Facing racism in your brand history

This post is aimed at all the brand managers who have at least an ounce of humanity; are proud of their brands; are keen to be open about their brand history; but have just discovered that in their brand’s past lurks a legacy of unacceptable representations of people of colour and are tempted to just bury everything they’ve found and never mention it again.

I realise that this is an inflammatory subject. I’m not going to try to offer a forum to discuss the nature of representations of people of colour in colonialist brands (basically because I’d just shut anyone down who tries to justify any of it and shout “IT WAS SO WRONG; IT WAS SO WRONG” and then cry over my laptop because I feel too stupid and ill-informed to know what else to say and because I don’t think the human race is doing an awful lot better now because we’re still having to explain to POTUS that Black Lives Matter – but that’s a different, and frankly more important post). To reiterate: this post isn’t a comment on the many unacceptable representations of people of colour in brand histories, this is about finding these representations in your brand archive and then how to act with integrity.

So, to the advice: you’re a brand manager, you’ve inherited a brand that people love, you’ve looked into its history, and you’ve found something that makes you ashamed of your former brand managers. Seriously, what were some of these people thinking?

First of all, I’m proud of you for having the humanity to feel something when you saw what the history of your brand contained, not everyone would. Secondly I’m pleased that you were even looking into the history of your brand and caring about its past; not every brand manager does that.

Now, you will have a whole load of concerns and none of us can second guess every one of them, but I think you might be worried about not acting in a way that honours the people who were wronged by the creation of this material; you might be worried about perpetuating racism by allowing what you’ve found into the public domain; you might be worried that if you allow the public to see these materials they’ll think you’re endorsing this attitude towards people of colour; and you might be worried that if you allow your colleagues to see what you’ve found that they’ll tell you to destroy it.

First things first: DO NOT DESTROY ANYTHING. Yes, some of the things we archivists find in archives are abhorrent, but that doesn’t mean we should destroy them. I’ve been very fortunate in the brands that I’ve worked with and I’ve never found anything that makes me so angry I want to destroy it. However, I did once work an attachment with the CSI team of my local police force (I was a Special Constable once) and I know that feeling, deep in the gut, when you see a box of photographs and you know that they have to be retained as evidence in the archives, but you want to burn them and never, never remember them again. It is a very human impulse, and I acknowledge it.

Archives once lost can never be replaced. These records can help academics to research, understand, and write about attitudes to diversity and inclusion over time. You may be looking at a poster that represents a person of colour as some kind of comical animal and you may be thinking to yourself “This object deserves to be destroyed by fire” and I would agree with you, but there may be a PhD student out there writing a thesis, or a museum curator putting together an exhibition, who would say “Well that exactly proves my point; I need to borrow that hateful piece of colonialist propaganda.”

I understand why, as a brand manager, you might still be thinking “I still want to destroy all of this in a fire because if any of these materials went on public display I would have a stroke.” But there is another way: you can work through these materials in stages.

— Action plan —

Step one: get in touch with your nearest university. I don’t care what their specialty is, just call in the academics; they’ve got contacts at universities all over the world. Ask them to put you in touch with a university faculty (maybe at their university, maybe at one further away; we live in the digital age, you can Skype if you need to) who would have an academic interest in, and an insight into, the materials that you have found.

Step two: explain your position. Once you’ve been put in touch with the faculty who are a fit with what you’ve found, explain where you’re coming from. You’re talking to another human being and you are feeling some human emotions; explain them so that the academic knows what the situation is. Are you ashamed, angry, worried? What is your objective; do you want to share these records, or do you want advice about what to do with them? Are you still not sure but you want to talk through a plan? If your position is “I’ve found this stuff, I’m horrified, and I want to know how to do the right thing” then say that.

Step three: explain the position of your business if the position of your business is different to yours. Academics get it, if they’re unlucky they work in places where internal politics rules their every waking moment; they will understand if you are open to sharing what you’ve found, but if your firm’s directors are still nervous. Explain if you and your company are on the same page, or if your company is more conservative than you are. Academics are not journalists, they will want to establish a long working relationship with you, and a relationship built on trust; they’re not going to publish this all over the cover of the Metro the minute you put the phone down,

Step four: make some time to talk through options and get advice on where you can go from here. Academic institutions don’t have limitless budgets, so be prepared to fund a project to take on your collection. If you find yourself in a position where you can fund an academic project around your brand then breathe a sigh of relief: you are now in the hands of the professionals. No one can undo the past, but hopefully the work you are going to do with your academic colleagues will be something that your successors can be proud of, even if you can’t be proud of the legacy of your predecessors. You’ve got a few options, and it’s up to you to decide what you are going to do.

— Possible options —

For the very reluctant: place your materials on deposit with an archive, but embargo them. This basically means that you’re using a university or archive like a bank vault. The materials are safe and no one is going to destroy them (if you keep them on site at your office this is a risk), but no one is going to see them either. However, there’s the option for you to share them with researchers one day if your business choses to lift the embargo. You’d be surprised how many archives are holding records like this; it’s better than destroying them so you will find archivists ready to save them and hold them on deposit under embargo indefinitely [“on deposit” means long-term loan].

The toe-in-the-water: put them on deposit (but not under embargo) in an archive so that researchers can look at them, but don’t put them on display or loan them out for exhibitions. They are unlikely to become the subject of a media expos√© because any academic who wants a copy of the materials in the archive needs to seek your permission before they use them. Most archives have pretty tight security so it’s unlikely that a researcher will be able to take a photo or copy of your materials without the archivists asking them not to. This approach is something that I only recommend as a first step to eventually working up to wider access for the public.

The bold, but temperate: hand your collection over to an academic institution (either on deposit or as a gift — maybe with funding to investigate it and catalogue it) and allow them to share it with researchers, museums, or journalists as they see fit. Ask them to let you know if a journalist or writer requests copies of any materials so that you can prepare a statement or interview opportunity for them, but leave it in the hands of the academics and take a step back; you don’t need to control this, you know what your values are now and you are ready to talk about them if anyone asks you. I’m not going to tell you whether or not you should issue a statement of apology (because I’m biased and I think that you definitely should), that’s something to discuss with your Corporate Affairs team, or a Corporate Comms agency.

The baptism by fire: digitise it all, publish it all online, bring in academics to write the copy on your website; tell your PR team to let the world know that you’re going public and there’s no going back. This is perhaps bolder than necessary, but it’s an option. If you’re really angry about what you’ve found and you want to tell the world how mad it makes you then you could go in all guns blazing.

There are so many more options, and you don’t have to be restricted by those I’ve suggested, just please, please, please, never destroy your archives; they are part of the history of the human race, and for better or worse we all need to preserve it.

[Edit in June 2020: please note that the above only applies to archives and material evidence. If your organisation has campaigned to put up a statue of a slave trader in Bristol decades after the dude died then I think you should just pull the fucker down and chuck it in the sea. There’s no need for it to take up a place of honour which could be put to better use by literally anything else.]