How to communicate during civil unrest

Communicators, you are essential personnel. Here’s vital guidance to send meaningful messages in this heated moment.

Police and spectators collide in downtown Houston, TX as rioters protest the beating and killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police earlier in the week.

The United States of America is a boiling cauldron of rage right now.

That puts communicators in a precarious position, weighing several options:

  • Do you email a generic “solidarity and equality” message internally?
  • How about a bold, strongly worded stance?
  • Should you post your company’s current events commentary on social media?
  • Should you sit this one out and avoid the fray?
  • What should your CEO say or do?
  • What tone is acceptable?
  • Do you carry on communicating about your products and services as though the world’s not on fire?

It’s a tough situation for many organizations that will be looking to communicators internally to help guide the way.

“As with COVID-19, this is a time for communicators to be front and center, offering guidance and counsel to their leaders,” says Jim Ylisela, co-founder of Ragan Consulting Group. “But this is also the time for an actual plan, not just reaction. There is urgency to get out there, but not without at least some thought and planning behind it.”

Checking bias

To craft meaningful messaging amid our current crisis—and to ensure your leaders do the same—Ragan Consulting Group’s Kim Clark says it’s crucial to first “check our own unconscious bias.”

Riot-related communication delivered by white executives is especially fraught, and Clark stresses the importance of having a diverse review team. “If it’s all written by white people, I guarantee you the comms will miss the mark,” she says.

She offers five tips that organizations should keep in mind during this quickly-evolving situation:

1. Actually address it. “Don’t lead with protecting the brand,” Clark says. Avoid empty platitudes, and “lead with acknowledging the reality of the social environment and the voice of the employees.”

That means addressing employees first.

“Even if we’re going to say more (and do more) later, we can tell them that. But let’s tell them something now, even if it’s at a high level,” Ylisela says. “Make sure it reflects your values.”

2. Foster a community. Clark says that with eroding trust in institutions, and with many traditional community resources shut down or stunted due to the pandemic, “There’s enormous pressure from employees and society on businesses to do the right thing.” Companies can help fill those gaps in trust, solidarity and community.

3. Plan beyond one post. Clark says, “Whatever you do now, make sure it’s sustainable, backed by action and commitment moving forward.” Don’t just post a “knee-jerk reaction to the moment to look relevant,” as “people will see right through that.”

4. Show emotion. Cite real feedback from African American employees, and any employees who feel strongly about and support the Black Lives Matter movement in their own words, Clark says.

5. Look inward. It’s crucial to “unearth inequities in your company’s policies and systems and make real change,” Clark says. “Ensure there’s pay parity and opportunity parity. Talk and do the walk.”

Leadership in action

What does leadership look like at this time? Target CEO Brian Cornell signed this heartfelt, deeply personal message in the aftermath of the Minneapolis protests and riots. His language is infused with empathy and understanding—instead of blame or empty condolences—and he shares specific plans to help more than 200 staffers displaced by the destruction of the Minneapolis store.

Top executives from WarnerMediaJP Morgan, Citi and Wells Fargo also sent out memos strongly condemning racism and discrimination.

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, disseminated a powerful missive to employees that backs up the company’s words with specific actions. He wrote, in part:

Today, Apple is making donations to a number of groups, including the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit committed to challenging racial injustice, ending mass incarceration, and protecting the human rights of the most vulnerable people in American society. For the month of June, and in honor of the Juneteenth holiday, we’ll also be matching two-for-one all employee donations via Benevity.

To create change, we have to reexamine our own views and actions in light of a pain that is deeply felt but too often ignored. Issues of human dignity will not abide standing on the sidelines. To our colleagues in the Black community — we see you. You matter, your lives matter, and you are valued here at Apple.

Cook’s message minces no words and therefore rises above empty corporate communication, writes Josh Bernoff, as Cook boldly:

  • Name-checks George Floyd and calls his death “a killing.”
  • Recognizes the roots of discrimination that have led to the current problems.
  • Acknowledges the fear.
  • Takes concrete action by making and matching donations.
  • Acknowledges that the lives of African Americans matter.

According to recent Edelman research, employees want to hear from the leaders of organizations during crises. And they don’t want bland condolences or mindless “thoughts and prayers” emails. To authentically connect and resonate, the CEO must become a reassuring, relatable Chief Empathy Officer.

Ylisela reminds us that external communication should be consistent and true to an organization’s stated values.

“Perhaps your CEO participates in a statement or an appearance with other civic and government leaders,” he says. “But in some cases, your values may demand you do more, to speak out and to take a position or offer solutions.

And make sure leaders give employees a voice.

“Employees have different feelings and experiences, and they need a forum to express them,” Ylisela says. “Companies should help to make that happen and use their HR resources and employee assistance programs.”

Beyond that, consider allowing employees to join peaceful protests or volunteer to help clean up neighborhoods that have been damaged, he says.

“The company can also consider how to put its philanthropy to good use to express solidarity with this cause.”

Of course, the key is in the doing—not in the tweeting. If you pounce on this moment to tout how much your company “values diversity,” you should be prepared to walk the talk and follow through.


5 Responses to “How to communicate during civil unrest”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Even more beneficial than a BLACK LIVES MATTER program could be a program on SAVE BLACK LIVES.

    According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) information now online:

    .1. African American men have “had disproportionately high cancer incidence rates compared with other men.”

    .2. “Among African American females, three cancer types (breast, lung and colorectal) made up more than half of all new cancer cases.”

    .3. “Younger African Americans are living with or dying of many conditions typically found in older Americans at higher ages.”

    .4. “Health differences are often due to economic and social conditions that are more common among African Americans than whites.”

    .5. Health professionals could “develop and provide training for healthcare professionals to understand cultural differences in how [African American] patients interact with providers and the healthcare system.”

    At the world’s leading team of cancer doctors, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, some doctors of color are world leaders in anti-cancer research in addition to treating patients. “Among African American males, prostate cancer accounts for third of new cancer cases” according to CDC numbers, and MSKCC has one of the world’s top prostate-repair urologists, Dr. Jaspreet Sandhu. He is from India and even at work wears a turban!

    The world’s #1 hunter of anti-cancer vaccines and anti-cancer drugs may be a Baghdad-born Anas Younes who heads a major team of Memorial Sloan Kettering research doctors. Their scientific reports often get media coverage and are read worldwide.

    If a company announces a SAVE BLACK LIVES program, the sponsoring company will have the advantage of helping not only African Americans but all Americans and perhaps billions of people worldwide.

    A SAVE BLACK LIVES program could help key groups—women, men and children—and could focus not only on cure-hunting but on information that creates benefit right away. That’s because more public information can save lives by improving (a) cancer avoidance in many ways, (b) early detection which can sharply increase the chances of cure, (c) less public belief in common fallacies about cancer, plus (d) more and better understanding of cultural differences in how African American patients interact with providers and the healthcare system.

    A program to SAVE BLACK LIVES could e a blessing to the world and to the company or group that sponsors it.

    Edward Zitron says:

    “If it’s all written by white people, I guarantee you the comms will miss the mark,” in an article written by and quoting only white people

      Robby Brumberg says:

      Hi Ed. Thanks for reading and for commenting. I appreciate your attention to this issue and the accountability here. I truly do. We all know the PR/comms world is whiter than a bag of marshmallows, and it must change. For this particular article, I feel it’d be disingenuous to add more interviews or commentary after the fact. I’ll own this one as a miss and a missed opportunity. I hope you’ll continue reading as we push to publish more diverse voices, insights and ideas.

    Ed Zitron says:

    I appreciate the candor, but the right move – just like it was for the piece about how to communicate about racial injustice that ended up getting paywalled when I commented on the only white quotes – is to delete it and re-report it.

      Robby Brumberg says:

      Thanks again, Ed. We’ll be publishing much more about these topics. I hope you’ll keep reading, and please do get in touch anytime. I always welcome feedback — even when I get it wrong or if we disagree. We’re all learning and trying to do our jobs the best we can amid these turbulent times.

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