(Monday) June 1
What leaders are saying, and how they’re sounding. Last Thursday, it seemed remarkable when U.S. Bank CEO Andy Cecere issued an all-employee email on “Why George Floyd mattered—to us all.” Between then and now, most of Cecere’s major bank CEO colleagues and a seeming majority of other CEOs have issued statements or written memos.
Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg showed as much emotion as I’ve ever seen a CEO show in his message to employees yesterday on George Floyd, via Twitter live stream. What he said was articulate; his willingness to bare a broken heart to 130,000 employees was remarkable.
It has already been a long week for exec comms pros serving leaders already punch-drunk from coronavirus, now further disoriented by the George Floyd aftermath. “Watching today play out with my clients,” summed up one corporate communication consultant yesterday, “is like watching a bucket of fish that just got tossed into the middle of traffic.” Over the weekend, a speechwriter for the head of a major American institution sent a note to fellow speechwriters: “It’s 10:13 PM on a Saturday, and I’m about to go under for the third time on a draft statement about George Floyd and the riots.” The organization doesn’t want to take a stance on Floyd’s death, but does want to express compassion for affected stakeholders. “I assume many of you are engaged in a version of this same folly,” the speechwriters said. To which another speechwriter replied, “At my most cynical, I can feel like I’m paid for two services: Coming up with a way to say nothing about something or something about nothing. Not easy and work that feels small in these moments.”
But one speechwriter shared a relatively compelling letter she wrote for her leader, and the experience of writing it:
“This was a hard letter to write this morning because I kept self-censoring. I finally got fed up and decided to write the letter I thought the [leader] should write; the letter that I thought he had somewhere inside himself. I figured he could dial it back or scrap it all together in favor of something lukewarm or milquetoast. I was surprised (and pleased) when he only had some minor changes. He’s not one to get out in front of issues or take much risk. I was gratified to see him willing to take a stand. It was less about him liking these particular words and more that he was willing to open up and plant a stake in the ground about this.
“I think this was therapeutic for me to write as well.”
For CEOs and their communication people, “statement fatigue” has given way to something close to statement stupefaction. An executive communication director for a major American institution wrote to me yesterday:
“It’s amazing that we now have stacking communication imperatives, which raise so many questions: Do I connect pandemic and the murder/societal unrest, or treat them separately? Do I make an internal statement to staff or also an external one to all? Do I connect the sentiment to our work, even if only tangentially related, or will that seem like a shameless pivot? How much empathy is too much and too little? Should I address the issue of protesting vs. rioting? How important is it to check in with my Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Team (answer: VERY important).
“One of the things we’re applying is the WHY test. Asking not ‘why not,’ but “why do?’ and seeing how well we can articulate the answer. This helps us make the right decisions (with meaningful goals in mind) and sets us up form framing those messages appropriately so we’re not simply band-wagoning or succumbing to organizational peer pressure. Not being able to articulate a meaningful answer to ‘why should we message this?’ can be very illuminating.
“One of the most challenging things for me is impressing on my colleagues that brevity is as important a value as timeliness and content inclusion. Too often, we try to fix by adding, when the actual fix is subtraction. Adding is about thinking ‘what can we say?’ Subtraction comes when you ask ‘What does my audience most want and need to hear?’ A constant mantra in our world.”
Edelman CEO Richard Edelman said in March that the world’s biggest PR firm wouldn’t lay off employees. This week Edelman laid off almost 400 people—nearly seven percent of its 6,000-employee workforce, according to PRWeek. In an interview with PRWeek UK editor Danny Rogers, Edelman described the decision as “gut-wrenching,” and said his assumptions were based on the firm’s ability to retain its people after 9/11 and also after the 2008 financial crisis. “Danny, we really did everything we could to maintain staff levels but sadly the playbook of 2001 and 2008 didn’t apply here.” Hit hardest by fee reductions from stricken clients in hospitality, aviation, automotive and energy, the firm may not be finished laying people off yet. “We’ll review the situation at Christmas,” Edelman told Rogers.
“Times have changed” in terms of the scope of CEO communications, Cisco chief Chuck Robbins says today, on a podcast with Fortune. He’s reading books like White Fragility, and having conversations about race issues with employees. “Running a company, the most important asset you have are your people,” Robbins says. “In order to create an environment where you want the best talent to be, there is an expectation that you will talk about these issues.”
General Motors CEO Mary Barra continues to talk about her plan to make GM “the most inclusive company in the world.” In a Fortune interview out today, Barra said she expects to have filled out the company Inclusion Advisory Board that she chairs by the end of June. Describing herself as an action-oriented engineer, Barra goes on to say that the key to culture change is trust—which comes from communication. “I think trust is at the center of everything,” she told Fortune. “A lot of it starts with communication. It’s hard for someone to trust you when they don’t know what you’re doing or why you’re doing it.”
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife Patty Quillin donated $120 million to the United Negro College Fund, and to historically black schools Spelman College and Morehouse College,The New York Times reported yesterday. “I think white people in our nation need to accept that it’s a collective responsibility,” Hastings said of the record donation. George Floyd’s killing and its aftermath were “the straw that broke the camel’s back, I think, for the size of the donation,” he added, saying he hoped that the donation would lead other wealthy individuals to give to HBCUs: “Generally, white capital flows to predominantly white institutions, perpetuating capital isolation.” Hastings is worth $5.3 billion, the Times piece noted.
Amazon employees are to spend this Juneteenth in reflection, per a memo earlier this week by CEO Jeff Bezos, according to CNBC:
“Over the past few weeks, the [leadership team] and I have spent a lot of time listening to customers and employees and thinking about how recent events in our country have laid bare the systemic racism and injustices that oppress Black individuals and communities.
“This Friday, June 19, is Juneteenth, the oldest-known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. I’m cancelling all of my meetings on Friday, and I encourage all of you to do the same if you can. We’re providing a range of online learning opportunities for employees throughout the day.
“Please take some time to reflect, learn, and support each other. Slavery ended a long time ago, but racism didn’t. —Jeff”
And for our own Juneteenth reflection: Last October we collaborated on the first Black Speechwriters Symposium, at Howard University in D.C. The panel of six speechwriters—a large percentage of the fulltime African American speechwriters in this very white field—told the Howard undergrads in attendance that they should consider speechwriting careers because being a speechwriter gives you a chance, as one panelist put it, to “sit with people of power and shape what they say … to be the power behind the pen.” As another speechwriter put it, “It’s not just writing for somebody. You’re being put on the shoulders of a giant.” I hope you’ll read the rest here and reflect on what you can do help bring African American leadership communicators into our small but powerful sphere of influence.
“Our battle against COVID-19 is far from over, and our top priority remains the health and safety of our employees, customers and communities we serve,” said Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, speaking as chairman of the Business Roundtable on the release of its second-quarter report Monday, according to CNBC. Most CEOs expect the business impact to linger through 2021 and almost a third expect it to persist beyond then, according to the report.
Reader, whatever you took from this look back, I hope you took heart that you and I looked a lot of madness square in the face, and did some useful work in the clutch. And I hope you, like me, insist on remembering this time, the best we can—to steel ourselves for the next time, God forbid. Tomorrow I’ll have a Friday Happy Hour Video from this strange trip. Meanwhile, here’s the song I sang all year long.