Crisis Communications 101: Lessons to be Learned from Luvvie’s Fauxpology

The planet Mercury is retrograde, mucking up communications like nobody’s business. Maybe popular blogger/influencer/author Luvvie Ajayi is more deeply impacted by these communication misfires than the rest of us. But I’m not quite ready to give her a planetary pass for the fauxpology she recently issued after publicly trashing unnamed Black and Mixed-race activists in a Facebook post, then spending most of the week defending her rant.

 

luvvie fauxpology snip

 

I’m going to analyze this from two of my areas of expertise: as both a Mixed-race identity activist, and and as a veteran strategic communications expert with special cred in crisis communications. My receipts in this area include Spelman College and other HBCUs, the Children’s Defense Fund Black Community Crusade for Children, speechwriting for high-level government officials, and teaching public speaking at Temple University, along with more than a decade of executive consulting in the public and private sectors.

 

Let’s break this down:

First–context. Now that Luvvie’s platform and spotlight are shining way beyond her blog and social media presence, her words and messaging are impacting other people and platforms beyond her own. It is possible that her being featured as one of the most “Woke” women in the new issue of Essence magazine, might have spurred someone in her circle to help her to realize this. And since monthly magazine content and covers are typically wrapped up weeks or several months ahead of publication, Essence was loving Luvvie long before her problematic FB post.

luvvie essence group

Luvvie is 3rd from left.

Reference: Here are her original offending rant and my response.

Now for our Crisis Communications case study analysis:

  1. She begins the fauxpology by centering herself in the narrative and talking about what a bad week it’s been for her and her spirit without taking any responsibility for having created the “shitstorm” in the first place. This sounds like she’s complaining about the natural consequences of her choice to trash the activists rather than feeling any actual remorse or experiencing a real revelation. Solution: Reference yourself, not the victims, and stick to owning your offense and taking full responsibility for the impact and outcomes that it created.
  2. Unlike in her original post, the fauxpology has a glaring omission of Black people and a total focus on Mixed-race folks. “I should not have broadly generalized a whole group of my people based on a few people. My mixed race comment offended a bunch of you…”  Where is the reference to the Black activists who were the focus of most of her rant? Why the singular focus on only Mixed-race and light-skinned people who were clearly not the main target? Rather than saying, “My mixed race comment offended a bunch of you,” an apology would say, “My comments about both Black and Mixed-race activists were offensive.” And P.S. to everybody: You don’t upper-case Black and lower-case Mixed-race, or vice versa for that matter. Just: No on that passive-aggressive foolishness.
  3. “To my mixed race and light skinned folks, I’m sorry I made you feel like I was questioning your Blackness.” Here you see the classic fauxpology move: I’m sorry I made you feel like I was…” putting the burden on us for what we felt in response to her comments versus a more sincere, straightforward apology for what she said and inferred. She could have simply said, “I’m sorry I questioned your Blackness.” Although, to be clear, she was not “questioning” our Blackness. She was trashing it. There is a huge difference.
  4. She was also being patronizing and condescending while policing our identities. Your Blackness is not for me to judge … Your #BLAXIT passport was never revoked or in jeopardy.” Luvvie still seems to see herself as qualified to confer Black and Mixed-race identity upon folks. Does she not realize that we are born with all the Blackness and any other DNA we need, no external recognition or validation required? She seems to be claiming authority while continually showcasing her lack of basic knowledge and understanding about how these things work in the real world. Then she demonstrated more cluelessness by throwing Rachel Dolezal into the conversation as if Dolezal is Mixed. You can read my column on that hot topic right here.   Solution: she could have said, “I have no right to question, challenge or insult anyone’s racial or identity credentials and I will not do it again.”
  5. Biggest issue: Why is this entire message limited to Mixed-race and light-skinned folks when the bulk of the originating crap-fest specified Black activists? Why aren’t they even mentioned here? Maybe she reached out to them separately. But without knowing that, this just plays like that age-old, beyond trite and tired attempt to divide us: house vs. field; light vs. dark; Mixed vs. Black, etc. Does she really think we don’t see this obvious ploy to favor us at the expense of Black people? To prioritize us and our feelings as if they’re somehow different or more important?
  6. This is the same game the world runs on us each and every day. I don’t know if her advisors pointed her in this direction, or whether she came up with this bright idea on her own. But pitting us against each other just spotlights the underlying problem of her original rant, subsequent defenses of that rant, and now this fauxpology: no evidence that she has any desire to further unity or solidarity. Solution: since she mentioned Black and Mixed-race activists separately and to different degrees in her original post, this response should have covered the same ground in the same proportion and order. Crisis communications require absolute specificity to be effective. Solution: To simply say, “It was not my intention to promote divisiveness between Black and Mixed-race or dark and light-skinned people. I am striving to better understand this dynamic so that I do not inadvertently make the same mistake in the future.
  7. Attempts at humor. Luvvie is a very talented and successful humorist. However, there is nothing amusing about any of this, or any place for this kind of messaging in a crisis communications response. Whether citing Rachel Dolezal in a Mixed-race context or falling back on her popular reference to not coming for her “edges in the name of Jamaican Black Castor Oil,” these read as attempts to deflect from the gravity of the topic, which help to render it a fauxpology rather than the real deal.
  8. Skip the low-key self-referential promotion. The “I should’ve known how important my words would be to people” comes off like a humble brag. Of course she knows how important her every word is–as a blogger, social media influencer, #1 New York Times bestselling author and one of Essence magazine’s “Most Woke Women,” what else could she possibly think? Any real apology focuses on the offender taking full and unequivocal responsibility while centering the offended and their experience to the original offense(s). And promoting her book just felt even more self-serving and less authentic. Solution: delete all of these references before posting.

One thing is clear: If you build your brand on the concept of you judging people, you are seemingly not trying to understand or respect them or their point-of-view. It’s never a good idea to convey a mix of superiority and cluelessness when responding to a communications crisis, especially when you created that crisis in the first place. She’s many days late and several dollars short with the fauxpology, which should have run immediately after the “shitstorm,” and she blew the opportunity by trying to play colorist divide-and-conquer politics while opting out of taking actual responsibility.

Big picture takeaway: Beyond Luvvie, everyone experiences communications crises from time to time. How we respond can have more long-term impact than the original offense. And when done properly, the response can neutralize damage and sometimes even turn a negative into a positive. Let’s recycle this “shitstorm” into a teachable moment for us all.

A study published in the May 2016 issue of the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research outlines the essential elements of an effective apology:

1. Expression of regret

2. Explanation of what went wrong

3. Acknowledgment of responsibility

4. Declaration of repentance

5. Offer of repair

6. Request for forgiveness

See how simple an apology can be?

 

MRM logo snip

And on a more personal note: Anyone who sincerely wants to know about Mixed-race people from the source is invited to visit Multi-racial Media, where a large and varied group of us very ably represent ourselves in all of our complicated glory. This is my very respectful request that all non-Mixed public commentators and anyone else who is inclined to trash, police, and/or play to us at the expense of any other People of Color, please cease and desist immediately and forever. We are more than capable of speaking for ourselves. And when it comes to potential conflicts, the old-school rules apply: Don’t start none, won’t be none. Because you don’t need to be any kind of communications expert to understand that common-sense wisdom.

merc retro sorry

Finally: As any communications expert can tell you, Mercury goes retrograde 3 to 4 times each year. Do your homework so you’re not misspeaking and you might not need to apologize in the first place.

 

 

About That ‘N-word Jew’ Headline…

Bone-tired, I made the mistake of peeking at Facebook before going to bed. And while physically exhausted, I became jolted into outraged #BLEWISH wokeness.

In one of the Black-Jewish Facebook groups I’m in, Robin Washington, a veteran Black-Jewish activist and acclaimed journalist, posted an Atlanta Jewish Times column with the headline  below:

atlanta jewish times headline

While I wanted nothing more than to log off and get some sleep, I had to express my displeasure–especially since I live in Atlanta. So I spoke up in the column’s comments section and on Twitter:

Atlanta jewish times my tweet

 

As I was fighting off slumber, Washington was fully #woke in all senses of the word, leveraging his considerable experience and expertise to reach out to both the publisher and editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times. 

Robin Washington

Award-winning #BLEWISH journalist, activist and subject matter-expert Robin Washington. @robinbirk

After an appropriate Passover greeting, Washington rolled out a few of his receipts, which include his considerable credentials as the co-founder and first chairman of the Alliance of Black Jews and likely the most published commentator about Black Jews anywhere. He’s been editor, columnist and an editorial board member of major newspapers, and a contributor to The Marshall Project, WGBH Boston, NPR, BET and the JTA/myjewish learning, among many others. Washington is also a research fellow of the Institute of Jewish and Community Research.

Having provided both credibility and context to Jacobs, Washington went in:

I’m saying this not to impress you but to tell you that I know more than a little bit about journalism–and by no standard whatsoever is the headline on the article by Patrice Worthy acceptable. The only possible reason it would be remotely so is if she had referred to the phrase herself in her article. I’ve read it thrice, keyword searched, and it’s nowhere to be found. And even if she did suggest the title to you herself, without that being made 100 percent clear, it is not acceptable. 

And then Washington invited a dialogue:

I’m on deadline tomorrow, it’s Pesach and Shabbat. Nonetheless, I implore you to call me immediately to explain yourselves and begin your apology. B’shalom…

Drake Applause

I think that famously #BLEWISH rapper/singer Drake would approve of Robin Washington’s messages and activism.

 

Here are excerpts of the resulting email exchange with editor Michael Jacobs:

Jacobs: I am not attempting to be patronizing. Nor do I need a lecture on my job as an editor … Patrice chose that headline for her column about herself. Its context and meaning were clear to me, based on the personal experiences she was sharing. Yes, it has shock value, but that’s an accurate reflection of the powerful content of the column. 

Washington: Michael, anyone who writes a hed with the most hateful word in human history does need a lecture on journalism … It is an editor’s job to save the writer from her/himself … Further, the headline is the paper speaking, not just the writer. And with the phrase missing from the body [of the column], you are, in effect, calling her the Nigga Jew … Please don’t patronize me to suggest that after 60 years of living this duality and 40 years writing about it that I am somehow mistaken. I don’t think you understand the severity of this or the outrage that is already happening in Black Jewish circles. 

Eventually, Jacobs emailed back sharing a note of apology he said he’d prepared for the next issue of the Atlanta Jewish Times, in which he explained that Worthy suggested the headline herself, then expressed second thoughts, and nonetheless he persisted:

And I thought, despite or because of the shock value, it was appropriate for the content of the column and the upsetting experiences that have arisen from her dual identity. But before we went to press, Patrice had concerns that the headline might be too much, and I should have listened to her … The decision to use that headline was mine and mine and mine alone, and I regret it. I apologize to our readers.

Soon after, the headline was changed to:

New ajt headline

 

Washington and I spoke with a decidedly more contrite and reflective Jacobs by phone the next day.

Jacobs explained that the story had been posted Thursday afternoon, so by the time Washington and I saw it, it had been up for several hours. Jacobs said he was “glad to get the feedback and appreciate[d] that you’re willing to listen to what happened and that it wasn’t something that was done in an effort to label Patrice or offend people. It was Patrice’s effort to portray how she feels she’s perceived in communities and we wanted to share that. There was nuance lost and it was a bad idea to do it in a headline like that.”

When Washington asked about Jacobs’ plan to publish an apology, he responded, “I will apologize that it was a poor decision and I’m certainly sorry that it was offensive to people, and that it detracted from the content of the column.”

Jacobs and Washington also discussed Worthy’s status at the Atlanta Jewish Times. Jacobs said that she’s a frequent, paid contributor on a contract basis. “We don’t have an open [full-time] position right now, but we’re using Patrice as much as we can. She’s a valuable contributor and has been for some time.” Washington and I encouraged Jacobs to consider more coverage about Jews of Color working not only with Worthy, but other Black Jewish journalists.

Kudos to Jacobs for corresponding with Washington and talking with both of us. After his initial reluctance, he stepped up to the plate and did the right thing in response to having run a slur so damaging and distracting that it all but obliterated Worthy’s otherwise high-quality column and the messages therein, in which she stated:

“My identity garners resentment from those who are comfortable with the status quo because being a black Jew disrupts stereotypes in both communities. People who have never met a Jew tell me about being Jewish or tell me I’m trying to whitewash my identity,” she stated. “I never felt that being black and being Jewish were mutually exclusive.”

When I reached out to Worthy to connect in #BLEWISH solidarity, she politely declined at this time. It’s understandable; she might have lost even more sleep than I did over this debacle, and might be fielding some tough questions and outraged attitudes herself.

One of the bigger and continually problematic issues, of course, is the lack of Persons of Color at the editorial and oversight levels in most of our nation’s media, including Jewish media. As Washington shared with Jacobs, all of us who have been published have had our content and certainly our more provocative headlines changed before publication by a higher-up operating with the big picture and best interests of the media outlet in mind, as well as probable responses from the audiences.

Both Washington and I viewed this through the lens of both nuance and lived experience. We were both part of the movement to diversify our nation’s mainstream media spaces beginning in the late 1960s. Our longtime bonds with the National Association of Black Journalists and Unity Journalists of Color provide a long-term, big-picture view of this kind of “best judgment” issue at editorial levels. When there is nobody with the perspective, expertise and authority to nip a problematic word choice in the bud, these things are much more likely to happen.

Bottom line: we must all be eternally vigilant and prepared to call out problematic words and actions whenever and wherever we encounter them. It’s tough, exhausting, often thankless work, but somebody’s got to do it. I’m grateful for Robin Washington’s leadership and diligence in this case, and pleased that his eloquence seemed to move Jacobs to a higher level of awareness. However, in the Jewish, Passover AND Black spirits of #NeverForget, we certainly can’t rest or relax, even if it interrupts our sleep.

 

When Luv Turns to Hate

As many of you know, I’ve been a super-fan, promoter and cheerleader for the blogger-turned-author and influencer, Luvvie Ajayi ,aka Awesomely Luvvie, who rose to great fame and popularity doing ROFL recaps of “Scandal.” She built that into a golden platform, nabbed a book deal that shot to a #1 New York Times bestseller and has been picked up by “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes for a TV series.

All through this process, I’ve gleefully shared Luvvie’s posts, witticisms and news of her awesome ascension to the big time. All of which led me to this, a post I really wish I didn’t have to write.

Last night, Luvvie shared a FB post that was not only far less coherent and eloquent than her normal style, but overflowing with passive-aggressive hateration towards quasi-identified but unnamed Black and Mixed-race activists. Here’s her post:

Luvvie Ajayi

Some of us are fighting for freedom, while others don’t want freedom, because if we have it, then they will no longer have anything to make them the center of attention. Those people are the ones who wear oppression like coats they refuse to take off, and the very act of being marginalized is what defines them. It is what gives them purpose.

There are some digital activists who tend to profit on the pain of Black and brown people, and they use that as a business model. As in, EVERYTHING is a battle, almost strategically. If they aren’t in the middle of “I just got oppressed” chaos, then they aren’t in their element. When everything is a battle, what war are you trying to win? When you sit in a 24-hour cycle of outrage, it’s easy to become the person who cried “INJUSTICE” wolf.

And here’s the thing. We tend to call out white folks who are out of line when it comes to activism and call out culture, but what about our skinfolks who do the most with the least? Folks who are trading on white liberal guilt in the oppression olympics, and surrounding themselves with peanut galleries of people who assign them genius-ship PURELY because they’re loud and Black-identifying. And then they send these people to fight their battles. One of these people even has fake ID numbers for her group, and sends them on eMissions. Or had. She blocked me when I once asked her (on her wall) if she could stop tagging me to every post she writes, since she says she doesn’t like when people force “trauma” down her throat even though everything she wrote was traumatic and she’d tag 50 people to it.

I’m talking about the ones who will literally ask for “reparations” via PayPal when a white person asks them a question (that shit is weird AF). The folks who give ZERO grace to folks who are actually trying to understand this fucked up web of oppression they benefit from (not to be confused with the white folks who just wanna cry whiny tears of victimhood). The ones who are quick to yell “I’ve been harmed” when they publicly harm people they know in REAL LIFE every week (you got my phone number, B. You don’t have to start a hashtag against me). The people who tell allies who actually want to help dismantle the system that they need to shut up PURELY because they’re white and their voices are automatically trashed. And they do shut up, and clam up, and stay home, because they’ve been told that the fight is not theirs.

These fauxtivists are a problem. Cuz what they do is perpetuate the same cycle they say they’re fighting against. And unfortunately, for us to get free, white folks gotta do this work too. OTHERWISE if it was for US to fix by ourselves, we woulda BEEN done it. It’s not about wanting white gaze, or about begging for white friends or wanting white folks to love us. You ain’t gotta love my black ass, but you can’t say you want justice and MY life is in jeopardy every time I walk down the street.

It’s about building bridges that can lead to real progress. What are we fighting for if we want to turn right around and silence folks the way WE’VE been silenced? What is the goal here?

And what’s interesting is, a lot of the most CAPS CAPS CAPSing “activists” out here are of mixed race descent. I just wanna tell them that they can chill. You don’t have to make up for the lack of melanin in your skin by always using your outside voice, even in situations that don’t warrant it. Tuck in your overcompensation. It’s like they’re performing Blackness based on anger, which is insulting.

Can we have this conversation? And how can we build bridges in the call out culture, that teaches with grace but also holds people accountable. 

It’s not my normal style to respond to such highly personal snark. But I owe it to all of my social media fam since I’ve been such a consistent booster of Luvvie and her work for many years now. I’ve fused my brand and my credibility to hers. And now that she’s chosen to take another route, it’s time for me to un-fuse. So that you’ll fully understand my change of heart, here’s what I need to share with YOU about her post:

  1. As a self-described “wacky wordsmith” and “pop culture prima dona,” her strength is cleverly hilarious pop culture writing. To be honest, because I’m a Boomer, I cherry-pick her posts since many are skewed to younger generations. But I maintain a good overview. And while she reportedly has a non-profit project to raise awareness of women fighting HIV/AIDS, she is a hugely successful pop culture influencer, but by no means an in-the-trenches, doin’-it-for-the-people activist in any corner of Black America. She is a digital entertainer. So the fact that she’s passively-aggressively calling various activists out rather than womaning up and contacting them one-on-one to discuss her grievances lets us know immediately that she’s more interested in click-bait haterade than anybody’s progress.
  2. As y’all know, I’m an old-school Boomer activist, raised up by the Black Panther Party, the movement to end South African apartheid and etc. I was born illegal, integrated a bunch of White schools and have been working for change in both Black and Mixed-race identity spaces for several decades now. First rule of any movement for social change is to know how to prioritize your differences with others working towards the same or compatible goals and how to leave those at the door in the name of unity and solidarity. What Luvvie’s done here is behave like she’s so beside herself at getting a seat in the Big House that her first move is to turn around and burn all bridges to any form of Black person she fears might follow her in to love up on Miz Anne. There is nothing remotely new or unique about this dynamic; she’s not the first and she damn sho won’t be the last. We recognize these movement disrupters for what they are: agent provocateurs. They stir up brief flurries of hype and emotion, but never contribute a single thing to actual change.
  3. Luvvie is also displaying a dynamic with which many African Americans are familiar: the Diasporic national assuming a stance of both natural and inherent superiority, and a better understanding of our situations than we could possibly possess. In other words, her form of blackness gives her license to shit on ours.
  4. Y’all are well aware that I am a HUGE friend and colleague of Dr. Stacey Patton, who has devoted her life to making life better for Black children. And there is a section of Luvvie’s rant that is directed at Stacey–in fact, she has seemingly devoted an entire paragraph to Stacey who, like me, has never done anything except support and promote Luvvie’s work to her huge and diverse audience. Like me and the folks I roll with, Stacey is about the work–beyond 24/7–and her record requires no receipts. She is about changing lives for the better, a serious academic; an acclaimed journalist; an impeccable historian and a woman who will not compromise in her commitment. So Luvvie’s comments about Stacey and other front-line activists simply highlight how she views the landscape from her newly-privileged pop culture perch.  If you know Dr. Stacey, she has books of receipts to roll out, so trust that she responded to Luvvie in her classy, eloquent way, and then jumped back into the trenches of of improving and saving lives. But I will share two receipts: her amazing new book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America, and her substantive, resource-rich website, www.sparethekids.com.
  5. In particular (and y’all knew this was the part I’d have to go in about), when she wrote: “activists” out here are of mixed race descent. I just wanna tell them that they can chill. You don’t have to make up for the lack of melanin in your skin by always using your outside voice, even in situations that don’t warrant it. Tuck in your overcompensation. It’s like they’re performing Blackness based on anger, which is insulting. Many folks knew that she was focusing primarily on Shaun King, who writes a column for the New York Daily and does some pretty serious activist work. While many folks trash King for being Biracial and light-skinned and thus not “woke” or real, I’ve been impressed with his policy-driven activism and the tone of his writings. But Luvvie has deemed herself qualified to call out ALL “activists” of Mixed-race descent, trying to crack on our “lack of melanin” and what she considers our “over-compensation,” as if she knows the first thing about being Mixed-Black in the USA. So I guess she’s including anti-slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass, footballer/activist Colin Kaepernick, and actor/activists Jesse Williams, Amandla Stenberg and Yara Shahidi. And, while I’m in no way famous or in any way on her radar screen, I take it to mean that she includes me and other Mixed-race activists who aren’t household names but are still putting in the work every day. The question is: why is she coming for us? Perhaps she’s not confident enough in her straight-from-the-Motherland melanin to believe that there’s more than enough room for all of us to co-exist, thrive and even collaborate when working towards our seemingly common goals.
  6. Pause: as some of us Mixies said in response to her Mixed-race “” comment, there are many conversations to be had about our roles as activists in Black and Mixed-race spaces, the dynamics of privilege, rejection, identity politics and all that. But, needless to say, such a flaccid attempt at the blacker-than-thou racial dozens serves no purpose beyond a round of ego masturbation at others’ expense.
  7. Now one of the first lessons one must learn first to survive and retain any measure of sanity as a Person of Color in a racist, White Supremacist context, is to separate the personal from the political. We all have personal preferences, prejudices and biases–these are human nature and will never go away. What MATTERS however is racism–systemic, institutionalized, strategically planned and executed in every aspect of our communities, our nation and our planet–that some of us have committed our lives to fighting in varied and diverse ways. Luvvie seems to have merged whatever her political stance is with an upchuck of personal snark, petty-wopping folks in a back-handed way. What a waste of talent and, more importantly, a huge and influential platform. This woman has fame up the yin-yang and look how she chooses to use it. Take heed: How people behave when they have access to power and money always reveals their true character and priorities. I’m a huge believer in what Mama Maya Angelou taught us: WHEN PEOPLE SHOW YOU WHO THEY ARE, BELIEVE THEM. And given enough time and opportunity, everybody shows themselves sooner or later. I mean, Luvvie’s book is titled I’m Judging You: The Do Better Manual.” And as she states on her blog, “It’s basically a book where I tell everyone to get their shit together and you should order it.” Not surprisingly, while I’ve done everything possible to will myself to want to read it, I’ve simply had no interest. Now we know why.

So what I believe is that Luvvie will either thrive or flame out now that she’s hit the big time. She’s articulated all I need to know about her racial politics in her FB post (to which she turned off the comments, BTW). I believe that every word she wrote accurately reflects where she’s coming from, and that’s her prerogative. I understand how she feels about the activists I respect, support and work with, and how she feels about folks like me. Y’all know I don’t waste precious time, talent or energy with clapbacks, arguments or debates–those are for young’uns who think they have all the time in the world and no understanding of what it will really take to work for significant, sustainable change to challenge any aspect of systemic racism.

As always, I am striving to achieve the unity we will need to make this nation and this world a better place. I have no patience for anything that encourages divisiveness. If you agree, please visit my TeamUnity Facebook page and help build the movement to come together despite our various differences. Let’s be about some serious solidarity and join hands to move forward in our quest for racial progress and evolution.