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How to approach a racially charged PR crisis

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

In a country with a long and complicated history of racism and discrimination, brands will always be vulnerable to scrutiny regarding these issues. Based on my experience and lessons from brands' fumbles (and comebacks), here are my recommendations for effective public relations during a racially charged crisis.

Name the issue

Too many companies fail to explicitly name the issue, which can often be misinterpreted as a lack of sincerity. Instead of the usual "In light of recent events," it's essential to name the event (for example, the ad, where it was shared, and why people have called it – and in turn your brand – out for being racially insensitive), who is negatively impacted (you can't show solidarity with a group you aren't willing to acknowledge), why your brand (and the people behind it) cares, and precisely what you intend to do to resolve said issue.

Engage your leadership publicly to show an earnest commitment to finding a resolution

When a crisis hits, leadership can’t be delegated. There's no better way to showcase a culture of accountability than by bringing your most influential figure(s) into the conversation. Having them engage with the public on their position on the matter is critical. Other than the (obvious) apology, here are some other crucial talking points:

  • How they’ll use their influence to ensure the company follows through on its promises,

  • What difficult conversations they are going to have and with whom (internally and externally),

  • How the company won't lean on its POC team members to lead the charge for continued learning and change,

  • What steps they'll personally take to help the organisation in furthering its inclusiveness, and

  • An ask from the community to continue engaging with the brand on this societal issue and holding it accountable

Show, tell, and keep the conversation going

To rebuild trust and keep your community up to date on the actions you're taking, regularly reflect on what you're learning through the process and showcase your initiatives.

More importantly, remember that listening is also a key competency when keeping the conversation going. If you are genuinely interested in being more inclusive, make sure the voices of the marginalised are reaching you. And it’s okay to start where you are and iterate from there. No brand becomes an expert at listening instantaneously. Listening and using the feedback shared as learnings is an iterative process, not a once-off exercise.

Prevention is better than cure

Often our actual crisis is D&I (or the lack thereof). But diversity and inclusion are more than just a PR trend or set policies, programmes, and quotas. And beyond recognising and appreciating the value of having a diverse collection of identities, experiences, perspectives, and abilities in the room, it's about ensuring that anti-racist practice is a wholesome part of organisational practice, rooted in the systemic functioning of a business, which supports equitable outcomes for employees and consumers, alike.

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