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How Do You Address Racism in Communications?

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

ABI President Sophia Johnson recently met with Valerie Freeman, CEO of Imprimis Group to present a webinar on structuring communications around race and racism.

In the first part of 2020, as several more reports and videos of blatant police brutality against black people surfaced, the Black Lives Matter movement gained significant momentum.

“We all wanted to answer as companies and individuals to say we think that's terrible because black people should be treated equally,” said Johnson. “But once you've said that black people should be treated equally … that's kind of like saying I'm applying for the job of equality. Then people look at your resume. And I think that's where companies are stumbling.

For companies who release statements in support of the BLM movement, they are scrutinized for their authenticity. Black people are asking, “Do they have anybody that's black in senior management? Do they promote in their company? Do they have diversity in their marketing? So, it's very easy for people to look at your commercials and your flyers and your ads and ask, do I ever see anybody that looks like me?

Responding With Authenticity

“So I would encourage businesses to really respond from authenticity, respond from a knowledge base,” Johnson continued, emphasizing the importance of understanding the history and context of the oppression of black people in the U.S. “You've got to have the conversation. You've got to do the reading as much as you're going to gain from conversations. You've got to go back and do the reading.”

For greater clarity, Johnson outlined what she calls “the 3 Ps” of responding to racism for companies: Protest, Promote and Purchase.


“It's any way of using your voice to say,” Johnson said. “I am for equality. I am for justice. Continue to use your voice in whatever you can, whether it's webinars or articles you're posting on your intranet.”


“I think that for big companies and small companies, it’s important to look at your promotion trends. Because you'll see article after article and research after research that even when companies are hiring black professionals, they're not promoting them. After they’re hired, they're not making it to senior leadership. Why is it that of the companies in the S&P 500, one third of them doesn’t have a single black director on their board of directors?”


“What do your procurement practices look like?” Johnson asked. “There are some organizations that have been in business for 40, 50, 70 years, and they've been doing business with the same vendors for 30 years. Well, there probably weren't very many black companies open at that time. We were living under Jim Crow laws in the 1960s.” That’s a problem, Johnson points out.

“You have to look at procurement and say, ‘I'm going to intentionally look for African American owned firms that have this product or this service.’ There are venture capital firms that are saying we are not going to buy from S&P 500 firms that don't have black people on their board of directors – until they change what they're doing. And so, it's also in your purchase power.”

“You have to say, ‘these are the changes we've made. And it may be this is a different procurement practice we have now. And now we're really looking to get 30, 40, 50 percent of our vendors to be diverse vendors.’”

Holding Companies Accountable

“If it's really a part of your DNA to say you're for equality and justice, a year from now in your newsletter and in your annual report, you will be talking about what your company did in the fight for justice and equality.

“We can hold ourselves accountable,” Johnson said. “And the conversation has to continue, because we cannot undo in three months what happened in 1619 and think that it's going to be all absolved and fixed. You saw the Civil Rights Act passed, and you saw some successes. And many Americans thought, ‘Well, it's better.’ But for the last 70 years, black wealth has not grown. It’s 2020, and we see the stats. We know that it's actually not better at all.”


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