Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, who is black, said in a CNBC interview Monday that Floyd “could be me,” calling how Floyd was treated “less than human.” Nike created a video ad — retweeted by competitor Adidas — urging people “for once, don’t do it” and pretend racism is “not a problem in America.”
ViacomCBS cable properties, including MTV and Comedy Central, said they would suspend programming for eight minutes and 46 seconds at 5 p.m. Monday as a tribute to Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Netflix said Saturday on Twitter that “to be silent is to be complicit. Black lives matter. We have a platform, and we have a duty to our Black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up.”
Marketing experts say the ongoing crisis is different from past uproars over matters such as immigration or climate change, during which companies could choose whether to speak out. Because those who remain neutral have been tagged as contributing to the problem of racism, companies that have traditionally preferred to say nothing are being forced to wade in. “Silence is not an option,” said Anthony Johndrow, a corporate reputation adviser based in New York.
Yet at the same time, corporate statements supporting the protests are likely to face heightened scrutiny because of the more visible nature of race and the role that big businesses can play in economic inequalities, an issue being spotlighted by the protests.
“If they’re going to speak out on this, I think very soon the lens is going to come back on them,” said Americus Reed, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “How many diverse members are on your management team? What’s your board look like? … Tech companies and their lack of diversity is going to be dramatically exposed.”
The list of companies speaking out in social media posts and internal memos to employees grew rapidly over the weekend, as riots escalated and spread across the country and companies in industries ranging from banking to tech to apparel urged workers to fight racism. The public relations firm Weber Shandwick counted at least 60 CEOs who had made statements on the crisis, but it estimated that the number was probably far higher by Monday afternoon.
Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights campaign group Color of Change, said he has received more than 20 calls in recent days from companies asking for his input on corporate statements related to the crisis. “What I am seeing is a level of urgency like I’ve never experienced before, that a lot of everyday black people who work inside companies have helped to create,” he said, as well as civil rights campaigns.
Some CEOs referenced hearing from employees in their statements. Tim Ryan, the U.S. Chairman of PwC, said in an employee email Friday that he was “up last night responding to notes from our Black colleagues — and many others — who are sad, angry, defeated and feeling alone.” On Monday, he wrote that he had heard from “thousands of you” and that “so many people around our firm are hurting, are angry and are exhausted.”
Many also know that they are in a battle to retain consumers as the coronavirus pandemic upends customer behavior and a severe recession sharply constrains purchasing. “Companies recognize they’re not sure if consumers are going to be loyal to them when all this is over, and they don’t want to misstep,” Reed said.
He said he’s seeing companies take a bolder stand with their statements than they have in the past. “ ‘We condemn injustice wherever it occurs’ is a very different thing than ‘we as a company are disgusted by black men being murdered,’” he said.He pointed to a letter that Peloton CEO and founder John Foley sent customers Monday in which he said that “we have stood too quietly in the face of clear injustice” and promised in bold, underlined text that “we must ensure this is an anti-racist organization."
Yet the reaction online was mixed. While many applauded the statement, others asked about the company’s plans to further diversify its corporate staff. “Cool, cool … so who’s getting promoted to CEO/CFO//COO/etc.? #ThereIsSomeWorkForYouToDo,” one replied.
A spreadsheet created by the Plug, which reports on the black tech and start-up industries, is tracking the statements, mostly of tech companies, that support the protests while comparing the percentage of employees they have who are black, according to diversity reports. Sherrell Dorsey, the publication’s founder and editor, said she started the spreadsheet to hold companies accountable. “Are they actually walking the walk?” she said. “We really wanted to see what does their commitment look like.”
Robinson said that while he senses some progress and a greater sense of urgency from corporations, he will be watching for the actions they take politically and what lobbying efforts they work on rather than just how much they donate — however helpful that may be — or what they say.
“Let’s not fool ourselves: We don’t need empathy, we need political change. We don’t need charity, we need justice,” he said. “Corporations have to be willing to put their might behind things they care about.”