The book Game Change caused quite a stir when it reported that Senator Harry Reid referred to then Senator Obama as a “light-skinned African American with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted one.” The statement was called insensitive and even racist. His detractors called for his resignation.
More interesting is that the outcry was not from the black community. Few objected publicly. In fact, some of the most prominent African Americans in the country supported Reid, an unlikely outcome you might think. There lies the lesson for us as professional communicators. Rarely can someone who is not a member of a minority group fully understand what triggers their reactions. What might be considered negative, often is not. And language that can help us connect with our target is often overlooked or rejected for lack of awareness.
Anyone outside the minority group can be understandably puzzled. We don't get “it,” we don't understand “it,” and usually we don't recognize “it” when we see it. “It” can be anything that causes an immediate negative or positive emotional response -- actions, words, even words not spoken. The Harry Reid debacle could have been avoided had the communicators speaking out against him done what we should do for our organizations. Ask. Surely, there were people around who could have provided insight.
In corporate America, we have minority employees, customers, and consultants to help us, but we still sabotage our efforts when we are so cautious about the potential for a negative response that we forgo opportunities to connect with our minority constituents and attract new customers.
One company introduced a product for African Americans. In promoting it, they missed opportunities to connect emotionally with the consumer through relevant facts and cultural references. They didn't get “it,” and they didn't trust their internal counsel by African Americans. The product was not rejected, but it didn't get the buzz expected.
If your company is truly interested in multicultural marketing, you can't be successful speaking to minorities with a general market voice. Presumably, the objective is to grow your customer base. By using general market messaging when your goal is to connect with one segment of the market, all you get for your effort is what you already have. If you want to get the attention of minority groups, challenge your organization to trust people who live as minorities, or consider whether you are really ready for multicultural marketing. It's not general market messaging and images using minority media outlets. Ask, trust, and know that more than likely, still, you won't get “it.”
Sonja Whitemon is a senior manager of advertising and PR for American Airlines.