Torod Neptune: Racial inequality in PR is deplorable

Lenovo’s CCO sends an urgent call to action to the PR industry to end the racial injustice and inequality that is still too prevalent in its ranks.

Torod Neptune, worldwide group VP and CCO at Lenovo Group.
Torod Neptune, worldwide group VP and CCO at Lenovo Group.

It's 2020 and our industry is 89.7% white, according to 2018 U.S. federal labor statistics.

In 1920 this might have been acceptable. In 2020 it's deplorable.

Political, racial, economic, and cultural tensions are inflamed today like many of us haven't seen in our lifetimes. The strain that exists just below the surface of almost every interaction we have with one another — regardless of your race, gender, politics or ethnicity — is palpable.

As an African-American male, raised and educated in the South, and as the father of three African-American sons, I have watched what has taken place in our nation over the last few months with feelings of loss, pain, outrage and fear. The current racial injustices we are witnessing are a painful reminder of how little progress we've made as a society.

But while we all focus on societal ills and what we rightly see and know is not right, not fair, not just, we also need to take an honest look at our industry with the same abhorrence for injustice and inequality.

The current reality is unacceptable for any industry in the 21st century. It is an absolute tragedy. After talking about this problem for the last 30 years, the lack of real progress is an abject failure on many levels.

We need bold, creative and innovative ideas to solve this problem. Change only happens when leaders are unwilling to accept the status quo and are determined to do what is right, fair and just. We certainly need those leaders now.

We can no longer claim ignorance, so we are all either complicit or we just don't care. I fear that the honest answer is the latter.

Verizon's Dan Mead, a CEO I previously worked for, would often deliver important assignments with unambiguous direction to "fix it" or "make it go away."

In his own way, with this pointed guidance, he was communicating his expectation that, as a member of the leadership team, I'd use the influence inherent in my position to ensure the problem was addressed (ethically and legally, of course), so it wouldn't reemerge.

What was unspoken, but understood, was his view that if I couldn't solve the problem, perhaps I wasn't the right leader the company needed. I believe the same is true today. We have leaders, but perhaps we don't have the right leaders. If we did, we'd have a much different industry demographic profile.

Now that all the supportive statements and pledges to be better have been made, the challenge is aligning our values with the reality of the businesses we lead. This is where only true leadership and bold, courageous decisions-making matters, and honestly this is where I am most troubled.

I am ashamed of our industry's lack of diversity. Outside of white women — where affirmative action has yielded positive results and real change — the results are embarrassing. But now we know where we are, the question is what we will do about it? The question is whether we deserve the seats at the table we currently occupy.

I won't diminish the significance of pledges and promises, because they matter. But results matter too, and in this instance, results matter more.

A case in point I'd suggest we consider is our industry's decision-making over the last few months, as the world grappled with how to handle the economic instability resulting from COVID-19.

Over the early summer I watched in disbelief as agencies over-indexed on job eliminations of mid- to senior level diverse talent. Each also walked away from almost every other meaningful mechanism that influences diversity recruitment and retention.

Beyond job eliminations that hit diverse senior leaders disproportionately — and this was a distressingly small group already — most surprising was the decision of almost every top 25 agency to eliminate internship programs. For many, internships serve as their only consistent pipeline for securing diverse entry-level talent.

I respect the tough decisions we all make as P&L and budget owners in this environment, balancing market disruption with financial targets and the need to drive profitable, sustainable businesses. But perhaps this is an area that reinforces my fear that our recent statements of support aren't aligned with our actual decision making and influence.

Like many, as a budget owner I am also making tough calls daily about where to cut and where to invest. These are uneasy decisions made more challenging because people's very livelihoods are at stake with each choice.

But, more importantly, I am making these decisions mindful of the non-negotiables. My commitment to DEI across my global organization, even in this challenging business environment, is one of those.

As a result, with support from The Lagrant Foundation, Lenovo maintained its U.S. summer internship program, shifted it fully online, and hired over 100 students (representing 64% ethnic diversity). I applaud the brands and agencies, like SC Johnson, Procter & Gamble, G&S, and 360 PR+, which did the same.

My oldest son is graduating this fall with a business degree, focused on marketing, social, digital, data and analytics. He's had two very successful internships at PR agencies over the past two summers. But, honestly, I struggle in our discussions about whether he should start his career in our industry or in one more likely to understand and support him and his brown skin, and where he can contribute and thrive.

To him, an industry that is 89.7% white doesn't sound like a smart place to pursue a career. Honestly, I don't disagree. He cannot be what he cannot see.

But if we can't attract and retain the best talent, what hope do we have of winning? What hope do we have of differentiating our business and gaining credibility in the diverse and dynamic markets where we compete? What hope do we have of growing our stature and influence with the boards and C-suites that control our budgets and increasingly our organizational fate?

These questions leave me both optimistic and impatient. I'm optimistic that this time, given all that is at stake, we will do what we have said we will. But I'm also impatient to see true leaders emerge, determined to marshal the courage and power they have been given to "fix it."

To help us begin, here are some practical suggestions for moving forward:

For brand leaders, demand accountability from agencies. As Lenovo committed two years ago, agencies that don't reflect true racial diversity across the firm and on our account teams, cannot compete for, be awarded, or maintain our business any longer. As a Page member, I challenge my peers to take up this same mandate. Until budget owners demand change, and establish accountability mechanisms, agencies will never fully commit.

For agency leaders, compensate leaders on their — and their agencies' — progress against achieving diversity metrics. We know that, when pay is at risk, people pay attention and things change. Also, disclose the numbers of BIPOC laid off at the outset of COVID-19, and for every BIPOC laid off, as business returns, commit to replace each of those roles at that same or higher level with a BIPOC.

Let's get to it. It's time to do what we said we were going to do. After all, we've got everything to lose and everything to gain.

Torod Neptune is worldwide group VP and CCO at Lenovo Group. He serves on the boards of The Lagrant Foundation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and USC Annenberg School of Communications' Center for Public Relations.

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