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Brands and communicators as agents for change

In 2020, we are battling two converging crises that highlight inequalities within American institutions: COVID-19, which has a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities, and the sustained outcry surrounding the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others, which has unveiled a deep societal need to address systemic racism. The collision course of these crises is reshaping how we interact with each other and what we expect from both our institutions and the leaders of our society. 

Increased awareness and demonstration of racism in America is fueling dialogue about the challenges facing Black communities and infusing deeper cultural competency into our personal and professional lives. As communicators, we must ask: how do we better understand the experiences and perspectives of our diverse audiences? How do we meaningfully and appropriately engage on an ongoing basis? And, how can we serve as a positive force for change within our institutions and throughout society?

New Expectations

At Edelman, we recently conducted a survey to glean insights into the mindset of people on this topic and found a universal call for change: 60% of respondents said that brands must take a stand to speak out on issues of racial justice. That same 60% also said that they will buy or boycott a brand based on if and how it responds.

Business is expected to lead where other institutions have failed — in fact, 56% of Americans view it as a brand’s ‘moral obligation.’ To that end, 60% of Americans believe that brands need to use their marketing dollars to advocate for racial equality and educate the public on the issue. Equally critical is that 63% 
of respondents say that brand promises must be backed with action. Put another way: brand inaction speaks volumes and increases business risk. 

Agents for Change

As communicators and marketers, we have an expanded license to ‘do the right thing’ and are empowered to spark change and help address today’s inequalities by forging deeper connections with our employees, customers and stakeholders. 

This journey starts with an honest internal assessment on a personal and organizational level. Listen to and facilitate conversations among your employees to understand what is top of mind. Identify issues, gaps or company blind spots. From there, chart or update your action plan. Make commitments to change that are authentic and aligned with your values and are clearly defined and measurable. 

Finally, find ways for your organization to advocate. Businesses can rewire entrenched systems and address root causes of inequality through education and other actions. As you build engagement programs, consider ways to elevate Black voices and experiences, and advance broader efforts through partnering with diverse community organizations.

Forging Ahead

As the late Congressman John Lewis said — with the unique perspective of having joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington and also as a witness of this year’s unrest and activism — “it was very moving, very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble.’” Today’s social protests are bringing people together, which is cause for optimism about future change. 

Americans want brands to advocate and agitate for “good trouble.” As individuals who guide messages and programs, we all must play a key role in helping to create and sustain an equal and equitable playing field within our organizations and beyond.

Trisch Smith is Global Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer of Edelman.

Matthew Harrington is Global President & COO of Edelman. He is a member of the USC Annenberg Center for PR Board of Advisors.