From pro-equity to anti-racism: How do we turn conversation into action?

It took something big to push a global pandemic from the top of the news, but that’s what happened in June.

The cruel killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, racist incidents in Canada, the global protests, and the inflammatory responses of some political leaders fuelled a new urgency in the conversation about racism. Led by the Black Lives Matter movement, this conversation is now happening across countless communities, companies and industries.

It’s a challenging moment – and it should be. It takes focus, reflection and effort to do the right thing. In analyzing corporate responses to racism, the best I’ve seen have six characteristics:

  1. They come from the highest level of the organization – the chief executive.
  2. They speak frankly in naming the problems, using terms such as “anti-Black racism” and “anti-Indigenous racism.”
  3. They are humble, self-reflective and even self-critical.
  4. They go beyond mere statements of concern and solidarity; they include tangible, measurable commitments.
  5. They are prepared to be accountable, both internally and externally.
  6. Their commitments go beyond the organization – collaborating with others to get scale and impact.

In a previous post, I reflected on my own painful experiences with racism, and on the moral responsibilities we face as citizens today. Since then, I’ve been part of many conversations with my colleagues, clients, other agency CEOs, and anti-racism experts.

These conversations have prompted a bigger question, which I raised recently with fellow agency CEOs at a meeting of the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms (CCPRF): is our industry anti-racist or racist?

Of course, this question is provocative. It’s easy to get defensive. The overwhelming majority of public relations professionals believe themselves to be “not racist.” But as one of my colleagues asked recently, “what does it mean to be anti-racist?”

Our firm’s culture, values and client work have always been strongly anchored in equity, diversity and inclusion. Like most small businesses, however, our commitment has been organic and informal – guided by experience, obligation, intuition and values. We have not been sufficiently strategic or purposeful about it. Our challenge is to begin a journey from an intuitive, values-based commitment alone to one that is more systematic, deliberate and accountable.

We’re not doing this alone; we are working with other communications agencies – as we should. I volunteered to coordinate our industry’s response because this is one of those causes on which competitors should collaborate. That is the best way to get scale, impact and sustained change. An important agenda is taking shape. It includes:

  • Auditing and enhancing our recruitment processes to achieve an ongoing, measurable improvement in the representation of Black, Indigenous and people of colour at all levels. We will bring an equity lens to the hiring process, including a commitment to working with educational institutions to improve the diversity of the available talent pool.
  • Ensuring our training programs for managers and employees explicitly include instruction on how to recognize and eliminate unconscious bias.
  • Creating safe spaces for employees from underrepresented backgrounds to share their experiences, and ensuring there is mentoring, support and opportunities for them to showcase their skills, and to rise to senior leadership roles.
  • Being proactive in advocating that clients invest in greater engagement and communication with people and communities who are under-represented in institutions of power.
  • Advocating diverse, inclusive representation in the content we create, and in our partnerships with content creators and suppliers.
  • Supporting anti-racism and equity more aggressively in our thought leadership and corporate social investment.
  • Setting benchmarks and targets, measuring performance and committing our industry to report on key metrics such as representation and pay equity at all levels – from the most junior to the most senior.

Dialogue is, of course, not enough; thoughtful, purposeful and strategic action is more important. But I am hopeful that the tragedies of recent weeks have compelled a deeper, broader conversation that will lead to action – both in our industry, and in our society.

The call for justice implicit in ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not new. We’ve been disgusted and shocked and angry before, and then most people move on and are disgusted, shocked, and angry about something else. Will this time be different? Will we actually channel the emotions we are feeling in this moment into actions that lead to systemic change?

The responsibility for the answers does not lie with the activists and advocates in the streets alone. It belongs to all of us.

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