Words matter. Images matter. Communication matters. Actions matter.
Perceptions are set and reinforced. That’s the essence of public relations.
The mission of brands and enterprises is to establish an authentic perception and reinforce it through communications and marketing. It’s the same for institutions and politicians.
In the latter case it often involves using words and images to establish negative perceptions about a subject or issue the communicator sees as contrary to their own agenda or success.
Take then President Donald Trump’s constant invocation of the “China virus,” "Wuhan virus" and “kung flu” in speeches and media appearances and Meghan McCain stating on a nationally televised cable show she had “no problem” with the term “China virus.”
It became part of a dangerous process in setting a perception the effects of which were subsequently reaped by the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community.
It resulted in an environment in which there has been a marked increase in Anti-Asian attacks and hate crimes across the U.S. Stop AAPI Hate reported 3,800 attacks/assaults against Asian-Americans over the past year. In addition, racist attacks and discrimination has long been underreported.
It built on stereotypes established way back in the 1800s with the Chinese Exclusion Act and the treatment of Chinese workers building American railroads, through Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during the Second World War.
There was the beating to death of Vincent Chen in Detroit in 1982 because two men thought him to be Japanese and blamed him for the auto industry’s troubles and “taking their jobs.” There were the 1992 riots in Los Angeles when police left Koreatown to burn and residents had to fend for themselves. And so many more egregious incidents.
The latest escalation of rhetoric culminated in the murder of eight innocent people in the Atlanta spa attacks last week, including six women of Asian descent, a police officer and an army veteran.
After the attacks, Cherokee County Sheriff's Office spokesman Capt. Jay Baker said last Wednesday the murder suspect was "pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did."
It subsequently emerged Baker had previously posted images on Facebook of himself promoting T-shirts peddling President Trump’s racist perception of the coronavirus.
The shooter was not having a “bad day” – rather, it was the people he killed and their families who were the ones suffering.
Like I said, words matter, images matter, communications matters. This statement was not OK.
California Rep. Ted Lieu responded on Twitter: "Based on today's press conference, I would not have confidence in the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office to conduct a fair investigation that respected the Asian victims."
Facebook’s global head of social marketing Eric Toda this week told Ryan Berman’s Courageous newsletter these incidents are not new, that his own grandfather was the target of a violent hate crime in the 90s and that he had faced racism his entire life.
“My family has had to leave restaurants because someone decides they're going to harass a family in the middle of dinner,” he added. “I've been told to go back to Chinatown at least once a year throughout my life, and the list goes on. This isn't new.”
Basketball player Jeremy Lin described being racially abused on court and explained this week that Asian-Americans are always projected as being “others,” with constant micro aggressions and questions about “where are you really from?”
I remember the disgusting racist abuse our former reporter Sean Czarnecki received on Twitter, especially around the time of the United Airlines reputation crisis when Asian-American Dr. David Dao was dragged off a plane.
It’s an environment him and our current PRWeek team members Betsy Kim, Lisa Gill and David Lee have had to grow up with, as have many other colleagues throughout our parent company Haymarket Media and in workplaces across the country.
Tech industry analyst Jeremiah Owyang tweeted this week: “I no longer wear Bluetooth ear buds in public or am head down in my phone, as I have to be extra aware of my surroundings as an Asian-American.”
There is also a feeling that corporate America isn’t responding quite as vigorously to this racial reckoning as it did to the Black Lives Matter movement last year.
Toda noted to Berman: “I was really angry. Angry that our industry (marketing), an industry that constantly preaches diversity and doing what's right, didn't do what's right by standing for me and my community as we were getting murdered, harassed, and targeted.”
The close ties to community were reiterated for me in the story of Xiao Zhen Xie, highlighted on Muck Rack. The alarming number of attacks against the elderly and women in particular show the aggressors are deliberately targeting those who they perceive to be "weak" or vulnerable targets unlikely to fight back.
The 75-year-old Asian grandmother was punched by a man in San Francisco but did fight back, smacking her attacker with a board. She is recovering but decided to donate the nearly $1 million that was raised for her medical expenses to Asian causes, rather than keeping it herself, according to NPR.
Salesforce, Starbucks, Netflix and Delta posted messages of support on social media in a similar way to which brands did last year after the death of George Floyd, which is all well and good, but at this point consumers and other stakeholders are looking for real actions to back up the words.
Some brands are stepping up with more meaningful activities.
Etsy donated $500,000 to support the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Digital marketing agency Direct Agents directed NFT-generated funds to “Hate Is a Virus.”
Tim Cook announced Apple would donate to groups providing support to those affected by the AAPI violence. Peloton donated $100,000 to the Asian American Federation, which supports Asian-American communities.
Nike created a video against Asian hate and is donating $500,000 to 20 non-profits supporting AAPI causes.
Designers, influencers and creatives including Prabal Gurung, Phillip Lim and Michelle Lee encouraged people to support Asians in the media as part of campaign to stop violence against Asians. Foursquare CEO David Shim is matching donations up to $10,000 to the AAPI Community Fund.
Facebook held two live events on Instagram, one with Nobel Peace Prize nominee and political activist Amanda Nguyen and Benny Luo, founder of NextShark, a news site dedicated to Asian American issues; the other with Aarti Kohli, director of Asian American Advancement Justice Asian Law Caucus.
And at least the current president’s communication is more on point than his predecessor’s in this respect.
President Biden visited Atlanta last Friday and talked about the impact of the hate attacks on the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community: “So many of them — our fellow Americans — they’re on the front lines of this pandemic, trying to save lives, and still they are forced to live in fear for their lives just walking down streets in America. It’s wrong, it’s un-American, and it must stop.”
He’s right. And communicators and marketers can play their part in reestablishing what real America stands for.
As Facebook’s Toda says: “Don't hide behind your brands, lead with them with bravery and courage. All your speeches about DEI, about diversity, about equality, mean nothing without action and better believe we're not the only ones coming with receipts. Do the right thing, stand with your people, and make our industry truly as inclusive as the messages/narratives we market.”
Words matter. Images matter. Communication matters. Actions matter.
This story first appeared on PRWeek US.