Three steps to communicating in divisive times
By Jessie Sitnick, Account Director
Last Friday afternoon, on U.S. Inauguration Day, I was at a cheery, well-lit craft shop in the small suburb of Baltimore where I grew up, standing in front of a bin of white foam core in a state of existential panic.
“Getting supplies for your sign?” asked the woman beside me. She was in her sixties, I guessed, cropped salt and pepper hair, light pink sweatshirt—were there kittens on it? She might have been buying cross-stitching supplies or a set of chicken stencils. But, like me, her hands were full of poster markers.
It was the day before the Women’s March and both of us were getting ready. “We gotta speak up,” she said, smiling, as she made her way to the cash. “Yup,” I nodded back. But that was the crux of my craft store crisis. Staring at the white poster board, I realized that, as deeply as I felt compelled to speak, I didn’t know what words to use.
This is not my M.O. As a strategic communications geek I literally write key messages for a living. But I never had to write any of them on a placard, or wear them on a string around my neck. I’d never felt the duty to own my words so fully, to consider them so carefully, to deploy them so responsibly.
I am not alone in this. Whether we realize it or not, words—how we use them, the values we infuse in them—have never mattered more than they do right now. In this moment of unprecedented cultural and political rupture in the West, words that many of us have taken for granted—democracy, diversity, patriotism—ring with heightened, conflicting emotion.
The territory for neutral language has shrunk. We need to be aware of this, not only as citizens, but also as organizations. To be relevant, and to engage in the conversations that matter right now — the ones stirring millions of people across the globe — we have to consider our words carefully.
“We must take sides”: Three steps to communicating in divisive times
Organizations trying to find their voice in our current climate might be facing their own version of my poster crisis. Honestly, what are we supposed to say? How do we say it? These are hard questions. How should a brand take part in conversations on issues that matter?
A brand’s voice is bigger than any one person. If it is to endure and to mean something, that voice cannot be subject to ever-changing winds and whims. That means its positions must be rooted in the brand’s identity and its values. If there was ever a time for brands to dig deep, to reflect on their own values, and to think carefully about how and when they will express them– that time is now.
Here are three things for brands to keep in mind:
- Beware the risk of shallow imitation.
One of the things that struck me about the Women’s March in DC (and across the world) was the lack of for-profit corporate presence. This may not seem surprising. This movement at this moment was not the place for corporate endorsements. Beyond the obvious political risk, I doubt such engagement would have been embraced by many participants. The backlash of detractors would have been guaranteed. For most companies, there just wasn’t anything to gain.
However, I can also imagine the wheels turning in the minds of savvy marketers, as they watched millions of people (i.e., potential customers) take to the streets. How do we tap into that? Imagine our logo on all those pink pussy hats! Stop. Don’t.
Paying lip service to social movements for the purpose of commercial profit is ill-advised — always. It poses a toxic reputational risk right now. With public trust in institutions, including corporations, at an all-time low, brands that jump on the #WomensMarch or other activist bandwagons should expect high levels of scrutiny and skepticism. Shallow imitation will not be tolerated.
- Ask yourself: Will your silence speak volumes?
“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Elie Wiesel wrote that. Brands that have rooted their public image in the values driving the emerging women’s movement are going to be asked to have the guts to stand behind them now.
Patagonia offers an inspiring example. A self-proclaimed “activist company,” Patagonia has put environmental and climate action at the heart of everything it does. Given the threats to climate science and the prominent theme of climate justice in this post US election social movement, it would be jarring, even bizarre, for Patagonia to remain silent. Fortunately for the brand and its advocates, it’s not.
However, Patagonia is an unusual and exceptional case. Not only does it have a well-defined public position on one of the key issues at hand, but it also has a base of supporters and customers that is largely aligned with those same values.
But what about brands with more diverse publics, who have embraced and communicated values such as diversity and acceptance, not as “activists,” but as part of who they are?
Let’s look at TD Bank, as an example. Over the past few years, the brand has supported and helped normalize same-sex and inter-racial couples through its advertising campaigns. It’s embraced the LGTBQ community and come out strong for pride celebrations. Here’s what its American team had to say on January 21st, the day of the Women’s March:
Okay: a careful, explicitly non-partisan, expression of the “universal” values of tolerance and acceptance. TD said something. It drew some support and zero backlash – and perhaps that was exactly the point. It’s fair to wonder how long TD can hold that position as times become increasingly turbulent. What will it do if (when?) the new US administration threatens to unravel legislation protecting same-sex marriage? One hopes someone at the bank is planning for that scenario. Will it have the courage to stand behind its rainbow-coloured convictions? Let’s hope all of us do.
- Remember: your people are people first.
And that brings us to the last point. People, your people, do not leave their values at home when they come to work every day. In fact, there’s an increasingly good chance that their values have led them to work for you. In this moment of heightened tension and head-spinning change, many feel that those values are under attack. Worse, many feel personally vulnerable, unsafe, afraid.
Organizations must be conscious of this as they seek to find their voices and their messages at this time. What happens if the values we ask our employees to communicate contradict their own understanding of the organization’s values and purpose?
Here’s an example: When the US National Park Service complied with US Federal orders to place a gag on its twitter channel (which was defiantly tweeting about climate change as those words were being removed from the White House website), employees took matters into their own hands.
If you are not talking about these issues openly with your employees, and taking their temperature on the values the brand should and should not be expressing, you are putting your organization at risk.
Making a sign and wearing it
Back to that glaring, blank white poster board.
Sitting in the den of my childhood home on the eve of the March, my mom, two of my best friends and I all struggled to find our own messages. At a loss for my own words, I turned to someone else’s.
“Even in darkness, it is possible to create light.” That is also Elie Wiesel.
I chose those words because, as the granddaughter of Jews who escaped the Holocaust by sheer grace, they mean something real to me. They speak to the values I was raised by. They are hopeful but not naïve. They aren’t about anger; they are about action.
In the months ahead, people and organizations will have many reasons and opportunities to make signs. They may not all be on placards around our necks, but we should treat them as if they are. We should wear them genuinely, with courage and boldness. That’s how we’ll get through.