Brands comment on the racial abuse suffered by some members of the England Team.
July 14, 2021

“We are changed by what we see. Just as we are changed when we are seen. ITV Stand with Diversity.” ITV posted this statement across social media and ran the image as a press ad across all national newspapers yesterday in response to the racial abuse directed at certain members of the England team.  

During our media training courses, we look at what makes a media story and “trouble” and “human” are two key ingredients evident in this sad and distressing episode.

The impact of this racial abuse and the reaction sparked by these events has been reported in outlets as widespread as Aljazeera and the Wall Street Journal. ITV is one of a number of companies issuing statements in support of the England players who were subject to racial abuse. “A missed shot is not an opportunity for hate,” said BT.  

Taking a stand on a current moral issue is essential for many brands. In our media training and message development sessions, we help organisations of all sizes from all sectors identify and promote their purpose and communicate it to the media and other audiences.  

If you’re going to comment on an issue, you need to be able to explain why you, of all people, are doing it, and that’s where a clear sense of purpose comes in. 

Private Eye’s Desperate Marketing column is a treasure trove of crass piggybacking as brands have chosen to comment or even to use as promotional tools by speaking on issues that have nothing to do with them.

Trainer brand New Balance sponsors Saka and Sterling and so it was only natural that it would praise the stars for inspiring a nation. Interestingly, Nike, which recruited Sterling for a previous anti-racism campaign, has yet to comment. Google “Nike and racism” and you’ll see several references that might suggest that the brand is wary of being criticised for being hypocritical.

Vulnerability to allegations of hypocrisy is the most significant risk here. You can take a moral stand on an issue such as modern slavery or the excessive use of plastic, but if you or any of your suppliers could be said to have condoned that issue, then you’ll end up in huge trouble. 

There’s nothing the media, both social and conventional love more than prominent people and organisations saying one thing and doing another.  

In this case, BT has already laid the groundwork with its “Hope United” campaign, launched in May, which brought together a diverse group of soccer players to speak out against online hate.

Even companies that aren’t planning to proactively comment on a highly controversial issue can find themselves dragged into it if it’s sufficiently topical and widely covered. 

Facebook and Twitter have issued statements to say that they have acted quickly to remove posts and accounts hurling racist abuse at black England players.  

We’ve already noticed social media posts about companies that are perceived to be behind the curve on diversity issues. We work with a number of organisations who are aware of the work they need to do in this area and are taking action and want to explain their position during media interviews.  

We help them with the narrative: yes, we’ve got work to do here, this is the challenge that we’ve faced so far, this is what we’re doing to overcome it and, finally, this is where we intend to get to. We also work with them to identify examples and stories they can use in media interviews and other communications to explain and underscore this message.

Finding the right medium on which to comment is also important. There’s an interesting post from Neil Piper, Chief People Officer of KFC UK & Ireland, in which he opens his comments by saying that he assumed that LinkedIn “wouldn’t be the place for this conversation” but, having noticed a comment by a connection (who he has brought to the attention of LinkedIn), he feels the need to post something.  

Given that his job is about people, it seems appropriate for him to comment on this issue. Posts on LinkedIn increasingly cover questions of diversity and inclusion. However, social media “likes” shouldn’t be the principal way to validate a belief or argument, the fact that Piper’s comment has garnered over 4,000 likes suggesting that he’s got the tone and the medium right in this case.  

Organisations have the right to comment on social issues – but they have to earn that right. More importantly, they need to be ready to express their view in the most appropriate way, whether they’re commenting proactively or defensively. This is where our media training, message development and testing can really help.

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