Posts Tagged 'Diversity'

The Perennial PR Problem: Tone-Deaf Companies, Tone-Deaf Messages, Tone-Deaf Workplaces

The long-standing, and often contentious issue of diversity in the media industries (news, PR, advertising, social media, etc.), was raised anew in a recent spate of events. Of course, diversity in these industries, as well as in tech, has long been an issue close to our hearts. We’ve blogged about it, advocated for it, and been adherents to the practices and principles of diversity for a very long time. Yet, as we are frequently reminded, many of our major companies still apparently don’t subscribe to the importance diversity in key parts of the workplace. A few recent examples come to mind … (Mind you, while we do not know for certain that any of these examples are not the creation of “diverse” work teams, you’ll see why we have our suspicions when you examine the evidence.)

First, probably most spectacularly is the video commercial released by Pepsi, quickly tagged the #PepsiKendall ad, featuring top model Kendall Jenner. As you’ve probably already seen or heard, the commercial, although pulled from circulation almost immediately after its release, featured Jenner, abandoning her high-fashion photo shoot and blonde wig to join a passing multiracial, multicultural street protest conveniently passing by. After some lingering glances at an attractive male within the protest group, she quickly circulates through the crowd joining the front lines, where she ostensibly leads the group until they meet up with a line of waiting police officers who, as Stephen Colbert has described them, look every bit “the world’s least intimidating police force.” Bottom line, Kendall hands the cop a Pepsi, they both smile, he looks at the other cops down the line, then drinks the Pepsi while Kendall leads the other protesters in a rousing round of cheers. We’ll stop the action here, but we hope you see the problem. The Internet certainly did.

Within hours, a storm of protests, mocking and mimicry of the ad broke out on social media, causing such a furor that Pepsi pulled the ad and issued an apology—to Kendall Jenner, that is, for “placing her in that position.” For the rest of humanity who were offended and weren’t a paid part of the ad, Pepsi issued this rationalization:

This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey,” they said in a statement.”

And regarding the creative development of the ad, they added this:

The creative showcases a moment of unity, and a point where multiple storylines converge in the final advert. It depicts various groups of people embracing a spontaneous moment, and showcasing Pepsi’s brand rallying cry to ‘Live For Now,’ in an exploration of what that truly means to live life unbounded, unfiltered and uninhibited.”

Where do we begin to unpack what went wrong here? Let’s start by raising the question we first posted in a tweet immediately after we head of the furor:

For us, this ad immediately raised the question of diversity on the team who created it—not to mention the marketing and other pros who approved it. What is it they missed that the rest of the world found immediate outrage in? This, we think, is the saddest part of this debacle: that highly paid professionals in major corporations and professional services agencies couldn’t see the offensive nature of this ad.

Any team member schooled in media stereotypes and commercial (cultural) appropriation–which should be everyone involved in creative development as well as the marketing of brand images–could have advised Pepsi to steer clear of its approach, for the clear reason it appears to trivialize people’s struggles for social justice and human rights. Certainly, we think, most persons of color involved in the creative development and marketing of corporate and brand messages (but perhaps not all), should have foreseen the trouble with this ad; so, our guess is that none played any major role in the creation of the spot. So instead what we got was among the worst demonstrations of what insular, self-perpetuating kinds of privileged and homogeneous teams produce for the rest of us. The ad looks good and paints a “pretty” multiethnic picture, but is completely devoid of any real sensitivity to the often life and death circumstances, struggles and ideologies that drive people to protest in the streets.

The lack of authenticity in any part of the #PepsiKendall ad is antithetical to the very democratization of media and media messages that social media has been so effective in producing in the US and globally.”

Yet, sadly, this misguided advertisement doesn’t stand alone. Not long before, but to much less, but surely well-deserved furor, the Switzerland-based company Nivea quickly dropped its ad touting “White is Purity” for its skin creams. We’ll just let the Internet make our case from here …

And, ironically, the backdrop for all this uproar over media messages and images was the very real-life ongoing saga at Fox News regarding sexual harassment and gender discrimination against its female employees.

Finally, as if to show that no contemporary industry is immune to calculated colorblindness and insensitivity, the fashion industry produced this outrage a short time ago. It’s what we called some of the worst kind of commercial/cultural appropriation, as this remnant from international slavery–a face mask forced upon workers in the fields to prevent them from eating corn and other crops they were being forced to harvest—was re-created as “fashion” for adornment on the runway.

One of the PR lessons that all these corporate affronts, miscalculations and misjudgments tells us is that despite the current “zeitgeist” toward diversity, human rights and social justice that many companies are clamoring to tap into, too many of these companies remain bastions of privilege, homogeneity (in regard to race), and social and cultural isolation. One thing many public relations professionals have understood for decades is that sometimes the greatest challenge or threat to good PR isn’t external, it can be internal, exemplified by tone-deaf companies, tone-deaf work environments, and tone-deaf messages—often with toxic results.

A Growing Drumbeat: Diversity in PR and Tech Takes on Many Dimensions

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After our post last month on Diversity in PR and Tech, we were reminded that such a far-reaching subject has many diverse perspectives. We recently came across a few that give added dimension to the reasons why the status quo in these industries can’t remain. So here, within one post, is a range of viewpoints on the important issue of diversity in tech and PR.

First, PR Week gives us a summary of panel opinions on why the diversity gap exists in public relations and what must be done, from its PR Week conference in New York. Among the panelists, Shante Bacon, founder of 135th Street Agency, opined:

We don’t need a new generation of African-American interns and assistants; what we need is African-American EVPs, SVPs, people who have a seat at the table, who can make decisions and who are trusted to manage a budget and make strategic divisions.” Read more.

On the subject of diversity in tech, technology vet Mark Luckie, gives us an inside perspective on what it’s like to be a Black employee at a tech company.

The most impactful detriment to diversity in Silicon Valley is the idea of ‘culture fit.’ Employees are actively encouraged to suggest friends or former colleagues for open roles. The premise is if the employee and the candidate have a congenial relationship outside of the company, the new recruit is more likely to work well with other staffers. The recommended candidates are given preference or special attention during the recruiting process. It should come as no surprise then that there aren’t more applicants of color to select from.” More

Another technology veteran, Catherine Lundoff, reminds us that in technology, as well as in other industries such as PR, color may not be the only barrier to a diverse workforce:

In IT, it sometimes feels like everyone under the manager level is 35 or younger. In some shops, even being older than 30 is ancient. It’s a culture that doesn’t value older workers or older tech: anything old is obsolete, no longer new and shiny. Old machines, old software and old people are things to be replaced…” More

Of course, we knew we weren’t alone in the growing drumbeat for diversity in tech and PR, but it’s nice to be reminded. Feel free to share these viewpoints, or your own, in the comment section below.

How Tech (and PR) Companies Can Increase Diversity

A real-life parable on the importance of inclusion

diverse tech workers

We think that diversity in public relations and technology companies—two of the global world’s most thriving industries—is one of the most significant issues of our time. To that end, we write a good deal about the issue. Our post below, a real-life parable on the importance of inclusion, focuses on tech, but could as well be written about public relations today. As always, we welcome your feedback and comments at the end.

Given the opportunity, do you think most African American or Latino youth would opt for an entry-level job at McDonald’s or one in tech? Of course, the answer in our tech-driven world is a virtual no-brainer: most would no doubt choose the burgeoning world of technology. Which is what makes this story so important.

Diversity through Mentoring

Nearly two decades ago, at least one technology company took the initiative to offer a similar opportunity to a few talented high school students. One result of their pioneering and perseverance is Jessica L. Williams, a 34-year-old information networking and technology manager in Chicago.Jessica_intro With the aid of an early start, now at age 34, she’s comfortably immersed in middle management, with 15 years of experience in technology–eight of them as an information networking manager, and the last two working for one of the largest convention centers in the United States. How and why she got to her current position is an instructive lesson for both tech and PR—two industries now under fire for the inexplicably low representation of women and minorities within their ranks. It’s worth noting here that Williams is an African-American woman, whose life experience contradicts the oft-heard canard that there aren’t qualified African-American techies out there. The point is these industries have to do more to develop and/or find diverse candidates.

Back in the 1998, during the early phases of the dot-com boom, an upstart technology firm, SDI Solutions, took the initiative to offer promising high-school students their first exposure to the fields of business and technology through the firm’s First Chance Initiative. Williams was one of those students. A junior at Whitney Young High School at the time, she had no idea what the technology field had to offer, as she hadn’t ever known anyone who’d had such a career. She only knew that she was good at math and science, and that people at school urged her to follow the tech path. The downside—she thought—was that she’d have to give up her job at McDonald’s, which provided additional income that she and her family truly needed. (Williams was parented by a single grandmother). Fortunately, she discovered that First Chance was a paid internship. As she would also learn, it also offered her tutoring and mentoring in a transformative experience that came to be a defining moment in her path to a career.

Finding a Niche in a Varied Industry

As an intern, my first introduction to a technology career was in marketing, then later coding. It was only by talking to people on the job that I learned about information systems technology [as a career option].”

Williams also found other supports at SDI, which led to her scuttling her plans for a post-graduation pre-med education in college, and put her on a path through business and marketing, coding, technology networking and systems design—all within the same tech company—during the heady days of the dot-com boom. Those varied work experiences led her to her niche in information systems networking. She finished her Bachelor’s degree with a concentration in business, with emphasis on technology. The company also provided support in her senior year of college to become a Cisco-certified networking associate. In all, through a series of progressive work and learning experiences, she became an established technology veteran with more than a decade of career stability at the same company.

Which is not to say the path to her current position as Technology Infrastructure Manager at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center, was without challenges.

Challenging Workplace Insecurities


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My first [career] challenge was being typecast as a ‘young intern’.” As I grew professionally, “it was hard for me to be taken seriously for project management and other leadership roles.

It was only through proving myself by working on ‘special projects’ that I got the chance to show what I could do.”

One of her biggest challenges, she recalls—a challenge not uncommon to women, especially women entering the male-dominated fields like technology—was insecurity.

I had to learn to overcome the mentality that if I didn’t know something 100 percent initially, that I couldn’t do it. Instead I learned how to figure things out while working on the job.”

Asked about the current criticism of the tech industry as not being diverse enough and whether the dominant tech companies are prepared to live up to the corporate social responsibilities expected of other leading industries, Williams responds,Jessica talking 2

It doesn’t matter whether the tech industry is ready or not [to play a leadership role in social responsibility]; the social expectation is there, so the industry simply has to step up and meet [that societal expectation].”

Starbucks, Pushing the Bounds of CSR: Is That a Good Thing?

We knew when we first read about it, that we’d write a post about it. Howard Schultz and Starbucks had done it again—proven to be an agenda-setter on public engagement and corporate social responsibility (CSR). No, we’re not talking about the #RaceTogether initiative—but we’re including our thoughts on that in this post too! The impetus really began with Starbucks’s salute to military veterans in its For Love of Country recognition.Starbucks
For Love of Country may not be as familiar as Race Together, but it predates and overlaps with the much ballyhooed #RaceTogether. For those who may have missed it, Starbucks joined forces with journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran to produce a book and related advertising and media push to herald not only the courageous service of military veterans, but to also raise some prickly social issues–namely, who fights our wars in America’s all-volunteer army (and who doesn’t), and how those who do are acknowledged for their service.  (Not nearly meaningfully and substantively enough by the rest of us.)

We were impressed that Schultz, as a corporate leader, not only stepped out front on this sensitive topic, but then went one step further—in the minds of many, one step too far—by prodding us to talk about the contentious issue of “race.”

Starbucks tweet

 

Whether you thought well or ill or the #RaceTogether effort, or even question a company raising pangs of consciousness about the social justice of an all-volunteer army, or any other societal woe, we think there’s a lot to be gained by companies taking leadership on social issues.

There’s a long history of companies doing well by doing good. You’ve read some of our posts on Henry Ford and a whole array of others before and since who’ve put their money and their mouths to lead or join important social and civic conversations. Indeed, it’s well established that a socially active or PR savvy CEO brings added value to a company and even an industry

As further affirmation, just look at what tech moguls were able to help accomplish when they found their collective voice against sex bias and discrimination in #Indiana.

So we think it’s a good thing that CEOs like Howard Schultz embark on campaigns that remind us that companies share  our social pains and that, even better, they have the means to affect changes that make things better for us all. We all know that companies often engage their collective voices behind closed doors to secretly lobby for things they believe represent their corporate interests. We think it’s time more CEOs join the public dialogue about the things more enduring and sustaining that impact us all. Wanna’ talk about #RaceTogether? We’re game. And while we’re at it, let’s talk about For Love of Country, too!
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PR, Tech and Diversity

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Like most good ideas, this post on PR, tech and diversity began with a convergence of events: first, was seemingly back-to-back articles in New York magazine and The Atlantic expounding, as many have done before, on the stereotyping and reality of PR as an industry comprised principally of underpaid women; second, was the growing attention to and release of the startling statistics on diversity in the tech industry—most notably, the virtual absence of African-Americans and Latinos and limited progress of women in what is arguably one of the nation’s most dominant industries; third, coinciding with these other events, was securing a long-sought opportunity to take a deep dive into the tech world, this time as a temporary contractor for a PR software firm. All of these have been instructive in revealing some truths about the PR and tech industries and the issue of diversity.

First, let us say that we’re PR veterans. We know the industry, we love the industry, and we’ve evolved with it over a period approaching some 30 years. We began doing what’s now known as traditional public relations, morphed into corporate communications and then integrated marketing communications. Now we’re adherents of PR 2.0 and emerging PR 3.0—which, to us, means cross-platform marketing, storytelling content development, and a whole array of nontraditional techniques and tools. In each phase, we’ve been in a position to experience the lack of diversity in each industry—particularly as it relates to agency public relations.

Thankfully, during those 30 years we’ve seen some growth and improvement in numbers and the status of individuals. Yet, as many industries overall have experienced significant progress in diversity, these two industries seem to lag. What to do?

The Diversity Problem in PR and Tech

Well, first we need to define the problem. Much has been written on this issue over the years—particularly in tech—where it’s been hard to miss the spotlight that’s been focused during recent months. For PR, as in the advertising industry and even journalism before it, it’s been a troubling issue for some time.diverse tech workers

Without turning this post into a treatise, comparative stats show:

►  In 1991, 22 percent of US workers were minorities; yet only 7 percent of the 150,00 people employed in public relations were of a minority group 1

►By 2010, PRSA’s census of practitioners (via its professional membership) showed that 14 percent of the membership self-identified as Hispanic, Black or African American, or Asian or Asian American—with that percentage doubling since 2005. 2

►As late as October, 2014, none other than Lou Capozzi, President of the PR Foundation noted that “African-American and Hispanic Americans make up only about 10 percent of all public relations professionals, while they’re 30 percent of the American population overall.”

Similarly, when stats from the tech industry were released by various companies last year, the findings revealed:

►USA Today reported that one percent of Google’s tech staff are African-American, while two percent are Hispanic. Yet, these groups comprise 12 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of the total population. Yet Asians, who comprise 12 percent of the US population, represent 34 percent of the company’s tech workers. Similarly 83 percent of Google’s tech workers internationally are reported to be male. When non-tech positions are included, male workers still dominate, at 52 percent.

►In August, a Tech Times story described Apple’s workforce as composed of 70 percent men, 30 percent women. It also described the ethnic make-up as 55 percent White, 15 percent Asian, 11 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Black, 2 percent Mixed Race, and 9 percent undeclared. *These figures were said to include employees of their retail stores.

*Fortune magazine offers the most extensive review of tech companies and diversity: http://fortune.com/2014/08/29/how-tech-companies-compare-in-employee-diversity/

What to Do?

One of the first things the PR and tech industries have to do is let go of the canard that

qualified ______ (take your pick—African-Americans, Latinos, women, and any other under-represented sector, including age and color) are hard to find.

From our experience, truth be told, there’s a person of color that can match the qualifications of many already employed in tech and agency PR; it’s simply that too frequently they’re denied the opportunity: they’re not recruited, they didn’t attend the “right” school, they don’t know the “right” people, they don’t live in the “right” place, the list goes on.

diverse hands  End the Mythology

It’s past time to kill the myth that every White and/or Asian male (the dominant groups leading—or in the case of tech, employed in these industries) is infinitely qualified. This is especially true in tech, where the illusion promulgated is that every employee is a Stanford or MIT engineering grad, or at least a high achiever from some elite liberal arts school. Like nearly every other industry we’ve seen—and perhaps most industries—PR agencies and tech are largely peopled with ordinary foot soldiers, and among them, there’s an unfair share of nepotism, cronyism, and worse yet, incompetence. It’s often simply a question of who enjoys the “privilege” of getting paid to be “average” or a “slacker.”

An Issue of Culture, Not Always Competence

What keeps the PR and tech industries meticulously lacking in diversity is too often culture, not a question of qualifications or competence. These industries are self-perpetuating because there’s a prevailing culture within them where key leaders feel comfortable with the status quo. A recent essay in the New York Times titled “A Paradox of Integration,” observed that integration rarely happens without growing pains. As a respondent in the essay noted:

People are fine with racial difference as long as there’s no culture conflict.

The public relations and tech industries seem to be reluctant, if not averse, to suffer the growing pains of diversity toward a larger social good.

Yes, things are changing and leaders in both of these industries are loudly (in the case of the PR industry, still) proclaiming their commitment to do better. Leaders in each industry have announced significant diversity and inclusion initiatives, and some, e.g., PRSA, the PR Council, Edelman PR firm and Intel, among others, have committed real resources to inclusion and diversifying workplaces.

Yet we can’t help but find it ironic that two industries known for disruption seem to be among the most timid about the “disruption” that accompanies true social, cultural and racial integration. If there’s going to be real change, we think we’ll need to keep prodding them along!

What’s your experience with diversity in tech or PR? We’d love to hear from you.

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  1. From a study by Williams, as quoted in Women in Public Relations: How Gender Influences Practice, Larissa A. Grunig, ‎Linda Childers Hon, ‎Elizabeth L. Toth.
  1. Diversity in the PR field: Some progress, though challenges persist, Natalie Tindall, PR Daily, February 7, 2012

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