No, DEI Isn’t Dead. But No One Wants To Talk About It.

Much of the recent news surrounding Diversity, Equity and Inclusion of late is negative. DEI programs have been banned in states like Texas, and the backlash hasn’t stopped there. Axios reports that businesses have “backed away from DEI programs over the past two years in the wake of widespread attacks from lawmakers, high-profile rich guys and conservative activists.” 

NPR, which ramped up diversity efforts to combat Covid-era viewership decline, is facing a double-whammy of stagnant business results and criticism over its own DEI moves. Chief Diversity Officer, once one of the hottest job titles, is today more likely a ticket to early burnout, according to a recent Harvard Business Review piece.

Diversity isn’t dead; but it may be hiding

So it was refreshing to see the results of a new study conducted by Chief, the private executive network for women, showing that fully 80% of C-suite executives remain committed to DEI initiatives and will continue to invest in them. Only 20 percent of the 600 leaders surveyed said they plan to cut back on DEI in 2024. Most strikingly, 44 percent say they plan to increase existing DEI initiatives or create new ones. Forty percent view understanding and promoting diversity and inclusion as among the most important leadership attributes for those in their position.

They just don’t want to talk about it.

Many C-suite leaders fear backlash in 2024

That’s right, what might interest PR and communications execs is that, while the majority of C-level leaders are committed to diversity and inclusion, they fear that a public stand on potentially divisive issues poses more risk than staying quiet. In an age where the country’s best-selling beer can see its market leadership evaporate over an influencer promotion, it’s hard to stick your neck out. So, corporate leaders are now less likely to use acronyms like DEI, or, heaven forbid, ESG. Some corporate programs targeted to Black communities or women have changed their language to ward off anti-DEI litigation. It’s hard to know if these are merely “lawyerly tweaks” or something more substantive.

A cause for quiet optimism?

It’s a mixed bag for sure. On the one hand, it’s discouraging that business leaders feel they need to hold back or risk criticism. But I choose to look at the Chief study more optimistically. The commitment at the top is the most important thing; the PR is secondary. As Cinnamon Clark of Goodwork Sustainability, a DEI consulting firm, said, “Companies are really starting to look at other ways to do the work without saying that they’re doing the work.”

Diversity isn’t going away. The U.S. in particular is diversifying rapidly, and rising generations have high expectations for inclusion and social purpose. With so much performative purpose-driven rhetoric in corporate communications, I’m hopeful that C-level leaders are resolving to focus on less talk and more action – in the form of real, measurable diversity initiatives that go beyond press releases and annual reports.

How PR Can Solve Its Diversity Problem

Public relations is about building relationships between an organization and its audience. Its success hinges on a genuine understanding of diverse communities and cultures. However, the PR business is still grappling with a lack of diversity in its workforce. As an industry, how can we appropriately represent diversity among our clients when it’s not reflected from the inside out?

The problem is simple. As an industry, PR is predominantly white. People of color are particularly underrepresented in leadership positions, but diversity is lacking at nearly every level. It’s not a new problem. The makeup of the PR industry in the U.S. is 82.6% White, 8.1% Black or African Americans, 6.2% Asian Americans and 12.5% Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The gap isn’t even near closed, meaning there’s still much room to grow.

How we can be the change 

As a person of color, I am drawn to companies with a diverse employee base. When I was interviewing with Crenshaw, one of the first things I noticed was that the leader interviewing me was a man of color – someone who looked like me. As I proceeded in the interview process, I noticed more people in the company like me. It was refreshing and exciting and definitely influenced my decision to join the agency.

Racial inclusivity isn’t the only important aspect of a workplace, however. It’s also vital to be inclusive of culture. Culture is reflected through values, behaviors, beliefs, communication, and thinking; however, cultural representation in the workplace often falls short. Having professionals from a variety of cultural backgrounds brings new perspectives, increases representation and helps protect PR campaigns and initiatives from being tone deaf. When I joined Crenshaw, I noticed a larger mix of culture than any workplace I’ve known, as well as people who shared my culture background.

Often it seems larger companies are the ones making these strides in the workplace, but Crenshaw is proof that you can start small and make a difference. It’s a PR agency with fewer than 25 employees, and more than a third are people of color. It’s a prime example of public relations companies actively working toward a diverse talent pool. In my view, that motivates team members to show up everyday for themselves, their colleagues and clients.

A diverse team makes a difference inside and out 

Diversity is attractive to both potential employees and prospective clients because it offers a range of experiences, perspectives and skills that enhance the creativity and effectiveness of an agency’s work. It can also lead to more innovative solutions and better problem-solving.

Internally, a diverse team sends a message that the company values inclusion and is committed to creating that kind of work environment. Today, talented professionals are looking for that kind of culture. When employees feel represented within a company by their colleagues, they are more likely to feel valued and motivated.

Externally, having a workforce that reflects the communities served is beneficial to any PR team because those communities make up our stakeholders and our audiences. Being able to channel first-hand experience to identify different solutions for a company’s diverse audiences not only reflects genuine brand initiatives, but ultimately yields stronger campaigns.

How we can bridge the diversity gap 

How can we bridge the diversity gap in PR?

The first step is education. The C-suite and HR first need to gain a solid understanding of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and educate from the top down. Diversity training on implicit bias, cultural competency and communication skills is one key to a better workplace. External mentorship can also be beneficial. For example, PRSA has a mentorship program that agencies can use to encourage their employees to connect like-minded individuals in the industry to share experiences, insight and more.

The second step involves recruiting. Agencies should shape their policies to attract a diverse pool of applicants for open positions. This means outreach to organizations that represent diverse communities, specific goals and metrics for recruiting and hiring, and job descriptions that don’t include barriers for diverse candidates.

Third, agencies can reach diverse communities by partnering with groups that represent those communities. Ways to do this include:

Connecting with minority-owned media outlets – this supports minority-owned journalism and helps broaden reach

Engaging with companies striving to increase DEI, like The Party Starter – which connects customers with diverse event vendors and minority-owned businesses – when planning client/company events

Amplifying groups specific to the PR industry, like Digital Culture, a company that helps ad agencies and advertisers reach diverse audiences

The journey continues 

PRSA is committed to increasing diverse representation among leadership at all levels of PRSA by 25% by the end of 2023. Programs like Voices4Everyone and the Affinity Group – a space to bring together and amplify the voices of PR professionals in diverse groups like Black Voices and Hispanic-Latino — are current examples. PRSA is putting a clear emphasis on DEI in PR and paving the way for its members to follow suit.

Independent organizations like Crenshaw are taking steps to model diversity with employees and clients. Industry groups like PRSA are vowing to do the same. Together, as an industry, we can make a difference.

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 drawing diverse candidates into the agency environment and supporting their success once hired. When agencies find suitable 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 groups 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.