BLM statements by employers and brands: addressing racial injustice needs to have substance behind it
Employers often steer away from addressing political or divisive issues with staff. Advertising is no different, brands typically do not want to associate their product with the negative aspects of life and shy away from brand association with news stories about violence or drugs. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic caused some brands to block their digital advertising from displaying next to news articles about the impact of the pandemic. The focus was instead on the more brand-friendly messages of solidarity, the sense of community responsibility and support for the NHS.
However, following a wave of protests that have swept across America, the UK and Europe in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, many brands have aligned themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement and/or have taken steps to issue statements directed towards both their platform users, consumers and employees, including:
- Netflix posted on Twitter: “To be silent is to be complicit. Black lives matter. We have a platform, and we have a duty to our Black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up”
- Twitter changed its profile image on the platform to black and added “#BlackLivesMatter” to its description
- Nike, Adidas, Amazon, Spotify, Microsoft and Instagram have also posted in solidarity with the Black community
- Facebook has pledged $10 million to anti-racism groups
Other companies are facing mounting employee activism. Big Tech has suffered the negative association with racial and sexual discrimination for years. In late 2018, 20,000 Google employees staged a walk-out in protest at the company’s handling of sexual discrimination claims. Google is not alone, despite efforts Silicon Valley remains predominantly white and male. That makes the current Black Lives Matter movement all the more difficult to navigate for Big Tech, both from an employer and a brand perspective. Support may be seen as hypocritical – but inaction may compound the negative perceptions.
The content hosts face their own problems. Without regulation and standardisation in relation to acceptable content, the approaches of the different social media platforms and messaging services to harmful content are fragmented. Whilst Twitter has banned political advertising and will apply its policies on harmful content to political figures, Facebook has always advocated a different position. Facebook carves-out from its policies content generated by political figures. The rationale being that it is in the public interest to see what those politicians say and that censoring such content would stifle debate and critique.
Unfortunately for Facebook, this approach is now very much in the public spotlight, contrasts sharply with Twitter’s approach and is the focus of its employees. Facebook employees at all levels of the company staged a virtual walkout following what they viewed as a failure to remove Facebook posts made by President Trump that were similar to Tweets which Twitter had placed behind a warning for “glorifying violence.” President Trump sent a tweet calling the BLM demonstrators “THUGS” and seeming to suggest that law enforcement use deadly force against them. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Trump wrote.
Mark Zuckerberg stood behind his company’s policies and said that the company would allow the posts to stand as the words and phrases used by President Trump did not violate Facebook’s policies. Zuckerberg tried to articulate the reason why Facebook allows unacceptable content from political figures and why it’s important that Facebook applies its rules consistently. Zuckerberg wrote that “our position is that we should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies.”
However, this is a difficult message to convey; particularly in relation to such a divisive and inflammatory issue. Facebook staff took steps to publicly denounce what they saw as Facebook’s failure to act. “Censoring information that might help people see the complete picture *is* wrong. But giving a platform to incite violence and spread disinformation is unacceptable, regardless who you are or if it’s newsworthy,” Andrew Crow, head of design for Facebook’s portal product, tweeted. “I disagree with Mark’s position and will work to make change happen.”
We understand that senior black executives at Facebook were due to meet with Mark Zuckerberg to discuss their concerns, followed by an all-hands meeting with employees where Zuckerberg took questions. Walkout organizers are developing a list of demands for the company, including calls for increased diversity in leadership.
Most Facebook employees are white, particularly at the executive level. Facebook’s latest diversity report states: “Over the last six years, we have worked hard to make our commitment to diversity and inclusion more than just sound bites. Our company has grown a lot. So has our approach.” However, as of last year, 3.8 percent of Facebook employees were black, compared to 2 percent in 2014.
So, should employers and brands issue a statement setting out their position?
There is a sense that some companies may be issuing generic statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and using it as a brand building opportunity to win consumer support.
Some brands have been criticised for perceived hypocrisy and for capitalising on events, including L’Oreal who drew criticism from British model and activist Munroe Bergdorf, who claimed the cosmetics company previously dropped her from a campaign for speaking out on racism.
To many people, supportive corporate sentiments may fall short without also offering funding, other substantive resources/amplification of links and/or demonstrating a long-term commitment to engage with racial discrimination and social injustice issues. Examples of actions either taken by companies (or where they propose to take action) against racial injustice include:-
- Zoom’s CEO sent a company-wide email to its employees acknowledging the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Black Community and the impact of individual and institutionalised racism and violence endured by the Black Community. He stated that its leadership team would, as a start, learn more about social and racial justice, how to engage and act as an organisation and how best to activate the power of philanthropy to support external partners and ‘lock arms’ with its employees.
- Ben & Jerry’s published a detailed statement which included “Silence is NOT an option”. Ben and Jerry’s have supported the Black Lives Matter movement for a number of years – many consumers may notice how consistent brands have been, reflecting how genuinely their message comes across.
What steps can employers take?
From an employer perspective, the message is to get your own house in order. Employees are increasingly vocal and have a voice. Diversity and inclusion should not be ignored. These issues matter to the public and in the digital age brands will be called out if they fail to address discrimination in their companies.
If you want to take action as an employer but are not sure how to go about this, there are a number of potential steps you could consider taking as a starting point, including:-
1. Listen to and engage with your workforce on issues relating to racial discrimination and social injustice – often people are afraid to speak up due to the sensitivity of such issues. Creating an environment in which employees feel able to have open dialogue and raise any issues they encounter is a step in the right direction.
2. Consider establishing a diversity and inclusion committee or diversity champion to drive change – which may encompass organisational change, changes in company values or a change in business practices;
3. Many employers have an equal opportunities policy in place but may not have reviewed the effectiveness of their procedures in responding to and dealing with allegations of racism in the workplace. Review your policies and consult with your employees on ways processes may be improved.
4. Review your recruitment practices and your diversity and inclusion statistics – where could you do better?
5. Could your company support external enterprises aimed at tackling social and racial injustice?
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