How businesses can speak authentically and credibly about justice issues

Speaking out about justice issues is fast becoming existential for businesses, and they can yield massive reputational and financial rewards if it’s done correctly, says the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice’s Ben Cumming.

How businesses can speak authentically and credibly about justice issues

The events of the past 18 months have made it increasingly apparent that America’s broken justice system is one of the most pressing social issues facing a generation. Since the murder of George Floyd, entire demographics of consumers, employees and investors are demanding the upheaval of a system pervaded by racism, cruelty and waste.  

Business cannot remain on the sidelines. According to the 2021 Porter Novelli Business and Social Justice Study, 59% of Americans say it is no longer acceptable for companies to be silent on social justice issues. In fact, half of them say they assume that if corporations don’t speak out, they don’t care.

At a time when 43% of employees say they are reconsidering their job because their company is not doing enough to address these issues externally, staying quiet is morally and commercially irresponsible. 

And yet many corporate actors are reluctant. Justice issues are extremely emotionally and politically charged. Many companies are concerned that their words will come across as tone-deaf or insincere. This fear was realized in June 2020, with accusations of “performative allyship” and “woke-washing” following statements of support for racial justice.   

So how can companies speak out about justice issues authentically and credibly? 

Get proximate to the issue and make a commitment to learning. Start a dialogue with justice-impacted individuals and campaign organizations on the ground to better understand issues and how to talk about them. They will also tell you when and where your voice can have the most impact. 

Take risks and be honest. More than 83% of consumers believe that companies don’t have to be perfect when talking about justice issues, but they do have to be open and honest.  Nearly 75% feel that if you want to be truly purpose-driven, you must be willing to take risks by speaking out about charged issues. This includes divisive topics like extreme punishment and policing. One example of this is the Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty campaign, which Richard Branson and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice launched this year. 

Speak out consistently. The more you stand by your values through statements, the more authenticity you will generate. More than three-quarters (76%) of Americans are more likely to believe a company is being genuine if they have heard them talk about the same issue in the past.

Walk your talk. Whether it’s addressing social justice issues by making internal changes, such as Second Chance hiring, or pushing for change through government policy, e.g., Clean Slate legislation, you must back up statements of support. Give weight to your words through actions that align with your company values, in the communities where you operate.

Be honest about your journey. Eight in 10 Americans say that companies need to acknowledge their role in racial inequality and be vocal about their past mistakes. You will create a more receptive audience. Recognize the role your industry plays in the justice system and the prison-industrial complex, the overlapping interests of government and industry in financial, social and political motivations. You can then take steps to redress past harms and heal impacted communities.  

No one gets a pass, and it’s no longer enough to “do no harm.” Speaking out about justice issues is fast becoming existential for businesses, and they can yield massive reputational and financial rewards if it’s done correctly. The steps above are a start.

Ben Cumming is the communications director for the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice.

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