How Bozoma Saint John Is Amplifying Black Voices Through White Celebrities’ Instagram Accounts
As the nation grapples with how to address systemic racism, a new social media campaign aims to amplify the voices of black women on Instagram.
On Wednesday, 50 white celebrity women including soccer star Abby Wambach, actresses Brie Larson and Gwyneth Paltrow, and musician Sara Bareilles will hand over their Instagram accounts to 50 black women for the day to foster dialogue and reach new audiences. The campaign, called #sharethemicnow, was co-created by Endeavor Chief Marketing Officer Bozoma Saint John, writers Luvvie Ajayi Jones and Glennon Doyle, and Alice and Olivia founder Stacey Bendet.
According to Saint John, the idea came about last week when she was talking with Jones about “Blackout Tuesday.” Celebrities and others were posting black squares to their Instagram accounts to mute themselves while pointing people to where they could instead hear from black Instagram users. Around that same time, Doyle also sent Saint John a private message offering up her platform if they wanted to reach Doyle’s audience of nearly 1 million Instagram followers.
That offer helped Saint John to see the opportunity to expand dialogues about race to people who maybe wouldn’t otherwise hear about it or think about it in the same way.
“What I thought was really interesting is I think all of us, right or wrong, we have our Instagram feeds and our social media feeds are very much the same,” Saint John says. “We’re usually talking to people who look like us, who think like us, who agree with us. I’m not excluded from that. None of us are.”
The social campaign comes as marketers navigate how to address issues of race in their own messaging. While some brands like Nike, Ben & Jerry’s and McDonald’s have spoken out against racism, Saint John says one of the biggest challenges for marketers is knowing what to say. She says marketers should ask themselves: “What would you say to your black friend if you were talking to them personally in your home? If you would say it at home, say it to the public.” She added that companies are better off speaking out than staying silent. Brands are no longer exempt from conversations about racism because “the world is demanding it.”
“As marketers and as CMOs, our entire jobs are to create narratives,” she says. “We probably have the most power in creating the kinds of messaging that mass audiences hear, even more so than Hollywood or the studios do. We’re creating messages that people are seeing constantly, and we feel the responsibility of that, the weight of that.”
In the past two weeks, discussions around race have flooded the internet. According to an analysis of social media data conducted by Sprinklr, posts mentioning Black Lives Matter totaled 42.3 million between May 28 and June 4—eclipsing talk about coronavirus and Covid-19, which were only mentioned 25 million times. And so far this month, use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag spiked on June 2 when there were 9.2 million global mentions.
According to a recent survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by the data insights firm Dynata, 62% of respondents under the age of 35 say they’ll be researching brands based on their inclusivity practices “in light of recent events.” And among the Black Lives Matter supporters surveyed, 58% want to see brands encourage people to vote, while 36% want brands to make donations to causes.
“One of our biggest challenges as marketers right now is we are so fearful of cancel culture that it gives us a paralysis of perfection,” Saint John says. “We don’t move because we’re so afraid that what we say is going to be taken the wrong way or it’s not going to be interpreted with the intention that we set. That causes us not to do anything at all, and that’s actually the mistake the brands would makee right now.”
The list of participants for this week is expansive. For example, Saint John will take over Kourtney Kardashian’s account, Black Lives Matter cofounder Opal Tometi will appear on the model Ashley Graham’s and beauty editor Kahlana Barfield Brown will take over the account of actress Julia Roberts. Other pairs include Angelica Ross and Hillary Swank, Ibtihaj Muhammad and Alex Morgan, and Lindsay Peoples Wagner and Diane von Furstenberg. The pairings themselves were chosen “a little bit arbitrarily,” Saint John says. In some cases, it was based on thinking through who might not normally show up in someone’s feed based on their existing followers while others were based on two women being in similar industries. According to the organizers, the total social media reach of the campaign totals 300 million. However, they’re hoping others will take part as well and engage with their own followers and contacts.
Among the participants is Katie Couric, who recently launched a podcast with Saint John. The two women, who both lost their husbands to cancer, met a few years ago and became friends. And while the podcast was initially about business, they changed the focus from business leaders in general to how leaders are managing their companies during the Covid-19 crisis. They’d only done one episode when discussions around racial inequality began this spring, and Saint John says Couric called her suggesting they do an episode about the issues.
“If I’m being totally honest, I was really exhausted,” Saint John says. “I was tired of talking. I felt defeated and anger and sadness and just a little helplessness. It was like oh my gosh how much more do I have to say about what this world can be and the inequality I even feel in my own spaces? But she was really encouraging and said we should probably have a conversation about it. And I was like, ‘Okay I should call my friends, too.’”
As a result, Saint John and Couric interviewed Bishop T.D. Jakes along with Tometi. They talked about how with advocacy and allyship, some people don’t know if they’re allowed to talk about a problem if they’re not part of the group that’s being hurt.
“When Katie asked (Jakes) ‘what can I do as a white American,’ I just thought his answer was so brilliant in contextualizing what it is: ‘You don’t have to be a child to speak up against child abuse, you don’t have to be a women to speak out against rape, and you don’t have to be black to speak up against racism.’”