How communicators and companies are responding—and should respond—to the Capitol riot

Silence is not a ‘safe’ messaging play. Companies need to communicate their values, internally and externally, in the aftermath of such a jarring event, and their comms teams should help shape the strategy.

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Jan. 6, 2021 is a day we won’t soon forget.

Pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol in a stunning display of mayhem and destruction that resulted in four deaths. Prominent business leaders swiftly tweeted takes, with most unreservedly condemning the violence.

Influential groups such as The Business Roundtable weighed in as well, issuing pleas for a peaceful transfer of power:

“The chaos unfolding in the nation’s capital is the result of unlawful efforts to overturn the legitimate results of a democratic election. The country deserves better. Business Roundtable calls on the President and all relevant officials to put an end to the chaos and to facilitate the peaceful transition of power.”

The National Association of Manufacturers used more explicit language, calling on “armed thugs to cease violence,” and also urging VP Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove President Trump from office. NAM wrote in a statement:

“This is not the vision of America that manufacturers believe in and work so hard to defend. Across America today, millions of manufacturing workers are helping our nation fight the deadly pandemic that has already taken hundreds of thousands of lives. We are trying to rebuild an economy and save and rebuild lives. But none of that will matter if our leaders refuse to fend off this attack on America and our democracy—because our very system of government, which underpins our very way of life, will crumble.”

As chaos raged in the Capitol, President Trump posted a video urging his supporters to “go home” and to peacefully disperse. But he also added fuel to the fire by rehashing claims that the election was “stolen.” The president’s Twitter account was locked, and Facebook suspended him from Facebook and Instagram at least through the end of his term. The president of the United States, the leader of the free world and arguably the most powerful man in the world, was banned from social media because, as Twitter put it, of “severe violations of our Civic Integrity policy.”

Meanwhile, President-elect Biden chimed in with a call for courage to preserve our “fragile” democracy:

Stepping into the breach and taking a stand

How should communicators respond to the wild events of Jan. 6—and the inevitable fallout from such a dramatic, divisive occurrence? The natural inclination might be to proceed as if nothing’s happened, or wait until the heat dies down and hope that the news cycle moves along quickly. But that’s not what communicators should do, according to several experts interviewed on Thursday.

At the very least, communicators should acknowledge internally the gravity of what happened, says Kim Clark, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant with Ragan Consulting Group. “What happens in the macro doesn’t happen without the micro,” she says. “Employees were distracted and rightfully so, and today is not business as usual.”

It can be, Clark suggests, an opportunity to build community. “Organizations should show their people that they’re listening, and that they care about employees’ mental and emotional well-being,” she says.

Jim Ylisela, co-founder and senior partner of  Ragan Consulting Group, notes that organizations tend to stay away from controversial topics (and that includes politics). “But if the death of George Floyd has taught us anything, it is that employees, customers and others expect companies to have a point of view on the difficult and traumatic issues facing the nation,” he says. “That could mean putting out a statement, recording a video or participating in a forum or group discussion, internally or externally.”

Whichever platform they choose, they should make it clear that they’re not choosing sides politically—just speaking truthfully. “This isn’t about who you voted for or your political persuasion,” Ylisela says. “It’s about protecting the fundamentals of our constitutional republic. A statement in support of democracy, and a call for calm, civility and decency is never a bad idea. The American ideal defends the right of dissent, not disorder.”

In internal comms, Ylisela adds, it’s important to stay even-keeled. Don’t let emotions ruin potentially fruitful conversations. “Employee discussion, with managers or leaders, is a good idea,” he says. “Those conversations can be difficult, just as they have been about race. But we are better off talking about tough issues than ignoring them, or pretending they don’t affect the people and values of an organization.”

Silence is not golden 

There’s no one “correct” way to respond to events such as the insurrection of January 6, 2021. Though there are surefire ways to botch crucial moments such as this. For starters, attempting to “newsjack” or score cheap promotional points off of a deadly event will not go over well. Also, silence should no longer be regarded as a “safe” play.

As Richard Edelman, CEO of the global communications firm Edelman said in a message to his employees on Wednesday, “This is a time for all people of good will, but especially every CEO, to stand up and say to their colleagues and communities that this is an egregious breach of the public order, an attack on the beating heart of our democracy.”

“CEOs,” Edelman added, “along with all in positions of leadership, must be the bulwark of trust at the present moment. Therefore, they have the responsibility to speak up for the common good, to reject the violence and hate peddled by those seeking to advance their own self-interest.”

That means communicators should, indeed, be messaging their colleagues about the riot—despite the difficult days ahead and despite potential backlash. Instead of pretending nothing’s happened, communicators should encourage leaders to take a stand and make their take known. Consumers increasingly expect and demand such candor from companies, and communicators should fight to shape their organizations’ public positions.

Mike Paul, president of the New York-based crisis communications firm the Reputation Doctor, who’s worked in all three levels of government, says this is not a time to pull punches or dither. “Democracy is something we pride ourselves with as Americans, but it must also be defended with laws and prosecuting of crimes of domestic terrorism,” he says. “There is an obvious difference between how white protestors and black protestors are treated in this country. Let’s hope a new day dawns under our incoming president.”

Frank Suarez, a municipal government comms coordinator, adds:

“As Americans, peaceful protest and freedom of speech are precious rights. But a functioning democracy relies on the rule of law. The actions this week at the U.S. Capitol operated outside of every known boundary. This kind of behavior undermines and endangers our ability to serve our states, our communities and our neighborhoods.”

Edelman sums it up well: “Business has a vital role in bringing this country together and solving collective problems. We need to heal, and we have a long way to go. Our democracy will endure. We all are contributors, not spectators, in that process.

Communicators: How are you handling yesterday’s events? Is your company putting out a statement or messaging your employees? Please leave your guidance in the comments below.

 

 

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