• Blog
  • Culture/Agency Life

DEI is Not a Box to Check – It’s a Journey

5 Min Read
  • Blog
  • Culture/Agency Life

DEI is Not a Box to Check – It’s a Journey

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) has emerged as arguably the most pressing issue on today’s corporate agenda. That’s good. As a CEO, I’m encouraged to see companies taking positive steps to integrate new voices, viewpoints and insights into their workplaces. At the same time, I’m saddened that our generation of leaders hasn’t acted earlier or done more.

We have an opportunity. Our company has embraced DEI as a top priority going forward. And I, as PAN’s leader, am making it a personal mission to learn more about DEI, communicate with more transparency about the subject and try to drive more awareness about diversity’s role in business today.

It’s important that leaders consider the benefits of building a diverse organization for driving better business performance. Studies show that organizations committed to ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to outperform less diverse organizations. Companies that display more gender and ethnic diversity also attract more customers, generate more revenue and earn higher profits.

“Studies show that organizations committed to ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to outperform less diverse organizations. Companies that display more gender and ethnic diversity also attract more customers, generate more revenue and earn higher profits.”

Diversity is especially important in client services fields such as integrated marketing. Our business thrives on ideas – creative, insightful, challenging ideas. Ensuring that we are tapping the talents and viewpoints of the most diverse workforce possible is critical to sustaining our long-term business models.

As we started to advance our own DEI journey at PAN, many things became clear. One is that creating a DEI framework is not about checking a box. It has to be well thought out, genuine and reflective of a company’s true values. It has to be multi-dimensional, taking into account every aspect of your business – everything from hiring to retention to promotion to client engagement to partner relations to internal communications.

Perhaps most importantly, it requires more than just a rubber stamp from the CEO. It requires that we, as leaders, lend our support, our time and our energy. We need to play a critical role in listening, educating ourselves, speaking up and making our own personal commitments to drive change.

Back in June, PAN ran a Dynata survey focused on consumer sentiment around Black Lives Matter, DEI and the role of CEOs and brands in these discussions. 44% of respondents said that a CEO’s public reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement would affect their decision to buy from that company. For me, this reinforced our role as leaders to speak up and drive change for good. Our voices are critical here.

As I reflect on our DEI journey to date at PAN, it has been a learning experience for me. Here are a few lessons I can share.

Don’t be afraid to speak up, even when it’s uncomfortable

Back in early June, I hosted a virtual all-staff meeting shortly after the murder of George Floyd. I wanted to convey the sadness I, as a white man, was feeling and hear from people about how they’re doing. Truth be told, I was a little nervous. I spoke openly and honestly for 30 minutes about my personal feelings about systemic racism. I asked questions. Others shared their thoughts and feelings. We had a heartfelt, productive dialogue. My words weren’t perfect. I didn’t say everything right. But I did my best, and I was honest.

Afterward, I was floored by the number of emails I received from employees sharing a personal story about an encounter with racism. Some may have been reluctant to chime in during the Zoom call, but the session opened up an ongoing conversation about how race relations impact them and how they view the world. I was honored to hear those stories and proud to see a workforce that was speaking up.

Get your leadership team on board

As CEO, you work with your leadership team to set priorities for the organization. It’s critical to get your leadership team to move DEI to the top of the agenda. This became the sole focus at our half-year strategic offsite session in August. From that session we developed our six DEI “pillars” – separate initiatives focused on, among other things, attracting and retaining a more diverse staff and holding ourselves accountable. Each leader signed up for a pillar that he or she would focus on, giving each a direct stake in PAN’s DEI success.

“As CEO, you work with your leadership team to set priorities for the organization. It’s critical to get your leadership team to move DEI to the top of the agenda.”

Take the pulse of the organization

While leaders should strive to stay connected with workers as a matter of practice, it became doubly important during the country’s racial tensions in 2020. You can do this in a variety of ways. My favorite method – talking to employees in the office while getting snacks – hasn’t been an option during the pandemic. But other ways work, too. Pick up the phone. Connect with workers over email. Do a survey. Assign a team of leaders to gather feedback. One method we introduced earlier this year was to set up an anonymous email box where employees can ask the CEO anything. This generated a lot of interaction – mostly favorable and productive, but sometimes critical. Which is fine. It’s the whole point of the exercise.

Act on the feedback

One piece of feedback from the anonymous mailbox that came as a surprise to me involved our recruiting practices. PAN’s leaders had let it be known that the firm had set a mandate to increase its percentage of black, brown and indigenous workers. An anonymous email floated the question: Does this mean the company would, in certain cases, hire a person based on the color of their skin if he/she is not the top candidate?

“The goal is not ever to discriminate. It is to work harder to surface top-quality candidates of all races to compete for every position – raising the quality level of the organization as a whole.”

The question shook me a bit. What we didn’t communicate fully enough to employees – and perhaps others can identify with this – is that hiring should not be considered a “zero sum game.” The goal is not ever to discriminate. It is to work harder to surface top-quality candidates of all races to compete for every position – raising the quality level of the organization as a whole. That means tapping a wider variety of sources for recruitment – such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) – along with tried-and-true personal networks. Our HR leader had already pushed hard to start this process. We talked at length about doubling-down our recruitment effort and communicating our strategy to the outside world.

Read more about PAN’s partnership with HBCU’s in this press release.

Determine your own personal commitment

As I stressed earlier on, the most successful DEI initiatives take place at companies where the CEO makes a personal commitment to the cause. I’ve tried to make DEI my own journey, as well as PAN’s. I have committed to learning and doing better – and also to giving back. This has included expanding my adjunct professor role at Syracuse University to leading a guest lecture series at two HBCUs (NCCU and NC A&T). I’ve signed on to teach and talk about public relations and agency life. I learn so much from these students. They’re providing me a new valuable perspective, and I hope I’m doing the same for the students. Beyond this, I have posted many comments and lessons-learned on LinkedIn and Twitter, each time garnering many “comments” from thousands of views.

Embrace the force of your whole team

DEI efforts should be personal for the leader. But they shouldn’t be confined to one leader, or even a small group of leaders. The collective force and effort of an entire team is what will move your DEI journey forward. We’ve provided two ways for our team members to be involved: joining one of the DEI pillar committees or serving on our PANid team. The latter has assembled a group from all levels at PAN to participate in conversations around DEI. The group meets monthly to talk about resources, staff initiatives, training, and books to read/documentaries to watch to drive self-improvement for the employee and PAN.

Connect with your peer group

I’ve found it immensely helpful to sit on roundtables with other leaders to hear their perspectives on DEI. I learn from each of these conversations and calls. We discuss hiring practices, share retention tips and learn about how our peers are handling this critical issue that will shape the future of our industry. One of the most valuable peer-group initiatives has been undertaken by the PR Council. It is a founding member of the Diversity Action Alliance, an industry-wide effort to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in our profession. PAN is participating in the alliance and taking an active role to promote the DAA pledge, which encourages agency leaders, CCOs at leading corporations and deans of communications programs at colleges and universities to share, on an annual basis, demographic data for an aggregated industry-wide report. We may not like where the data is today, but it provides the necessary spring-board to grow and show improvement year-over-year.

This is a journey

Remember, DEI is not a box to check – and it’s not an issue than can be solved overnight. CEOs don’t have to commit massive financial resources up front, especially while they’re trying to work their way through the pandemic. Creating a DEI journey is a long-term commitment. Gains will be gradual, but they should be pursued with the assumption that they will sustain themselves over time.

I wish our industry could have moved faster and earlier to get ahead of race relations issues that are now front and center in society. But if we see today as an opportunity, we can do some good – for our own individual companies and for society at large.

Learn more about Phil’ commitment to bringing DEI to the PR industry in his recent podcast.

We’re ready to move.
Are you?

Contact Us