The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police touched off widespread civil unrest and calls for racial justice around the world. Black communities are grappling with systemic racial injustice that has marginalized their voices and failed to address their urgent calls for police and justice reform.
We also witnessed violent clashes between protestors and police and our government turning tear gas and rubber bullets on its own people. This is what we bring to work every day.
“Any idea that there is a dividing line between work and life when it comes to matters of unrest vanishes,” says Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer at Workhuman and former chief diversity officer for Monster.com and Walgreens. “Unfortunately, when our society is struggling so much, the workplace is the last, best place to heal. Where we can have conversations about the unrest we’re experiencing.”
In the past few weeks, I’ve witnessed people on LinkedIn — business leaders, marketing professionals and HR practitioners — express over and over again the view that “politics” don’t belong in the workplace and that LinkedIn isn’t the right venue for discussing issues such as racial injustice. They are wrong. Business leaders have a moral obligation to create a workplace that is equitable and just and to support broader equity in society. Companies are, after all, nothing more than a collection of people.
And after Brown v. Board was passed, what had been legal segregation became a system of voluntary segregation, in which everything from housing to schools to services remained segregated, Pemberton points out. “But the workforce is a place where you go on any given day where there are multiple generations, multiple races, multiple genders, all united in a common purpose,” he says.
As marketers, we often serve as the voice of those workplaces. We are the voices of companies, of organizations. We have a duty to use that platform to create and disseminate messaging that furthers the goal of creating a more equitable, just society. Pemberton and I recently discussed some ideas on how to make that happen; here’s what he shared with me.
Flip the Script
In content marketing, we talk a lot about messaging and narratives. We need to use this moment to take a hard look at how we as an industry have contributed to unequal and harmful messaging about Black communities in the content we produce. “A lot of the current narrative constructs have an intention to them that are not beneficial to the African American,” Pemberton says. “It shows up most prominently in policing and the justice system. Black men have lost thousands of years to improper sentencing and wrongful imprisonment. You fit the description, black men are told.”
But what’s the description? And who creates that description? “So much of the initial reaction to the Black man in America as a threat has come from the very carefully crafted messages from Hollywood,” he says. “Someone like me is referred to as polished, articulate. As an exception. I’m not exceptional. I’m the norm. So why does it seem like an exception? Because the stories don’t depict the reality.”
Marketing more often than not perpetuates those harmful narratives. Search the term “business leader” in Unsplash and you get mostly images of white men. Thought leadership articles? Routinely rely on white voices. And when Black and brown voices are included, it’s almost always in articles focused on diversity and inclusion. “These narrative constructs have a negative impact,” Pemberton says. “But you can reverse these narratives.”
We are not at their mercy. We control the stories we tell.
“One of the greatest lies ever told — we have nothing in common,” he says. “There’s no group of people who have cornered the market on pain and suffering. In your own struggle lies a connection to other people’s experience and struggles.” We don’t have to be Black to center Black voices. We don’t have to be a person of color to see the inequities in the stories we create. We don’t have to wait for Black History Month to spotlight Black leaders.
We can do better.
Embrace the First Rule of Equity
Often, our response to racial injustice is to demonstrate understanding. That’s why you see lots of companies and business leaders putting out statements or social media posts like Bill Gates’ or Amazon. “But the first rule of equity is not whether we agree on a source of inequity, but what are you going to do to change things,” Pemberton says. “It’s not about whether you understand, it’s about whether you’re willing to change.”
And companies are largely failing to adhere to that rule. In response to Amazon’s statement in support of Black Lives Matters, employee Courtenay Brown calls them “empty words” and reports that while most of the frontlines employees like her at her packaging center she works at are people of color, managers are predominantly white. The numbers support her claim. These same companies are now coming under fire after the Associated Press released a report last week that shows that many of the companies pledging support for Black Lives Matter and demonstrating solidarity with their Black employees fail to recruit, retain and promote minorities within their own ranks.
Empty words won’t fix racial injustice, and as content producers, we need to refuse to be accomplices who write pretty but meaningless words in times of crisis to help companies gloss over their realities of racial disparities at their companies. Pemberton cautions, “We ought not to confuse awareness with action or policy change.”
Corporate America needs to take a hard look at all facets of how they do business. “Who do you hire? What is the representation at executive levels?,” Pemberton questions. “If you don’t have representation today, what’s the pathway to achieve it? What’s your supplier diversity? Are you willing to revisit the messages you deliver?”
Content marketers need to take that same hard look at our practices. What narratives are we telling? What messaging are we creating about the world of work, about leadership, about society? Are we doing enough to make sure we feature diverse voices in our stories? Are we hiring people of color? Promoting them?
“We’ve been here before,” Pemberton says.” Ferguson was a moment where we could have had these discussions before. But there’s been an unwillingness to address it in the past. For the first time, we see many people rising up and saying this is not okay.”
Now is the moment for action, not pretty words. “And for many companies, they get it now,” he says. As content marketers, we need to get it too.
Communication and Messaging Matters
Empty words without action won’t stop injustice. But communication and messaging, the stories we tell, do matter. “One of the things people are looking for is communication,” Pemberton says. “Just talking about it matters a great deal. It feels small but it has a great impact.”
Pemberton suggests starting by leveraging the people you already know. Lift up marginalized voices and stories in our content. “There’s not a family I know that doesn’t have a story. A lost life. An unjust sentence.” Center these stories in our marketing.
Engage your entire organization. Develop robust diversity initiatives that ensure that we are centering the voices and experiences of people of color and other marginalized communities in our content. “It’s not the job of one person,” Pemberton says. “The entire company has to be collectively engaged.” And we have to fund these efforts too. As Pemberton points out, “When was the last time we did anything in corporate America with one person and no budget? When it’s important, we give it the resources.”
Let’s also be really clear that this is not a problem of “unconscious bias,” and unconscious bias training won’t fix it, he says. “People protesting #Metoo or BLM, that’s not unconscious bias. It’s conscious bias that we have to fight.” Choosing three cisgender, white men as sources for a story on the future of work is not unconscious bias. That’s a conscious decision. We might rationalize that decision by saying those were the people willing to talk or they’re experts on the topic, but those rationalizations perpetuate harmful cultural narratives about race. And that kind of conscious bias in marketing has to stop.
That’s how we’ll start flipping the script. That’s how we will enact change, not write pretty words. That’s how we will create culturally inclusive, race-conscious content that makes a difference.