Over my nearly five decades in public relations at Cerrell, plus a stint in broadcast news, I’ve been involved in managing and covering a wide range of crisis situations for clients in the public policy/public affairs space. Issues usually fell into the energy, environment, transportation and manufacturing sectors.
And like many of my colleagues in the business who deal with crises, we produced the talking points, identified the media and stakeholders, trained the spokespeople, set up the crisis communications chain of command, helped with the briefings and follow-up. A pretty standard playbook that usually worked pretty well.
But a number of years ago, there was a change in what I saw in crisis communications. Awareness grew that many crisis issues impacted diverse communities in the sectors I referenced above, and there was a growing need to understand and react to how these crises impacted these groups and how businesses and government agencies would need to respond.
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The environmental justice or EJ movement, which actually began in the late ’60s and early ’70s, was often seen in the labor/union arena and in communities of color reacting to wage inequities, as well as impacts from dirty air, polluted water supplies, toxic chemical spills and manufacturing byproducts. Informed community-based groups and their supporters in the legal, media and political spheres began to engage, speak out and legislate. They became more public and more aggressive and began to incorporate in-your-face tactics to gain attention and change.
For most firms, including ours, EJ was a small part of our business portfolios. Still, many of us advised our private and public sector clients to take stock of what could spur this kind of crisis in their particular areas, and we advised clients to understand these issues and audiences and respond with outreach and education.
In recent years, I’ve seen the EJ movement become linked to a broader, more vocal and confrontational force known as social justice, which has become a force for wholesale change. According to the United Nations, “Social justice may be broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth.” And I would add: “Social justice is the opportunity for diverse and underserved communities to attain equity in all areas of life.”
I believe that one of the accelerators of the social justice movement is, unfortunately, the breakdown of trust in virtually all major institutions both public and private: government, energy companies, media, business, public safety, the courts, education (at all levels) and healthcare. When we combine this decline with the incredible polarization and lack of civility in our society, plus food insecurity, homelessness, lack of opportunity, workforce reduction and the COVID-19 pandemic, have propelled the social justice movement into our collective consciousness, as well as our work as communicators.
We now have a big push by many groups for equity in healthcare services being driven by traditional social determinants of health, plus all the new complications of COVID; calls for more spending on homelessness and housing; expansion of food and nutrition programs and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion movement impacting virtually all of the clients we represent.
Firms that represent any of the above industries or businesses have to understand that virtually all of their clients are vulnerable to pressure from any number of outside forces pushing for economic, environmental social justice and equal societal rights with a level of intensity we have not seen until recent years.
So, what does this ever-expanding social justice era mean for communicators? Many clients aren’t prepared for a general crisis situation, let alone for social justice-related issues. It’s time to prepare or beware of the consequences.
For decades, many of us have used various assessments like S.W.O.T. and other analytical programs to assess what a client’s profile would look like in terms of an effective public relations or public affairs program. And just as the EJ movement evolved into social justice, I would suggest that communications pros think about adding what I would call a “Social Justice Vulnerability Index” or SJVI to your arsenal of crisis assessment and planning tools.
The SJVI should measure both qualitatively and/or quantitatively a client’s vulnerability both internally and externally to potential confrontation over its products, services, brand, community involvement and leadership. And through an SJVI, there should also be an assessment of what avenues an organization should pursue to show its strong commitment to not just selling products or services, but how it will improve the lives of those customers, consumers and stakeholders. You all can no doubt think of other SJVI areas to explore and recommend along with your standard client program elements.
In addition to the traditional crisis planning process, using an SJVI, you can also scope out what might occur from these forces of change in terms of dealing with attacks on your client for its lack of involvement and commitment to societal good. This should be both a proactive and reactive exercise with the appropriate planning report(s), tools and procedures to face the communications landmines in our arena today.
A few additional key questions that might go into an SJVI might be: Is the product or service potentially harmful in any way to its customers/audiences? Does the client have an Equity, Society and Governance or ESG program? Is it committed to DEI internally and externally? Has it had DEI training? What about community benefits other than giving checks? Is the company a change agent in its world? How is the management encouraging its employees to engage externally? Does the company at all levels get out into the community? What are its hiring practices, as well as mentorship programs? What online vulnerabilities does your client have in its operations and corporate mission?
And don’t think this is just for the client! Agencies should undertake the same kind of SJVI for themselves. With a lot of pressure to improve diversity in hiring, leadership, pay and promotion—as well as servicing potentially high visibility and controversial clients—it makes sense to do an SJVI. Our firm did this and we found it helpful in terms of DEI, client selection, retention and strategic counseling as well as where to place our own company dollars and staff involvement in LA organizations deeply involved in social justice and societal change.
In our ever-changing and more complex public relations practices, we must be attuned to these social justice issues and prepare ourselves and our clients for this new communications and crisis management world order. Ignoring these forces is no longer an option for our industry.
Hal Dash is Chairman and CEO of Cerrell Associates in Los Angeles.