Lizzo’s Masterclass in Turning a Crisis Into a Diversity Statement & Brand Win
By Reva Seth, Sr. Advisor
There are increasingly two distinct viewpoints when it comes to businesses being a force for social change: the founders and leaders rejecting the expectation and distancing their businesses from politics and then those who agree with BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, “It’s not woke. It’s capitalism.”
Taking a stance on societal issues isn’t black and white. Many issues are highly divisive. Others, like racism, are pretty cut and dry.
Still, business leaders and their teams are often reluctant to speak out, concerned about how their message will land or if they will alienate stakeholders. With DE&I issues, 55% are too scared to speak for fear of saying the wrong thing.
Here to help is superstar Lizzo who recently turned a DE&I crisis and misstep into an amazing diversity statement and brand win. It’s a watch-and-learn moment. Here’s why:
The backstory: a DE&I crisis
Grammy-winning singer Lizzo came under fire after “unintentionally” using an offensive slur on her new song “GRRRLS.” The line, “I’m a spaz; I’m about to knock somebody out,” resulted in a massive outcry. Fans, community leaders and disability advocates called her out for using the slang term for“spastic” and promoting ableist culture.
Columnist Charlotte Colombo explained of the term “spaz,” it “became derogatory shorthand to describe anyone with a lack of control over their coordination or motor skills… Calling out the word is important because if it’s used by a widely popular artist, there’s a chance it can become normalized again.”
A brand hit
Few stars want to be on the wrong side of a conversation on disability. However for Lizzo, this was about more. The scale and intensity of the outrage and the potential brand (and business) damage were intensified by what Lizzo does with her music and public platform.
Described as “the reigning queen of body positivity,” she posts unfiltered images to her 12.7 million Instagram followers along with calls to embrace themselves as they are. This mistake was the opposite of her inclusive messages and out of step with her fan base.
Lessons from her diversity statement & crisis response
The most common misstep in any crisis is a delay in offering a solution. It allows the story to grow and others shape the narrative, and it undermines the impact of future actions. In Lizzo’s case, the song was released on a Friday; by Monday she had responded to the outcry with real action.
New research shows a relationship between how and when companies respond to public relations crises and their ability to maintain brand reputation in the long term. Putting a crisis framework in place will help your team move more effectively and efficiently when timing matters.
Take real action
After the criticism, Lizzo changed the song’s line from “I’m a s—z” to “Hold me back.” She posted the snippet on TikTok, where users immediately remixed and adopted it.
A solution is ideal. But if that’s not possible, a framework of action must be outlined. If sharing an action plan, include impact performance indicators and communication milestones.
Listen and learn
Alongside the updated version of the song, Lizzo released her diversity statement saying, “I’m proud to say there’s a new version of GRRRLS with a lyrics change. This is the result of me listening and acting.” Lizzo’s decision to immediately change the lyrics — and credit that change to her community — showed she was listening and learning. She positioned herself alongside her community on this journey and accumulated social capital for the future.
Today, the most influential brands engage in two-way conversation with their users, not just broadcasting to them but paying attention to sentiment, feedback and responses.
Recognize your power & make it personal
Rather than downplay the impact of her misstep, Lizzo recognized it. And she made it personal, saying, “… as a fat Black woman in America, I’ve had many hurtful words used against me, so I understand the power words can have.”
If your team, brand, or leader can have a communications crisis, they have a measure of real influence and power. Recognize this instead of downplaying it. And, where authentic and relevant to the crisis, share a personal link or experience that explains or connects to the situation. Reminding people that we are all flawed humans hoping to do better is effective.
Instead of being defensive, Lizzo acted once she heard the criticism. She won over many of the fans and activists who had criticized her and created this amazing case study in turning a crisis into a brand win.
The world is moving fast. A brand’s most effective strategy against miscommunication or mistakes is cultivating a genuine culture of listening, learning and responding to their community — like Lizzo.
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