileged and have a ton to learn. Our goal as a company is not only to say it, but it is to live it. It is one of the reasons why we will likely stay a virtual business so that we can open our doors to people from further reaches than just Bucks County and the communities within which we live. We have a lot of growing to do too. I am not going to say we do not, but as a team, we are learning and evolving together. And that is my commitment to you as the owner of the company. That is my commitment to our clients.
I welcome feedback. In every one of our morning meetings, I encourage the team to call me on things they disagree with to tell me what I do not know. I just ask that it is done in a nice way. Being proactive with soliciting feedback is important. Rather than being defensive and angry, even if you feel defensive and angry is to find a voice of reason so that people can hear that voice. Personally, I know I don’t react well to people yelling in my face or pointing their fingers. I react better to “have you considered this point of view”.
There are also many life and business learning tools and tactics we can all use to be more resilient, to be a better communicator and to find diplomacy, to lead the conversation in a way that’s going to help people from all backgrounds to hear it. Those are some of my goals as the owner of our organization.
We wish you peace, resilience and a systemic change. Ihope that we can all be making a difference, whether it is COVID or #MeToo, or anti-racism. We want to be better and do better, and we hope that for you as well.
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Connect & Learn More
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Jennifer Simpson Carr
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Danielle Gower Adamski
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