“When you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
– Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr., 1963
That same year, when I was almost six years old, I was listening to AM radio and on came the news. White political commentators debated the merits of Martin Luther King, Jr’s civil disobedience. It struck me at the moment because it was the first time, at that tender age, that I thought “How come everyone is not in support of these changes? Maybe adults don’t always know what they are doing?” Less than five years later I was struck by the outpouring of adulation of white pundits after the tragic assassination of Reverend King. Even at ten years of age, I thought, though I didn’t know the word, “Where were you before martyrdom?” Support, it seemed, was always safer after the fact.
This past week is monumental in a year of endless historic moments. But make no mistake about the blinking signpost we have just passed. The corporate community can no longer remain neutral.
I’ve spent the past week and through the weekend speaking with publicly traded and private companies all asking, “How can we be good corporate citizens in an age of civil unrest?” It’s hard today and it’s going to get harder.
Study Sony’s $100 million dollar commitment “to support social justice and anti-racist initiatives around the world.”
Study AT&T Chairman Randall Stephenson eloquently calling for corporate action on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
Study Nike’s move last year with its ‘Just Do It – Dream Crazy’ ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. They analyzed the risks and benefits, understood they were going to spark controversy, withstood the initial sharp criticism, and subsequently experienced a 10% increase in revenue to $9.4 billion after it heroically used advertising to address social injustice issues. ‘This is what our brand stands for.’
The solution is not about advertising, donations or tweets, though they will play a role. It is about reviewing and reimagining your organization’s values, culture, corporate and brand purpose. It’s about having the courage to walk the walk, or in this case, taking a knee and meaning it for the long haul. If all you’re going to do is issue some variation of “We support Black Lives Matter” without more, you might as well keep standing.
Companies need to look at their leadership, their CSR, ESG, core purpose, history, future markets, political donations, internal and external brand and re-evaluate with fresh eyes. We are at the stage where companies need to show, not tell, who they are and what they stand for.
Make no mistake, when the NFL admits it was wrong in its handling of Colin Kaepernick’s bended knee protest – four years after the fact – it means that some of America’s most conservative, white, flag-waving corporate titans are saying that they recognize the moment. Suddenly, they are acting as if they want to be near the front of the train, not the caboose. As if to underscore the point, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s PR guru is none other than White House communications counselor Hope Hicks’ father, Paul.
Patience is no answer to injustice. Corporate America is going to have to lead the way.
In the coming weeks we will be producing a great deal of guidance for companies in these challenging times. We look forward to speaking with you.