Simply talking about racial justice is not going to cut it

Acting on racial justice is now a mandate for brands.
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

American consumers believe that speaking out about and addressing systemic racism are business mandates, found new Porter Novelli research on social justice, mimicking the results of an Edelman Trust Barometer flash poll conducted in early June.

The majority (56%) of respondents to the Porter Novelli survey think companies that don’t communicate about social justice issues are out of touch. But what companies do is more important than what they say. Brands should make progress on advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, said 76% of respondents. This belief has real repercussions: 35% of employees are reconsidering their current job because their company isn’t going far enough to address social justice issues.

Brands have already discovered that it’s not enough to simply post the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter and a black square on Instagram or release a statement from the CEO—without further action, those statements can come off as generic corporate me-tooism and attract criticism for a lack of substance. There are many other ways for organizations to communicate about racial justice in a meaningful way.

Hold yourself publicly accountable.

Don’t just say you support Black people and other people of color. Cite specific goals and metrics and track your progress. That creates transparency and builds trust with stakeholders who expect you to do the right thing. For example, beauty retailer Sephora announced that it will stock at least 15 percent of its products from Black-owned brands and owned up to not doing enough to support Black businesses. (According to the Porter Novelli research, 80 percent of people wish companies would be honest about their past mistakes in addressing race.) Sephora also commissioned a report studying racial bias in retail to help the industry at large. Startups can model change too: cannabis company Toast is tying leadership compensation to diversity hiring metrics.

Highlight your actions.

If you invest in initiatives that promote social justice and racial equity, put them in the spotlight. EY wrote about the reasons it’s contributing $3 million to organizations that fight social injustice and $4 million to historically Black colleges and universities. “Public statements of outrage and condemnation are important, but wholly ineffectual if not accompanied by commitment to meaningful, sustained action,” said Kelly Grier, EY US Chair and Managing Partner and Americas Managing Partner.

Talk about—and act on—issues in your industry.

Last fall, Nia Impact Capital launched a campaign to persuade 23 companies in the Nia Global Solutions ESG portfolio to improve board diversity and eliminate forced arbitration. Six made substantive changes; Nia filed nine shareholder resolutions and withdrew seven because the companies made progress. One company that faced a vote was cybersecurity firm Fortinet, whose shareholders voted 70 percent of shares in favor of releasing quantitative data about workplace DEI. A shareholder resolution at Tesla is pending.

Take a political stand.

Use your business voice to support legislation aimed at dismantling systemic racism. Ben & Jerry’s, one of the most visible B Corps, has been an activist for years, including donating a percent of profits to the NAACP and advocating for HR40, the federal reparations bill. The company has also published a series of in-depth blog posts about systemic racism. In a recent post about defunding police and investing in communities, Ben & Jerry’s wrote that “the only way to move forward is with a community-based model of public safety that puts people’s health and safety first.” They topped off the statement by linking to grassroots campaign partners.

Avoid using racial justice for self-promotion.

If you’re communicating about social justice, make sure you’re not using it as a hook to talk about something else (no matter how worthy), sell a product or promote yourself. People will see right through it if you’re not putting the needs of disadvantaged communities first. One example: Mary Nichols, California Air Resources Board Chair, was called out for using the struggle for racial justice to attract attention to her agenda for clean air.

In an ethical crisis, sometimes not speaking up is riskier than taking a stand. As long as organizations are transparent, honest and state the facts about how they’re backing up words with actions they can meet customer expectations—even (perhaps especially) if that means taking responsibility for past missteps.