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Volume 23 No. 28
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Communication landscape has shifted, but earning trust is still paramount

Communication has traditionally been viewed as the art of persuasion. Buy my product. Vote for my candidate. Donate to my nonprofit.

This year as leaders have navigated both the coronavirus pandemic and the national conversation on ending systemic racism, the communications landscape has profoundly shifted. The most effective leaders are using their communications opportunities to earn trust.

There are four foundational principles for earning trust through communication:

It’s about your audience: Your primary message consideration must be focused on what is most important to your target audience. As a leader, it’s no longer about you and your enterprise. My consulting colleague Elton Gumbel told me, “letting your audience feel that you are aware of what is activating their emotions or concerns is a huge step.” Getting the tone right is also key. As my friend Mary Scott from UEG said recently, “This is a time to solve, not sell.”

Be consistent: Your desired audience needs to hear from you in a regular cadence. A number of brands posted a quick hashtag-centric message, then retreated, only to be called out by advocates for being insincere. Make sure your message is aligned with your mission, reflected in your corporate culture and delivered consistently across all platforms.

Be honest, open and transparent. Be vulnerable: There are a few surefire ways to demonstrate genuine openness and vulnerability — acknowledge past mistakes, admit you don’t have all the answers today, and commit to listen to your audience in order to grow in understanding. It’s also important to make sure your body language conveys openness, humility and respect.

Most importantly, keep your promises: You must follow up your words with action. Be accountable.

While building trust through communication is a daily activity, earning trust takes time. Humility and gratitude are key building blocks.  

On the topic of speaking directly to the Black community, I recently heard powerful guidance from Pastor Richie Butler of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Dallas.

Have a conversation, not a debate … and not a monologue.
Be present. Be self-aware.
Be nonjudgmental.
Set aside your agenda and listen.
Seek to understand, not to be understood.

When communicating directly to the Black community, it is important to be specific. Terms such as “minority community” and “people of color” are nonspecific. “People want to be named and recognized, not as part of an amalgam,” said Adrienne Dixson, a professor of critical race theory at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Longtime sports communications consultant Reggie Roberts said the social justice discussion will require patience, thoughtful reflection and analysis. “Social justice issues can be complicated because of the intersection of diverse, demographic variables. Beyond that, the issues are very personal and are often interpreted through lenses in which one views the world.”

Gumbel points out the exhaustion many Black Americans feel in the conversation. “While it may be a new concern for the company — or for you as a leader —  it’s not a new conversation for the Black community and some may feel overwhelmed by the sudden flood of questions. Don’t jot down everything you’ve ever wanted to ask a Black person, and then unload the entire list of questions. The communication should not resemble a survey where you complete as many answers as you can in one sitting so that you can check a box and move on to the next task at hand. Seek dialogue, insight and input. Then give the weight of the conversation enough time to sink in. After that, revisit with the goal of continuing the conversation.”

Earning trust through communication takes time and consistent effort and must be followed up with meaningful action. Leaders must be clear in their commitments and demonstrate that their organizations support causes that matter to the Black community.

The advocacy group Real Action Creates Equity (RACE) offers helpful guidance on language. For starters, avoid euphemisms. Don’t patronize. Stay away from linking the national conversation on race to the pandemic as challenges we are facing in 2020. After all, there won’t be a vaccine for racism. Don’t refer to “color blindness.” Eliminate phrases such as blackball, black sheep, blacklist, black cloud, black mark, white knight, whitelist and whitespace. Scrutinize your website and other materials to ensure you are capitalizing “Black” as you would Native American, Latino and Asian.

Black community leaders also suggest engaging in multiple, meaningful, uncomfortable conversations with Black people of different ages and genders. 

Ultimately, the most effective leaders are those who are listening, growing in understanding about the Black experience and taking meaningful action to help eradicate racism.

Scottie Rodgers of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic offered this advice: “Get used to being uncomfortable. Get out of your chair and go talk to somebody. Use this as an opportunity to be a leader.”

Kevin Sullivan (@KSullie) founded Kevin Sullivan Communications in 2009. He is a former White House communications director and communications executive with NBCUniversal, NBC Sports and the Dallas Mavericks. He is the author of “Breaking Through: Communications Lessons from the Locker Room, Board Room & Oval Office.”

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com