Yesterday I told you what I told participants in our conference last Friday: That this isn't the most crucial time in the history of exec comms; rather, it's the first.
An exec comms pro told me last week that in his virtual meetings, "I've seen more tears in the last two weeks than I've seen in the rest of my corporate career." I've heard exec comms people choke up during these weeks too. What to do about it is blurry through those tears, especially when you define "it" as something as large as American racial redemption and economic reconciliation.
In fact, I find myself squinting to see this nation's first step down that misty path.
But I can focus on my first steps, in the world I inhabit—the wee but potentially mighty world of executive communication—and suggestions are already presenting themselves:
• We'll get our own house in order. To help diversify the lily-white speechwriting field, the PSA has worked with D.C.'s historically black Howard University to start a speechwriting course there, we offer Speechwriting School scholarships to Howard students, and last year we supported the first Black Speechwriters Symposium. Every year of our existence has made us more conscious about our position as a symbolic representation of this profession, and we've been talking for the last couple years about adding more gender, race and age diversity to the Advisory Council of the Professional Speechwriters Association. As Elvis Presley might suggest, "A little less conversation, a little more action." And we know exactly who we want to add—to be discussed on our next Council call, this Thursday. More soon.
• We'll watch how eloquent statements continue to match concrete corporate reform plans. General Motors' CEO Mary Barra has promised to make the GM "the most inclusive company in the world" and declared, "It’s my responsibility as CEO of this company to make sure [diversity and inclusion] doesn’t fall off the agenda." Through our daily newsletter, we'll keep up, and keep our members up, on Barra and other CEOs—what they say, and what they do.
• We'll advise speechwriters on how to serve their current (and largely white) principals better. For instance, I think every speechwriter should sit down with every principal to hear his or her personal race journey. Every sentient American has a whole story beginning when he or she became aware of race as an issue, and an evolution of thinking on the issue from childhood to adulthood, in relation to personal experiences and national events—with everyone's story culminating in this very moment. Your leader's story might not be worth sharing with the workforce, but a speechwriter ought to know it and be able to draw from it, so the boss can participate in the conversation beyond, "I'm just a privileged white person so what do I know?" And by asking the exec to articulate her or his race story, you'll might offer a chance at self-discovery. As one of Studs Terkel's interviewees once said to his delight, "I never knew I felt that way before."
• We seek out and hear out the ideas of others. Last week a Professional Speechwriters Association member offered to convene a Zoom call to talk about how speechwriters can use their peculiar form of power to lend their voice to the Black Lives Matter cause, through the leaders they serve. Dunzo. Another speechwriter has approached me for help in forming an association of black speechwriters, perhaps affiliated in some way with the PSA. Yes, when can we talk? And next week I'm talking to someone who is looking for speechwriters to help artists deliver "national addresses" for these times. How can we help?
• We brainstorm ideas of our own. Here's one: Smart CEOs are talking to their African American executives and employees about their experiences inside and outside the company. In many cases they are shocked and edified by what they are hearing; I'm hearing this directly. Why not do some proactive shocking and edifying of the whole business world, by a black speakers bureau—called "Black Leaders Matter: Speaking from Experience," maybe—to get willing African American business leaders tell their stories and suggest reforms on the biggest conference stages, which must be willing and eager to invite them. I sure as hell know some speechwriters who could help those folks hone their message to where it's at least as compelling as this plaintive testimony, from Arthur Page president and longtime corporate comms exec Charlene Wheeless.
Obviously the Professional Speechwriters Association and the Executive Communication Council can't do all of the above by ourselves. And for many of these ideas, I'm the last person who ought to be running them. "White Guy Founds Black Speakers Bureau"? I don't think so. That's why I'm sharing all this with you, and that's why I will continue to share ideas, in case you can take the lead, or in case you know someone else who can. And that's why I want you to share ideas with me, either using the comments section below, or writing to me directly at writingboots at gmail dot com.
Yes, America's destination is unseeable at the moment. This profession's, too.
When you're driving through a thick fog, you're afraid to keep going because you don't know what's out there—but you damned well better be just as afraid to stop, for fear of being run over from behind. And should have dawned on you by now, there's no going back.
A couple weeks ago I confessed here—and separately, in a text, to my friend and colleague Sharon McIntosh, that when it comes to changing the race equation in America—after having thrashed around on this issue around so many midnight drinking tables, having had so many hundreds of actual and imagined "conversations about race in America," as we're always told we must do—"I have faith issues."
"No you don't," she texted back. "You believe in love."
Yes, I do. How about you?