Diversity and inclusion in PR: Creating real change by debunking diversity myths

In observing best practices from all corners of the business world, Rahsaan Harris, president and CEO of the Emma Bowen Foundation, has seen firsthand what does and doesn't work in facilitating diversity and inclusion

Diversity. We all know how important it is, but how do we get there?

I’ve seen efforts of inclusion in various settings. Through my adventures in teaching, mentoring young people, and now leading the Emma Bowen Foundation in its drive to promote diverse hiring, retention, and advancement in the media and technology industries, I’ve always prioritized having an eye towards inclusion.

I have seen different approaches to diversity. But more than that, I’ve seen two pervasive myths that hold back even the most well meaning of companies as they push for diversity on their staffs and in their industries.

Myth 1: Diversity is about the heart, not the head.

Too often, when people talk about diversity, they think of it as being a "good thing for the soul." They think it’s the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do for your business. Consider the following:

•Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns that beat industry medians.

•Teams with someone of the same cultural background as a client are 152% more likely to understand the client.

•Two-thirds of job seekers take diversity into account when evaluating companies and job offers.

Diversity affects all aspects of business, from overall financial health to ability to relate to clients to ease of recruitment and hiring for all candidates. A diverse workplace is a stronger workplace. And that’s good for the bottom line.

Myth 2: It’s only about the pipeline.

Young talent is vital to diversity. The Emma Bowen Foundation provides multi-year internships to students of color at media and technology partners across the industry. Through this work, I have seen the benefit of giving talented young people an opportunity to start their careers at organizations committed to having a diverse workforce. But I have also seen how many of our partner companies have been able to promote and retain their young talent over the years by focusing on what I consider to be the three Cs of diversity.

•Commitment. You need an ongoing top-down commitment to and investment in diversity at all levels of the company, from having a set diversity statement to incorporating diverse hiring and advancement in annual reviews.

Example: There is no better way for companies to show their commitment to diversity than by creating concrete incentives. At both Time Warner (now a part of Charter Communications) and Disney-ABC, CEO sign-off on executive compensation is tied to diversity outcomes.

•Culture. It takes an inclusive environment that lets every member of the company bring their authentic selves to work and that celebrates the unique perspectives that differing backgrounds bring to a strong workplace.

Example: Emma Bowen Foundation participant companies CBS, Comcast-NBC Universal; Cox; Discovery; HBO; and Nielsen use employee resource groups or partnerships with organizations such as the Executive Leadership Council and the Council of Urban Professionals to provide outlets for employees to celebrate diverse communities and create platforms that highlight diverse perspectives.

•Communication. Transparency, both internal and external, is crucial. You can start by reaching out to nontraditional candidates during the recruiting process. Use social media or organizational partners such as the Emma Bowen Foundation Alumni Association. Incorporate staff in major business decisions and initiatives and ask them to give honest feedback about what’s working and what could still be improved.

Example: Programs can facilitate internal idea exchanges and signal the importance of diversity and inclusion to external audiences. CBS' Diversity Institute has five components (writers mentoring program and writers fellowship; directing initiative; talent showcases; daytime initiatives for casting, directing, and writers; and actors career workshops) designed to provide program participants with access to the decision-making process in network TV, both in front of and behind the camera. These efforts create opportunities for mutual mentorship between emerging and experienced professionals, which facilitates learning that benefits all involved.

With these three Cs working together, businesses have the opportunity to not only focus on their pipeline, but to also ensure that the investment made in that pipeline pays off over time in a talented and diverse workforce at all levels.

As I get ready for the Emma Bowen Foundation Summer Conference (June 22-24), which brings together over 200 young talented people of color to begin their career in the media, I look forward to a world without these myths, where they have every possible opportunity to learn, grow, and succeed.

Dr. Rahsaan Harris is president and CEO of the Emma Bowen Foundation, which works with over 46 corporate sponsors on intern placement.

The 6th annual Diversity Distinction in PR Awards, presented by the PR Council in association with PRWeek, will be celebrating top efforts in diversity and inclusion in the PR industry. We are accepting entries now. Deadline is July 19.

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