Active Listening, Authentic Storytelling are Keys to Effect Social Change

In the year following George Floyd's murder, hate speech, including anti-Asian discrimination and violence against trans people in the U.S., is at an all-time high. Subsequently, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives have risen in importance at some businesses and are of major concern for PR pros.

Sidestepping Social Justice is Bad for Business

Staying silent on equality, social justice and inclusion can have serious business consequences. A May 2021 Porter Novelli survey of 1,000 U.S. residents found that 59 percent of Americans believe it is “no longer acceptable for companies to be silent on social justice issues.” More than half of those surveyed say companies could normalize social justice issues through their marketing and communication.

And 43 percent of employees say they're considering finding a new job “because their company is not doing enough to address social justice issues externally.”

Yet, communicating cultural shifts that promote social justice, inclusion and equity within and outside of organizations remains a challenge, with many recent attempts falling flat.

To shed light on how PR can promote cultural change inside and outside of organizations, we gathered some of this year’s Top Women in PR for a virtual roundtable. Responses were edited for length.

PRNEWS: What skills can PR pros deploy to help create a positive culture shift in their industry or sphere of influence?

Marshall_Brittan Brittany Marshall, director of media relations, Maryland Department of Transportation/Maryland Transit Administration: Active listening is very important when promoting a positive culture shift in the workplace. Listening to your peers, employees, management and those you serve will create culture shifts that speak to the core of everyone involved.

Hollister_Jessica Jessica Hollister, director, global communications and experiences, The North Face: The biggest lesson when asking others to make a change is to understand why stakeholders should care. Developing understanding for others’ motivations will go a long way in building momentum for cultural change.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg said, “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Showing up in a way that allows others to be open to your perspective and creating a safe space for people to change their minds is essential.

PRNEWS: Until recently, DEI was seen as a mandate for HR, not necessarily a function of communication. How can PR promote action on DEI, internally and externally?

Amy Ba, senior director, R&D global communications, Sanofi: It all lies in education. Internal communication pros can give voice to those whose background and perspective is different. Externally, PR can be the link between underserved communities and the industry through meaningful grassroots educational campaigns.




Kate Schraml, senior global manager, PR and communications, Medela: PR has a unique opportunity to highlight stories that reflect today’s consumers. Millennials are the most diverse generation in American history. PR pros should elevate stories and write messages that are inclusive. The value of DEI can be reflected within partner and influencer collaborations, employee survey insights and corporate awards.



Wendy Watkins, VP, corporate communications, Hormel: Perhaps the greatest role we can play is to ensure the narrative and the storytelling of DEI is authentic and transparent. And that those stories are told in a way [that affects] change. We have the power to help people and communities feel that sense of belonging and connection.

PRNEWS: What cultural shift at your organization, or within your industry, have you participated in over the last year, and what communication tactics did you lean on most?

Schraml: Last year, Medela introduced 16 weeks of fully paid parental leave to its U.S. employees. I shared insights from employee feedback, highlighting the change as a way to strengthen the company’s mission.

The length of time for the benefit reflects this: the 16-week period is based on clinical guidance about the rate at which the bond between mother and child develops. Our communication tactics included research and discussion, media outreach, interviews with leadership and an email program.

Ba: I was an advisor for the launch of my company’s DEI strategy “All IN,” in June. This required us to launch internally first to get employees engaged (through videos, internal road shows, town halls), and then externally, through social media.

I am also the communication lead at my company to address the lack of diversity in clinical trials. There are a lot of initiatives in my company to increase minority participation in trials.

PRNEWS: What would you tell communicators who have been trying to shift workplace or industry culture, but who feel it's fallen short?

Marshall: If you believe your organization has fallen short, speak up. Let the organization know about its shortcomings, but make sure to raise ideas for solutions. Be the change agent that you want to see within your industry and others will follow your lead.

Schraml: Don’t give up! Implementing lasting change can take time. Be prepared to share insights, be it data in the form of customer feedback, employee sentiment or industry best practices. Showing how the shift can have a positive impact on your business motivates change long-term.

Watkins: Embrace and own your role as a consultant, change-maker and thought leader. This is a time when all eyes are on companies to enact positive change and lead with purpose. Ultimately, the counsel of PR and communication professionals will help create a strong reputation and better business results.

Hollister: Recognize that cultural change is a journey, not a box you can check off. Sometimes it will feel like you’re taking two steps forward and one step back. Ration your energy so that you are ready to fight the important battles and use your voice over a long period. You’re no good to anyone or any cause if you’re burned out.

Try not to take challenges, obstacles or failures personally. What you are doing today is setting the groundwork to continue to make change tomorrow–even if you can’t feel that progress in the moment.