Big Issues

Show That You Are Listening On January 26

january 26 protest invasion day

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The lead up to January 26 always facilitates intense debate and discussion about changing the date and how businesses and brands should respond. It’s often the topic of intense boardroom conversation with marketing and HR departments. But businesses are too often trying to play all sides of an issue that for me, is a pretty clear cut one. January 26 is not a date for any person or brand to celebrate

In a post-referendum world, where the feelings of rejection and powerlessness remain heavy in the hearts of First Nations people, brands and businesses can’t afford to be passive this year. For those who say they are allies, they need to show allyship

And who cares what brands and businesses do? I do. 

I believe that organisations have accountability to the communities they serve and a role to play in driving social change. We’ve seen them do this on issues of marriage quality, gender equity and sustainability to name a few. In 2023, we even had organisations like Atlassian, ANZ, Qantas and Country Road supporting the Voice.

It’s not just governments who make decisions that affect the lives of Australians, who can change community sentiment or who are trusted to speak to issues that affect our country. The brands who talk about being “customer obsessed”, need to start developing an obsession for serving community as well. 

Many brands also pride themselves on their agendas, taking up homepage space with a plethora of diversity and inclusion and Reconciliation Action Plans, that they tell us, sit at the heart of their organisational values.

As First Australians we make up just over 3% of the population, so we need allies everywhere. We don’t always have the size, scale and platform to influence the majority. The proposal for the Voice to Parliament was but one modest solution to create a mechanism for some influence and a space for genuine listening. For brands who were disappointed by the outcome of the referendum, who said ‘Yes’ and who believe in the principle of Voice, now’s the opportunity to show us how it’s done.

A recent article in Mumbrella asked whether brands were too quick to cancel Australia Day and called out that social advocates don’t always represent the majority. I agree that they don’t, but I don’t think popular thinking or majority rules apply when you are taking a stand on what’s right. Brands need to stop using what their customers think as a sole benchmark and start thinking about who the January 26 celebrations hurt, who it affects the most and what First Nations people are asking them to do. 

If brands continue to rely on mainstream sentiment data and stakeholder ‘pulse checks’ to inform every social justice agenda, they are truly missing the point. Leadership on issues that matter real issues is rarely comfortable, popular or easy. 

If you want to satisfy everyone or are scared of a few negative comments, then I suggest you simply get out of the way. We saw how poorly many brands and businesses responded to the ‘Yes’ movement last year, and how many struggled to take a clear position on the most basic of principles, which was simply for First Nations people to be heard on matters that affect us.

Listening to First Nations people and advocating on issues that we have asked you to, doesn’t equate to showing disrespect to a diversity of thought. You are allowed to take a strong position as an organisation, without being adversarial to people who disagree. Many brands said ‘Yes’ to the Voice publicly as a business, while supporting diverse conversations and education within their organisations. 

Yes, there will be backlash and people who don’t like what you’re doing. We’re seeing this play out in the Woolworths position on stocking Australia Day merchandise, where the Coalition has called for a boycott of the brand. But First Nations people walk through this backlash every day. We need people to confront this with us, so that we can slowly change sentiment.

If you’re someone who runs a business or brand, you don’t have to mount a coordinated campaign around January 26, but at the most basic level, you should at least show that you’ve considered the issue from a First Nations perspective, make clear your position or thinking and stop hiding behind bland statements that speak to the ‘complexity of the issue and how hard it is to navigate’. 

January 26 is the first big opportunity of 2024 to show up, but it shouldn’t be the last. Consistency is key for brands who want to show allyship and who claim to advocate with First Nations people. Brands have to accept that they don’t always get to choose the issues they feel comfortable speaking on. Showing up often means responding to community rather than your own marketing plan.

In a country where we were told ‘No’ to being heard, it’s more important than ever to show that you are listening. 

Yatu is a descendant of the Dunghutti and Anaiwan peoples and is a communications professional based in Sydney. 

Image: Unsplash / Johan Mouchet