Corporate statements that do and don’t work amid the #BlackLivesMatter protests

It’s a terrifying time, now suffused with fear, not just of contagion, but of violence. Leaders of all kinds — political and corporate — must step up in this moment. But what to say? How can these mostly white leaders show that they understand and appreciate the pain that black and brown Americans, including their customers and employees, have suffered? How can they bring the people who respect them together?

I’ve surveyed corporate statements in this fraught moment. The best include two elements: a statement of understanding and solidarity, and a concrete action that demonstrates leadership and empathy. Many of these statements hit wrong notes — it’s hard for a privileged, white, male leader to say the right thing without seeming to be grandstanding or hijacking the moment. But speaking is better than saying nothing.

Target expresses a commitment to healing and concrete action

Target CEO Brian Cornell was one of the first to speak out. Target is a huge corporate force in Minneapolis, the city where policeman Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd and where the first protests and later, violence erupted. Looters hit Target stores. Here’s some of what he wrote:

A Note From Brian Cornell to Our Teams and Communities in the Twin Cities and Beyond

We are a community in pain. That pain is not unique to the Twin Cities—it extends across America. The murder of George Floyd has unleashed the pent-up pain of years, as have the killings of Ahmaud Arbery  and Breonna Taylor. We say their names and hold a too-long list of others in our hearts. As a Target team, we’ve huddled, we’ve consoled, we’ve witnessed horrific scenes similar to what’s playing out now and wept that not enough is changing. And as a team we’ve vowed to face pain with purpose.     

Every day, our team wakes up ready to help all families—and on the hardest days we cling even more dearly to that purpose. As I write this, our merchant and distribution teams are preparing truckloads of first aid equipment and medicine, bottled water, baby formula, diapers and other essentials, to help ensure that no one within the areas of heaviest damage and demonstration is cut off from needed supplies.

Our store and HR teams are working with all of our displaced team members, including the more than 200 team members from our Lake Street store in Minneapolis. We will make sure they have their full pay and benefits in the coming weeks, as well as access to other resources and opportunities within Target. . . .

It’s hard to see now, but the day will come for healing—and our team will join our hearts, hands and resources in that journey. Even now, Target leaders are assembling community members, partners and local officials to help identify what more we can do together and what resources are required to help families, starting right here in Minnesota.

Look carefully at what’s done right here. Despite his company being a victim of looting, Target’s CEO:

  • Mentions victims by name.
  • Calls the death of George Floyd a murder.
  • Expresses sympathy and a desire for healing.
  • Describes specific actions: moving first aid and essential supplies where needed, and working with and paying displaced employees.

Sympathy and a desire for healing are a start, but insufficient. Statements that go further, like this, signal to angry Americans that their cries are heard, and that Target wants to help.

Apple’s Tim Cook expresses empathy, makes contributions

Here’s some of what Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote:

Team,

Right now, there is a pain deeply etched in the soul of our nation and in the hearts of millions. To stand together, we must stand up for one another, and recognize the fear, hurt, and outrage rightly provoked by the senseless killing of George Floyd and a much longer history of racism.

That painful past is still present today — not only in the form of violence, but in the everyday experience of deeply rooted discrimination. We see it in our criminal justice system, in the disproportionate toll of disease on Black and Brown communities, in the inequalities in neighborhood services and the educations our children receive. While our laws have changed, the reality is that their protections are still not universally applied.

We’ve seen progress since the America I grew up in, but it is similarly true that communities of color continue to endure discrimination and trauma.

I have heard from so many of you that you feel afraid — afraid in your communities, afraid in your daily lives, and, most cruelly of all, afraid in your own skin. We can have no society worth celebrating unless we can guarantee freedom from fear for every person who gives this country their love, labor and life. . . .

But together, we must do more. Today, Apple is making donations to a number of groups, including the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit committed to challenging racial injustice, ending mass incarceration, and protecting the human rights of the most vulnerable people in American society. For the month of June, and in honor of the Juneteenth holiday, we’ll also be matching two-for-one all employee donations via Benevity.

To create change, we have to reexamine our own views and actions in light of a pain that is deeply felt but too often ignored. Issues of human dignity will not abide standing on the sidelines. To our colleagues in the Black community — we see you. You matter, your lives matter, and you are valued here at Apple.

Cook has always been a talented writer and communicator. In this case, he:

  • Name checks George Floyd and calls his death “a killing.”
  • Recognizes the roots of discrimination that have led to the current problems.
  • Acknowledges the fear.
  • Takes concrete action by making and matching donations.
  • Acknowledges that the lives of African Americans matter.

The NFL’s weak statement is the minimum possible.

The NFL has a unique challenge in this moment. About 70% of NFL players are black, but the NFL is also the league where quarterback Colin Kaepernick, after kneeling to protest the unequal treatment and targeting of blacks by police, was effectively boycotted by the league. Here’s the statement that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made in this moment:

The NFL family is greatly saddened by the tragic events across our country. The protesters’ reactions to these incidents reflect the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel.  

Our deepest condolences go out to the family of Mr. George Floyd and to those who have lost loved ones, including the families of Ms. Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Mr. Ahmaud Arbery, the cousin of Tracy Walker of the Detroit Lions.

As current events dramatically underscore, there remains much more to do as a country and as a league. These tragedies inform the NFL’s commitment and our ongoing efforts. There remains an urgent need for action. We recognize the power of our platform in communities and as part of the fabric of American society. We embrace that responsibility and are committed to continuing the important work to address these systemic issues together with our players, clubs and partners.

While this statement names Floyd and others and expresses sympathy, it doesn’t do much else. “There remains much more to do” is not helpful. “There remains an urgent need for action,” while true, just underscores the lack of action from the NFL. This is better than nothing, but feels pro-forma and is unlikely generate any actual movement in a positive direction.

Here are a few places you can read more about corporate statements on the protests:

Twitter, Google lead chorus of brands backing George Floyd protests

Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, HBO and Other Hollywood Players Take a Stand in Support of Black Lives Matter Movement Amid George Floyd Protests

Corporate Voices Get Behind ‘Black Lives Matter’ Cause

What you can do (and what I’m doing)

Don’t stay silent. If you are a leader, this is a moment that America needs to hear from you. I know you don’t know what to say. If you have a heart, write from it. Acknowledge the pain of others, and the conflict in your own soul. And make it relevant to you — contribute in whatever way you can. Each statement will be different, because each company’s role is different.

I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t feel a need to address what’s happening for my own modest following. I am conflicted as well. I’m deeply afraid of the violence now ravaging cities; of looting, much of which appears to be the work of outside agitators seizing on the moment to make the conflict more violent; of the terrible choices that police must make in this moment, and how some have made things worse; and of the profound divisions that are tearing America apart. And there is little that I can do about it.

A black woman is living in my house now, in part because I made the decision to bring her here to be with someone in my family, someone that she loves. Given the pandemic, this was a difficult decision, but it was the right one. I don’t know her well, but we are growing to care about her. I will do all I can to support her and her family — that’s what I can do on a personal basis.

Professionally, I have many black clients, some of whom are struggling in this moment. I will listen, and I will help to the degree that I can.

And I offer this. If you are struggling with writing a corporate statement in this moment, I will help you, and I will not charge you. I am not a PR expert, but I certainly know bullshit when I spot it, and there is plenty of it to step in right now. If you’re struggling with what to write, send me a note. If I can possibly find a way to help you, I will.

The leader of our nation has chosen to stay silent right now. His silence, after so many thousands of incendiary, combative, and mendacious tweets and statements, tells us a lot about him. Don’t be like that. You may not lead the country, but you can tell people something that matters.

A note to commenters: I will delete racist, accusatory, personal, or off-topic comments instantly. This a place for reasoned discussion. Don’t make things worse.

11 responses to “Corporate statements that do and don’t work amid the #BlackLivesMatter protests

  1. Your post was admirable!
    May I ask why you left Native Americans and Asians out when you said “black and brown,” though?

  2. Thank you for addressing the pain our country is experiencing, Josh. You said that you don’t know what to do but your generous offer to help those of us in the midst of communicating who want to do what is right is a great gift and contribution in itself.

  3. Thank you Josh for this article. It was insightful and thank you for offering to help others to write a statement!

  4. all lives matter – why someone is telling that only black ? The “black lives matter” is the most racist sentence I have ever heard.

        1. I feel like I just read enlightenment and change in the making… Yes, MF….. it makes sense doesn’t it? thank you for posting this. Most people are afraid to admit when they have a change of heart… they prefer to stay in their ignorance or righteousness. I commend you for taking the first step. We have so much work to do and all lives can’t matter until black lives matter. With respect and love, Ami

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