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This post was written collectively by Cognito's New York office. 

As protests continue across the United States and globally, momentum is building on social channels in support of Black Lives Matter with Instagram feeds dominated by black squares yesterday for #BlackOutTuesday. This is an emotionally charged and sensitive subject, which as individuals we all instinctively care about and want to show our support. 

We have seen many brands already joining in and communicating their support. However, communication on these issues can be challenging, and actions need to come first. This is an issue that has been ever-present, and brands cannot take participation in the conversation lightly. 

There is growing demand for actions rather than words – and questioning over the hypocrisy of brands posting online in support of these issues, without being able to back that support up.

So how, and when, should brands communicate at this time? 

Start by looking internally. Recognize the sadness, anger, fear and frustration being felt by your colleagues. Pay particular attention to those that are BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color), as they are affected the most and may have valuable input into dealing with the complicated issues and emotions, should they choose to express themselves. Give them space to process and to discuss; encourage open internal communication and identify tangible actions you can take to support your employees first, and be an agent of change within your own business and in your local and national communities. Brands and companies have a responsibility to take true action and follow through.

Pause, or at least consider pausing, regular communications. Even if not directly communicating on these issues, look at what ‘regular’ campaigns and communications you have planned this week and in the foreseeable future. Particularly on social, this is not the time for ‘business as usual,’ and ploughing ahead with your planned corporate news and content pipeline is not appropriate. 

Take action. Being inauthentic won’t stand. Now is not the time to just hop into a trending conversation. And it’s about long-term actions to drive change, more than short-term ‘fixes’ today. The FT today highlighted four key things companies can do to actually make a difference: “hire more people of color; pay them equally; use your capital to invest in minority entrepreneurs and communities; and use your lobbying power to support policies and politicians that will advance equality and curb police brutality.”

Speak with substance. A lot of the criticism directed at brands over the last few days has pointed to the superficial nature of posting a black square and a hashtag vs. meaningful action against racial injustice. Learn from brands who are connecting their communication to action:

  • Ben & Jerry’s released a statement saying “We must dismantle white supremacy”, listing the four concrete actions they are calling for in their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The brand has long been vocal in its support of social and environmental justice, including donating to community organizations across the country.  

  • Nickelodeon went off air and showed this powerful video for 8 minutes and 46 seconds yesterday; the entire video consists of the words "I can't breathe" on screen, accompanied by the sound of breathing. They have been commended for using their platform to communicate directly to and educate their young audience. 

  • YouTube communicated its pledge to donate $1 million towards efforts to address social injustice, although it has seen a backlash to its lack of specificity as well as its previous lack of action against racist content on its platform. 

Be personal, and honest. Think about who communications come from. 

  • Mark Mason, CFO at Citibank wrote this powerful and extremely personal piece, talking about his personal response and the organizations he is donating to, as well as referencing the support of Citi in terms of its corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives 

  • Simon Freakley, CEO at AlixPartners shared this internal communication on his personal LinkedIn, extending his message of solidarity with a wider audience and emphasizing his personal commitment to bringing about change - starting by supporting his people.

Be prepared. If your firm has participated in supporting community action in a positive way, there might be an opportunity to discuss your motivations, but do so carefully. If you are engaging in business-as-usual media interviews, make sure your spokesperson is prepared with a response that reflects the values and policies of your organization. This is not an issue to be caught flat-footed on. 

Start with internal actions, then carefully think about your external communications. Actions always speak louder than words.



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