When history calls

The thing about experiencing an historic event—especially a horrifying, tragic event—is that your days and hours might feel normal right up until the moment when all normalcy is ripped from you. You may feel mostly OK, and then you are suddenly acknowledging that you are NOT OK, and you can’t get away from that feeling.

It’s like seeing a small fire in passing and thinking, gee, I hope no one got hurt … then suddenly realizing the entire city is already in flames all around you.

On May 25, in our hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, four policemen murdered George Floyd. Many Americans are experiencing this event as a deep trauma—either reliving ongoing pain, or feeling it as a fresh shock.

We are reaching a shared understanding that this current reality was never a small fire, and this moment in history is anything but sudden. Black people have never been allowed to feel OK in America. This current crisis is just the latest iteration of what’s been going on for hundreds of years.

The good news is that once you realize unequivocally that you are living through an important and possibly transformative moment in history, you can get clarity on what role you want to play.

Start with who you (really) are

Right now, all around the United States, brands are saying Words About Values and making Socially Conscious Statements. As you pore through these emails and social posts, you might be noticing that some land really well (looking at you, Ben & Jerry), and others make you want to throw up. (Really, San Francisco 49ers? REALLY?) 

As your company or organization considers your own communication around this historical moment, it is important to take a hard look in the mirror. The question to ask yourself is not “Do we care about Black lives?,” because it’s too easy to say yes and jump ahead to whatever affirming statement you think you are supposed to make right now.

Instead, what you need to ask yourself is this: “How were we demonstrating our commitment to racial justice before May 25, 2020? What were we already doing? What were we failing to do?”

Doing the work of dismantling white supremacy always requires this level of vulnerability. This is not unlike other times when you have considered your business goals and your user needs: Action matters more than intent, and you cannot manufacture goodwill with your audience—you must earn it. A one-time statement or donation will fall flat without a sustainable, long-term commitment.

Take stock of opportunities

Once you have done a bit of soul-searching about your brand, consider what you are doing well, where you’ve fallen down, and what your unique voice might contribute to the current conversation. Don’t just jump on a bandwagon and check a box—really dig into your organizational strengths and weaknesses.

Here at Brain Traffic, these were things we had in place before the current crisis:

  • An office culture that nurtures activism 
  • A flexible schedule that allows for volunteer work
  • An owner who makes donations in our name to the nonprofits of our choice
  • A diverse community of content strategists who attend and speak at our conferences
  • Social channels and email lists that reach thousands of people around the world
  • A defined goal of always welcoming new content strategy voices to the discipline

When we saw the video of George Floyd’s murder and the wave of action that followed, these things fortified us to react appropriately. We abandoned our daily work plan; changed our office hours to 9:30 a.m.–1:00 p.m. until further notice; announced our limited hours via out-of-the-office messages and social posts; and tried to show up in our communities and with our families. 

Ask the big, difficult questions

After a few chaotic days of just trying to help however we could, we slowed down to ask bigger questions. What story do we want to tell right now? Whose voices can we lift up? How can we better amplify the folks doing important work? 

Then we asked harder questions, too. Why haven’t we been more outspoken about what Brain Traffic believes in the past? We recruit diverse conference speakers from around the world, but why have we been less successful recruiting people of color at our office in Minneapolis? Why don’t we have a written, measurable commitment to diversity in hiring? What risks are we willing to take?

Content strategy is about getting the right information to the right people at the right time. But the more we talked as a team, the more we realized we didn’t just want to make a statement that tells you what we believe—we want to show you how we are grappling with our own issues. We don’t have it all figured out, but we’re determined to take on these complex challenges.

Make a plan for change

It is hard to know what will happen tomorrow, or the next day, or next week. For months now, we’ve all been experiencing shockwaves: Australian wildfires, a global pandemic, an economic depression, and now a passionate worldwide outcry for civil rights. In many ways, it feels impossible to plan ahead. We may not be able to predict what’s next, but it’s important to move from reactive mode into long-term strategy.

If we know anything about racial justice, we know that it takes hard work and time to dismantle systems, and it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. No matter what the immediate future holds, we have already begun making some long-term changes internally at Brain Traffic. 

We will:

  • Increase the number of equity scholarships we provide for our two conferences, Confab and Button
  • Create new ways to spotlight marginalized voices beyond our conferences
  • Hire an HR consultant to educate our team about better practices to successfully recruit and hire for diversity 
  • Actively plan for long-term, recurring charitable giving, to be defined in our annual business plan
  • Commit to quarterly volunteering for organizations that work for racial justice and serve our most vulnerable community members 
  • Hold each other accountable to do work that matters, not work that flatters

We can’t be absolutely sure that these are the right things to do, but it’s where we’ve started. Please don’t hesitate to contact us to offer additional ideas and feedback for improvement.

At Brain Traffic, we will always recognize and advocate for the importance of content strategy in organizational effectiveness. However, content alone is never a substitute for decisive action. 

Instead of newsjacking a deeply painful moment in American history, brands everywhere have the opportunity to do meaningful, lasting work. Let’s make it happen.

This post was written by Tenessa Gemelke, Brain Traffic’s Director of Education and Events, and is co-signed by everybody on the Brain Traffic team. She thanks David Dylan Thomas and Lydell Pitts for their thoughtful review and helpful edits.

Tenessa Gemelke is the director of education and events at Brain Traffic. She runs the show at Confab  an annual content strategy conference that happens in Minneapolis each spring. Tenessa is always looking for ways for folks to share knowledge and support each other’s work in content strategy and user experience. When she is not hosting educational events, she is probably eating cheese.