Inauguration speech inspires diverse thought

President Obama's inauguration speech provides insight for the PR industry and any organization seeking deeper connections and engagement with an evolving demographic of employees, consumers, and other stakeholders.

We live in remarkable times. This week, we witnessed the last inauguration speech from the first African-American US president. On the same day, in the 50th year since the March on Washington and his most defining Civil Rights address, we honored an incomparable champion of equality – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

For most of us, the magnitude of the moment was not lost in the seemingly unending dissection of whether President Obama's speech was too political or if the first lady made the right wardrobe decision. For us, the significance of the day was far greater. It simultaneously represented a half-century of progress and an endless horizon of possibilities – a reminder that while “we've come a long way, baby,” our journey is not complete.

Now, I should be clear. This is not a political commentary. Instead, these are a few key observations. President Obama's inauguration speech – removed from the shadow of partisanship – provides insight for the PR industry and any organization seeking deeper connections and engagement with an evolving demographic of employees, consumers, and other stakeholders.      

Observation 1: As I listened to the inaugural address, I began to see the thread of diversity woven throughout – though the word itself was only referenced once. Whether in metaphors such as Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall or direct references to equal rights for women, gays, and others, the President effectively acknowledged our progress in diversity while nodding to the challenges and work that remain ahead.

The takeaway: The diversity journey for any organization is unending. Don't look for a finish line, but instead set markers to note progress along the way. We should never confuse progress with success. 

Observation 2: In the week prior to the inauguration, President Obama was criticized for the lack of diversity in his cabinet, despite past progress markers. Those include the Lilly Ledbetter Act, his nomination of Eric Holder as the first African-American US attorney general, his appointment of two women – Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – to serve on the Supreme Court, and his selection of women as his top advisors for foreign policy and healthcare. With his commitment questioned, he pointed to this record of diversity among his senior advisors and positioned his efforts as “in progress.” He reinforced this commitment on a larger scale during the inauguration by weaving the ideas of diversity and togetherness via specific references and examples.

The takeaway: Every organization can be criticized, but criticism should not be the sole driver of commitment. A commitment to diversity is not measured simply by the numbers or reductionist casting that looks good. Commitment seeks to identify and address the fundamental issues that drive the dearth of diversity – both in corporate boardrooms and presidential cabinets. If an organization finds that there are no diverse candidates to hire or promote, the primary questions to ask are why and what can you, as an individual, do to help drive the collective action required for continued progress.

Observation 3: One of the most memorable quotes of the inauguration address for me was, “For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance…”

The takeaway: Let's be real. Championing diversity within some organizations can feel – even still – as though we are banging our heads against a wall of politically correct resistance or forced interest. But the PR industry no longer has the luxury of diversity inertia. Yes, some efforts will only result in small victories, while others will take longer than the planned fiscal calendar or budget cycle. However, sustained efforts are required for meaningful progress. As the industry moves forward in its diversity journey, we cannot mistake movement for action, substitute intent for results, or treat rhetoric as commitment.

Latraviette Smith, former VP, global diversity and inclusion for American Express, has spent 15 years in communications in agency corporate, consumer, and multicultural PR, as well as senior marketing roles. Her column will focus on the PR industry's ongoing efforts to advance diversity among its ranks at all levels. Connect with her via LinkedIn or at latraviette@gmail.com. 

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