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Social Justice – Is Engaging Right for Your Brand

Few topics in our daily communication raise more interest, opinions, and emotion as the words “social justice.” And they should. Banks are made up of, designed for, and work with PEOPLE. People who turn to you to make their lives better, easier, and to help them with what is important to them.

This article is not going to debate the perceived pros and cons of the social justice movement. Nor will it look at the issue through a political lens. We are going to offer you some real-world examples of how social justice has become important for banks and other businesses that work with a wide cross-section of the community.

Years ago, during a difficult work discussion, I was getting frustrated at the dialogue and a friend leaned over and remarked that not everyone was looking at the problem through the same eyes. A gentle reminder that I should consider other viewpoints before trying to force mine onto the group. Indeed, addressing social justice matters these days brings that advice to the forefront of my mind.

Social justice issues are everywhere around us. As leaders of your organization, it is vital you determine if and how you will engage. What is right for your brand?

Use Your Principles

One Chicago-based client of ours decided that speaking out about social justice issues was definitely and unequivocally a priority. They first did an internal “gut check.” Your bank should do the same before facing anything emotionally charged or controversial.

The issues facing the diverse population of the community they served began growing in emotional intensity and became divisive. We counseled them to use their guiding values and principles to navigate. Were the emotions being expressed by their employees, staff, and stakeholders in alignment with those values?

This client undertook an internal discovery process focusing on diversity and inclusion at various levels. Where they fell short, they worked to improve. When they saw issues in the public space that did not match their principles, they spoke out internally and externally with statements and through action. Their public comments called for more understanding and dialogue, and resolution instead of violence. They remained true to their values and are happy with their decisions.

Communicate with Compassion

Our agency recently commissioned research to identify the best practices and forecasts for marketing in a post-Covid world. This research shows that brands that have survived the pandemic best are doing so with a focus on being of service to their customers, not of sales. This could include making things easier for bank customers to manage accounts, make payments, and make deposits online. They want to feel pampered.

They also want to feel a connection to the businesses they frequent. Here is where operating with humanity and communicating with compassion are critically important. Customers who do not feel their bank values them as a person will find one that does.

Not only did the pandemic change the way that customers consume brand information, it also has forced brands to identify the guiding purpose and belief system for their organization and ensure they communicate it. Customers value genuine and sincere messaging – directly or through social media – and view it as a way to make human connections with companies with whom they do business.

For banks that focus on personal relationships with customers, this is a natural way to do business.

If that is not your organization, first take a look at how and why your bank was formed. Did it grow from a specific group of people and their shared needs? Was it created to help those in an underserved area? Were the founders trying to give back to the community by providing financial services? Determining the larger purpose of our bank may not be an easy process but understanding the reason for being in existence is an important task to undertake. Armed with that basic building block, you can then look for ways to tell your story authentically and with compassion to better connect with customers.

Stay True to Your Brand

Another client, a large multi-national leader, regularly references and uses its guiding principles with its employees, subcontractors and its own clients. This business leader does more than a mention of its values; it created solid ethical pillars to use as a touchpoint for all its operations and business decisions. Opportunities for business expansion are weighted against these pillars. It evaluates if a situation and its potential role align with its established ethical guidelines.

The company takes clear stances on social justice in its social media channels, website, and public statements. Its diversity and inclusion division is actively consulted regarding issues both inside and outside of the business.

These businesses, and many others, are actively participating in discussions about social justice. Not all businesses decide to do so. For a wide variety of reasons, some decline to engage on topics that could be divisive or controversial in a public arena like social media.

Engaging in public discourse on issues or remaining silent on issues is not a measure of an organization’s dedication to having a diverse workforce, nor its resolve to equitably provide opportunities for all. Many organizations may elect to support local causes through monetary donations or volunteer time with a cause to benefit their community instead. These efforts are also impactful and are appreciated by consumers.

Taking a stand on social justice matters in a public, consumer-facing way is not required. But the research indicates that more than ever before consumers will vote with their wallets for businesses that are genuinely involved with the community and aligned with their own personal beliefs. They want to know how entities with whom they do business are engaged, with what causes, and how.

In the summer of 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement heightened awareness of racially motivated police violence and brought people to the streets in protest. People of all races showed their support in countless other ways as well.

A credit union client of ours faced an emotionally charged situation last summer when well-intentioned employees violated company policy in their efforts to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The credit union had a long-standing dress policy that prohibits employees from wearing anything other than its own logo-branded apparel or completely plain shirts.

This credit union is extremely involved in its community. It focuses on providing services for underserved parts of the community, supporting local non-profits, and social justice causes. Its employees volunteer thousands of hours every year to help others in the community. This credit union strives to stand by its values every day through its words and actions.

In a show of unity for the Black Lives Matter movement, several employees arrived at work on a “casual Friday” wearing shirts supporting BLM which violated the dress policy. And while national news stories lambasted companies who sent employees home for wearing BLM paraphernalia, leadership at the credit union was required to enforce the dress policy, regardless of their personal belief on the movement.

The employees were asked to leave and return to work after changing their clothing, and all but one did.

The lesson from this example is not related to what the shirts said, or what the employees’ intentions might have been. It reinforces the need to review policies to make sure they are clear, direct, and concise. And that when the time comes to enforce them, they’re enforced across the board and that your team feels confident in doing so. The world has gone through tremendous change in the past year or so: Are all your policies up to date? Do they clearly support the principles that guide your organization? Does your management team feel confident that they understand and are capable of enforcing the rules should the need arise?

Because the shirts involved had a social justice message, this situation could have turned out much differently. It could have become a national headline. It could have damaged the credit union’s credibility with its members, generated days of attacks and media scrutiny, demoralized employees, and effectively invalidated all the good work it and its employees do for the community.

Choosing to engage or not engage must be carefully evaluated and deliberated. Need help assessing and determining how to move forward? Contact me at john@deveney.com.

John Deveney, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, IABC Fellow recognized internationally for crisis and issue management across a variety of industries. 

In 2006, John was honored as “Agency Executive of the Year” by PRNews after he served as the first responder managing media during hurricanes Katrina and Rita — from the evacuation of the city to a military blockade and the aftermath — for both the tourism industry for New Orleans and the Louisiana Office of Tourism. He led the only on-site communication operation and media center that managed more than $400 million in media scrutiny in war-like conditions. 

In 2010, John and his team created the strategy and led the team that managed the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism’s response to the BP oil spill. That effort reshaped public perception and preserved Louisiana’s $9.4 billion tourism industry. 

DEVENEY has been named PR News’ Firm of the Year and PRWeek’s Top 5 Boutique PR Firms in the country. John is in the PRNews’ Hall of Fame and is the only professional to ever merit the lifetime achievement recognition of being inducted into both the PRSA College of Fellows and IABC Fellows. To learn more visit us at www.deveney.com.

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