Navigating authenticity and openness in the face of racial injustice

For business leaders, communicators and brand managers, making space for disenfranchised voices without disappearing or making tone-deaf gaffes requires careful listening.

The conversation among Americans about race, justice and police brutality in our communities isn’t new—but the level of frustration and anger seems to have reached a new high.

Protests have swept the nation and, in some cities, have morphed into violent riots with looting, damage to property and clashes with police resulting in injuries and fatalities.

The current wave of protests was sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died when a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for over eight minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and begging for air. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. Three other officers at the scene will also be charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

In the wake of the incident, and as protests shook cities and citizens nationwide, many companies and other organizations joined the call for police reform, racial justice and a renewal of trust in the U.S. law enforcement system. Brand managers who had already been navigating a marketplace ravaged by the COVID-19 crisis have found themselves facing fresh challenges.

“I thought COVID-19 was difficult,” says Aaron Kwittken, CEO of KWT Global. “This is actually harder in many ways, because this is a disease that sadly has lasted for hundreds of years in our country. There’s no cure in sight.”

What do you say—and how?

One challenge facing brand managers and other communicators is knowing how to make a statement on an issue that many consumers demand a response to, but that can have many pitfalls for careless communicators.

Sarah Evans, founder and CEO of Sevans Strategy and Sevans Digital PR, breaks down the difference between “pausing” marketing messages and product launches and “disappearing” from the conversation.

“The impetus of ‘pausing’ right now does not imply that a brand needs to be quiet,” she says. “In fact, it is quite the opposite. They can speak up on this very important issue with care and concern or action while pausing their marketing and advertising efforts. Brands have built-in community and audience and have an opportunity to say or do something during a pivotal time.”

She argues that even if you are unsure about what to say, you can be an important participant for community members working through difficult emotions and feelings by asking questions.

“Show you’re trying to figure out what to do and then do what you say you’re going to do,” she says.

Kwittken agrees that brand managers must get their organizations out there. “Consumers are demanding almost every brand stand up and speak out,” he says.

That’s fine for brands like Ben & Jerry’s or American Express that have a long history of speaking out on social justice issues—but what if your brand has traditionally avoided the spotlight?

Kwittken says it must start with your top leader—usually the CEO. That message should then work from the inside out to share core values to stakeholders. “First start with employees, and then pivot to explain to customers what they are doing not in words but in actions,” he says.

The importance of authenticity

Every blogger on the planet will tell you that your messages around race and equity must be authentic—but what does that mean in practice?

Kwittken argues that authenticity won’t be there if you follow usual practices like ghostwriting for your CEO.

“What people want are their CEOs to be more vulnerable,” he says. And that vulnerability requires your leaders to express what’s in their hearts. When Kwittken has been consulted about how to write a message about the current mood in America for a CEO or leader, his message to clients has been: Don’t.

“Talk to clients and CEOS directly,” he advises. “You need to talk to your CEO like you would if you are a therapist and ask them how they are feeling.”

Evans frames it this way: “Authenticity, by its very nature, is raw and ‘in the moment.’ If it takes longer than a moment to ‘plan your authentic response,’ it is lost. Once the shine and polish are added, it’s not authentic, but something else—and that doesn’t make it bad. It’s just owning what your company is comfortable sharing.”

She argues that unedited video will pack a bigger punch for your message, even if it’s less tidy than you’d like.

“The most important thing is that you need to be able to back up your words—not in a showy display of ‘look at us,’ but offer resources, contributions, a voice or influence. Give away a piece of your online visibility to give a place to others who are unheard or unseen,” she says. “It doesn’t take much thought to think about doing the right thing; it’s actually getting it done that matters.”

Evans offers these guiding questions to help brands think through their messages right now:

  • Are we being inclusive in our messaging? No? Then it needs to change.
  • Is our team representative of inclusivity? No? Then it needs to change.
  • Do we actually know what #BlackLivesMatter wants/needs? If not, ask and include.
  • Is our messaging, advertising and/or marketing able to support or create action in the long term?

Purpose washing

There is a danger in such instances for a brand message to seem disingenuous or opportunistic.

Eric Yaverbaum, president of Ericho Communications, asks key questions: “Has the company been involved with or donated to causes dedicated to police reform in the past? Do the brand’s actions—its company culture, its policies, and its values—back up what they’re saying?

“Words matter, but actions matter even more,” he continues, “and co-opting a movement without actually supporting that movement in substantial ways will backfire. If a company’s behavior and messaging prior to this has ignored issues like police brutality or other social injustice issues, then it needs to think hard (and be honest with itself) about why it’s choosing this moment to speak out.

“If the desire is genuine,” he says, “then a commercial, a statement, or a billboard are not enough. They must be met with meaningful contributions to the relevant grassroots organizations already working day in and day out.”

Kwittken says the disingenuous disconnect stems from “trying to use creative as a communications tool rather than actions” or from failing to put actions behind your messages. “I’m not a fan of anything that Nike does, because I actually don’t believe it,” he says.

Instead, he finds brands like Ben & Jerry’s—or even Starbucks, which he acknowledges has faced its own challenges—more believable. His main point: “Are white words in a black box on social media enough? Probably not.”

What the research suggests

In research from Edelman’s Trust Barometer in 2019 and its special “In Brands We Trust: Multicultural Report,” brands had a long way to go to convince consumers that they were doing the “right thing.”

Although 81% of respondents said they must be able to know that a company will do the right thing before they will purchase its products or services, only 34% said they trust most of the brands they patronize.

Image courtesy of Edelman.

A key element of building this trust is for brand messages to show up on multiple channels and for those organizations to follow up on their promises.

The research also shows that consumers want CEOs to lead on social issues, even when those issues might raise political hackles or spark controversy among some Americans. For example, in an Edelman study on how the public saw action by CEOs around gun violence, many consumers reported wanting to see chief executives take action, while only a few consumers said CEO action would prompt them to look for another brand to patronize.

Edelam CEO speaks out report - Navigating authenticity and openness in the face of racial injustice

Image courtesy of Edelman.

A global opportunity

The reaction to Floyd’s death hasn’t been limited to the U.S. Protests have sprung up in the U.K., Germany, China, New Zealand and elsewhere. For brands with a global presence, this presents a unique challenge, particularly for non-native company leaders who might be unfamiliar with developments in America’s evolving conversation around race.

Kwittken says PR pros must become cultural advisors as well as crisis strategists. For example, he says, he was advising an English client about some of the finer points of language around race and identity in the U.S.

“What does it mean when you use the phrase ‘people of color’?” Kwittken says as an example. “Should ‘black’ be capitalized?” To which he says “Yes, it should.”  [Editor’s note: Ragan and PR Daily adhere to Associated Press style guidelines, so we lowercase “black” in such instances.]

Following your gut

For Evans, social media is the proving ground for organizations looking to live up to their values in a public forum.

“Social media is a living litmus test when it comes to messaging,” she says. “It’s literally built on people talking and sharing.” If you’re unsure whether it’s alright to resume sending out ads or marketing messages, she says, “Ask your community, or slowly test the waters.”

She also advises that “if it ‘feels wrong,’ trust your gut and wait.”

However, she warns that racial tensions and social injustice aren’t like to just go away, a familiar refrain for communicators looking hopefully toward an ebbing of the COVID-19 crisis.

“This comes down to being mindful and caring about something larger than a company’s bottom line,” she says. “When you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, this is not about a single moment in time. It’s about humanity; it’s about #BlackLivesMatter. That doesn’t end, so if you are actively supporting or patiently pausing and you want to make a difference, make it a point to keep talking and doing long after this week or next week is over.”

The ability to commit to this issue might well be measured in a brand managers’ persistence. “When you truly care about something, it never goes away,” she says.

The post Navigating authenticity and openness in the face of racial injustice appeared first on Ragan Communications.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

The post A Plague of Giants appeared first on Elitist Book Reviews.

The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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