What Should the CEO Say About George Floyd’s Death? Maybe Nothing

I spent some time yesterday reading CEO responses to the death of George Floyd. Floyd was killed on May 25, but it’s only in the last couple of days that many CEOs said anything publicly about his outrageous death. After a weekend of protests, some peaceful and some marked by looting, and violence against protestors and the media, CEOs realized that perhaps they should respond.

CEO: Should I write something?
Comms person: Do you have something to say?
CEO: I have to say something. If I don’t, my silence will be interpreted as indifference. Other CEOs are posting things.
Comms person: Do you have something to say?
CEO: I’m not sure what to write that won’t seem tone deaf. Draft something for me?

Writing about race and racism can feel like a minefield for those who have never experienced it themselves. You know that you will never fully understand the insidiousness of racism, the micro-aggressions and the blatant aggressions that others endure every day. You know that words matter. Was George Floyd “killed” or “murdered”? Did he “die while in custody?” You’re concerned your post will be met with stories of racist behaviour by your own employees. You may have done nothing to address racism in your own workplace, and feel ashamed. You are afraid someone might reply negatively to your message or post, and then what? You know you should not make this about you.

Before you write anything, think about whom you’re addressing.

  • What do your employees need? Owing to Covid-19, they were not okay before we heard about Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd or Chris Cooper, and they are not okay now. A sincere short note from you, acknowledging a difficult time got much much harder, will be likely be welcomed.
  • Are your customers expecting you to speak out? This is a harder question. If you don’t have a good grasp on your customer demographics, or don’t have good social media monitoring in place, you may not know. But consider this: do you want to know what the CEO of your telco or airline thinks about all this? Probably not.
  • Do you have experience or learnings to share that can help your peers or others? If yes, this will be an easy post. You will not have to research it. If you are googling an answer to this question, back away from the keyboard.

You need more than platitudes. “Our purpose has always guided our long-standing diversity and inclusion efforts – and the current situation motivates us to extend our work and our contribution even further,” or “We need to look for ways we can be more intentionally inclusive in our life and in your work,” are both unobjectionable sentiments from Canadian CEOs, but also unlikely to soothe anyone’s heartache or build company loyalty.
I don’t mean to be unkind. It’s really, really hard to write something that is meaningful, not overly simplistic, won’t be dismissed as virtue signalling, and is shorter than 400 words, (when you should expect most people to stop reading). Attempts at brevity often let triteness to seep in.
Better posts focus on action. In her public blog, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital CEO Julia Hanigsberg wrote about the kinds of action that people in her position can take.

“For white people like me, using our voices to amplify Black voices, using our power for anti-racist activities, reaching out to check-in on our Black family, friends and employees, enhancing the employee resources we have to explicitly address the mental health and wellness consequences of racism and the trauma of witnessing racist violence, using our leadership to make our organizations stronger voices for equity and anti-oppression, and in the case of our hospital, advancing our work in reducing health inequity and identifying how the social determinants of health – including race – impact the children and families we serve, are just a few things to do.”

Julia Hanigsberg, President & CEO, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s biggest money manager, set an expectation for his employees in a note that he then shared on LinkedIn.

“…Black Professionals Network has led a series of powerful sharing sessions where employees have discussed these incidents. Now we must broaden the discussion. I ask that all of us across the firm reflect on and engage in dialogue on these issues.”

Larry Fink, Chairman & CEO, BlackRock

As a communicator, I understand the instinct that CEOs are having right now to make a statement or send an email. But blog posts will not bring justice and equality to our communities, nor alleviate discrimination or poverty. As CEO, you have influence and power to make meaningful change. Actions speak louder.

Share this Post:
Posted by Cheryl
Cheryl works with C-Suite executives to build and manage their personal reputations. Making the CEO successful is her passion.