Brands and Organizations Race to Speak When We Should Pause to Listen

Black Lives Matter Protests Showed that Sincere Brand Communication Begins with Listening

It’s part of the blocking and tackling of crisis and issues communications – be empathetic. Understand how your stakeholders are feeling. When people are dead and your company’s oil well is spewing millions of barrels into fisheries, no one wants to hear how you would rather be on your boat.

Yet, there are times that admitting we don’t know how others feel is the highest form of empathy. Texas Longhorns coach Tom Herman had this to say when asked if fans understand what it’s like to be a black athlete: “When I make an illegal U-turn and get pulled over, I fear about what the cost of the ticket is going to be. I don’t fear that I’m going to get dragged out of my car and maybe killed because of something I said or I did. And that’s real for them.”

He said that to a reporter after listening to his players in a three-hour team meeting after the weekend full of nationwide protests and riots.

Too often companies, brands and organizations race to speak when we should pause to listen. On Black Out Tuesday, thousands and thousands of brand and corporate social media accounts replaced their profile photos of with black squares. So huge was the response that Black Lives Matter organizers had to ask others to stop using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag because they couldn’t get their own messages out.

Social media strategists were taken aback when they were accused of pulling off a marketing stunt. After all, it was a courageous and bold move for brands that usually prefer to promote causes that fall safely into the middle ground. The problem is that they were speaking, not listening. The protests are a demand to be heard. Instead, the social media accounts that rushed to demonstrate their solidarity by posting “Black Lives Matter” were in such a hurry to have their voices heard that they risked creating a meme rather than contributing to the dialog.

Compare that to Microsoft, which decided to use its mammoth social media presence to amplify the voices of its black employees. Those posts were exponentially more meaningful than the sum total of all the other reiterated commitments to diversity and inclusion. Those diversity statements, while important, were once again a rush to speak instead of a pause to listen. Those who paused realized that the hundreds of thousands of protesters, and millions of others speaking out against racism, were asking for increased action, not an underscoring of the status quo efforts.

In any crisis response, the key steps are the same. Acknowledge the issue. State what steps are underway to address the issue. Commit to taking action to prevent a reoccurrence.

A social crisis is no different.

Social media is immediate, news is real time, all the time. A crisis demands action. Our tendency is to speak (or post), but effective, credible, and sincere communication often begins by listening. At GillespieHall, we understand that strategic communications begins with listening. We listen to you. We listen to stakeholders. We listen to your audiences. In doing so, we can help you know when to speak, what to say, and how to say it in a way that makes a positive difference.

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