How Brands Should Address Tough Questions

As 2020 continues to unfold, it’s clear we are in a time of transformation. Between a global pandemic and a reckoning around racial injustice that feels more urgent than ever before, brands are confronted with tough questions from employees and consumers about the role they play in ensuring the well-being of individuals at work and in society as whole.

So, what is a company to do when the public is seeking answers to questions that are difficult and potentially controversial to answer? Here are a few tips based on years of both crisis management experience in a variety of industries and coaching executives to help clarify their message.

Reconsider What Is Political

When it comes down to it, many of the issues that have been politicized in recent and historic times are ultimately issues of humanity. Particularly in regard to issues of systemic racism, it’s important to think beyond what we’re seeing in the news and learning how the current events are affecting your employees and customers on a personal level.

If engaging in conversations that could be deemed as political is not something your brand is willing to do, don’t force it. However, keep your ears open on internal and external channels and let your audience help influence your response based on their interests and needs. Ultimately, employees and consumers want to support brands that align with their values.

Lead with Intent

The fear of receiving backlash for saying the wrong thing is understandable, but by prefacing your point of view with your intentions of listening, learning and growing as a company, you’re much more likely to receive grace for any missteps in your messaging. For example, when encouraging employees or customers to wear masks, framing the request by explaining that the ask is driven by the desire to ensure the safety and well-being of others can make it more palatable to those who might have higher risk tolerances.

In regard to addressing civil unrest, acknowledging company shortcomings and the collective pain of your Black employees is a great first step to furthering the conversation. Be sensitive to the situation at hand and the emotions of others. For a short lesson in what not to do, refer to now former Crossfit CEO’s approach.

If You Can’t React Quickly, React Thoughtfully

In response to the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others, many brands released statements shortly after the incident inspired global outrage to denounce racism and a resurgence around the Black Lives Matter movement. Some companies used statements to communicate how they would help create change. For example, YouTube, on May 29th, committed to donating $1 million to social justice initiatives.

Without an action step, some internal and external audiences may criticize these declarations as hollow. If your company needs time to determine what types of changes your organization can or should make to address the issue at hand, it’s okay to take a beat – but the longer you wait to weigh in, the more detailed and concrete your plan of action should be.

Find the Appropriate Channel

When faced with tough questions from employees, you may need to address the situation on a company-wide basis. In lieu of physical gatherings, a virtual town hall can provide a great format for open discussion. It’s essential for leaders to gauge their relationships with employees in order to determine the best approach, and it will look different depending on the organization’s size, structure and values. Ensure there is a personal touch-point with employees and the opportunity to facilitate one-on-one conversations.

If your customers are pressing for answers via social media, it’s important to acknowledge their concerns publicly by giving an overarching statement about the company’s stance on the issue – and then offer to take the conversation offline. Nuanced conversations rarely happen in the comment sections, so try to shift the discussion to a phone call or email exchange.

Companies and their leaders are being asked to be more present in responding to the social and cultural climate. These moments are an opportunity to communicate your brand values, gain meaningful insights from your audience, and strengthen your relationships with employees and consumers.

For more advice on how to join the conversations about race and inequality, we’ve developed a communications guide that we hope will lead to more productive discussions in the business realm.