As thousands of protesters take to the streets in response to police killings of black people, companies are wading into the national conversation but taking care to get their messaging right.
Netflix’s normally lighthearted Twitter account took on a more somber tone Saturday: “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.” That got retweeted more than 216,000 times and “liked” more than a million times.
The streaming service is just one of many corporate brands that have turned to social media to voice concerns over racial injustice after the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for several minutes.
At the same time, companies must consider whether it makes sense for them to weigh in, especially on an issue as sensitive as race.
“It’s brand activism,” said Alexander Chernev, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “It’s not surprising. But companies have to think very carefully before they take a stand on these issues.”
There are plenty of examples of brands speaking out forcefully on social media, particularly in industries where cultural awareness is necessary part of the business. WarnerMedia, which is owned by AT&T and includes brands like HBO and TBS, changed their handles to #BlackLivesMatter and all posted the same James Baldwin quote: “Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.”
Twitter changed its iconic profile image to black with the Black Lives Matter hashtag. Media giant ViacomCBS tweeted “Black Lives Matter. Black Culture Matters. Black Communities Matter,” and on Monday announced its cable properties like MTV and Comedy Central will go dark for eight minutes and 46 seconds to honor Floyd.
Nike, which famously took on the racial injustice issue head-on with its ad campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, revealed a new video ad Friday that bore the words: “For once, don’t do it.” The ad, a twist on its “Do it” motto, urged viewers not to “pretend there’s not a problem in America.”
Even automakers took unusually strong stances on Floyd’s death.
“I am both impatient and disgusted by the fact that as a nation, we seem to be placated by the passive discussion of ‘why,’” the normally reserved General Motors CEO Mary Barra wrote in a weekend note to employees. “There comes a time when we are compelled to stop diagnosing what is wrong and start advocating for what is right.”
At Ford, Executive Chairman Bill Ford and CEO Jim Hackett told employees Monday that the company would “lead from the front” by committing to a fair and inclusive culture for workers.
“We know that systemic racism still exists despite progress that has been made,” they wrote. “We cannot turn a blind eye to it or accept some sense of ‘order’ that’s based on oppression.”
But some companies that offered up statements of support were called out on their own track records on race. L’Oreal, one of the world’s biggest cosmetics companies, tweeted Monday: “Speaking out is worth it,” and pledged a “commitment” to the NAACP. That drew swift criticism online from those who see the company’s business model and advertising as focused on white consumers.
Likewise, Amazon’s tweet urging the end of “the inequitable and brutal treatment of black people” received backlash from followers, who questioned the company’s own commitment during the coronavirus pandemic in which employees have been complaining about unsafe working conditions.