In the immediate aftermath of the death of George Floyd and the boom of the Black Lives Matter movement – everyone had something to say.

We saw an unprecedented level of engagement with the issue of racial injustice, with everybody and their mum tweeting hashtags, ‘gramming black squares, sharing reading lists and educational materials.

And it wasn’t only the public, celebrities and influencers – the coroporate world got involved too. They couldn’t not. There was pressure and scrutiny from all sides, with employees calling for change, clarity on diversity and apologies for past behaviour.

Suddenly, huge brands, corporations and businesses were wading neck-deep into a topic that they would normally try to avoid with a barge pole.

Many of their responses went much further than simply posting a black square.

The Quaker Oats Company announced it was ending its Aunt Jemima breakfast foods brand after acknowledging that the brand and logo are based on a racial stereotype.

Airbnb launched Project Lighthouse in partnership with civil rights organisations, which includes a team dedicated to investigating and preventing discrimination on its platform through new policies.

Netflix added a permanent Black Lives Matter genre, celebrating Black history and the work of Black creators.

Then, of course, there was the desperate scramble to erase previous mistakes and problematic histories.

‘Blackface’ episodes of Little Britain, The Office, 30 Rock, Scrubs, and many more, were removed from streaming services, with producers, creators and actors sharing apologies for their involvement.

As much as individuals have been decried for superficial, performative responses to racism – so have many businesses. The fear is that the reactions and changes that have been made over the last few months will turn out to be little more than lip-service – rolled out to protect a brand’s image – and companies will return to business-as-usual as soon as the focus is on something else.

But can businesses ever get their responses to racism right? Is there a way for huge corporations to make meaningful changes that will positively impact those affected by racism?

Kristian Hoareau Foged, a senior analytics and strategic communications consultant, says it’s about so much more than public statements.

‘The public statement of support is important – there’s a lot of power in symbols – but if the only time and money your company spent responding to the murder of George Floyd was a couple hours’ wages for your social media manger, then you haven’t done enough,’ Kristian tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Silence is deafening, but hypocrisy and inaction is intolerable.’

Kristian says that making responses meaningful requires both internal and external commitments by businesses. The businesses that were praised in the first round of responses were the ones that also put their money where their mouth was, Kristian cites Glossier and Lululemon as good examples of this for making donations to relevant charities.

‘But,’ he adds, ‘the internal piece that comes now is even more important.

‘Businesses aren’t governments. They can’t regulate and set standards for others, but they can do so for themselves. The companies that respond meaningfully are those that are taking a long, hard look in the mirror and trying to understand how their systems may reflect a society that is systemically racist – and what they can do to address them.’

The difficulty with corporate responses to racism is that inequality and racial injustice is perpetuated by the way the corporate world is structured and operates. Just look at the hierarchies of power in any large business, and the lack of ethnic diversity at board level and in CEO positions.

In the UK, only one CEO of a FTSE 100 company is Black, and 37% of FTSE 100 companies have zero non-white members.

But Kristian says there is no quick fix to this. A statement about ‘diversity and inclusion’ just won’t cut it.

‘It’s about really engaging with the hard work it takes to deconstruct racist systems that very much exist in the corporate world,’ says Kristian.

‘Recruiting diverse talent, and removing the unseen barriers that there can be for them – such as not being in a financial position to accept an unpaid internship – is part of that, but we also need to look at internal cultures and how inclusive they are, how biases and microaggression affect promotions and career progression.

‘Making Black Lives Matter in your business cannot stop at the door, it needs to run through every level of your business. It’s not just hiring black people, it’s treating them equally to their colleagues (including equal pay).’

Kristian says that an interesting example of this is Nike. The sportswear giant was widely praised for their strong statement advert in support of BLM and a pledge of $40 million to support the Black community in the US. But then they faced backlash because none of their executive team and only 8% of their VPs are Black.

Last month, Nike CEO John Donahoe sent an email to employees stating that the company must ‘get our own house in order’, and stating that he will be sharing efforts to accelerate diversity and inclusion in the coming weeks.

‘These number are far from ideal,’ says Kristian, ‘but they’re also a company that is improving in the space, and have a consistent track record of supporting Black causes and paying huge sums to black athletes – not least paying Colin Kaepernick when the NFL had blackballed him.

‘And internally, while it would be almost expected for them to have a more diverse executive team considering their customers’ demographics, VP isn’t exactly a junior role and the company at least has pay equity between non-white and white staff.

‘To me, the companies that are taking the criticism, reflecting on it and continuously working to improve are the ones responding meaningfully.’

Ultimately, Kristian says that businesses can’t be separated from society as a whole, and it will take so much more than a clever statement to start to unpick the entangled inequalities that so much of the corporate world is built on.

‘There’s an old adage in corporate communications that you can’t communicate your way out of a crisis you acted your way into,’ says Kristian.

‘The systemic racism in society also flows through business, and it takes a proactive effort to address it. And your business will benefit from doing so; not just because it’s the right thing to do, or because it protects your reputation, but because research for over 20 years has told you that your business will perform better.’

One company that seems to have a strong handle on this idea is Ben & Jerry’s. The ice cream brand was widely praise for their no-holds-barred response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Where other brands skirted around the issue or posted diluted images of Black and white hands together, Ben & Jerry’s went for the jugular, calling for the ‘dismantling of white supremacy’ – language that feels radical coming from a corporate statement.

‘The first question that we ask ourselves is – are we adding to the conversation?’ Rebecca Baron, Ben & Jerry’s European head of activism, said.

‘We vocally support movements where our voice would have impact, rather than just try to make ourselves look good.

‘The second question is – will we continue to have an impact beyond this statement? Are we living these values when the media attention has moved on elsewhere? We believe in using our voice and our relationship with our fans to drive systemic change in partnership with the movement. If we’re not doing that first, what right do we have to speak up about this?’

Rebecca explains that businesses occupy a unique space in terms of resource and influence. She says the role that corporates and brands can have in driving systemic change can be invaluable, when used in the right way.

‘At Ben & Jerry’s we work really closely with activists and NGO partners in the spaces we’re working in to build activism campaigns,’ she adds. ‘These partnerships help make sure everything we do is in service of what the movement needs.

‘It often happens that the most impactful way you can help achieve progress is not necessarily the thing that’s going to grab you the headlines.’

The very fact that this global food brand employees people in specific ‘activism’ roles, is a signal of a different approach – of a commitment to community issues and a purpose beyond simply increasing revenue and profile.  

‘We have Activism Managers, recruited from activist backgrounds, whose whole job is dedicated to working with movements to help them achieve their aims,’ says Rebecca.

‘For us, this often means using our unique tone of voice and platform to mobilise our fans in support of actions – like we have with “Lift the Ban”, working for the right to work for people seeking asylum in the UK.

‘Our fans are our superpower – a bunch of really great folk who want to make the world a little fairer, who we can tell about our campaigns and who will take action with the movement.’

As the public engagement and interaction with the Black Lives Matter movement starts to dwindle and our timelines begin to forget the injustices, the question we need to ask ourselves now is – how do we maintain momentum?

For businesses, this is the moment where they will reveal whether their reactions to the movement were based on a trend, or if they are actually committing to creating lasting change, even without that same level of public scrutiny.

‘People often don’t realise that there are thousands of activists driving change long before and long after the cameras have gone,’ explains Rebecca.

‘Any kind of social change requires commitment; it can be long, hard, painstaking work where people (and businesses) will make mistakes. It requires you to put in the effort even when no-one is paying attention.

‘You can’t get into this work to be “relevant” or ride a trend. But you can’t let that put you off. If we really believe in a cause, we will keep working until we see justice done.’

With so much of the corporate world still stagnating in archaic systems that sees the same white, middle-class talent rise to the top again and again, it would be foolhardy not to have any skepticism when you hear big businesses talking about ‘activism’.

But for some, it seems the last few months may actually be a catalyst for change that goes beyond the performative. Change that runs deeper than an Instagram post or an apology, changes that could alter the make-up of corporate structures for good.

But for this to happen, businesses need to be ready to engage with work that doesn’t produce an instant return. This won’t sit comfortably with organisations that are used to making every decision with one eye on revenue and profit.

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