First I was numb, then came the sadness, anger and frustration. This is what it's like to be Black.
— June 8th, 2020
I’m sitting here on a Saturday evening watching the news – there’s been a clash with police at the BlackLivesMatter protest today.
Reported as “just a few people looking to cause trouble in what was otherwise a very peaceful protest”. They talk about it tainting the true objective and desire of the thousands of other protesters – “such as shame” they say.
And I think to myself, yes, it is such as shame, but then I’m reminded how the communicators in the media have the power and opportunity to tell the story to reflect a positive outcome.
So, I wonder what is the message that this particular news reporter is trying to convey?
Is it to raise awareness of the injustice that Black people feel and are subjected to? Is it to build solidarity and encourage support or is it to cast doubt and play to peoples’ unconscious bias – as we’ve so politely named it?
As a professional communicator myself, I often analyze messaging, body language, and tone of news reports.
I’ve spent a large part of my career working with these ‘professional storytellers’ in media, always thinking about the right flow of words to get across so that they report the story that I need and want for my stakeholders.
This type of exchange and sometimes stern debate is what has taught me to become an expert in landing messages, inciting emotions and getting the connection and engagement I need with my audiences – I’ve made a career of it, trying to master the art of communication – and I really believe it is an art form.
Racism, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace: It's time to get uncomfortable, to get comfortable
I reflect on the news report I’m watching, analyzing the commentary, looking for those key messages.
And I’m confused because I’m pretty sure the intent is to raise awareness of the injustice that Black people in the UK feel and are subjected to, building solidarity and encouraging support.
However, they keep displaying the few seconds of footage where the police are charging at protestors, over and over and over again.
If it is “just a few people” causing trouble and not the majority who are protesting peacefully so that their message can be heard, why give a disproportionate amount of time to the negative footage – this tells a very different story and set of messages.
I’m angry all over again, this news coverage doesn’t leave me feeling supported and it’s not sending out the right messages to educate the masses. So how is this supposed to change mindsets and conquer that unconscious bias?
We may think it doesn’t matter; the majority of people can see through it to get to the positive messages.
I’m reminded of the painful moment months ago when my 8-year-old son said to us on the way home from school, “why are all Black people bad?” He often challenges us with questions that we don’t really know how to answer.
We always love the curiosity of his mind, but this one completely stunned us. We had to take some time process as we knew whatever we said he would absorb like a sponge. We held a family meeting to talk to both of our sons to try to understand what would make them feel like that.
When we asked, he sheepishly said, “but Mummy that’s what I always see when you’re watching the news”.
Despite the positive Black role models, he has in his life, in us and with the rest of our family, somehow the message that all Black people are bad is what has stuck with him. I cried that day because it hit me like a punch in the stomach.
I felt that we had been complacent, expecting our children to pick up the positive learnings of our culture and race in ways that would naturally make them proud of who they are. We hadn’t done enough! We forgot about the challenge that we were facing – I think we secretly hoped that things had changed a bit for the better and it would be different for them.
Why am I mentioning all of this? I know news is news and they have a duty to share what is happening with the public. But the reality is they have a choice as to how they construct that report, the tone, the imagery, the length of the report. It’s not just the words, it’s all of it and how it comes together.
I thought this was a very timely and real example of how we communicators play a key role in changing bias, ignorance, and outright racism.
The art of communication is starting with the outcome you want to achieve and then being relentless about every opportunity to reinforce that outcome. You can’t waiver, not even once, as it jeopardizes the outcome.
And if you do waiver, even if not through intent, you have to put double the effort into realigning back to the original outcome you were seeking. This is true of both externally and internally facing communicators. We have more power than we realize – it’s a real privilege to be able to inform, share stories, and influence opinion, so we must take that responsibility seriously.
Over the past week, I’ve had several people ask for my advice and opinion as to whether their organizations should say something in the wake of the injustice and death of George Floyd.
And depending on what day they spoke to me I think the answer was different each time. I realized I was ‘in my own feelings’ about everything that was going, processing how I should be reacting and what I should be doing.
I went from being completely numb to it all – yet another unjust death of a Black person, nothing new to me. But when the momentum started building and people began speaking out it unleashed something deep within me. It was like everything that I had ever said under my breath or in my head I wanted to say out loud.
I went from numb, to sad, to angry, to frustrated. I remembered that I was a ‘professional storyteller’ too and I have the opportunity to use my talent to share my feelings in a way that would resonate in a way it hadn’t before.
I realized my rage was really directed at the extremists, the racist people that sadly still exist in more places and in more people that we want to admit. But the people I want to speak to isn’t them – mainly because I don’t think you can change their mindsets or behavior, that needs to be dealt with differently, with true reprimand and punishment.
I want to speak to the majority who don’t fit under a particular term or banner – the people I interact with most of the time.
I want you all to understand that as horrific and unjust what happened to George Floyd is, that behavior and arrogance often start with the smaller wrongs, comments, and actions that leave most, if not all Black people feeling inferior at some point in their lives. Feeling like they are never quite fully included or equal to their White counterparts.
So, I’m using my own storytelling to raise awareness of our struggles and challenges.
I want people to have an insight into what us Black people live with every single day of our lives, regardless of our background or status.
And my hope is that the outcome will be different because people will have a better and accurate understanding of what it is, they need to change. I think too often many people aren’t aware because they don’t think they are part of the problem.
They find comfort in knowing they would NEVER engage in anything like what happened to George Floyd. In the workplace, in particular, I believe this is the crux of the problem and therefore we don’t pay attention to the experiences and stories of injustice and exclusion that still take place in both the personal and work lives of Black people.
The guardians of people in the workplace (HR) and the professional storytellers (Comms) can help to change this. They can empower people to speak and then use their expertise to convey that story in a way that will resonate and connect to the majority.
They then need to sit back and listen intently so that they can drive the outcome I’d like to think the majority of us want – positive change. They can make it more natural to speak about race and different cultures along with the challenges they face.
Don’t make assumptions about people’s experiences and what they need to thrive – interrogate their stories, their words, their actions so that you can truly understand how communications can help to shape positive change. You have the power to create a movement.
So, to all the guardians of people and the professional storytellers out there, remember communication is the art of passing information and UNDERSTANDING from one person to another. Don’t forget about the understanding part – it’s often the harder element to achieve. You can’t change what you don’t understand!
And when it comes to connecting with and listening to the Black people in your organization remember:
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. — Martin Luther King