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The headlines last week about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade centered not around the floats or managing a parade during a pandemic. The headlines instead focused on one tweet:
“What’s that sound, you ask? Why it’s the diverse dance group, Zeta Phi Beta Steppers!” Macy’s tweeted. “Performing a special routine they put together to help us celebrate this unprecedented year.”
The social media backlash was loud and swift, with users saying the fashion retailer had reduced the 100-year-old legacy of Zeta Phi Beta sorority to just one word: diverse.
The Macy’s incident serves as an important lesson and reminder for all leaders. Here are five things we can reflect on, learn, and act on.
1. Who is in charge during a brand crisis?
Here is one of the most important questions leaders need to be asking themselves: Do you know who on your team is in charge in the moment that your brand crisis occurs?
Your marketers, your corporate communications team and your social media agencies should have clear protocols established for what happens when your content receives backlash. Everyone who touches content should be trained on how to respond when a crisis occurs, who in leadership should be notified immediately and what the critical next steps are. Ask yourself how you are training this team to increase its members’ cultural competency.
Whatever you agree to do, you cannot wait to act. Your response needs to be as swift as the backlash from consumers has been, and your response cannot be choosing no response at all.
2. Don’t pretend that it didn’t happen
Deleting the content without acknowledging what happened and without issuing an apology adds insult to injury. It makes a statement that the mistake didn’t matter to your organization, that the mistake could easily be erased with a single tap of the delete button, and the people you have hurt deeply and marginalized can be erased.
In Macy’s case, the original tweet was deleted. It issued another tweet and didn’t acknowledge the misstep or offer an apology: “Look who just STEPPED things up. We loved having @ZPHIBHQ — an international, historically Black Sorority —with us at the #MacysParade for their centennial,” Macy’s tweeted.
Simply deleting the tweet, automate your posting or image can occur for a number of reasons. First, there’s no crisis protocol in place so the content is deleted in a panic. Second, there’s no understanding of why the content was offensive, and deleting the content is a knee-jerk reaction to the public backlash. Third, we may think, Well no one will notice, and we aren’t sure what to say, so let’s hit delete.
3. Issue an apology that showcases why you’re apologizing
When we apologize, we need to understand what we are apologizing for. Don’t provide a fake, empty or pretend apology like “I am sorry you feel that way.” A genuine and meaningful apology admits the specific mistake you have made and offers a window into how you are educating yourself or how you will change your behavior.
What could have Macy’s done in this case? Macy’s could have opted for a number of different options, including apologizing immediately in a public tweet and also tweeting directly @ZPHIBHQ apologizing and celebrating them.
What many companies miss in an apology is educating others on what the mistake was. In the case of Macy’s tweet, the use of the words “diverse dance group” minimized and reduced Zeta Phi Beta, a Black sorority founded at Howard University in 1920 with an incredible history and legacy into a “dance group.” The use of the word diverse also signaled that the inclusion of Zeta Phi Beta in the parade was tokenism, an act to check the box to include representation from various communities.
Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson’s apology in 2018 after two Black men were arrested while waiting in a Philadelphia Starbucks store serves as a strong example of how to apologize. Johnson’s apology was issued quickly, acknowledged what happened, reaffirmed the company values and conveyed next steps.
4. Open the dialogue with your employees
Employees are our forgotten consumers. Too often we’re busy thinking about the external marketplace and how we market our products and services to consumers and connect with them. We forget that our employees are consumers too.
Use this moment as an opportunity to open the dialogue with your employees. Let them know what happened and how it happened. Don’t try to bury the media headlines that they have all read; lead with what happened in team meetings and town halls. Apologize externally, but ensure you apologize internally as well.
Ensure all of your employees are part of the solutions moving forward. It’s not the job of Black and Brown employees to constantly educate everyone and come up with key next steps. Remember that our employees can be our biggest advocates and influencers if we let them be.
5. Start the journey to rebuild trust
An apology is the start of a long road ahead. Once you have apologized, what happens next matters the most. You must rebuild trust with your own organization and the external marketplace.
When it comes to your own organization, how will you act differently? What processes and guidelines will you put into action? How will you include your teams on this journey?
We also need to ask ourselves who gets a seat at the table and why, and whose voices are amplified and whose voices are muted. If someone on our team speaks up to say they think a piece of content is racist or offensive, will we stop and listen before we share in social channels? Will we trust what they have to say and work on increasing our own cultural competency? And will our teams trust us enough to speak up?
Our teams extend beyond our own workforce; it’s also who we decide to business with and invite to our tables. Start by creating an ecosystem of thought leaders and partners who can help you build your cultural competency and rebuild trust with your consumers. Here are five Black-owned agencies and thought leaders to collaborate with on your roadmap. It’s by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s a good place to start.
Consumers will be watching and waiting. How will you know if you have rebuilt trust with them? They will let you know by what they say about you on their social networks and by trusting you again with their wallets.