Editor’s note: This article is a re-run as part of our countdown of top stories from the past year.
How should an organization respond when a civil rights outrage—the death of an African American in police custody—is followed by nationwide looting and arson?
The question is especially fraught when many companies’ stores are victims of a backlash that included looting and arson.
The nation erupted in fury over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in handcuffs as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. For their parts, businesses took a calibrated approach in their messaging.
The now-fired officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with third-degree murder. As many called the charges insufficient, peaceful protests nationwide spiraled into outbursts of looting and burning that didn’t spare major brands.
Blogs, internal statements and Twitter accounts tended to keep the focus on condemning racism and police brutality, with fewer publicly addressing the violence—even when it destroyed their stores. With details murky about so many instances of violence, executives might be opting to stick to what’s known until further information becomes available.
Some leaders offered deeply personal messages. Robert Smith, founder of Vista Equity Partners, sent a poignant memo to his firm’s staff over the weekend, The New York Times noted. He said that in the faces of Floyd and others, he sees himself as a young man, and is reminded of the many times he has been judged “not by my character, but by my skin color.”
“I can still vividly recall the pain I felt as a youth when I found my mother and father comforting each other as they just learned that my uncle was shot dead, by a white gas station attendant,” he wrote. “I was quite confused by this as my uncle, who had just received his master’s degree and was recently married, was quite excited about having landed a job with the State of Colorado inspecting various facilities across the state.”
Apple CEO Tim Cook acknowledged employees’ pain over Floyd’s killing and promised to donate to anti-racism causes, but he did not directly address looting at Apple stores in cities including Philadelphia, New York, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco.
“Right now, there is a pain deeply etched in the soul of our nation and in the hearts of millions,” Cook stated. “To stand together, we must stand up for one another and recognize the fear, hurt and outrage rightly provoked by the senseless killing of George Floyd and a much longer history of racism.”
Citigroup turned to Chief Financial Officer Mark Mason to express its indignation over the killing of Floyd. He began a blog post by repeating the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” 10 times.
“Even though I’m the CFO of a global bank, the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky are reminders of the dangers Black Americans like me face in living our daily lives,” he wrote. “Despite the progress the United States has made, Black Americans are too often denied basic privileges that others take for granted. I am not talking about the privileges of wealth, education or job opportunities.”
Nike tweeted a somber video with a message urging people to address the issue of racism, underscored by a soft piano background.
“For once, Don’t Do It,” Nike urged. “Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism.
— Nike (@Nike) May 29, 2020
Nike’s video and Twitter accounts had not directly commented on the looting and destruction that included a showcase Chicago location at press time, though it said in a statement, “Nike supports free and peaceful protests, and we do not condone violence. We are closely following the protests occurring across the country.”
Nike’s celebrity face, Colin Kaepernick, endorsed the street unrest and offered to bail out those who had been arrested. He stated: “The cries for peace will rain down, and when they do, they will land on deaf ears, because your violence has brought this resistance. We have the right to fight back!”
Domino’s was among many who saw its stores burned, but Domino’s last tweet was an attempt to news-jack the joint NASA and SpaceX launch on Saturday. “Hey @NASA, is pizza round or flat from up there?” Domino’s said.
Hey @NASA, is pizza round or flat from up there?
— Domino's Pizza (@dominos) May 30, 2020
Walgreens had a pinned tweet about its COVID-19 response, but the pharmaceutical chain—an asset of Walgreens Boots Alliance—also linked to a statement about its commitment to nonviolence and diversity.
“Walgreens Boots Alliance strongly believes in the principles of peace and nonviolence, which are vitally important to remember today,” stated Stefano Pessina, CEO and executive vice chairman. “We are deeply committed to the diversity, inclusiveness, equal treatment and safety of all people, including our more than 230,000 Walgreens team members and 8 million daily Walgreens customers and patients.”
In a notice sent to its independent Flex drivers, Amazon said it had closed delivery locations “near the activity” and would reopen those locations once it has confirmed it is safe to do so.
“We are in close contact with local officials and will continue to monitor the protests,” the notice said. “We are proactively monitoring every ZIP code in the area and are re-routing drivers to ensure that routes you take for deliveries are safe.”
— Amazon News (@amazonnews) May 31, 2020
A time to speak up
It’s important for organizations to take a stand, urges Jim Ylisela, co-owner and managing partner of Ragan Consulting Group, adding that the public wants to hear leaders’ values.
“I understand this is a delicate moment for most organizations, since any discussion of the weekend’s events can quickly devolve into politics or an ‘us versus them’ reaction,” he states. “That’s not what this is about. Companies are part of communities. People who work at companies are citizens. Diversity is also about the range of feelings expressed by people of different backgrounds and experiences.”
The New York Times noted a host of other statements condemning racism:
Several companies issued public statements of support, including Netflix (“To be silent is to be complicit. Black lives matter.”) and Amazon. WarnerMedia brands including HBO changed their Twitter handles to “#BlackLivesMatter.” The Business Roundtable, the influential trade group for corporate America, said its C.E.O.s “are deeply concerned about the racial bias that continues to plague our society.”
A host of other executives made personal statements, including Larry Fink of BlackRock, David Solomon of Goldman Sachs, Dara Khosrowshahi of Uber, Penny Pennington of Edward Jones, Arvind Krishna of IBM and Tim Cook of Apple.
Oprah Winfrey posted an anguished cry on Instagram, stating that she can’t get rid of the image of the police officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck.
View this post on Instagram
I’ve been trying to process what can be said or heard in this moment. I haven’t been able to get the image of the knee on his neck out of my head. It’s there every morning when I rise and when I go through the ordinary duties of the day. While pouring coffee, lacing my shoes, and taking a breath, I think: He doesn’t get to do this. And now the video from the other angle of two other officers pinning him down. My heart sinks even deeper. His family and friends say he was a gentle giant. His death has now shown us he had a giant soul. If the largeness of a soul is determined by its sphere of influence, George Floyd is a Mighty soul. #GeorgeFloyd: We speak your name. But this time we will not let your name be just a hashtag. Your spirit is lifted by the cries of all of us who call for justice in your name!
She concluded, “#GeorgeFloyd: We speak your name. But this time we will not let your name be just a hashtag. Your spirit is lifted by the cries of all of us who call for justice in your name!”