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The power of comms for societal change

2020 will go down in history as a year when everything changed. Since the Coronavirus crisis started, we’ve been talking about ‘the new normal’ and whilst what this looks like is not yet defined, the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd shows that any return to “normality” cannot be one-size fits all.

Whilst this isn’t a space for politicking, comms in these uncertain times need to be carefully considered and any attempt to comment on the protests must be authentic and timely.

In the last few days, we’ve seen brands as diverse as Netflix and Cult Beauty use their extensive social platforms to come out in support of the protesters to varying levels of success. It is interesting to note that with the examples above, all have suffered backlash with their statements, from being called out for not hiring black people to using black culture without due credit to plain using white privilege to make a statement without having to experience the oppression that black people live with every day.

Having said that, brands who haven’t made any statement are also being condemned by consumers across all races. These are difficult waters to tread and it is not enough to either ignore what’s going on – or to make awful jokes about Molotov cocktails (step up, Bristol Dry Gin). Rather than just making a statement of support and feeling that this is enough, brands should use this opportunity to look at what they can do to really effect change.

Diversity and inclusivity have become buzzwords and whilst many brands recognise the importance of educating their workforce and improving their approach, some others could be seen to be using D&I messaging to tick a box. You can often see when a brand is living and breathing D&I by looking at its social channels – brands such as Sephora, Ben and Jerry’s and Converse provide great inspiration for diverse audiences without feeling like an add on.  

The brands that will succeed following the riots and into the new normal are those that explore and celebrate race and diversity without it feeling like an afterthought. The ones who don’t simply use a tragedy like the riots to make a statement on race when their boards are 90% white and male. The ones who hear what’s being said behind the anger but also accept that anger with what’s happened is natural. The ones who realise this isn’t only an American problem and that racism exists, despite how ‘not racist’ your experience is.

A quote that’s being used extensively across social media is “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.” These words are as true for brands as they are for individuals. In my career I’ve had to fight time and again against CEOs who make generalist statements about ‘black people’ not selling products or saying that engagement is lower with diverse imagery social posts as excuses to not use POC. Brands must do better than this. What if the new normal isn’t about a return to pubs and restaurants and what our shops will look like when they open, but an opportunity to really take a long hard look at the words we use and the images we choose and make a conscious decision to represent the people who have been most marginalised in our society?

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