Why authenticity is crucial for diversity and inclusion initiatives

Angela Collins, January 2020 

Embracing employees and other constituencies of all colors, creeds and gender orientations affects internal culture and the bottom line—and it requires full commitment at all levels.

The question is pretty much settled: Diversity and inclusion are good for business.

The results are being documented in marketing, sales, recruitment, retention, innovation, productivity, morale and bottom-line performance.

Unfortunately, missteps are alarmingly common in new diversity and inclusion initiatives, presenting unique brand risk. The fatal flaw in these initiatives? Most often, it’s lack of authenticity.

Don’t lose authenticity.

Authenticity starts with sincerity of effort. It’s not enough to run a half-day workshop or hire a diversity officer. Rather, organizations have to seriously consider what D&I means for them, why they need to be in this space, and how they will come to possess the necessary insight to succeed. Then they need to live it.

It’s nearly impossible to be authentic if you’re at one of the many companies that lack minority perspectives to inform the effort. While the global marketplace is richly diverse, executive leadership often is not, especially in rural areas or homogeneous industries. It’s a Catch-22 until, one way or another, the organization brings diverse perspectives into the initiative.

As the workplace catches up with America’s changing demographics, we have to support and challenge the people who are accountable for their companies’ diversity efforts. The data shows that Caucasian male executives are most likely to be on the margins of society’s diversity conversation. Because diversity and inclusion drive the bottom line, the heat is on everyone to succeed. Well-intentioned attempts often fall short, as we’ve seen at Comcast.

Ultimately, neither diversity nor inclusion is a box that can be checked and set aside. To have any chance of working, diversity and inclusion will be woven into company culture from the top down. They need to become essential parts of the company’s mission, marketing and operational DNA.

Put authenticity into action.

So how can you tell the when diversity and inclusion are in the DNA? Ask consumers. They can sniff out inauthenticity like a rotten egg. Look no further than Victoria’s Secret, whose annual fashion show was inclusive only for the planet’s top supermodels.

Now see who has eclipsed Victoria’s Secret. It’s Savage x Fenty, a lingerie brand whose premise is to help all women embrace their beauty. This new brand took the internet by storm at New York Fashion Week by bringing women of all shapes, sizes, abilities, identities and ethnicities onto stage. The authenticity was clear.

Savage x Fenty highlights diversity and inclusion—because it is a diverse and inclusive brand. The brand’s creator, Rihanna, has been championed as “the queen of diversity,” and she intrinsically believes that diversity makes the world a better place. Her marketing efforts are authentic to her.

What can we do?

So how can PR pros ensure our clients avoid the pitfalls of inauthenticity? Here are a few ways we can help our clients deliver diverse, equitable and inclusive communications strategies born from diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations:

  • Measure performance: While 88% of CEOs have some sort of executive statement on diversity, only 42% of companies have accountability measures in place to support those statements, according to the 2016 benchmark survey from Diversity Best Practices. As of 2017, only 3% of the Fortune 500 companies were even willing to make their data transparent. Authenticity requires transparency.

A good place to start measurement is with an organizational diversity audit, which involves confidentially soliciting quantitative data, impressions and experiences from employees at every level. An audit can help you see how well your workforce reflects your community and whether all employees are feeling respected, valued for their strengths, and confident their organization will do what’s right.

For some companies, a communications audit may be the right place to start. This type of audit measures how well (or not) you’re engaging all of your most important markets in PR, marketing, advertising, etc.

  • Invest realistically: Budgets for diversity work are shrinking, leaving organizations under-resourced. It is time for brands to make their budgets reflect their commitment. It’s the only way to move the needle.

Two things are important to remember as you prioritize: (A) Although diversity and inclusion are the right things to do, ethics is only one reason to get them right. (B) Failure to be inclusive poses financial and reputational risks. Doing little or nothing is equivalent to doing damage.

  • Think and plan inclusively: Long gone are the days of the “general market” versus the “multicultural market.” All markets are multicultural, multi-ethnic, multigender, multi-religion. Even our most basic campaigns should invoke the core values that activate different population groups.

Consumers want to see people in ads and media stories who look like them, sound like them and have had similar experiences to theirs. That’s part of the formula of deciding whether a product or service is for “people like me.”

  • Manage up: Keep executives abreast of trends in the diversity and inclusion space: Share articles about how issues related to inclusion are affecting business in their sector. These concerns may not naturally be on their radar. The more regular the communication, the more comfortable executives become with diversity- or inclusion-related conversations.

Also share internal success stories with executives. Describe how newly hired employees are performing better, how morale is improving, and how communications programs are penetrating new markets.

  • Diversify and include: Whether you’re an agency or in-house PR pro, ensure your own team is diverse, and support rising stars who can diversify your leadership team. At the same time, ensure that everyone is a full participant in the diversity conversation. Everyone has a role in shaping the culture of inclusion in meaningful ways.

Don’t let diversity and inclusion be just buzzwords.

In the world of business, diversity and inclusion are essential. Getting them right demands authenticity both inside the organization and in the telling of the brand story. PR practitioners play a critical role in helping clients navigate this unfamiliar territory, seize the opportunities and do the right thing by their employees, their customers and the community.

Given our expertise, we as PR pros are particularly well positioned to help evaluate the authenticity of diversity and inclusion efforts and help improve it when necessary. It’s time for us, our clients and our organizations to step up.

That includes everyone.