MTV and BET have always been champions of free speech, shining a light on the issues that matter to their fans.
Case and point: When Jesse Williams spoke at this year’s BET Awards, he transformed the stage into a political platform to voice the fundamental injustices of racism in America today.
His passionate speech drew backlash, but rather than stepping away from the controversy, BET and MTV used it as an opportunity to start a conversation: “I believe that Jesse Williams’ was the most amazing wake-up speech of the century,” President of Programming at BET Stephen Hill said.
What does it say about the values of a company when something tragic happens and the response is silence?
A New Era: Companies Get Political
There used to be a definitive line between corporate interests and social responsibility: business was focused on business and social responsibility was the government’s task. But now we live in a time where brands are expected to not only acknowledge social justice issues but also support them. Sometimes this support is unanimous: Following the marriage-equality act of 2015, brands tweeted, Instagrammed, and snapped, declaring #LoveWins with carefully branded rainbow artwork to match. But the issues surrounding racial profiling and police brutality are less clear-cut. There’s no achievement to applaud, bill to endorse, or flag to wave in solidarity. The lack of support from many brands in the wake of heightened racial tensions and violence has led to criticism and boycotts (the fashion industry in particular has been blasted for lack of acknowledgement, with protesters at this year’s men’s fashion week calling for action).
How can brands navigate social justice when there’s no good news to celebrate? How do you foster those critical conversations and lean into difficult discussions without alienating anyone in the process?
BET and MTV asked themselves these very questions and then made the decision to act.
On Thursday, July 7th, pain and anger rippled across the country in the wake of a tragic events that included the deaths of Alton Sterling, Phillando Castille, and the police shootings in Dallas. As the internet erupted into a riot of voices struggling to make sense of it all, BET and MTV decided to take a stand by facilitating a collective dialogue about police brutality and racism in America. To remain neutral was unthinkable. “BET stepped up and the other networks stepped up and said let’s give the audience an ability to have a conversation to start to express ways they can find solutions… where everybody can have a seat at the table and figure out what to do,” MTV’s president, Sean Atkins, told CNN. “As someone said to me earlier, a moment of silence isn’t working.”
Both MTV and BET have a long-standing legacy of confronting difficult social issues head-on; MTV’s Look Different campaign, that challenges hidden racial and gender bias, and BET’s counterprogramming of the 2016 Oscars and #OscarsSoWhite are just two of the many initiatives both brands have led in response to issues directly impacting their audiences.
“If you truly care about your fans’ fears, worries and passions, they become your fears, worries, and passions.”
From the beginning, the goal was clear: create a platform for people’s thoughts, fears, and frustrations. The direction was simple: keep it real. The execution itself was bare-boned. There was no hair and makeup. There were no talking points. Only honest, emotional testimony captured on film as people converged in one small space to grieve and rage against the fundamental inequalities playing out across their social feeds.
Question 1: What was your gut reaction to the news today?
An outpouring begins:
‘Not again’ ‘Sick of seeing black men killed in the streets’ ‘Angry’ ‘Helpless’ ‘Something has got to change’
Question 2: How can we create change? What are the solutions?
The question incites hesitation and uncertainty.
People struggled to answer and with good reason—the complexity of the issues facing the country often seem too difficult to water down into one simple solution or soundbite. So how do you create a meaningful dialogue that brings about positive change? BET was able to answer this question by creating a safe space for authenticity. View the raw testimonials on the #DeEscalateDontKill hub.
What Now? A Discussion Begins
On July 8th, MTV and BET continued to build momentum with #WhatNow, an MTV News and BET News Town Hall meeting live on air and was streamed via Facebook and YouTube. Hosted by popular radio DJ and TV personality Charlamagne Tha God and MTV’s Franchesca Ramsey, the show featured callers like Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and hip-hop legend Talib Kweli.
The aptly titled “What Now?” not only posed that question to individuals, but also to brands and media companies about their responsibility to serve all of their audiences.
If you truly care about your fans’ fears, worries and passions, they become your fears, worries, and passions. BET and MTV demonstrated this alignment with their audience by canceling all previously scheduled programming and making this town hall a priority. The desire to facilitate a meaningful discussion was the only goal.
MTV News and BET have set a bold example and challenged every person who is a brand leader to think critically about their own personal responsibility. It’s not just about increasing awareness or changing perceptions—it’s about stepping out of the picture and allowing platforms to be used as sounding boards without promotional intent.
The solution to combating inequality and violence can be complex, but the first step is a simple one: allow voices to be heard and let the conversation begin.