Steve Barrett on PR: Business must lead the quest for equal justice under law

Brands and corporations have a responsibility to fill the leadership vacuum and use their scale to effect real change in American society and end racial injustice.

The memorial service for George Floyd took place in Minneapolis on Thursday. (Pic: Getty Images.)
The memorial service for George Floyd took place in Minneapolis on Thursday. (Pic: Getty Images.)

The family of George Floyd honored his memory in Minneapolis yesterday. Another black man killed at the hands of the police.

It followed the death of many other innocent people killed by the police seemingly for the crime of “being black,” from Breonna Taylor in Louisville in March, Philando Castile in Minnesota in 2016, Michael Brown in Ferguson, MI in 2014, and so on, and so on.

In a moving and impactful panel discussion convened this week by PRWeek to discuss racial injustice, Metro Atlanta Chamber’s chief brand and communications officer Deisha Barnett quoted her history teacher mother Dorothy Galberth: “Our country has never dealt with the issue of race.”

Barnett explained how “the reality goes back much further than that” and referenced a social media post noting how black people are traumatized going back to the days of the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 and the days of slavery long before that.

As a mother of two boys herself, with a black husband, and brothers, she says it continues to play out every day and she cries every day.

Barnett’s employer represents lots of large corporations in Atlanta and she’s “trying to show up at work with authenticity and courage and say some things without fear of retaliation.”

“That’s a hard thing to do for a woman in a position of leadership in corporate America,” she says. “I’m trying to let my emotions come through and trying to be raw as a leader.”

She adds that “until we deal with it we’ll have to face the realities of it and negative repercussions.”

To achieve this, Barnett says brands also have to be raw and feel the emotion that is the truth for so many people. “If we won’t do the right thing, we won’t be right as a community,” she explains.

The fact is that many CEOs are trying to embrace the idea that business can effect change quickly and at scale and Barnett notes that we have to make a decision that we want to take this issue on.

“We should not just focus on police brutality and the things that are immediate, but also the things that are systemic in our society,” she adds. “Business can change these things. We can push our leaders in local and national government if we really decide to.”

Fellow panelist Craig Buchholz, former Procter & Gamble comms leader recently moved to GM, agrees with Barnett: “We have to engage meaningfully with this, quickly and at scale. Leadership is sitting with the companies and organizations we represent.”

P&G has pledged $5 million to help black justice organisations including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the YWCA Stand Against Racism and the United Negro College Fund, as well as smaller groups.

Other brands that stood out this week include Unilever ice-cream subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s, which released a powerful statement condemning white supremacy. DoorDash donated $1 million to help bridge the racial divide, allocating $500,000 to Black Lives Matter initiatives and $500,000 to Black@DoorDash.

Buchholz has seen the continuum of where companies are at on this journey, having moved from P&G to GM, but he emphasizes that effecting change does not mean just taking part in #BlackoutTuesday, producing a modified version of your logo and talking about standing with the black community.

He adds that such actions from companies that have never engaged in a conversation around it before are appalling, because there’s nothing genuine behind it.

“It’s not an opportunity to jump on a media moment and try to position yourself as a thought leader,” he explains. “It takes a lot more introspection, homework and listening to figure out what you bring to the table in an additive way and the change you want to make.”

GM under the leadership of CEO Mary Barra is still creating the conditions internally at the iconic automaker before going out and thumping its chest externally. It doesn't yet have the permission earned by the likes of P&G, but it aspires to get there.

I urge you to watch the whole discussion, which also features Yum Brands’ Jerilan Greene and Porter Novelli’s Soon Mee Kim.

I also encourage you to check out other influential black voices PRWeek featured this week, all adding poignant contributions to providing solutions to the horrendous situation the country finds itself in.  

St. Louis-based PR agency founder Johnny Little worked with the city of Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown by police in 2014. Just as we have seen this week, protests, looting, and rioting ravaged the city and its streets were filled with “Black Lives Matter!”

The city embarked on the uncomfortable process of reengaging the community and starting difficult conversations about how officials and residents needed to change. This Tuesday, Ferguson elected its first black female mayor, Ella Jones.  

In an op-ed published yesterday on, Little notes: “Now America is once again facing the same situation it did in Ferguson. The city and names have changed — this time it is George Floyd and the city is Minneapolis — but the situation is the same.”

He says it begins with CEOs, board chairs, CMOs asking the tough questions. “Are we truly being fair to the customers we are serving?” “Are we giving minority companies and employees a true opportunity to succeed?”

Rochelle Ford, dean of the school of communications at Elon University, says in a PRWeek op-ed that the contract with America is broken.

She is campaigning for a new system, a more perfect union, a new contract. She presents a 10-point plan until then for people to advocate and work inside and outside our systems to effect change.

In a special edition of PRWeek's Coffee Break series, Constituency Management Group's chief inclusion and diversity officer Margenett Moore-Roberts explains how business should respond to the racial and social injustices in recent weeks, including the murder of George Floyd, but also the incident in New York City's Central Park where white woman Amy Cooper called police on a black man for no reason.

The last word goes to Barnett: “We’re not talking about diversity and inclusion right now, we’re talking about black people in America being treated egregiously every day. Brands have to be courageous enough to move forward with meaningful actions.

“And they need to do more than give away some backpacks to kids in underprivileged communities. We don’t need sympathy, we need you to act and be an active ally to do something to make this country better.”

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