This time it's different: Why we're challenging brands to help tackle systemic inequality

"We embrace this moment with open arms because this disruption has potential for everlasting change - not just for a brand or agency, but for a long overdue realization of equity."

The vast cultural reckoning we’re facing today didn’t come overnight. It’s a result of a long legacy of unequal systems, exploitation and cruelty - these systems of oppression were perpetuated and engrained through narratives that rationalized them for centuries.

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, a distorted narrative emerged that painted a romaticized version of history in which "The South" was heroic and just, fighting not to preserve their system of slavery but to solemnly stand up against a radical power. Led by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, "The Lost Cause" narrative lionized confederate generals and heralded a "southern way of life" negating the white supremacy and brutality that fueled economies and institutions.

It was a public relations campaign. The United Daughters of the Confederacy used their influence to spread false and damaging propaganda over three decades through text books, monuments and community events. And that legacy can still be seen today via brand logos, commemorative memorials and up until just last month, the state flag of Mississippi. This showcases the power of a controlled narrative.

While The Lost Cause was waged through classrooms, monuments and flags, today our battleground is on screens. As we know, brands are powerful players in this space vying for our most valued commodity - attention. With this power comes great responsibility.

Last year the Business Roundtable outlined a new modern standard for corporate responsibility that called for the end of shareholder value as the top priority of American corporations. Instead, an emphasis was placed on promoting a business economy that serves all and creates long-term value. Driven by consumers’ quest for what is morally right and fair, the role of companies in our society -- to invest in employees, protect the environment and deal fairly and ethically with suppliers -- is forever redefined.

If corporations are to maintain relevance, they must move brand activism to its core and examine their inherent privilege - how have they been profiting off unjust systems, what conditions have been maintained that benefit the perpetual majority?

As part of that reflection, if brands are to continue demanding our attention and space on our screens, it’s imperative they use that power to unravel and reframe narratives around race, community, equity, gender, abledness and sexual orientation.

And if they’re to compete for unwavering brand loyalty, they must do it with the same fervor as those that perpetuated racist narratives of the past.

Our goal at Praytell is to help brands take inventory of the role they play in a system rooted in inequity, to help them invert that power to change the way we all work in, move through, and see the world.

Driven by our quest for equity in an industry that has struggled with adapting to the needs of  marginalized communities, we launched Praytell’s People, Culture and Allyship practice. Combining our personal and professional experience, we’re guiding brands ready to transform relationships with diverse communities, drive systemic change and practice allyship with real, lasting impact. We draw from collective cultural and historical fluency to build programs that help brands meet this moment with authenticity while also bridging the gap between external sentiment and internal actions.

This work isn’t new for us, something we’ve been doing for many years at Praytell. But after a transformative time in our country’s history, it deserves a new, more incisive lens.

On a personal level we’ve endured the hardships of navigating corporate America while Black. It’s exhausting. It’s traumatizing. But we embrace this moment with open arms because this disruption has potential for everlasting change - not just for a brand or agency, but for a long overdue realization of equity.

2020 marks a change in how consumers view the institutions around them. With a global pandemic forcing companies to shift course in ways both good and bad and a long simmering call for equality for the Black community, we’re in a period of deep reflection on the reciprocal relationship between consumers and companies.

As the dust settles, may the industry not strive for business as usual but commit to actively building a future where equity is embedded into the fabric of society. As communicators, we have access to the levers that can turn the tide. Here’s to hoping we exert all the influence we have to make it happen.

Stefan Embry is VP of account strategy; Naria Frazer is VP and head of diversity, equity and inclusion at PrayTell.  

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