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Black PR Professionals Respond to Questions from the Business Community
Dialogue Facilitated by Lexie Smith
I have a lot of clients and general members of the public turning to me with questions on how to handle their PR and messaging right now.
How to handle speaking publicly on topics of racial inequality and diversity and inclusion is new to many. While unfortunate it took this long for the topic to take center stage in America, The Great Unlearn is here, and many brands are turning to professionals in the communications industry for guidance.
However, as a White woman, when these questions began pouring in, I did not personally feel that I had enough knowledge and information to provide counsel without learning more from the Black PR community first. While race within my profession has never been something I have ever previously focused on, I recognize that Black communication professionals have a unique understanding and perspective on the topics at hand that deserve the spotlight. Thus, I’ve been doing a lot of asking, listening, and learning during these past couple of weeks. The responses I have been receiving are invaluable, and honestly, I feel it would be a huge shame to have them live only in my inbox.
Below you will find a compilation of just some of the insights I have collected. For the sake of brevity and word count, not all responses are directly cited below. However, I have hyperlinked to a separate Google Doc where each participant’s answers live in totality. I encourage you to explore their thoughts in full capacity.
As members of the business community read through the content below, new questions are bound to arise. In my opinion, the path towards true change is built upon a foundation of THE RIGHT kind of education. So, my call to action here? Never stop learning, and when in doubt, speak up, and ask.
*Please note that the following questions were submitted by a wide variety of people from the general business community. My intention in sharing them is to help facilitate much-needed conversations within the PR community so we can better service both our clients and society as a whole moving forward.
Question: “Let’s set the record straight — Should I say PoC or Black or BIPOC, etc., when speaking on the issues publically?”
Nancy Vaughn, Principal, PR/Marketing Director, White Book Agency
“If you’re speaking on any issues that are currently in the news and referencing the racial/social injustice — Black. Many Black people identify with the term ‘people of color’ as there are similar shared experiences, but all people of color cannot identify with the unique experiences of Black people. I also recommend initial capping ‘Black.’ When relevant, it’s fine to use the BIPOC acronym.”
Question: “There is A LOT of pressure on social media to share…I see a lot of ‘silence is compliance’…however, I MOSTLY see that from White people. In your opinion, does the Black community overall truly believe in that statement? Do I need to make a post saying I’m not speaking up so that I can learn?”
Toni Harrison, Managing Partner/President: PR, Ten35
“‘Silence is compliance.’ ‘Silence is acceptance.’ ‘Silence is racism.’ ‘If you’re silent you are the problem.’ These types of statements are trending in news conversations and social chatter as our nation grapples with its largest civil rights movement in history.
In today’s landscape, silence speaks volumes. Let’s take a step back to examine this sentiment through a different lens, hopefully, one everyone can easily relate to.
Speaking out to prevent harm isn’t a new concept. In fact, it’s one most of us are taught at a very young age. Children are taught to speak out if they see someone getting bullied, for example. Most airports have signs to encourage reporting security concerns. They read, ‘If you see something, say something.’
Or, imagine you’re in a public place and a man is shouting profanities directly at a young girl while her father stands next to her, holding her hand. Her father doesn’t say or do one thing to stop his daughter from being harassed.
So when you hear or read, ‘Silence is compliance.’ Apply those early childhood lessons and/or your thoughts on the fictional example to the Black Lives Matter movement. The world watched a man die at the hand of racial injustice. Complacency is why racism has continued to evolve and plague our nation since the colonial era. Enough!
Our nation is broken. Entire communities are hurting. And, black people are losing their lives because of the color of their skin. The senseless loss of life is permanent. Our nation and communities can be repaired, but that’s going to take unity and collaboration. Acknowledgment is the first step to recovery. Using your voice is the first step toward action.”
Question: “As a WoC (but not black), do I have the right to speak up on diversity and inclusion right now? If so, what should I be mindful of?”
Macy Harrell, Creative Communications Consultant, Macy Media
“In my view, yes non-Black women of color absolutely have the right to speak up on diversity. Even White allies can. Your right to speak on the behalf of marginalized groups hasn’t suddenly gone away because we are highlighting Black issues. In fact, Black people need allies who don’t look like them. Your voice is welcomed. My only advice would be to acknowledge that each group faces different issues and some of those issues you won’t always relate to. Avoid language that appears as if you are oppression competing. Recognize that the Black experience is different from any other experience. Unfortunately, Black people are often the butt of everyone’s racism, not just White people’s.”
Question: “Is it okay to both continue promoting my brand in addition to supporting the larger more important conversation at hand? Or do I halt entirely? If so, who or what do I turn to, to know WHEN I can talk about my business again? With COVID it’s already hurting, I want to be helpful and respectful but I also have a family to provide for.”
Nikki F., Founder, Nikki Flo Public Relations
“I think it is important to continue promoting a business. Big businesses such as Nordstrom and Macy’s have continued business as usual while still supporting and acknowledging what is happening right now. A good way to show support while still promoting a business is to acknowledge some statistics about how Black businesses in your niche have a disadvantage. Share information or post what you may agree with and be prepared for backlash.”
Question: “There is A LOT being said right now. What is the most helpful thing that I can do right now to support other Black Female Founders?”
LaKeithea Nicole, Founder, For Us. The Agency
“Right now, the most important thing to do is listen and not lecture and not tune out what’s going on! Reach out and see what they need directly, each one is dealing with this differently, partner, and collaborate with them. Black agency owners already have a hard time getting press responses, funding, etc., use this time to see in what ways you can partner and show your support.”
Tavia Iles, CEO, Tavia W. iles Communications
“I love collaboration!! Seek them out but be genuine, don’t use this as your token ‘I have black friends’ to show you are down for the cause. Find businesses that resonate with you, and build a long-lasting collaborative effort beyond right now.”
Question: “I’ve been watching White business owners speak up and get ripped apart for not saying the perfect thing. It makes me terrified to speak up…so should I just stick to sharing messages from the Black community and avoid saying my own?”
Tiffany Joy Murchison, Founder & CEO, TJM & Co. Media Boutique
“You can and should do more than just regurgitate what you see and hear. We, the Black community, need to know that you get it. If you find that you have difficulty crafting the words, ask for help. People interpret words differently, especially when they are grouped to form a thought. So find a few Black colleagues or friends that you can honestly discuss your perspective with and be guided by their responses. Ask why certain phrases may be offensive. Let them help you translate your feelings into a vernacular language that will be well received by the majority. Be sure to use the platform that best suits your abilities. If you aren’t a great speaker and are likely to trip up your words, don’t go live on social media. Prepare an amination, social or blog post, or article.
Also remember, you cannot please all of the people all of the time. But don’t displease an entire community of people by remaining silent at a time when your support is needed most.”
Question: “I see the Black community getting frustrated when they see others outside their race use ‘I’ and ‘me’ statements — to me, it’s confusing. To truly understand something, sometimes you have to make it personally relatable. So I guess my question is, do I avoid having a personal voice in all of this?”
Shay Lynn Dixon, Founder, SLD Public Relations Firm
“Yes, you need to have a personal voice but keep from making things about you. The black community is frustrated as a whole, as we should be and so messaging is often convoluted because of high emotion. It’s tough in the midst of us pouring out our souls for understanding to only be met with #AllLivesMatter or ‘I’ve been called this before by a black person.’ Speaking for myself, I have seen Allison Norlian, Forbes Women contributor eloquently speak her truth as a Jewish woman, relating it to her husband’s experiences as a black man. She was very clear in not minimizing, educating but being relatable. Again, it is important to have an established trust and relationship with your audience, when you don’t, it comes off as self-serving and woah is me.”
Question: “So I just had a huge article come out that has been 6-months in the making, should I not be sharing it across my platforms right now? It makes me anxious about continuing to monetarily invest in PR since we never know what’s coming down the pipeline.”
Keena Renee Carson, Founder, KR Media Group, LLC
“I understand why you may be anxious but now is the time more than anything to invest in PR, to help guide you through situations such as this. If your article isn’t centered around the current conversation of Black lives then it’s probably going to get lost in the news cycle. I would suggest holding off until you can properly promote your article so that it can get the attention it deserves.”
Additional Summarizing Statements and Thoughts
Some responders decided to submit general statements that answered a variety of questions.
Valese Jones, Public Relations Manager, www.sincerelynicole.net
Everybody needs to be speaking up right now, no matter their color. People that are not Black do not need to try to center themselves and speak over or for us, but instead, use their platforms to amplify the voices of Black people who are already doing the work and willing to speak. Being silent and not making it clear what side of history you want to be on is bad for your business. It’s obvious there is going to be a huge shift in the world behind this portion of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. So you have to ask yourself, do you want to be a company or person who didn’t stand for anything because that will be remembered. Actionable steps that can be taken are to amplify a Black woman who is willing to talk to you. You can listen and then tell your audience what you learned. Honestly, we don’t need or want sympathy right now. We need White people to actually walk a mile in our shoes by putting themselves on the frontline. They can also donate to bail funds, grassroots organizations, and sign the petitions they see. Continue to promote your brand but, make sure your brand stands for something other than making money in a time like this.