How communicators can help in discussing racial injustice

These conversations can be tricky, emotionally charged and perilous for organizations, but ignoring them can have dire consequences. One agency is trying to make a difference.

Racism concept image. White paper person agains black paper person

Many organizations are trying to have difficult but important conversations about race, injustice and police.

At Porter Novelli, that conversation started long before the death of George Floyd, brought about by an effort to address inclusion and equity in the workplace. A storytelling process that focuses on encouraging employees to share their respective backgrounds brought forth the story of one employee whose family has dealt firsthand with inequity in the U.S. justice system.

For Assistant Controller Wayne Reid, recent news headlines are all too familiar. In the last several years, Reid has been on a journey to talk about the police shooting that killed his brother in 1998.

Reid began to revisit the tragic occurrence after the officer who killed his brother, facing a second trial for the shooting, took his own life. Reid said he began to understand that the tragedy united his family with that of the officer, and that what has been desperately missing is an open discussion about all the things that contribute to such shootings.

His efforts to tell the story led to a book, a collaboration with the trial judge who oversaw the case, titled “Death by a Cop: A Call for Unity.”

“I believe that one of the most important things that’s missing is open, honest and transparent dialogue with the victim, family, community, political leaders and the police department,” says Reid. “I believe that if all of us worked together, instead of having an us-versus-them mentality, we could find sustainable solutions to solve these issues in the future.”

Grieving together

Reid was asked to speak to the entire Porter Novelli staff in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, and his message was about bringing people together.

“We must grieve together and protest peacefully,” he says. “After seeing the despicable video of George Floyd, my blood has been boiling with anger and sadness: the anger channeled towards the officer who refused to hear the desperate plea from bystanders and George saying, ‘I can’t breathe’; the sadness for George crying out for his momma, who died two years ago.”

Reid says it’s important for organizations and communities to provide room for people to share their emotions. “Let us embrace our feelings and express them openly,” he says. “That was my message to my team and our organization: We must stand up—together—and make a positive change in the world.”

A push for greater awareness

Reid began sharing the story of his brother with his colleagues as part of a campaign that Porter Novelli launched to engage employees around issues of diversity and inclusion. The campaign has won awards from both the PR Council and PR Week.

As people became more familiar with the story, Porter Novelli wanted to share it broadly and help the nation have a conversation about race and policing.

“We were blown away by Wayne’s efforts,” says Kevin Maloney, vice president at Porter Novelli. “The end goal of this is to not just tell his personal story, but really to create an opportunity nationally to have a more respectful and productive dialogue around this issue.”

Pivotal questions

“I think that you have to be able to think about, at its core, are we doing this for the right reasons?” says Maloney. “Are we getting this message out for the right reason? Is a corporate entity wanting to get this message out for the right reason or have this dialogue internally for the right reasons?”

Porter Novelli’s chief of staff, Maggie Graham, says those questions are part of how the agency approaches whether an organization should speak out about a cultural issue or topic outside its intrinsic business parameters.

“Potentially the answer is no,” she says, “or not at this time. If the answer ultimately—after going through that process—is no, it can be a passion for the organization, but you probably shouldn’t take an external stance.”

However, being able to help Reid tell his story is an incredibly authentic and powerful option for an agency that prides itself on being “a company driven by the idea that the art of communication could advance society.”

On Reid’s side, Porter Novelli’s willingness to jump in has been highly meaningful.

“You know, it’s been an incredible journey opportunity with Porter Novelli to share this story,” he says. “They’ve been beyond supportive, and it has helped us be able to tell the story to a much larger audience.”

The long view

Reid says that for organizations seeking to be supportive during this time, the important steps will come after the news cycle begins to move on.

“I want to encourage each of us not to forget George Floyd’s family once the national media coverage and protests dwindle,” he says. “His family is embarking on a long, emotional journey with the justice system, and they will require our support. I know, because my family and I experienced the very same thing when we lost my brother Franklyn to police violence in 1998. So let us be there for them.”

Reid also hopes that this will be a moment when we dig deep and make changes to head off the tragic outcomes that make the news every couple of months—not to mention similar events happening weekly, and even daily.

“Let us also recognize the challenges the black community is facing right now by staying vocal, staying involved and by not allowing the silent majority to quickly forget this incident,” he says. “If that happens, sadly, the killing of other black men and women will simply continue. Let us use this rare moment in time to create real reform through universal condemnation of what we saw with George, Breonna, Ahmaud, my brother Franklyn and so many others.”

Building a bigger conversation

Reid’s candor about his experience and willingness to engage with a wider audience has led to amazing results, his colleagues say.

“I think what Wayne has done a great job opening himself up,” Maloney says, “not just to potential media, but most importantly the community with which he is trying to communicate and effect change in.

“He’s met with heads of police in the state, pastors and community leaders, and that’s something he’s going to be continually doing for the foreseeable future,” Maloney says in illustrating the magnitude of what it takes to move the needle on such issues.

As to how others can get involved, or start to share their own stories around these fraught and deeply personal issues, Reid says you can’t shy away from emotion.

“I know from my experience, looking at the documents or looking at all of the transcripts, it was very emotional, because you’re reconstructing a tragic period in your life, and for me personally I shed a lot of tears,” he says. For anyone looking to start telling their story, he offers himself as a resource, asking people to reach out through social media.

“We’re here to assist anyone or to help anyone who is willing to share their story,” he says.

How you can get involved

For organizations ready to roll their sleeves up and start doing the work to change racial injustice and inequality, both in our society and in the workplace, Reid has some suggestions.

“It is time for organizations to have difficult conversations in the workplace,” he says. “We can talk about workplace harassment, we can talk about things like the #MeToo movement, so let us also address the elephant in the room: racism. People create racism, and we can chip away towards ending it.”

He stresses that organizations serious about change won’t wait to start taking action, such as conducting events and activities concerning inclusion and equity.

“Let organizations consider starting something like an awareness day,” he suggests. “We do not need to wait for a specific date or month to raise awareness of racial inequalities that happen in this country every single day. We can take an hour during the workday to march/protest for social injustice, workplace equality [and] fallen heroes, and show appreciation for law enforcement, medical personnel, and volunteers.”

You should also take action even if you can’t yet have a major impact. Incremental progress, Reid advises, can eventually add up to momentous change. “I believe bringing awareness to this issue—during or while at work—is a simple and effective way to continue to inspire us to do better and make a positive change in this world. It’s the willingness to take small, simple steps that can be extremely effective.”

 

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