The circumstances leading up to Starbucks’ racial bias training in May 2018, ABC television’s cancellation of Roseanne that same month, and the National Football League’s ongoing “knee problem” are not anomalies. They are big, bright, flashing signs of changing times that we as communicators must help our organizations manage. Now more than ever, organizations are having to publicly address issues of racial discrimination that affect not only their reputations and brands, but society in general. Racial issues become amplified by social media, creating firestorms of controversy that require organizations to respond to situations to which there is no clear set of guidelines that can guarantee a tidy resolution that’s satisfactory to all.
Managing racial issues
The case of Starbucks
There is no way to predict if, when, or how an issue involving racial discrimination will arise. For example, Starbucks could not have foreseen that it would become the target of heated protests at its stores and online after an employee at a Philadelphia store called the police on two black men who were waiting for a meeting without making a purchase. The employee’s behavior, widely considered racially discriminatory, caught the company—known for supporting racial equality—off guard. A comprehensive response from Starbucks leaders followed, which included a formal apology and racial bias training.
The case of ABC television
ABC could not have imagined Roseanne Barr, star of the hit TV show Roseanne, would send a tweet comparing Valerie Jarrett, a former adviser to President Obama, to an ape while also inflaming anti-Muslim sentiments. The network quickly condemned Roseanne???s remarks, cut ties with her and cancelled her show. A company statement from ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey read, “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.” A tweet from Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC, repeated Dungey’s admonishment, and Iger added, “There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing.”
The case of the NFL
Despite the array of controversies that regularly surround the NFL, the organization hardly could have anticipated that a significant number of players would protest police brutality and racism in America by taking a knee on the field during the national anthem. The protests “encouraged by some members of the public and detested by others” have left the organization between the proverbial rock and a hard place, unable to find a solution that is satisfactory to its players and its audiences. As a result, the NFL remains vulnerable to ongoing criticism from multiple fronts.
The experiences of Starbucks, ABC, and the NFL demonstrate that it is often difficult for organizations to control the circumstances that can place them at the center of a racial issue firestorm. However, they do have some dominion over how they respond. Using corporate communication basics, recognizing the unique context of racial issues, communicating organizational values, and learning from the experiences of others can enhance the effectiveness of an organization’s response.
Use corporate communication basics to address racial issues
A productive way to respond to racial issues is to follow the long-held standards of corporate communication. Gather all of the facts first. Involve organizational leaders early on in the process. Proceed truthfully, authentically and expeditiously. Keep the lines of communication open. Be consistent with your messaging but keep it nimble enough to adjust to circumstances as they change.
Recognize the unique context of racial issues
Racial issues are different from other kinds of communication situations. We must take into account specific factors when issues of race and discrimination affect our organizations. Primarily, we have to be aware of the history of racial discrimination in the U.S. and its lingering legacy. Most Americans, for example, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, want racism to be a thing of the past. But despite significant progress, our society is not quite there yet. This does not mean every incident that looks like racism is racism. However, it does mean that when a question of racism in or affecting our organizations arises, the question must be investigated with full vigor. If there is evidence of discrimination, we must act decisively and clearly explain how we plan to address the problem. Otherwise, confusion and conflict may escalate, and in addition to putting our organization’s credibility at risk, we may inadvertently contribute to the ongoing problem of racial tension.
Communicate your values
When facing a racial issue, it is critical to communicate in terms of your organization’s values. Many organizations have values statements that say something about their role in society or how they contribute to society’s well-being. If your organization does not have a statement of values that addresses this, it is time to create one. Even if such values exist, however, some members of your organization may still act in ways that stray from them. That’s to be expected. What matters more is how you handle the situation.
The way we address issues of race and discrimination sends a message about who we are as communicators and about the moral compass of our organizations. When organizations take a stand against discrimination, they reinforce values of equality and justice for everyone. At the same time, when they publicly take a stand on racial issues, or on almost any social issue, they risk alienating some segments of the population for one reason or another. Communicators should be aware of these risks up front. Despite the risks, they can find comfort and confidence in the fact that they are honoring their values, supporting healthy organizational behaviors, and contributing to the well-being of society.
Learn from others: Organizations, experts and your people
Learning from the experiences of other organizations can mitigate the potential risks of taking on racial issues. Starbucks and ABC show the value of taking a decisive stance. These organizations earned significant praise for their responses. While everyone may not agree with their positions, it is difficult to accuse these organizations of being complicit with racially discriminatory behavior. Moreover, by directly confronting the situation, both organizations were able to control their narrative. This allowed them to minimize ongoing negative news coverage.
The NFL, on the other hand, continues to struggle. The organization instituted a national anthem policy, which prohibited players from kneeling on the field during the song but permitted them to stay in the locker room while it played. This stance neither fully supported the anthem or the issues the players were concerned about. The problematic policy left much room for interpretation and was recently put on hold, rendering the NFL a vulnerable target for ongoing criticism.
Organizations and those in charge of their communications can also learn from scholars, consultants, and other experts in the area of organizations, communication, and race. Experts can introduce innovative ideas and expose you to cutting-edge research or conduct research for you. They can help you strategize as well as facilitate discussions or trainings.
The people within your organization are an important resource. Talk with your communication team members and organizational leaders about racial issues. Solicit their input. Imagine how your organization might confront these types of issues. It is almost always uncomfortable to talk about issues of race, racism, and discrimination at work. Doing so may seem awkward at first, but it is a lot easier to examine these issues and strategize about how your organization might handle them preemptively than it is after a situation has occurred and you have only moments to respond before the news media and social media take control of your narrative.
It is impossible to predict when racial issues may erupt in an organization, but we can be certain that race will continue to be an issue with which contemporary organizations must grapple. We need only look at the latest news stories for proof. John Schnatter had to vacate the chairman position of Papa John’s, the pizza company he founded, after using the N-word and other racially inflammatory language during a company conference call. Uber’s chief people officer, Liane Hornsey, also resigned amid allegations of racially discriminatory behavior. Major airlines have issued statements explaining their refusal to fly children of immigrants separated from their parents at the U.S./Mexico border, an issue primarily affecting Hispanic and Latino communities. Meanwhile, other companies—most notably Ben & Jerry’s—have made advocating for racial equality and social justice a corporate value. All of these examples illustrate why now, more than ever, communicators have to be ready to deal with issues of race and lead their organizations through these changing times.
Today, people expect organizations to take a stand on important social issues. They want to work for and patronize organizations with values they respect. While there may not yet be a foolproof playbook to guide organizations through managing racial issues, communicators can empower themselves with information that prepares them to act in ways that benefit their organizations and society.