PR Lessons From Oscars and Apple Diversity Stories

Oscars-2016

imagesDiversity is in the news. Whether it’s the issue of the Oscar nominations lacking diversity as mentioned in this space last week or the board of Apple calling a diversity proposal "unduly burdensome and not necessary." Or,  closer to home for PR pros, a story in this week’s PR News where PR exec Mike Paul says the industry's senior levels and boardrooms fail to resemble the country's diverse populations.  Clearly diversity is a major topic.

What are the PR lessons for brands?

With media coverage and social media activity swelling, brands need to monitor the situation and be sure their policies and materials explaining diversity activities are current. Brands would also be well advised to make certain any of their written or video materials on diversity are well written and sensitive to current arguments.

At the least, brands and their communicators need to acknowledge that a conversation is occurring.  Some brands will and should engage in the dialogue, preferably becoming part of the conversation at venues where the conversation is taking place. For example, if your brand is criticized socially, respond on social media.

With numerous press reports and criticism on social media from Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, to name a few, calling for an Oscars boycott, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which administers the Academy Awards, rightly entered the dialogue.  Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s president, issued a lengthy and well-crafted statement on Martin Luther King Day decrying the Oscars’ lack of diversity.

While acknowledging the work of the nominees, she noted, "I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes.” She continued, "The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership. In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond. As many of you know, we have implemented changes to diversify our membership in the last four years. But the change is not coming as fast as we would like. We need to do more, and better and more quickly."

In Apple’s case, the diversity proposal was addressed to the company’s board and that’s where the dialogue took place. As we said, the Apple board’s response, to a proposal from shareholder Antonio Avian Maldonado on diversity, took the other side of the argument. The tone of its statement was less conciliatory than the Academy’s.  It rejected Maldonado’s points that Apple has been slow to diversify its ranks. "Apple has demonstrated to shareholders its commitment to inclusion and diversity, which are core values for our company," the board said in materials for proxy vote ahead of a board meeting next month. The company's 2015 diversity report states that 69% of Apple’s ranks are male, 54% is white. Its leadership is 72% male and 63% white.

Last, remember that even if you believe your actions are honorable and well crafted from a PR perspective, there may be things beyond your control. Exhibit I is Fresh Prince of Bel-Air actor Janet Hubert criticizing Pinkett Smith about her choice of issues. Pinkett Smith's husband Will Smith starred in the film Concussion and had been mentioned for an Oscar nomination. In the end, the Academy failed to nominate Smith.

Hubert said an Oscars boycott is a relatively unimportant issue when “people are dying. Our boys are being shot left and right. People are hungry. People are starving. People are trying to pay bills." In addition to other criticisms of Pinkett Smith and her husband,  Hubert mentioned that Will Smith failed to stand with Fresh Prince cast members when it was proposed to him that he unite with them before they asked for a raise. The cast felt the support of Smith, the series' star, would strengthen its case. Smith told the cast, according to Hubert, I've got my deal, go get yours.

Follow Seth Arenstein: @skarenstein

  • Shai Johnson

    I’m in the PR/Communication world and the PR issue hits close to home, what exec Mike Paul said is spot on. And, before the comments about skills and talent, the diversity issue is certainly not because of lack of those qualities amongst PR’s minority members. No one wants affirmative action, just equal treatment/recognition for equal work.