“Sharing informative content is a first step”

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“Sharing informative content is a first step”

“Sharing informative content is a first step”

Interview by Alexandra Klinnik and Photos by Jerémie Le Guen – Published 6 June 2020
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Brands have been positioning themselves behind the Black Lives Matter movement for days now. Many of them participated in "Blackout Tuesday" by blacking out their social media account pages with black squares in a sign of solidarity with the protesters. Sincerity or opportunism? Stéphanie Laporte, Director of social media agency OTTA, shares her views.

«When you're a brand, everything is strategic, but taking action is what makes the difference»

Several brands have shown their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, with some of them being extremely quick to do so (Nike, Disney, Netflix, Adidas etc.). Is this sincere or opportunism?

Stéphanie Laporte: For brands like Nike and Netflix, who have been creating socially and politically committed content and carry strong, informative and inclusive messages for years, it is clear that their positioning is sincere. For brands which are less obviously committed, or which have a troubled past regarding the subject (like Disney, an "old" brand which has evolved enormously both in terms of its internal production and practices), the question is a fair one. When you're a brand, everything is strategic, but taking action – and having sincere internal practices – is what makes the difference.

Even the different media stakeholders covering the movement have been caught out: the way they deal with the subject can be superficial or even contradictory given that within their editorial teams we rarely find people directly concerned by the subject and therefore able to speak about and understand the phenomenon behind the protests and their ramifications. In short, everyone feels uncomfortable, and it was no doubt less difficult and divisive to react to koalas being burnt in the forest fires in Australia because the environment has become a "neutral" subject and one that is clear which side to be on for the vast majority of the population.
«For brands, the "black square" movement on Instagram has been a life-saver»

How do you avoid being perceived as opportunistic when communicating on this subject? Is it absolutely necessary to make sure your voice is heard"?

S.L.: Here we see that France is in a curious and unique position. In the US and other countries, brands need to take a position when faced with such dramatic events: they have to speak out because silence means condemnation. In France, brands general keep quiet or send out neutral (or even contradictory) messages.

This can be explained in particular by the fact that French companies are still more accustomed to a very top-down and commercial style of communication ("I am sending out a message, buy my product but I'm not ready to give you a voice if I am not 100% comfortable that I can deal with the resulting comments: I just want everyone to like me"). Brands are often clumsy and currently somewhat lost because they oscillate between an instinct to react to whatever the latest news story is – a practice that has been common on social media for years – and fear of speaking out because they don't know how to deal with the subject...
...And with good reason: their communicators and decision-makers are not generally affected by the issue because they only rarely suffer from discrimination, given that they are often not from minority groups (and/or are not often women, if we look at the example of the #Metoo campaign). They therefore struggle to find a good communication stance, and for some, the "black square" movement was a life-saver, as well as stock photos or emojis with different coloured hands. They could say to themselves "Phew, we were able to post something!" (even though the problem has still not been fully understood and won't be addressed internally).

This is curious because in France, unlike in the US, racism is a crime and not an opinion: speaking out and acting should therefore be the most obvious course of action.

How can brands go beyond black squares and emojis?

S.L.: Sharing informative content is a first step: speaking about your tangible actions in favour of inclusion and diversity (if they exist) is also good. Brands can also publish a manifesto in which they question their own practices, thus transparently recognising past errors and the problems they still need to fix within the company, as well as making a firm commitment to progress. Becoming a patron of an association that works in favour of inclusion (giving a financial donation or participating in volunteer work) and spreading its message is another option. I also think that it should be the employees who are most affected by these issues who are given a voice by companies: and if such employees don't exist then maybe the company should start asking itself the right kind of HR questions.

French companies have only recently acquired a social "conscience" (beyond the social and solidarity-based economy, the ability for companies to clearly state in their statues that they serve a social, societal or environmental purpose was only made possible in 2019 with the passing of the Pacte law). Unfortunately, some of them fall into the trap of "purpose-washing", which involves only a mirage of social commitment and no effort to act or to question their own internal practices.

Are companies able to create a sense of loyalty and a more personal connection with consumers by committing to causes that require taking a moral stand? 

S.L.: I think that, for once, we need to look beyond the notion of sales here. If the brand has an educational approach, if it explains things, if it gives a voice to those concerned by an issue and/or if it gets its customers used to seeing more diverse teams, if it makes commitments, if it produces legitimate and well-researched content and if it adopts an HR approach in line with the cause, there will be no abrupt breakdown in communication and no "risk", let's say. Here we are speaking about the company's purpose, its social and economic missions, and the talented employees as well as customers it will be missing out on if it doesn't move beyond the prejudices that it holds, whether consciously or otherwise. If the company has a purpose and a sincere reason behind its activities and not just CSR alibis, of course it will be closer to its customers.

Do you have any examples of failed social commitment communication campaigns?    

S.L.: The worst example of a blunder, in my view, is Slip Français. The company was called out for a scandal involving racism a few months ago, and they had the opportunity to put their hands up and make up for it by taking a stance against racism, by donating to an association and committing to more awareness-raising and inclusion. Several internet users called them out by posting comments on Instagram, but they didn't react out of fear of being labelled "opportunists".  
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