COPING WITH MINORITY CRISES: CREATING COMMUNICATION PLAN HELPS MARKETERS SURVIVE RACIAL MISSTEPS

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It's amazing so many businesses failed to learn from the crises other organizations experienced when it comes to minorities, particularly African-Americans.

Think about it: Who would have predicted the highly publicized crises of Texaco, Avis Rent A Car System, Eddie Bauer and AT&T Corp., or the advertisements that tarnished the image of Domino's Pizza? You would think these incidents would be a wake-up call for corporate America.

Yet here we are in 1998 with companies, and even segments of our government, facing investigations, lawsuits, plummeting stock prices and horrendous negative publicity stemming from racial or disparaging remarks or actions.

I attribute these crises to the demise of affirmative action, corporate America's quest for profits at any cost and the de-emphasis of diversity training as part of the equation for business success.

REPUTATION AT STAKE

As marketers, we must recognize a client's reputation is at stake with every strategy we employ; therefore, our approach has to be smart, insightful, relevant and culturally sensitive.

The majority of large corporations in America today are operating without any comprehensive minority crisis communications plan. Many corporations, big and small, operate under the false assumption they are well-equipped to handle such a major public relations snafu -- especially one that develops as a result of an advertising campaign's creative execution or stereotypical caricatures, or media placements deemed insensitive or discriminatory.

It's not that corporations and other organizations don't have some kind of crisis plan in place. Most do. However, they are designed to address issues such as white-collar crime, sexual harassment and class-action lawsuits.

Most crisis management plans do not take into account current consumer/market conditions, and most definitely do not include a minority component. Those that do are not reflective of minority markets and often fail because of a company's lack of understanding of the cultural nuances of minority consumers.

Traditionally, these situations have been remedied with "blood money": increasing ad placements in minority publications; adding people of color in advertisements; or making large contributions to historical civil rights organizations. Well, that might have worked in the '70s, but it clearly will not work in the '90s.

CRISES CAN HIT ANYTIME

Today, minority consumers are more educated and understand their economic impact -- $500 billion in the case of African-Americans -- is a compelling reason why marketers must become much more sophisticated.

The plain truth is that crises can hit anyone, anywhere, anytime. Many crises are preventable, though some are not. For sure, there is no crisis we cannot plan for to mitigate the damage.

Successful prevention will depend, in large part, on the equity a marketer has developed with the minority consumer. Companies with long-term relationships generally resolve conflicts long before they turn into crises because they recognize crisis management and communications are all about prevention. These companies have assessed their value within minority markets and assessed minority consumers' perceptions of their products and services.

For example, several years ago, two designers of urban fashion took the African-American market for granted. Consequently, they both committed communication errors that caused crisis situations. One made a comment that devalued African-American consumers and the other ran advertising that was considered degrading and disrespectful.

The one that made the statement leveraged his label's equity within this market and strengthened it with an apology. The other continued to run the advertising and, as a result, lost significant market share with African-American consumers.

Today, the designer who built the equity has an enormous African-American franchise. His business has skyrocketed and he has a positive image among his consumers. The latter is a name of the past.

EVALUATING MARKET STATUS

As a marketer, I recommend that all corporations take the time to conduct an evaluation of their status in the market. At Chisholm-Mingo Group, we employ a crisis-management evaluation assessment.

Before we begin a project for any client, we evaluate a number of variables important to African-American consumers. The company's rating is based on its commitment to the African-American market, community involvement, product quality perception, employment record, plus other important business practices. Additionally, the audit examines how an advertiser communicates and whether or not an advertiser's message conveys that minorities are welcome and valued customers.

An advertiser's marketing partner needs to be able to consult and manage racial and diversity advertising issues that threaten the livelihood of the advertiser's business, regardless of the sensitivity of the issue and its relevancy to a particular ethnic group. When developing marketing communication strategies and messages for minority consumers, it is important to have a complete understanding of the organizations recognized as today's gatekeepers: journalists, politicians, civil rights activists, educators and ministers.

BE POSITIVE

To effectively communicate in a crisis situation, two general principles apply. The first principle is positive, assertive communication that focuses on the most important aspects of the problem and moves the entire process to resolution. The second is the ability to translate lifestyles and trends originating from minority consumer markets into culturally sensitive marketing solutions that can be achieved through advertising.

Having a system in place -- or, better yet, a marketing partner that understands the unique cultural differences of minority consumers -- will allow an advertiser to deal with the situation and not waste precious time trying to decide how to fix the problem.

An effective minority crisis communication plan puts the marketer in control of what may be a very volatile situation. As governments and corporations are continually challenged to become more aware and accepting of their employees' different racial and cultural backgrounds, so too should marketers be more aware of their consumers' different racial and cultural backgrounds.

Mr. Chisholm is chairman-CEO, Chisholm-Mingo Group, New York.

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