Two Years After George Floyd: Plenty of Talk about DEI, Not Enough Action

[Editor's Note: It should not be the case, yet for many PR firms DEI still seems like an add-on, a box for checking or the reason for a once-yearly celebration. Similarly, as an add-on, it's constantly evading obstacles, such as budget cuts during COVID or in the wake of a possible recession. As such, we asked DEI leaders for their view. On a scale of one through five, what's DEI's grade? The results indicate much work remains.

As such, our panelists offered DEI tactics, including goal-setting, pipeline investment and periodic retreats for checking progress.

Panel members were: Lisa Garcia, partner, COO, Sachs Media, Daniela Herrera, dand Helen Shelton, global chief diversity officer, Finn Partners. Remarks were edited lightly.]

PRNEWS: We can agree that if DEI doesn’t permeate a company, its results will be uneven. So, how do you build a DEI culture and communicate it?

Daniela Herrera, director, recruitment operations and DEI, R/GA

Daniela Herrera: Before communicating [externally], you actually have to make sure that you are doing the work.

PRNEWS: Absolutely.

Herrera: So many things come into play. A lot of people still see D&I as a political issue. So many companies may steer clear from saying anything [about it]…But, you also want to make sure that what you're communicating is true, what is actually happening in your company.

And then what happens is for so many companies, and so many executives, there is this…fight in terms of transparency. ‘Is [our record on diversity] something that we want to communicate? Do we want to put our diversity numbers for everyone to see when we know that our company is not that diverse? Do we want to open up the door for a pay transparency type of conversation when we know that that's going to open up a whole different can of worms?’

So, if you're going to [talk about diversity], make sure that you are doing the work. And then, with the communication, communicate in the most intentional, inclusive and equitable way possible.

PRNEWS: Lisa, same question.

Lisa Garcia, partner, COO, Sachs Media

Lisa Garcia: We are a small public relations firm. So, I always think, Is what we're doing impactful enough? And the answer is yes. Even if you're a small company…everything you do to improve equity in the workplace is going to be a phenomenal change.

Yet I know incremental changes are not cutting it anymore.

So, I like the idea of setting big, measurable goals. And, it's okay if you don't get there the first year, maybe even the second year. But the point is that you have a goal and you're going to reach it.

And you're going to have the consensus of the leadership to make sure that you reach those goals. So, I think the most important thing is to not become overwhelmed with trying to do everything, because you can't do everything, but take on what you can take on for your particular company, and your budget.

PRNEWS: Helen, you’re at a relatively large firm. Do you agree with Lisa about goal-setting?

Helen Shelton, global chief diversity officer, Finn Partners

Helen Shelton: I think it's critical. It's like anything in life. If you want to make something happen, you need to start with a goal.

And I agree that you should have lofty goals… but you should have strategic intervals, mileposts, where you can stop, take stock and see where you're headed.

Unfortunately, a lot of people panic when they think about diversity numbers and diversity data. ‘Oh, we're not diverse enough.’ Instead, use that same energy to address the issue.

We have to have clear goals; we have to stick to them. And we have to hold ourselves accountable and put in the steps that it takes to do it.

People complain, ‘We're not diverse; we need to be more diverse.’

Well, then be diverse.

Embrace diversity. Diversify your recruiting efforts. Invest in initiatives that are going to make everyone feel welcome. Establish those things, as a company, that are going to attract people of diverse backgrounds and make them want to stay and grow with your company.

PRNEWS: Let’s talk investment and dream a bit. Budgets are limitless, and you are CEO of the entire PR industry. How will you invest in DEI or what action will you take on DEI? Daniela?

Herrera: I would love to pause, stop everything that we're doing for whatever time it might take. Maybe it's a week, maybe it's two weeks. Really pause and work with a DEI strategist...and take a very deep dive into our systems and to our processes, our programs the way that we actually work. The way that we do every single, tiny thing.

I think that changes in diversity and inclusion don't really happen if you're not making changes at the systemic level. You can invest in trainings, you can invest in hiring diverse talent.

But if all of those efforts are all over the place, they're not systematic. They're not fully embedded into what a company or an industry actually does and believes. That’s going to fail. We are going to fall into the same vices and the same processes that we've been following all over the place.

So, that's what I would do. I would stop everyone…[and] review, deconstruct, reconstruct all of the processes. Fully and intentionally embedding systemic change and intentional, inclusive intentionality throughout the entire thing.


Garcia: I agree with Dani. Streamlining these methods is very important. One of the biggest problems is that we have too many people doing too many things. And it's very confusing.

But I also believe in data-driven results. We're in business to make money. So, I would conduct a comprehensive economic-impact analysis, looking at businesses that prioritize DEI and those that do not.

And I’d make participation in this survey part of getting a business license.

I know we talk about [DEI]. But do we have the numbers that really show the impact of [DEI]?

So, this comprehensive economic analysis is for each sector, so that you can make an informed decision or an informed plan for the future.

And the other thing about licensing, I’d make more training and streamlining methods part of a mandatory process for getting a business license. When you get your captain's license [for boating], you have to pass a class, you have to pass a training.

So, let's add a mandatory training about understanding DEI before you get a business license. Like Dani said, we have to stop and then move forward.

PRNEWS: Helen?

Shelton: I love what both of my co-panelists said.

In addition, what's missing with this whole diversity-in-industry conversation is [talking with diverse groups]. What are the historically excluded groups? What do they feel? And what do they, we, want?

These are human beings. Everybody is doing studies about the fact that there's this lack of diversity, but has anybody really scratched the surface to [ask diverse people what they want and need]?

I also believe in data-driven approaches. But, I’d like to see research done [about] sentiment, mindset, the psychographics of diverse consumers and diverse people in the workforce. Get their insights and act on that.

And then another thing… if I had all the resources in the world, and don't tell Peter [Finn, CEO, Finn Partners], I certainly would say, “Can we expand…our investment in a robust, diverse pipeline?'

We’re doing that already. [Peter is] so serious about a pipeline…we're making efforts for students in high school, college, but also…mid- to senior level.

So, we have scholarship programs and recruitment initiatives. I would just ask if we could multiply those. Invest even more money in [pipeline activities]. I'm so tired of reading when people say, ‘Oh, we can't find any diverse candidates.’ So, that's what I would do.

PRNEWS: Let’s reverse course. Go from limitless money to a recession. Will a recession be a convenient excuse for some companies to slow or even halt DEI?

Shelton:  First of all, it's wrong for diversity to be separate, an add-on. It needs to be fully integrated into a company's infrastructure, so it’s recession-proof, bullet-proof.


Garcia: Absolutely, I agree. Your DEI program should be integrated and recession-proof.

But, the reality is that you're right. [Management] could come in and say, ‘Well, we're gonna pause’ on DEI.

What we need to do at that point is really focus on retention. We have to invest in the employee. And try to keep that employee safe from being cut or leaving. So, retention is key.

PRNEWS: Daniela, how can you retain people? What would you advise?

Herrera: Yes, to everything that Helen and Lisa said. DEI is not an extra thing that you're doing, it's a core part of your business. So, in the same way that you would be taking care of, for instance, your client services team, you should be taking care of diversity.

Sometimes we forget that diversity and inclusion is way more than hiring, running trainings or bringing in external speakers to chat with our teams.

So, what I would do is use the time to take a look at what's happening internally. Look at how we can retain our talent. Take a look at who hasn't been promoted in the last four years. Is there a pattern? Is there a specific demographic that isn't getting promoted? Why are they not getting promoted?

So, we might need to train our hiring managers to interview more effectively. That doesn't really cost any money. That's something that you can do. Internally, it's like a close circle. Right? So those are the things I would do.

PRNEWS: Final thoughts. Are we better or worse, or about the same, than we were let's say, a year ago in terms of DEI? One through five, with five being the best, what's your grade for DEI in the business sector?  

Shelton: I would grade it a 2.5. The unrest that occurred in the summer of 2020 further reinforced the importance of why we needed to be committed to diversity. Still, there's a lot of talk around [DEI] and not enough action.

I'm tired of the same two people whining about it. Well, what are you doing about it? Or patting themselves on the back. And it's like, 'Well, where's the net [positive]?' Where's the proof of the pudding? What are you doing?

But I am optimistic. I'm glad that the conversation is building up. And there's more discussion around this issue. So, I'm happy to see that the future's bright.

Garcia: I'm gonna say two. I think that like Helen said, there's a lot of work that needs to be done. There's a lot of complaining...a lot of noise about this and the political politicization of it.

I wish we could do what we said earlier, just stop and reassess and move forward.

I've done a lot of growing...but it hasn't been because I've had a lot of representation of me in this industry. We have to work hard as Latinos in this industry.

Herrera: Two. As we said, there is a lot of talk and a lot of performative action, unfortunately.  Yes, at some companies we see some things happening, but what I don't necessarily see is the follow-up, systemic change. Really fully embedding what we are doing into the way that we work.

That's why we are not seeing the full change happening yet.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Follow him: @skarenstein