How brands are building a path towards reconciliation action

Work on Reconciliation Action Plans has accelerated this year. We look at what it takes for organisations to truly embrace First Nations cultures

As a proud Gurindji man, John Burgess counts among his people the stockmen, domestic workers, and families whose strike action on the Northern Territory’s Wave Hill station in 1966 laid the foundation for the Land Rights movement and modern claims to native title.

The child of a child of the Stolen Generation, Burgess’ own journey saw him and his sisters repatriated back to country some 15 years ago to start a traumatic process of finding what was lost and hidden.

In his working life, Burgess moved through a variety of roles in PR and marketing and communications, and today is the owner and director of strategy at full-service marketing agency, Little Rocket, where he runs a team of 20 out of Collingwood, Victoria.

So when he is asked to advise on Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs), he knows what he is talking about.

“We have been involved in designing some dozen RAPS this year, as well as a large component of video work, activations, and campaigns telling the story of reconciliation journeys,” Burgess tells CMO.

There’s been a flurry of announcements from brands and agencies regarding their actions and intentions for reconciliation programs this year, from organisations as diverse as JCDecaux, Foxtel, the Australian Sports Commission, Ampol and the Independent Media Agencies of Australia (IMAA).

Burgess says the uptick in action reflects changing times, as seen in newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s promise to enact the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and through the process of truth telling currently being undertaken in Victoria.

Burgess isn’t surprised marketers are becoming more aware of the purpose and need for reconciliation. He has also been appointed First Nations Director of the global independent end-to-end marketing production company, Tag Worldwide. This role will see him working with Tag and clients such as Diageo to develop their RAPs and hopefully make a positive change in the advertising and creative industries.

“The opportunity from a marketing perspective is very fertile,” Burgess says. “There are some organisations we have worked with where we would walk away and think ‘that seemed a bit tick-the-box, but more often than not we are very impressed by the attention and the intention that is being shown now, from the top down.”

A passion for reconciliation

For Kimberly-Clark’s Belinda Driscoll, her passion for reconciliation was strong enough for it to be called out specifically in the announcement of her appointment as the FMCG’s managing director in Australia in April this year. Fortunately for Driscoll, her own keen interest is matched by that of her employer.

“At Kimberly-Clark, we have a pretty ambitious goal globally to improve the lives of one billion people. A big part of that in Australia is contributing towards equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” Driscoll says. “But importantly, back in 2020 we did an employee survey across our business in A/NZ around what issues they really cared about, and what they wanted our social impact programs to focus on.

“The feedback was really clear – 73 per cent of people responding said they wanted us to do more to support First Nations communities. So not only is it something from a corporate perspective that we are very passionate about, but our employees are definitely asking us to do more here as well.”

Driscoll has forged a personal connection with indigenous Australia, via family connections through marriage, and through the time she spent among communities on the Northern Territory’s Elcho Island. Kimberly-Clark sponsors an infant wellness centre in conjunction with the Australian Red Cross and the Galiwin'ku Baby Hub on the island.

Driscoll was also part of the team that commenced Kimberly-Clark’s own RAP process in December 2021 in her prior role as senior marketing director. While still in its early stages, the RAP features 17 actions, including cultural awareness training.

“We have a super passionate group of people working on this, who work every month to make sure we remain on track to achieve our commitments,” Driscoll says. “That is critical. It is not a team I have appointed, these are people within our employee base who are very passionate about this and driving the agenda forward.”

Critical to the RAP process has been deep engagement with indigenous representatives and organisations, including a close engagement with the Rhodanthe Lipsett Indigenous Midwifery Charitable Found.

“That guidance is paramount to making sure we are taking the right steps for the organisation,” Driscoll says. “The feedback from our team is we didn’t learn enough about First Nations cultures and history growing up, so that education is absolutely critical. The knowledge people have across our organisation is varied, so we focus on education as a starting point.

“For me, it is about education and understanding, making sure that every employee understands and respects First Nations, and ensuring we get to a place where we all have a common set of understanding and education.”

A cultural commitment

At Adobe, the RAP process has been made somewhat smoother by the organisation’s existing commitment to diversity and inclusion under the ‘Adobe for All’ banner established in 2016. This has proven helpful as Adobe moves through the stages of the RAP process, which are Reflect, Innovate, Stretch, Elevate.

“Most organisations start as Reflect, because that is all about creating awareness,” says Adobe head of employee experience, Asia-Pacific and Japan, Sarah Dunn. “But when we submitted our first draft, we received feedback to say we had already done a lot of foundation groundwork. It was recommended we resubmit our RAP under the criteria of Innovate. We have since resubmitted our RAP and are awaiting feedback.”

The company has partnered with cultural awareness training expert, Evolve Communities, to bring knowledge of the history and culture of First Nations Peoples into the organisation. Dunn says that while this training was initially provided to Adobe’s A/NZ leaders, it has since been mandated for all employees across the region.

The reconciliation process has involved so-called yarning sessions, which have invited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives to tell their stories to further educate and inspire employees. Adobe has also extended its Creative Ambassador program to three First Nations artists this year.

“These artists now have access to a wider community to upskill,” Dunn says. “Adobe has the most powerful tools when it comes to sharing stories, and while some artists are already using our tools, we want to make them more accessible.”

Ultimately, however, Dunn says the process of reconciliation is an important step in making Adobe a company that aligns to its vision of being a company for everyone.

“You can’t be representing your communities unless you have the communities represented in your workforce,” Dunn says. “In terms of our own mission of changing experiences, that cannot be true without changing experiences internally and creating experiences that matter. And that is only possible when we are a more diverse, inclusive workspace.”

Creating visibility

For Publicis Groupe ANZ, its RAP represents a commitment to building respectful relationships and creating opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. But according to chief talent officer, Pauly Grant, because Publicis is an agency servicing client across a wide spectrum of industries, the RAP also presents an opportunity to increase positive representation of Indigenous Australians through client work.

“As they say, you can’t be what you can’t see, so if we can improve the diversity of our storytelling to better represent our society, then that can only lead to positive change,” Grant says. “Many of our agencies are taking the learnings and newfound understanding of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and applying it to their work and recommendations to clients.

“Through the RAP, we are creating partnerships that demonstrate our commitment to driving change through actions under each of the core pillars.”

Publicis began exploring the establishment of a RAP in 2019, which led to the creation of working teams focused on education and celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ culture. The company also took the step of becoming part of the Supply Nation network that connects indigenous suppliers into client organisations.

Publicis’ RAP has now been submitted and conditionally approved by Reconciliation Australia, and Grant says it is already influencing the work of Publicis and the businesses it partners and engages with.

“Through our RAP, we have been actively partnering with more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations,” Grant says. “Our clients have responded positively to how we’re supporting Indigenous talent through the work we do, in particular around influencer engagement creating more commercial opportunities. We have partnered with the Born Blak organisation, which sees us directly supporting influencers.

“Through this program, we’ve been able to advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander influencers, their careers and their knowledge it this area.”

An ongoing process

While many organisations have only recently found their way to reconciliation, Ampol Australia is now onto its second RAP, under the stewardship of executive general manager for fuel supply chain, Andrew Brewer.

“This RAP builds on the foundation of our first RAP delivered from 2018 to 2020 and renews our focus on improving outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as we reshape our business under a new brand, new leadership team, transformed culture and position our business for a successful future,” says Brewer, who is also the chair of Ampol’s RAP working group.

The goal of the RAP is to deliver Ampol’s vision for reconciliation, which is to build a society where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have equitable participation and where all Australians respect the rich history and culture of First Australians.

“Our hope is that through the key areas of employment, cultural awareness, procurement and community engagement, we can make an impact,” Brewer says.

Despite the work done so far, Brewer says the organisation still has a lot to learn. “Our leaders across the business have recognised there is more work to do to understand, embrace and celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture,” he says. “We need to embrace this as we deliver on our vision of improving employment and procurement outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“I think the RAP working group would all say we are now more aware of what we don’t know and are taking steps to build relationships and hear from the experts and those who are more progressed on their RAP journey.”

But for Burgess, the current process is the long overdue recognition of both the injustices of the past and of the incredibly rich culture and knowledge of First Peoples.

“What we are seeing is an appreciation of the value of engagement with the First Nation’s community, rather than a discourse of ‘shame’ and disconnection,” Burgess says. “It is great to see how Australia has the opportunity to embrace and grow and learn from best practice around the world. We can develop a structure that can hold that growth and continue to invest in those positive outcomes around language, around cultural meaning, and valuing what that brings to our national identity.

“The whitewash is over, and the truth telling has begun. Let’s not miss the boat.”

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