Societal unrest during the summer of 2020 led many businesses to take a hard look at what they represented to their audiences in terms of diversity and inclusion. Since then we’ve seen many organizations make statements and promises to practice greater inclusivity on everything from hiring to campaign content and representation. Whether or not these promises resulted in real change remains to be seen.
While systemic change takes time, eager audiences want to know where organizations stand in their progression toward inclusivity. In Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer Special Report: A Universal Demand for Change, 63 percent of respondents said brands making a statement without taking action may be seen as “exploitative and opportunistic.”
Communicators are the gatekeepers to delivering on the results of these initiatives.
Setting public goals “brings an additional level of accountability to a broader group of stakeholders, including employees, customers and partners,” says Laura Birk, VP, Human Resources, Barilla Americas.
In addition, “Public goals also provide an opportunity to bring key learnings to the industry. We’re not afraid for other companies to learn with us from our mistakes.”
Change Starts from the Inside
For many organizations, communicating progress on their initiatives starts with transparent internal communication. Employees often are the first to hear of such promises and see the diversity strategy, creating a great impact on the morale and belief system of the company.
At The Kroger Co., for example, leadership hosted 30 virtual listening sessions to hear from employees following the murder of George Floyd. The team also engaged in conversations with community leaders to understand areas of opportunity as an employer, grocery provider and community partner.
The insights from this listening tour informed the company’s Framework for Action: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion plan, which features 10 short-term actions and long-term steps the company committed to take. In August, Kroger shared its plan internally. Following feedback, it shared the plan publicly says Kristal Howard, head of corporate communications and media relations.
According to Trisch Smith, global chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Edelman, there is no one-size-fits all approach in driving an effective DEI strategy. However, pledging a commitment is critical for its advancement.
“Companies should incorporate and apply a DEI lens to everything that they do and say,” Smith says. “Ongoing internal communications efforts are valuable in making sure employees understand the DEI commitments, how the organization is living its commitments and the role of each person—senior leaders and employees throughout the enterprise—in helping to advance DEI goals.”
For Birk, communicating these actions leads to a higher level of accountability with employees.
After listening and learning from employees following calls for racial justice last summer, the company established a Workplace Impact Racial Injustice charter, which includes “key actions and metrics around access and exposure to leadership, employee development, recruiting and employer branding, communications, community outreach, and supplier diversity,” Birk says.
Continual communication, she adds, is key to building trust during this process, even if results do not meet goals immediately. Barilla reports its progress every six weeks during all-employee town halls.
“A high level of transparency and authenticity is especially critical to earning the trust of employees,” she says. “Let’s use the example of diverse hiring. It might not feel good to share that your company has only a small percentage of minority employees, but it...shows employees that the company has not only recognized a problem but that it can, and should, be talked about openly.”
Sharing the Message
Like any good campaign, how you share the message remains key as a fundamental strategy, particularly during times of change. Looking at who is delivering the message of progress is also important for consideration.
“The voices enlisted in sharing your steps are of the utmost importance to ensure you effectively reach your intended audiences,” says Smith. Edelman’s research shows that while CEOs play a critical role in communicating these efforts, “when it comes to the topic of racial justice, audience peers, subject-matter experts, activists and advocacy groups are the most trusted spokespeople.”
Smith provides strategic imperatives to consider when communicating where a company is on its DEI journey. These include:
- Be Mindful and Acknowledge Differences: Do not assume all audiences share the same access to information or experiences.
- Be Authentic: Be mindful not only of the language used to ensure cultural relevance and resonance, but also of the tone when translating.
- Be of Service: Brands should partner with the right organizations, community advocates and influencers with deep roots in the community that are addressing the current needs.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. So what can an organization do when its audiences demand information on progress and action, but it hasn’t yet reached its goals? Many say continual communication remains key.
“Even if you haven’t met your goals, it’s important to provide frequent progress reports,” Birk says. “Substantive diversity and inclusion goals or commitments are often multi-year commitments. It can, and should, take time to achieve big goals...We need to show [employees] that we’re moving in the right direction and celebrate the progress we’re making.”
Margot Bloomstein, principle of Appropriate, Inc. and author of “Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap,” says showcasing that vulnerability helps an audience understand where a brand is coming from.
“Seize the opportunity to be transparent and share what’s working well—or not working at all,” Bloomstein says. “Did you learn something new and need to course-correct? Did you realize a new hiring process was harder than you thought? Or maybe an investment revealed deeper internal problems you needed to address first? Remind customers and stakeholders of your values and share how you’re working to manifest them. Commitment to progress matters, and your work—and transparency—can be a model for other organizations.”
And sometimes brands that acknowledge a slow adaptation to change can discover greater systemic issues.
“If you spoke out to support change but haven’t put action to your words, it may be that a particular change would be inauthentic to the values in your organization,” Bloomstein says. “That’s...an opportunity to address a bigger issue. Maybe rather than updating packaging or a product name, you need to determine if it’s still appropriate to even continue manufacturing that product.”
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Bloomstein provides an example of how Old Navy transparently worked through a DEI crisis to become more accountable to customers.
“In 2019, Old Navy announced a partnership with Open to All, the nationwide coalition of businesses pledging support for nondiscrimination policies,” she says.
The announcement came after a year of soul searching following an incident in Des Moines, where a Black customer said the company was racial profiling after he was accused of attempting to shoplift a coat—the coat he was wearing when he entered the store.
“At the corporate level, Old Navy reacted swiftly; the company apologized, fired employees who were involved in the incident and participated in a broader investigation to better understand if their store policies and operations upheld systemic racism. They provided frequent updates to the media on their efforts, as well as a commitment to public growth and change,” says Bloomstein.
Because of Old Navy’s quick distribution of information, they were able to communicate progress in an effective way for customers AND critics.
“By prototyping in public and allowing yourself to evolve amid scrutiny, your organization can serve as a model for others,” Bloomstein says.