On May 21, we launched the COVID-19 Corporate Memory Project to collect, preserve and present the real-time history of the pandemic through the lens of corporate responses to it. We expected that one of our first insights would relate to how corporations were reopening, given that all 50 states have loosened restrictions on businesses to various degrees. We didn’t expect that our first observations would be about civil rights. Sadly, here we are.

The events following the murder of George Floyd on May 25 have shifted the landscape of this moment in history once again. For communicators and marketers, it may feel like we are living through the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression and the 1960s civil rights protests—all at the same time, and without a playbook to guide us.

Companies and brands haven’t always been quick to take a stand during periods of unrest, but last week was different. Business media coverage focused largely on the comments of the four black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, but they were joined by hundreds of their peers. Will words from Corporate America’s leaders calling for justice and equality translate to real change? This sentiment, which went viral this week, captures the cynicism many people share:

This is a critical image shared on social media that parodies that stock responses brands issued in light of the nationwide unrest at the beginning of June. It reads 'We at [Brand] are committed to fighting injustice by posting images to Twitter that express our commitment to fighting injustice. To that end, we offer this solemn white-on-black .jpeg that expresses vague solidarity with the Black community, but will quietly elide the specifics of what is wrong, what needs to change, or in what ways we will do anything about it. This is doubly true if [Brand] is particularly guilty of exacerbating these issues. We hope this action encourages you to view [Brand] positively without, you know, expecting anything from us.'

Some companies backed up their statements with actions and are keenly aware that how they respond is being monitored by stakeholders with new and stronger Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) standards, which include diversity and inclusion. Recent events remind us that our country’s long history of systemic racism continues to be one of our deepest wounds. When we began working with clients 40 years ago, we were capturing memories of events that included:

• What it was like to be the CEO of a large organization with a headquarters in the center of a city during the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.

• Recruiting and retaining African American professionals in the late 1960s.

• The African American blue-collar worker in the Deep South who shattered racial barriers by applying for and receiving a promotion to a managerial position.

• Stories about conducting business in the Jim Crow South, requiring executives to break long-standing discriminatory laws, which ultimately led to permanent change.

As the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder lays bare systemic racism in the United States, those memories stored in companies’ archives don’t seem as though they’re from a bygone era. The pandemic and resulting economic crisis, which are disproportionately affecting urban communities and people of color, only add to the anger of the moment

As states have continued to implement phased reopenings, protests in dozens of cities have raised concerns about the continuing spread of COVID-19. Many companies have already stated they expect many of their employees to stay home until 2021 and some have committed to having workers remain virtual permanently. How will having millions of Americans work from home indefinitely affect the economy? What will the future of the workplace look like in the long term?

Share with us how your company is approaching reopening. Your experiences and expertise can have an impact today—and help future businesses better understand this moment in history. For more insights from the COVID-19 Corporate Memory Project, bookmark the COVID-19 category on our blog.

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