Posts Tagged 'workplace inclusion'

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.

PR, Tech and Diversity


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:

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.


  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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