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Did You Avoid the Pitfalls of Black History Month Campaigns?

POSTED ON 
March 1, 2023

As a DEI practitioner, I find Black History Month to be a charged time. It's wonderful that we dedicate a month to learning about Black stories, Black achievements and Black ancestors. But, too often, the month devolves into three major communication pitfalls: performative messaging, off-tune campaigns and the unintentional erasure of Black joy.  

As you reflect on how your organization celebrated Black History Month, think about what you can do differently for next year – and what you can apply to other Heritage and History months. Did you fall into any of these pitfalls?  

1. Performative Messaging 

I see a lot of performative messaging during Black History Month (or any heritage, history or awareness month for that matter). This often looks and feels like organizations that are talking the talk and doing very little, if anything, to walk the walk.   

While organizations may mean well by putting out a statement – or simply fear the perception of not jumping on the bandwagon – intentions and kind words without actions to back them up accomplishes nothing.  

💡 PRO TIP: Before making any kind of internal or external statement, take a moment to think critically. Once you put that message out for your employees or even the world to see, you can’t take it back.  

Think through what you’re going to say – and why you’re going to say it. Ensure your messaging is purposeful and aligned with your mission and values.  

Consider what commitments your organization has made, if any. Your messaging should be part of your organization following through with consistent communication and progress reports on your DEI goals and strategy. And if you aren’t doing that, it doesn’t mean you can’t start today!    

When and Why We Speak Up

2. Off-Tune Campaigns 

Whether it’s an internal campaign targeting Black employees or something splashy an organization is doing in the public spotlight, there’s no shortage of campaigns that fall short, oversell or, worse, serve as nothing more than window dressing.  

Sadly, Black History Month is yet another month for many brands in corporate America to simply change their colors, launch a new product, announce a donation or suddenly remember their Black audiences.  

In the world of employee experience and internal communications, the trap we might fall into is that feeling of panic when February is approaching, and we realize: “Oh no! We don’t have any Black employees lined up to interview/feature/spotlight for Black History Month.”  

💡 PRO TIP: Avoid tokenism. If you can help it, we’d advise against spotlighting Black employees – if you’re only doing it in February. Your Black employees are showing up every day, aren’t they? 

For your Black History Month messaging to be authentic, it must tie back to your Black employee experience. Avoid fluff as much as you can. Take a close look at your engagement and DEI survey data. If there is a disconnect between your organization’s commitment and its reality, your job is to tell that story and push for change. You can celebrate the good but also speak honestly about the opportunities and progress made along the way.   

Working in employee experience, internal communications, and DEI requires bravery and vulnerability. Employees are looking for progress > perfection. We need to stop keeping everything hidden in black boxes or wrapping it all in glitter. Of course, too much transparency can be harmful too. (Read more about that in this article on communicating DEI survey results to understand why!)

To make your messaging impactful, you must be strategic. And simply “planning” your content calendar out and aligning it with Heritage months isn’t being strategic.

Go back to your DEI strategy, think about the goal and purpose of your messaging, and ensure your message is aligned, supporting, and amplifying that strategy (and if you need help doing this, let us know)!  

Why Most Companies Should (Not) Publicly Celebrate History, Heritage & Awareness Months

3. Unintentional Erasure of Black Joy 

Lastly, stories of our Black colleagues, friends, neighbors, and community members during Black History Month often lead to the unintentional erasure of Black joy.  

Messaging during Black History Month often places a rosy lens on the journeys of historical figures and either downplays or zeroes in with a heavy hand on the tragedies in American History. Our representation of Black people in the media is no different. Think back to any major headline centering on a Black person.

More often than not, it’s devastating tragedy porn, like the murder of Tyre Nichols or the perpetuation of the stereotype of the dangerous Black man. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we also often place the “exceptional exceptions” on a pedestal. Think Beyoncé, Obama or Oprah.  

There seems to be no space for stories of those in between those extremes. Do our internal communications fall into the same trap? 

💡 PRO TIP: As communicators, we must strike a balance between acknowledging the realities of Black history and celebrating the ordinary stories of ordinary Black people living ordinary lives.  

While the escalation of police violence against Black people deserves attention, so does the recent promotion of one of your Black colleagues. While the College Board is actively whitewashing its AP African American Studies curriculum, your organization is actively recognizing (and retaining!) its Black ERG leads.  

Your content and messaging will land when you humanize your people as people. Let’s celebrate their accomplishments, wins and lessons learned along the way. 

How To Build Inclusive & Accessible Cultures Through HR and Communications

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Black history and Black futures matter not just during February, but all year. Let’s ensure our messaging, campaigns and storytelling are mission and values-aligned, reflect the totality of the Black experience, and take those moments to celebrate Black joy.

In doing so, we can ensure our people see, feel and celebrate all the ordinary stories that don’t make national headlines – but do reflect Black excellence. 

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