An Ethical Conundrum: Should Companies Post Diverse Imagery if They’re Not Diverse?

It's part of living in a digital era. People know they must exercise caution. When an online advertisement claims that overnight it can eliminate 10 years’ worth of (fill in the blank…wrinkles, credit card debt, water damage in the basement), well, buyer beware.

Likewise, people seemingly understand turkey ads at holiday time are doctored. The images likely are airbrushed and doctored to a point they’d make Pavlov’s mouth water. It's trickery with imagery.

Yet, is the following scenario much different? XYZ PR firm pitches an interview with its CEO. The pitch includes a link with the CEO’s bio. After clicking on the link, up pops a photo of a 30-something, Black woman. The photo is excellent. Its subject and composition are strong, the lighting excellent.

This is the CEO,’ the media member thinks as she peruses the bio. PR is an industry with far too few women in senior roles. As such, this CEO seems a prime subject for a profile.

Accordingly, the content creator reads the full bio. As she finishes, another, much smaller photo is visible. It's just below the bio’s last words. The image is slightly grainy and black and white. It’s a picture of a 60-ish white woman. The initial photo of the young Black executive was stock imagery.

More 'Diversity' Pitches

Similarly, a PR agency pitches an editor a story about its DEI practice. It touts a diverse woman who leads the firm's external DEI practice and its internal diversity work. ‘Interview this DEI leader,’ the pitch urges.

Then there’s another pitch, from a vendor in the PR space. Like the pitch above, its thrust is diversity.

The editor researches both pitches before responding. She finds the companies’ sites feature images extolling diversity. Yet when she reaches the page where pictures of leaders and board members are located, racial and gender diversity are nearly nonexistent.

Though the companies sent DEI-related pitches and their sites were loaded with diverse stock art, photos of leaders and board members seemed to indicate a lack of racial and gender diversity.

The ethics of virtue signaling are well known. Less considered is using diverse imagery in communication and marketing.

PR and Ethics

Of course, there are ethics associated with many PR activities.

For instance, PR pros in the influencer space know about Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations governing influencers.

PRSA and PRC have voluntary codes of ethics emphasizing the importance of presenting accurate information.

For example, PRC’s code says members “will not knowingly misuse or misrepresent data…invent facts, falsify information, or intentionally mischaracterize the results of scientific research.”

And PRSA’s members pledge to “preserve the integrity of the process of communication...[and] be honest and accurate in all communications.”

Neither organization’s ethics code mentions imagery. However, it seems logical to interpret the codes as including imagery.

Imagery Ethics: Yes, but...

On the other hand, for years, companies and organizations in photojournalism have used ethics guidelines.

For example, the Associated Press and the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) have them, as does Getty Images, which, along with stock art, supplies imagery and footage for news providers.

These photojournalism guidelines are similar. They prohibit disrupting a photo's honesty. As such, they frown on extensive editing in Adobe Photoshop. Also verboten is staging photos (presenting a scene that didn't occur) and paying people to be in a photo.

In addition, the codes urge respect for people appearing in photos.

For example, Dr. Rebecca Swift, VP, global head of creative insights, Getty Images, says the company works “very hard," ensuring imagery is honest. If, say, Getty Images offers customers an image of a disabled person, it checks to see “the person actually lives with that disability; the disability is described accurately; and [the image] does no harm to that community.”

Wild West in Marketing Imagery Ethics

However, with "branding, marketing and advertising" imagery, "there are no ethical guidelines, per se,” Swift says. Instead, there are “ethical guidelines that businesses” impose on themselves, Swift adds.

Yet, the examples at the top of this story illustrate problems can and do arise when companies self-police their use of imagery. For instance, companies not making a concerted DEI effort could purchase stock images of diverse people and post them on their site. There are myriad reasons why a company would do this.

For one, it’s beneficial financially. For example, a 2019 Deloitte Heat study argues companies improve their bottom line when their ads and marketing portray diversity and inclusion.

Clyde Group SVP Jenny Wang has seen companies employ diverse imagery and inclusive ads without doing much about DEI. However, she emphasizes “consumers…are insisting on authenticity and action,” as opposed to imagery and words. "Companies must back up their words with action," she says. As such, using diverse imagery will work for such companies in the short-term only, Wang argues.

Likewise, employees know if their company is hiding behind diverse imagery, says Bernadette Adams Davis, founder, Bernadette Davis Communications. She agrees with Wang: eventually consumers figure it out too.

Diverse Imagery 'Out of Step'

Still, some communicators argue there are a few instances when companies may consider employing diverse stock imagery despite it “being out of step with the diversity of their employee population and leadership,” as Adams Davis puts it.

For instance, a company could employ diverse stock imagery for aspirational reasons. “Maybe [the event they are marketing] wasn’t as diverse as they wanted it to be last year," Swift says. [Diverse stock images] could represent what the company wants the event to become eventually, she says.

Possible Exceptions

Adams Davis offers another aspirational option. She says a non-diverse company could "very carefully" consider using diverse stock imagery as it's seeking to become diverse. For example, such imagery could make diverse candidates feel more comfortable seeking employment at the company, she says.

However, Adams Davis says, “in that case, communicators and companies should consider whether [the company has] done the work to create an environment and workplace culture that is inclusive.”

Byron Cordero, principal, Cordero Consulting, lists specific instances when companies can use diverse stock art without having diverse leadership or employees.

"If a company is actively seeking third-party affiliation with a diverse organization, such as a Black non-profit...for a robust, long-term partnership and there's a call-to-action...then fine."

In addition, if a company is "building and budgeting" to have diverse people "in the C-suite or upper management, and is actively seeking to fill those roles within a timeframe, then yes."

Similarly, if a company is "building a diverse board, and has budgeted and planned for it, then fine."

While he hasn't seen instances of companies using diverse imagery to appear diverse, Cordero has seen companies wanting "niche, short-term campaigns during Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage month to cover their often reads as pandering."