Corporate America grapples with what to say — or whether to say anything at all

Corporate America has been grappling with what to say about the coast-to-coast social justice protests that rocked the nation this weekend — and whether it might be better to say nothing at all.

In response to the death of George Floyd and other African Americans such as Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, corporations large and small shared messages of empathy, with some even throwing their support behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

Amazon, Apple, Disney, Netflix, Nike, Target and BlackRock, as well as some smaller companies such as Peloton and Blue Bottle Coffee, delivered messages to their employees and the public over the weekend.

Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook wrote a poignant memo to employees stating that, “George Floyd’s death is shocking and tragic proof that we must aim far higher than a “normal” future, and build one that lives up to the highest ideals of equality and justice.” Apple is also donating to causes.

Target, which is based in Minneapolis, where Floyd was arrested, temporarily closed a number of stores for reasons of employee safety, the company said. A letter from Target CEO Brian Cornell began, “We are a community in pain.”

Not all communications were well received, underscoring the dangers of taking a stance.

After Amazon shared a post that said, “The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop,” the retail and technology giant was torpedoed on social media. The American Civil Liberties Union replied, “Cool tweet. Will you commit to stop selling face recognition technology that supercharges police abuse?” Amazon partners with 800 local police departments to share data from its Ring doorbell cameras.

Similarly, athletics clothing retailer Nike, which recently won praise for creating a controversial ad campaign featuring former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, shared a 60-second video on its website reversing its “Just Do It” tagline to read, “Just Don’t Do It,” about the perils of ignoring racism.

However, the company was criticized for not walking the walk, with advertising commentator Cindy Gallop pointing out that while Nike has a diverse board, its executive management line-up is much less so.

Similarly, the NFL was panned for issuing a statement about supporting Black causes, since Kaepernick was not hired by any NFL teams after his “take-a-knee” protest.

Sneaker brand Reebok shared a powerful message reading: “Without the black community, Reebok would not exist, America would not exist. We are not asking you to buy our shoes, we are asking you to walk in someone else’s, to stand in solidarity, to find our common ground of humanity.” The tweet prompted questions from social media users as to whether Reebok was matching those words with donations to causes.

Few corporations have been willing to give their backing to the Black Lives Matter movement until now. Amazon Studios, Twitch, Twitter, and many of the WarnerMedia brands such as HBO displayed the hashtag in social media profiles over the weekend. WarnerMedia is owned by AT&T, whose outgoing chief executive Randall Stephenson has long spoken in support of the movement.

Meanwhile, Netflix shared a post that read: “To be silent is to be complicit. Black lives matter. We have a platform, and we have a duty to our Black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up.”

However, that message was seen by some social media users as hypocritical, since Netflix took down an episode of its satirical comedy show “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” that was critical of Saudi Arabia’s rulers following the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, so that the rest of the series could be aired in the kingdom.

“Corporations get accused of being opportunistic at these moments in time and not being pure on these types of issues,” said Harris Diamond, chief executive of marketing services firm McCann Worldgroup. “One side says, ‘What’s your value?’ and the other side says ‘You don’t live up to it.’ In the end it’s better to express your values.”

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