Steps PR agencies can take to become DE&I changemakers

Executives from Ionis, AbbVie and the PR Council shared personal experiences navigating DE&I workplace issues.

L-R: AbbVie's Shannelle Armstrong Fowler, Ionis' Roslyn Patterson, PR Council's Kim Sample, Google's Brianna LaFleur

CHICAGO: Executives from Ionis, AbbVie and the PR Council encouraged PR firms to form strategic diversity, equity and inclusion partnerships, identify their biases and eliminate microaggressions at PRWeek’s 2022 PRDecoded conference in Chicago on Wednesday.

Speakers first discussed the decision not to name any agencies as Changemakers in PRWeek and Google’s inaugural Changemakers program, and detailed how firms can be better DE&I advocates.  

Roslyn Patterson, global marketing and communications executive at Ionis, said that before joining the initiative’s advisory council, she researched what it meant to be a changemaker: someone who is taking creative action to solve a social problem. 

After reviewing the agency applicants, Patterson found that there were not any creative solutions that were sustainable, and that many of the submissions lacked authenticity. 

She also noted that the council saw a lot of the familiar tactics that have been developing over the past few years, which have made little to no difference in moving the needle forward, such as just appointing DE&I leaders. 

However, Patterson did highlight some positives, including acquisitions and strategic partnerships that have helped bring multicultural and minority voices into the spotlight.

In 2021, Zeno Group bought a stake in Egami Group, helping to provide leadership and career opportunities for diverse talent from both firms.

Kim Sample, president of the PR Council, spoke about a shift in DE&I strategy since the racial reckoning in 2020. She said that, after George Floyd’s murder, the PR Council tried to support agencies with actionable steps, but soon realized that DE&I is more than a series of tactics.

“DE&I is an overarching business strategy,” Sample said, adding that commitment means actively working hard to educate yourself and learn what you are doing wrong. 

The panelists also explained how agencies can make real progress in DE&I. 

Shannelle Armstrong Fowler, director of U.S. public affairs for immunology at AbbVie, emphasized the need to “work with intention” to figure out DE&I gaps. 

She said that while objectives and key performance indicators are important, it is about “making yourself the employer of choice for talent and people of color.”

Patterson urged agencies to identify biases, conscious or unconscious, as they play into every business decision, including talent acquisition and retention. 

"It's about being an ally, finding allies and educating yourself,” she said. “The first part is acknowledging your biases. This is a business imperative.”

Moderator Brianna LaFleur, who leads strategy and operations projects for Google's global communications and public affairs team, pushed firms to form symbiotic partnerships with clients, helping advance DE&I throughout the industry at-large. 

“You need us, and we need you,” she added. 

Sample concluded the panel by noting that Gen Z staffers want to work and stay in diverse organizations, ultimately making the business more profitable in the long-term.

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