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TOLA ST. MATTHEW-DANIEL Senior Vice President, freuds NY

WHERE WE ARE AND WHERE DO WE NEED TO GO?

Tola St. Matthew-Daniel – Senior Vice President, freuds NY – provides five points

that will help businesses get serious about change

 

In our industry, Diversity and Inclusion has been a buzzworthy phrase the better part of my career.

 

But whenever we feel the weight of the proverbial elephant in the room, whether through a racial or culturally insensitive ad, a tone-deaf statement by a CEO, or something as significant as the BLM protests, our industry suddenly wilts under the glare of the spotlight. 

 

Why?

 

Perhaps it’s because words, no matter how carefully crafted, have never been enough. These moments make us reckon with our own truth as the folks who behind the scenes, help brands, governments and global business tell their stories.

 

It’s a process that forces us to look in the mirror and assess where we are. And the truth is, we’re anything but diverse.

 

Here in the US, 88% of the PR industry is white. In the UK, it’s 91%.

 

That’s an imbalance that becomes more pronounced when you look at the top and who is there. It’s painfully obvious that we’re not walking the talk. Most PR firms will have a vast number of women on the floor, but the leadership roles do not reflect those numbers and women don’t have the same stairway to success.

 

With race, this is an even bigger problem.

 

As an industry, we have a huge responsibility as creatives, given what we do and who we represent. Our impact truly reverberates in culture, business, politics – in almost every arena of society.

 

Therefore, we not only have a responsibility, but an opportunity to wield our influence and address the many systemic injustices and inequalities that exist in the worlds we touch.  

 

This starts with who and how we hire, the support we provide for our Black and minority ethnic employees, the work we produce, the clients and partners we choose to engage. Our clients and partners must be exemplary and illustrative of our values and we need to make hard decisions when they’re not. In the same way we make decisive choices if we perceive a would-be client is corrupt or anti any value we hold dear, we need to be able to draw those lines and stick by them when it comes to race and ethnicity.

 

It is a journey that will require true commitment, resilience and measurable results. And we must move quickly with clear intention.

 

As a Nigerian-American who has learned and lived in Africa, Europe and the US, I have a diverse perspective when it comes to storytelling. I see how important it is for different voices to be included in conversations that affect our world. These narratives must reflect our diverse realities.

 

For far too long, many of our stories have been told through just one media lens. This is a construct our industry has played a massive role in perpetuating and it’s one we must help dismantle.

 

There is certainly no one Black experience, but there is a shared black experience as is evidenced by this journal itself – common issues around opportunity, education, recruitment, compensation, mentorship and sponsorship are, unfortunately, borderless. After a summer of racial reckoning and talking to senior Black executives, I’ve been struck by how many similar threads exists across different industries.

 

Although it’s great to be looked to for advice, how to be better, or to review campaigns for sensitivities, that’s not why we’re here. We’re not here simply to catch out mistakes or to provide tips on what to say and how to say it to the “diverse” client to reassure them that they should be doing business with you. That’s not how D&I adds value to a business. Our perspective needs to be included from conception through to execution.

 

Now that “courageous conversations” have begun, there’s no turning back. We will continue to speak out and speak up if we as an industry fall short and fail to measure up to our stated ambitions. Progress will be uneven and uncomfortable, yes. And it won’t be easy because unlike privilege, which is silently complicit, anti-racism requires focused, deliberate work.

 

So, what side of history do you want to be on, and crucially, where can we start?

 

1. Know your numbers. Businesses have to know what’s working, what isn’t, where they’re good and where they’re failing. They need to be transparent about these figures so that they can set targets, be better and held accountable. If your budget is a statement of your priorities, what does it say about your firm’s commitment to creating a more inclusive and equitable workplace? Know your own house before giving advice.

 

2. It must be a business imperative. This is not a nicety or philanthropy. D&I goals have to be tied to a business’ operational model – it has to impact the bottom line otherwise nothing will change. How do you tie this to compensation and renumeration, how is it linked to objectives for leaders? Does your D&I lead report to the CEO? Show the receipts. If not, you’re doing it wrong.

 

3. Innovate the workplace. In our pandemic reality, this is more important than ever. The number of women that are being pushed out of the corporate world because the virus has disrupted their work life balance is even more so when you look at women of colour, whose family structures can differ greatly from your average white household. As an industry, we have to respond in order be able to meet the needs of our best talent, no matter their circumstance. What more can be done to not only innovate our working tools, but our workplaces?

 

4. Businesses need to create safe spaces. They are critical for social cohesion and changing company culture. While asking employees to bring their “whole” selves to work, topics such as racial inequality, social injustice or bias have been considered taboo until recently. Spaces such as town halls, office hours and anonymous feedback mechanisms are needed to encourage the candid conversations that shape policy.  Also, acknowledge that the trauma of racial injustice is personal for your Black colleagues so providing emotional and mental support is essential.

 

5. Support systems for leaders. There’s been a hiring wave of senior Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) but you can’t recruit your way out of a hole without addressing the roots of the issue. Further, while meaningful representation of ethnic minorities in leadership roles is long overdue, putting people in positions of power only works if they actually have the support structures needed to succeed – if not, it’s a set up. The “other” glass cliff for lack of a better term. Are you providing the tools, influence, authority and resourcing required for them excel?   

 

Full throated statements are nice – intentionality, investment, rigor, commitment, even better. Let’s not waste this moment to make real, tangible and enduring change.