Never before have we seen corporate public relations embracing racial justice with both arms. A once-touchy subject reserved for annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day ads and ethnic media, racial justice and anti-racist messages now flood the airwaves and social media. Journalists have a lot to do with the astounding flip.
Twitter this year gave its employees Juneteenth as a company holiday. Several other major corporations also gave employees the day off as a day to reflect on social justice. President Trump foolishly took credit for making “famous” the day that Texas slaves finally got word, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, that slavery had been abolished (June 19, or Juneteenth, was already “famous” among African Americans). Yet there’s no doubt that many whites had not heard of it before. (This year, I had white friends wishing me “Happy Juneteenth.” That is a first.)
The speedy business world embrace of the racial justice cause followed growing public support. Black Lives Matter, the group that spurred the nationwide, and then worldwide street protests, had limited support from most Americans five years ago. Initial polls showed that two-thirds of Americans supported Black Lives Matter’s drive to end police brutality against African Americans. Even after conflicts in the street and criticism from President Trump, current American support is still at 55 percent and more than two-thirds among people of color. Now, the litany of those killed by police under suspicious circumstances are sadly familiar: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, to name just a few.
How did a narrow cause become a broad one? Some say COVID-19-induced stay-at-home orders gave people more time to absorb and think about police killings while watching the horrific “I can’t breathe” Floyd video over and over. Others say young Americans, more interracial than previous generations and more likely to have friends of different races, pulled the rest of the country into awareness by taking to the streets by the tens of thousands. One reason for the change in public attitude is clear: the frequency and pattern of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police finally got a lot of mainstream media attention.
As there was with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, there was a symbiotic relationship between the Black Lives Matter protests and journalists. The sheer visual spectacle of multi-color crowds taking to the streets peacefully in unprecedented numbers was a huge news story. When journalists themselves — like CNN’s Omar Jimenez — were arrested, and others tear-gassed with protestors, it only added to the drama of the story unfolding. Journalists, as during the Civil Rights Movement, began to show more skepticism about the official police version of why a person was shot, beaten or choked — especially when video cast doubt on the original police explanation.
Just as the pandemic caused virtually every national advertiser to jump on the “we’re here for you” bandwagon, the clamor for racial justice had its own marketing effects. Many companies put out statements to make clear that they were repulsed by the George Floyd killing, to reaffirm their commitment to fairness and diversity and beyond that, their commitment to being “anti-racist.”
The question is — what’s next?
The organizers who want to “defund” the police would be wise to take a public relations lesson from the protests. “De-fund” is an imprecise and isolating word. “Reform," or something like it, brings people in.
When Black Lives Matter was explained by and through journalists as a movement that wanted to protect African Americans from police brutality evident in the George Floyd video — with the names of other victims repeated to emphasize that police brutality often had the specific result of killing Black people — then Black Lives Matter was embraced by large numbers and by all races. The “All Lives Matter” counter-slogan was then no longer seen as inclusive but as an attempt to take the focus away from where the problem was.
The power of journalists to enhance understanding and shape opinion on racial justice has never been stronger. And the desire by American business to be seen on the right side of history will continue to fuel advertising and image-making.
The image-making public statements are the easy part. Companies should know that their anti-racism pledges had better match how they treat people of color in the workplace, or today’s employees will call them out with a hashtag. And journalists will cover that story, too.
Janet Clayton is senior strategist at VectisDC and a member of the CalMatters board. She was a reporter, editor of the editorial pages and California editor for the Los Angeles Times. Janet is an Annenberg alumna and a member of the USC Annenberg Center for PR Board of Advisors.