Do the right thing

With the anniversary of George Floyd’s killing approaching, business is being asked to show the receipts for its initial responses to last year’s racial reckoning in the United States.

The murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin started in Minnesota this week. (Credit: Getty Images.)

As the prosecution started presenting its evidence at the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, it brought back all sorts of memories and feelings from an incredibly fraught year.

This was especially the case for witnesses testifying this week at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, some of whom were moved to tears.

They variously described feelings of guilt at not being able to intervene and do more to stop the egregious incident taking place in front of their eyes that led to the death of Floyd after Chauvin pressed his knee on his neck for several minutes in what an MMA fighter passing by the scene called a “blood choke.”

A passing off-duty firefighter described how Chauvin continued the knee hold even after Floyd was rendered unconscious and non-responsive. When she offered to help, another officer on the scene told her to stay out of it and not get involved.

The issue of whether to get involved or not was also in the news this week after a 65-year-old Asian woman was horrifically attacked in the Hell’s Kitchen district of Manhattan while on her way to church. Surveillance video shows her being kicked to the ground, punched and stomped upon by a man who made anti-Asian hate statements while carrying out the cowardly attack.

Two security staff at a nearby hotel who witnessed the incident have been suspended pending an investigation, after they apparently declined to come to the woman’s aid and appeared to shut the door of their building.

Separately, an Asian man was attacked on the subway this week, repeatedly punched and then rendered unconscious. Again, bystanders didn’t intervene.

These incidents are horrific. As Omnicom PR Group's Soon Mee Kim said in this week's podcast, they are not new, but they have been heightened throughout COVID-19.

She described how she felt it was "open season" on Asian-Americans and that she felt afraid for herself, her family and her community in Atlanta, where six Asian women were gunned down and killed recently.

But in an environment where we’ve all been programmed to sit quietly, mind our own business and not get involved, especially on the New York subway, it’s also not as simple as saying “Why didn’t someone do something?”

In the George Floyd incident it was figures of authority carrying out the egregious actions. The others were civilians. Anyone intervening in either case would be risking serious physical damage to themselves and people around them.

And should low-wage workers in a hotel or security guards in buildings, or just passers-by, potentially risk their lives to intervene?

The answer is “yes.” But could any of us look in the mirror and definitively reply in the affirmative to that question if we were transposed into the heat of the moment and had to make a snap decision? First responders are trained for situations like that, ordinary citizens are not.

From a purpose point of view, as the Chauvin trial continues and the anniversary of George Floyd’s killing at the end of May approaches, the getting involved question is “Did business step up to the plate and deliver on the promises it made in the aftermath of last year’s racial reckoning?”

After I wrote my blog last Friday about anti-Asian hate crimes and the need for business to step up, tech analyst Jeremiah Owyang contacted me on Twitter and said brands should not consider helping Asian-Americans if they did not truly step up and help the Black Lives Matter movement. He believed it would be disingenuous of them to do so.

He ran an engaging and moving Clubhouse room on the topic later in the day in which the pervading feeling among participants seemed to be that last year’s responses by business trended more toward performative allyship and tokenistic displays of solidarity, rather than real vehicles of change.

It’s difficult to argue with that. But there have also been genuine examples of positive developments in the past 12 months that do represent real change and indicate this isn’t the usual empty rhetoric that dies down after a while as things return to a depressing normality.

Roz Brewer moved from Starbucks to join Walgreens Boots Alliance and become the only Black female CEO in the Fortune 500. That makes four Black CEOs in the F500: Ken Frazier at Merck, Marvin Ellison at Lowe's and René Jones at M&T Bank, although Frazier is stepping down at the end of June. Not perfect, but a start.

In this year’s Super Bowl ads there were multiple activations featuring BIPOC actors in the casting of the spots, which is a positive. The downside is that only three of the 87 ads were directed by women and five were directors of color – all male. Definitely not perfect, but progress on the casting front.

In December, Nasdaq filed a proposal to introduce new listing rules relating to board diversity and publicly disclose diversity statistics about their directors. That’s a positive you would have thought.

But the proposal met with pushback and was watered down a little in February after a dozen senators submitted a response saying “it is not the role of Nasdaq, as a self-regulatory organization, to act as an arbitrator of social policy or force a prescriptive one-size-fits-all solution upon markets and investors.”

PR giant Weber Shandwick became one of the first large agencies to release its diversity data and commit to continue doing so, warts and all, despite the fact the initial figures show there is lots of room for improvement. Transparency and the will to improve is important.

At PRWeek, Damon Jones was named No. 1 on the 2020 Power List, the first Black PR professional to be honored with that position. As Jones subsequently noted on Twitter: “Representation matters. Honored to be the first. Committed not to be the last.”

The PRWeek Awards 2021 included multiple pieces of work that demonstrated business and brands stepping up and making real change, including our Campaign of the Year.

Dove and Joy Collective’s The CROWN Act persuaded several states to pass anti-hair discrimination legislation and paved the way for the House of Representatives to make it law. That is real, demonstrable change for the better – no arguments.

Other brands that have demonstrated long-standing commitments to weighing in on social issues, and especially diversity, have continued to do great work, including Procter & Gamble, Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia.

Another Unilever brand, Good Humor, aided by AOR Edelman, marked its 100th anniversary by starting to phase out its ubiquitous Turkey in the Straw jingle, which turned out to have racist roots. A new jingle created by Wu-tang Clan’s RZA is already much more visible on the streets as spring emerges and Unilever has committed to funding the refitting of many ice cream trucks with the new song.

Have brands stepped up with the same commitment against anti-Asian hate crimes as they did with Black Lives Matter? Probably not.

Did some brands and corporations virtue signal and make empty gestures on social media that weren’t backed up with real actions? Undoubtedly.

Have we seen developments in business over the past 12 months that are leading to real systemic change in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion? I believe so, yes.

Is there still a long way to go? Absolutely.

One thing is for sure, Generation Z will hold business to account and “check the receipts” of the claims made by brands as they try to engage them as consumers and employees.

Edelman’s influential Trust Barometer research found a 10 to 1 trust advantage for brands and corporations that stand up and speak out on race rather than put their heads down and duck. That’s a message that brand managers are heeding and starting to take real action on.

Just as a citizen getting involved and intervening in a violent incident is not an easy thing to do, speaking up on social issues is not an easy thing for businesses to do. But it is the right thing.

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