Leading with courage in today’s unsettled environment is not for the faint of heart. Whether you identify as alt-left or-right, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat communicating your point of view can feel like walking through a minefield.
The recent horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia, prompted responses from all over the globe. Former President Barack Obama and Pope Francis took to Twitter. The celebrity world leveraged their influence by responding “Enough is Enough.” Everyday people used their social platforms to vent, seek perspective and to gain some sense of peace.
I’m trying to gain my peace by writing this. As communicators, the words and images we select for ourselves, our companies and our clients are critical. As I look back at what has been one of the worst weeks in America in a long time, I am struck by how powerful and persuasive clear communications can be. I’m also amazed at how it can all go miserably wrong.
First, let’s take a quick look at this past week’s communication disasters.
President Trump came under intense criticism for his overall response to the events in Charlottesville. His response was almost a textbook case of what not to do. First, his response was late. Then, as Trump approached the Trump Tower podium on Tuesday afternoon hoping to talk about infrastructure, he was met by media who wanted to talk about Charlottesville. During this session, he praised the young woman who was murdered, called the driver who ran over her a disgrace to his country, and wasn’t certain whether he should be accused of terrorism or murder. Not great, but not surprising given Trump’s many communication failures. But he fumbled once again by tweeting and then deleting two messages on Tuesday.
On Saturday, instead of emphatically criticizing racists and neo-Nazis by name, the President referred to violence “on many sides.” Only two days later, did he finally condemn “white supremacists.” However, the damage had already been done.
Some Christian leaders issued vague statements leaving congregations questioning just where they stood on events that transpired. Franklyn Graham, the evangelist and son of Billy Graham, asked on Facebook for his followers to “pray for Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe, law enforcement, and everyone struggling to deal with the chaos and violence that reared its ugly head in Charlottesville.” Prayer is always a good thing in my book. But because he never mentioned and condemned “racism” and “white supremacy” the message left congregations wondering just where he stood.
What works are clear messages that don’t inflame, potent images that tell the story, and promotions that strike the right balance. Here are three examples of what has worked this past week.
1. Take a Clear Position, but Don’t Inflame
Many have borrowed beautiful words from peace makers to react to Charlottesville and used them to suggest a path forward. Citing Nelson Mandela, President Obama wrote what has become the most popular tweet ever issued:
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or religion…People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love…For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
This first of his threaded series has accumulated about 2.8 million likes.
2. Share an Image that Tells a Powerful Story
Pharrell Lanscilo Williams, or Pharrell, is an American rapper, singer, songwriter, record and film producer. The artist’s response was a troubling photo depicting the violence in Charlottesville with a simple caption. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. #myselfie.”
This gives a behind-the-scene visual that is clearly disturbing. It illustrates just how divided we have become and Pharrell’s caption makes his opinion and position very clear.
3. Promotions that Strike the Right Balance
If you do not get this right, you’re in danger of getting it very, very wrong. Tying into tragedy can go horribly wrong. Remember when the World Wildlife Fund wanted to draw attention to the devastation caused by tsunami in East Asia? They decided to illustrate the size of the disaster by re-imagining 9/11 (just in time for the 8th anniversary) with a commercial that featured hundreds of jets flying towards the World Trade Center. The commercial was a major embarrassment, and the WWF later apologized and said that the ad should “never have been made.”
As I am sitting here writing this post, I am happily number 18633 in line to order a box of cupcakes. When the news release was picked up this morning that Baked by Melissa was giving out 100,000 free cupcakes to promote #SideWithLove, an initiative to “spread love and positivity throughout the nation,” I quickly went online and joined a very long line. Well, I’ve been waiting almost three hours, and I just saw they are increasing the number of free cupcakes by 50,000 because of the huge response.
While free cupcakes won’t create world peace, every day acts of kindness make a big difference. The sentiment behind the promotion is in line with other activities this brand has executed, and the promotion delivers a badly needed message of positivity. Also, it’s simple and people get it. Baked by Melissa founder and president Melissa Ben-Ishay notes:
“If there was ever a time to spread a little love throughout the nation, it’s now. The cupcakes will be special, not just because they are delicious and were sent from someone who cares about them, but also because they represent a simple act of kindness. We hope that people enjoy them, but even more than that, we hope that it inspires them to spread some kindness of their own.”
Even if they run out of cupcakes and I don’t get to send one, I will be a fan of Baked by Melissa forever because of this simple act of aligning with the larger issue of choosing love over hate.