Lizzo Just Gave Us A Masterclass In Turning A Diversity & Inclusion Crisis - Into A Brand Win

These are the key lessons for your business and team.
July 10, 2022

The headlines might focus on the founders and leaders rejecting the expectations that brands and organizations should be a force for social change and goo. Still, the majority want to be on the right side of this shift - primarily because they agree with what  BlackRock CEO  Larry Fink wrote in this year's annual client letter, “It's not woke. It’s capitalism.”

Demographics and changing cultural and social norms, mainly as a result of the events of the past two years, have converged so that the expectations around brands and business leaders have never been higher.  The latest wave of Taluna’s global trends survey found that more than half of consumers expect brands to drive societal change.   Similarly, the Edelman 2021 Trust Barometer indicated a similar desire for CEOs to speak about societal issues.  Consumers and customers, especially those from Generation Z  (who now have $360 Billion to spend) and want to do it with the brands and businesses that align with their values. 

The challenge is that business leaders and their teams are often very reluctant to do so - for fear of making a mistake.  Recent research found that 55% are too scared to talk about diversity and inclusion in the workplace for fear of saying the wrong thing.   There’s the perception that if they make a genuine mistake, it’s game over. 

Here to help is the incredible global superstar Lizzo who recently offered up the gold star playbook on handling a diversity inclusion misstep and flipping a communications crisis into a brand win.

It’s a real watch-and-learn moment.  

Here’s why:

First - Here’s the Backstory

Grammy-winning singer Lizzo recently came under fire after “unintentionally” using an offensive slur on her new song “GRRRLS,” 

The line is,  "Do you see this s**t? I'm a spaz; I'm about to knock somebody out."  The word is a slang term for “spastic” — and is considered derogatory.   Its use resulted in a massive global outcry. Fans, community leaders, and disability advocates called her out for promoting ableist culture.

Historically, people used the epithet to describe people with spastic paralysis — a neurological condition affecting the nervous system.  But, as columnist Charolotte Colombo explained, “ the term soon became derogatory shorthand to describe anyone with a lack of control over their coordination or motor skills: which, of course, means these words end up being weaponized against disabled or neurodivergent people.  Calling out the use of this word in the song is important because if the word is used in a song by a widely popular artist, there’s a chance that it can become normalized again.”

For Lizzo - A Brutal Brand Hit

Few stars today want to be on the wrong side of a conversation on disability and ableism, but for Lizzo, this was about much more. The scale and intensity of the outrage and the potential brand (and business) damage were significantly intensified by who Lizzo is and a significant component of what she does with her music and public platform.  

Frequently described as “the reigning queen of body positivity,” she periodically posts unfiltered images to her 12.7 million Instagram followers along with calls to embrace themselves as they are and how they look.  For anyone vaguely familiar with Lizzo’s music (or viral TikTok choreography), this mistake was the exact opposite of her inclusive, body-positive brand messages. 
And so, this crisis hit the foundation of her mission and, worse, was entirely out of step with the beliefs of her fan base and community.    

How She Handled It - And What You Can Learn

Respond quickly

Lizzo’s song “Grrrls” was released on a Friday; by Monday, she had responded to the outcry with real action.  New research from B2B ratings and reviews firm Clutch has found a relationship between how and when companies respond to public relations crises and their ability to maintain a solid brand reputation in the long term

Timing matters - but the most common misstep in a diversity and inclusion crisis is when leadership or brands delay offering a solution, explanation, or apology. 

Delaying gives time for others to shape the narrative, allows the story (and outcry) to grow, and ultimately undermines any future action taken because it increases the chances of it landing with a tone of reluctance and unwillingness - no matter how heartfelt the apology or response by when it is offered.

Take real action.

After the criticism, Lizzo changed the song’s line from “I’m a s—z” to “Hold me back.” She also posted the snippet on TikTok, where it immediately began to be remixed and adopted by users.

A solution is ideal. But if that’s just not possible for whatever reason, a framework of action must be outlined and shared.  

Listening and Learning.

Alongside the updated version of the son, Lizzo released her 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 taking action.”

Instead of doubling down on her word choice or being defensive, Lizzo’s decision to almost immediately change the lyrics showed she was connected and listening to her community - and crucially learning from them.  

Today, the most influential brands engage in a two-way conversation with their community of users or supporters, not just broadcasting to them but paying attention to their sentiments, feedback, and responses.   By crediting her fans and community for helping her learn to do better, she effectively positions herself alongside them on this journey and accumulates social capital for the future. 

Recognize Your Power
Another common mistake brands and leaders make when reacting to a diversity and inclusion misstep is to downplay the incident or the impact that their mistake will have.  By downplaying their power or audience reach, they are looking to dodge their responsibility.

Not so with Lizzo. 

In her statement, she recognizes that “ an influential artist, I’m dedicated to being part of the change I’ve been waiting to see in the world.” 

The Personal +  Your Purpose:

“As a fat Black woman in America, I’ve had many hurtful worlds used against me, so I understand the power words can have.”  shared Lizzo in her Instagram post, saying she was releasing an updated version of her songs. 

Where it can be authentically done, and if relevant to the crisis, share a personal link or experience that explains or connects to the situation or mission.  Reminding people that we are all flawed humans struggling and hoping to do better can help connect at a deeper level to your community.  

Lizzo’s swift removal satisfied many of the fans and activists who had criticized her, believing it to be an example of someone listening, learning, and acting on new information.

Hannah Diviney, a disability advocate in Australia and self-proclaimed Lizzo fan, said in an interview that hearing the word in the original version “made me feel uncomfortable.”

For her, spasticity refers to an “unending, constant, painful tightness in my legs and other parts of my body,” making her life “very difficult and is not something I can control.”  But she was “blown away” by Lizzo’s rapid reversal. Instead of being defensive, the rapper took action once she heard the criticism, making her “a real genuine ally because she’s willing to learn.”

“I’m really glad that Lizzo changing it has led to lots of people learning that it’s a slur,” Ms. Diviney said. “And while I obviously would have preferred she didn’t use it in the first place, I’m glad it became a teachable moment. That’s probably the best outcome.”

The world is moving fast, and 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, 

Reva Seth is a narrative & strategic communications expert at SHIFT Communications and the best-selling author of two non-fiction books.  

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