Tech Companies Concerned About Diversity — Here’s How PR Can Help

One of the top challenges tech PR people are helping clients with today is attracting and maintaining a diverse workforce. In particular, the artificial intelligence (AI) sector is facing deserved and overdue scrutiny about its commitment to diversity and inclusion. As companies continue to talk about their AI, machine learning and data science capabilities, journalists are asking tougher questions about the way these technologies are built. How many people of color, women and other underrepresented groups are part of the development of these tools? How involved are they? Unfortunately, the data isn’t positive.

According to a recent study by New York University’s AI Now Institute, the AI industry is overwhelmingly white and male. Just 15% of the AI team at Facebook are women. At Google, it’s just 10%. Meanwhile, less than 3% of Google’s workforce is black, with Facebook at 4%. These are embarrassing numbers. 

Not to pick on Google, but as a leader, they should be a role model. Google’s ongoing AI ethics council controversy is another example of the AI industry’s diversity problem. The company was criticized — and rightfully so — for a laughably bad rollout that saw no meaningful diversity among council members. Since then, the ethics council has been disbanded, and the reasoning behind the decision is even more controversial.

Why does this matter? Well, these issues aren’t just bad optics. The lack of representation can lead to deeply ingrained biases in AI offerings that limit their overall efficacy and success. Take, for example, facial recognition technology that cannot interpret a black or brown face. Or a “smart” algorithm that predominantly serves housing ads to white audiences. A dearth of diversity in AI can directly impact business outcomes. 

Fortunately, PR teams can support AI organizations by asking tough questions before a journalist does. These questions not only inform PR and marketing strategy, they can also influence how the client hires, change the way a product is being developed, and more. Strategic communications, if done right, has a lot of power here. To take advantage of that, AI companies need to work with partners that will push them to create meaningful responses to the challenges in AI ethics and diversity. 

But that’s easier said than done. How can AI companies that might face tough questions about their AI build a PR apparatus that can effectively shepherd them through that? Here’s what you can do to optimize chances for success. 

Hire a diverse PR team

If you’re concerned about the lack of diversity in your ranks and how it might impact market perception of your product, seek out a PR team that is credibly and authentically diverse. This is critical. A PR team comprised of underrepresented talent is better equipped to consider challenging questions regarding AI ethics and diversity from key media. This must be a proactive effort, however. During the RFP process, research diverse PR agencies and practitioners. You can even note diversity as an important focus in your RFP to ensure that a potential partner offers a diverse team. 

Be open and honest

With a new PR team on board, AI companies should have candid and open conversations about the diversity of their staff and how it might impact the way their products work. PR and other relevant stakeholders from HR and other departments can come together to have honest workshopping sessions about these challenges and their solutions. Together, team members can determine the best way forward relative to positioning, messages, and more. 

Listen to your PR team

PR needs to pose tough diversity questions to AI organizations. For example, a client once told me they built an AI that could determine a person’s gender using an image, and wanted to promote it. Knowing the sensitivities regarding gender identity, I asked tough questions, and we decided the product wasn’t ready for prime time. The client listened instead of pushing for a premature rollout that would’ve likely created questions and controversy. For AI companies concerned about AI ethics and AI diversity, it’s imperative to listen to your PR team when they make a recommendation. 

Why Are PR Agencies So White?

The public relations industry has done a good job speaking out about the lack of ethnic and demographic diversity in our business – particularly at PR agencies, where middle-class whites predominate, and where C-level management is mostly Caucasian men. For the unpersuaded, there’s some excellent content on why ethnic diversity is critical to the future of our business. I think the PR community already knows this, though we’re sometimes vague about our commitment.

Yet with so much talk, why is public relations still so… well, white? Despite good intentions and plenty of seminars, most agencies are stubbornly homogeneous. Why can’t we solve this problem? I decided to look further than the typical reason that “there’s no pipeline.”

The pipeline starts in college. Students of color may not be counseled toward communications careers, for one thing. More importantly, when they browse the websites of major agencies, they’re not likely to see many executives who look like them. Many feel that this will only change when clients – who outstrip agencies on the diversity front – insist on agency teams that reflect the population.

Cultural and familial values may also be at work. Some point out that first-generation Americans are influenced by immigrant parents to focus on “traditional” careers or high-status occupations that are perceived as reliable, like law or accounting, rather than so-called creative professions. As PR agency professionals joke, our business is poorly understood anyway; how many people outside of the industry really know what we do?

It will take “boots on the ground” on college campuses to make our industry more colorful, as practitioner Tyrus Sturgis points out, including more than action by the students themselves. Some of the larger agencies have instituted innovative internships for underserved students; Edelman even has an apprenticeship for high school students in the UK, which is the kind of program that should be more commonplace in our business.

Diversity and inclusion are distinct. Recent studies, including one commissioned by the PRSA Foundation, point to the role of inclusion strategies in keeping minorities in the agency environment and supporting their success once hired. When agencies find suitable minority candidates, they may think their job is done when in fact it is only beginning. Inclusion doesn’t always come easily, and what begins as a well-meaning commitment to diversity can devolve into tokenism.

Unpaid internships are the elephant in the room. More than anything else, PR’s long history of unpaid internships may account for the narrow pipeline of underrepresented minorities at agencies. Like other so-called “glamour” industries, the agency business has relied on a stream of college students or new university graduates who work for no pay (or for a transportation stipend) as a way to gain experience and break into the business. The willing candidates so greatly outnumber the available positions that there’s been little incentive to offer salaries. The unpaid internships naturally favor the more privileged, and for years, the pipeline has been filled with students who are predominantly white and from the upper middle class.

The move toward paid internships may bring limitations, mainly the prospect of fewer internship opportunities overall. Or there may be more positions that lack a high level of managerial oversight and mentorship. But I have to believe that, if we are to walk the walk, this is the single biggest step forward that nearly any agency can take.

If we are to make public relations more “colorful,” it will take a far greater commitment from the agencies themselves, with the larger multinational firms in the lead, as well as a real and ongoing collaboration between schools, clients, and the agencies that support them. The PR Council has laid some excellent groundwork for building a more diverse agency workplace and community. But each agency, regardless of size, needs to step up.

A Summer’s Eve Debate: Why ‘Offensive’ Ads Can Be Good

Can men effectively market to women? Can whites sell to people of color?

Sure. Yet, some recent ad campaigns make you wonder. The latest is for Summer’s Eve cleansing wash, and it’s definitely a fresh take on the “feminine products” category. Each of the three ads features a woman’s hand that is meant to be a talking… uh, vajayjay. Each comes in her own, off-the-shelf ethnic flavor. Well, maybe just watch the videos here. The best part might be the tag line, “Hail to the V.”

No matter how you feel about the campaign, it’s sparked a response. The ads unleashed a shower of criticism, not only for being sexist in some eyes, but for perpetuating racial and ethnic stereotypes. The kindest coverage I’ve seen so far was Stephen Colbert’s send-up in which he concoted satirical ads for a similar product for men. (I can’t name the fictitious product here, but the tagline’s “Hail to the D.” Enough said.)

The commercials launched shortly after the recent California Milk Processor Board ads created to market milk to women for symptoms of PMS. “Everything I Do Is Wrong” landed Milk in hot water by playing on the stereotype of an irrational premenstrual female. The flood of negative comments on the social Web was so intense that the CMPB threw in the towel on the campaign last week.

Yet, campaigns like these strike a nerve for some very healthy reasons. They reflect back a great deal about our own values and hangups.  The advertising creative establishment is overwhelmingly male and Caucasian. People of color in power positions are concentrated in a handful of agencies that specialize in marketing to minorities. It’s a frustrating, chicken-and-egg challenge; the industry’s greatest minds have pondered, discussed, and blogged this issue. (And it’s not just advertising. Mainstream public relations is also a white, albeit predominantly female, industry.)

But the industry is once again buzzing about how stupid it is that more women and ethnic minorities aren’t in decision-making creative positions. This isn’t an easily solved problem, but the discussion can’t be allowed to recede. So, for this reason, and maybe this reason alone, I will applaud the Summer’s Eve ads. Empowering? I’m not sure. Offensive? That depends on who’s watching. Provocative? Yes, on so many levels.

Referring to his agency’s celebrated work on behalf of the California Milk Processor Board, GS&P’s Jeff Goodby told The New York Times that a similar PMS-themed campaign had been launched in 2005, to a far more muted reaction. “It’s a different world,” he says, summing up both the problem and the progress.

As a PR person, I don’t believe either campaign is a naked play for exposure, although I might be naive. I think they’re a needed reminder of how much has changed, and a sign that we still have a long way to go.