ITL #521 Considering a Voice to Parliament: lessons for corporate Australia from the Black Lives Matter movement5 months, 1 week ago
With a referendum on constitutional change in the offing, corporate Australia should amplify First Nations voices and act with care and respect. By Matt Thomas.
In 2023, Australia faces a significant cultural debate around the rights, influence and visibility of First Nations Australians as we gear up for the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Recent history suggests there will be pressure and community expectation on brands to take a position.
In looking at global examples of how this type of expectation can play out, the recent experiences of US brands with the Black Lives Matter movement provide interesting lessons for considering corporate responses to societal issues where there is a lack of consensus.
Initially, it is important to recognise that Black Lives Matter and the referendum for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament have fundamental differences. However, at their heart, they share a common theme of recognising and empowering a group of people to have greater visibility, voice, security and agency who, because of cultural and historical contexts, have measurably poorer average life outcomes.
For communications professionals tasked with addressing this issue on behalf of their organisation, the pathway may take time to navigate. Best practice tells us that First Nations voices should be included in decision-making, but access to this advice may not always be possible. With First Nations Australians making up only 3.2% of the total population, it is almost certain that guidance and advice to C-Suites on approaching the issue will involve non-Indigenous communications professionals.
It is essential then that all Australians, but particularly those guiding corporate reputation, are proactive in informing themselves of the referendum’s underpinnings, including First Nations perspectives of our history. Importantly, as we learnt from the challenges experienced by the LGBTIQ+ community during the 2017 Marriage Equality campaign, the cost of being required to provide this type of guidance can be high for the individuals involved. It is beholden on all of us to address this issue thoughtfully and respectfully and consider how this type of public discourse may impact First Nations Australians across our communities, especially our employees.
The mainstreaming of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 represented a significant shift in the cultural landscape of the United States. It also acted as a moment of reckoning for corporate America, which is increasingly perceived as a party to public debate.
Corporate steps and missteps
In the US, many businesses came forward with meaningful statements and actions around Black Lives Matter; IBM wrote to congress to tell them that they would not be selling facial recognition software to US governments and brands like Nike, Netflix, and Disney made strong brand statements in support of equality.
Conversely, other high-profile brands such as Facebook and Coinbase received significant internal and external criticism for their response. For Facebook, this was around their perceived lack of action and for Coinbase proactively communicating that they would not take a position. Coinbase would later recognise that their decision had negatively impacted their business and culture.
More recently, further research has been released which demonstrates that in the US, at least, public expectations of corporations continue to be mixed.
A recent US Gallup poll published in January 2023 (two years on from the peaks of the public expression of the Black Lives Matter Social movement) found that less than half of Americans support the idea of businesses taking a public stance on political events. Within the 45-59 year bracket, this support drops to 43%, but for younger Americans (those aged 18-29), this figure is nearly two-thirds at 59%. This aligns with recent research from Brunswick Group, which indicates that while brands continue progressing with ESG-aligned behaviours, there is greater hesitancy in speaking publicly about this activity due to the potential for reputational backlash.
All this adds up to an environment where having a deep understanding of your audiences, and their expectations of your brand is essential to making an appropriately informed response.
Navigating the issue
In the end, businesses will need to determine their own position on the Australian referendum on a Voice to Parliament in relation to their values and those of their stakeholders. However, examining the successes and failures of US businesses concerning Black Life Matters, the following learnings may help communications teams to navigate this issue:
- Don’t ‘talk about’ – ‘talk with’. Your decision-making process should include First Nations voices. Engage a specialist First Nations consultancy or explore your networks and stakeholder groups for advice. Consider appropriate remuneration regardless of the path – do not expect this valuable business advice to be free.
- Check your record. Be prepared to audit your past behaviour as well as your future. In the case of Black Lives Matter, some luxury brands that supported the movement found themselves exposed and embarrassed by past comments and associations or examples of cultural appropriation.
- Weigh your position. Apply a supported risk-benefit framework to determine if you should take a stance and what that stance should be.
- Top-down decision-making built on bottom-up insights. Engage your executive team, including staff who own employee and customer relationships, along with your most trusted external advisors, before determining your company stance.
- Consider your people. In modern-day business, external factors can impact your company culture far more than ever, and you must be prepared to address your employees' needs and positions.
- Action over spin. Prioritise meaningful, demonstratable action over spin.
- Walk the walk you talk. If you choose to speak, ensure the new stance has buy-in across the company and is backed by action at every level.
- Respond, don’t retreat. If someone highlights an issue from the past or asks difficult questions, face it head-on.
There is no right or perfect way to engage in complex political discussions. As communications professionals, we often wear the mantle of advocates for our stakeholders (both internally and externally) and our brand. Knowing our audiences, seeking advice, understanding the risks, preparing proactively and backing our communications with proof will be essential in helping our organisations to navigate this environment in the best possible way.
Matt Thomas is Managing Partner for Corporate and Public Affairs at Red Havas Australia. He has experience working in First Nations communications in health and early childhood education on behalf of the Victorian Government. A seventh-generation white Australian, he recognises the inter-generational advantage he has experienced as a result of the establishment of this nation.mail the author
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