Being the CEO of a PR firm comes with a unique challenge: your employees are by definition experts in brand and reputation. They bill clients to develop and execute strategies aimed to sell more product, manage and avoid crises, forge executive reputation, illustrate competitive differentiation and advantage, boost employer reputation, and measure results for all of the above.
That’s all to say, PR professionals form an educated audience on matters of reputation. So when 13 Canadian PR firm executives signed a collective commitment “in opposition to racism and discrimination,” they will have known that their employees would be paying close attention. They will have known that their employees would notice that the result looks more like a PR exercise than an action plan.
Recall that last week, I wrote about the BlackNorth Initiative Pledge and gave four guiding questions for Canadian CEOs to decide whether they should sign. Drafted by Wes Hall, Founder of Kingsdale Advisors, together with Rola Dagher of Cisco Canada, Prem Watsa of Fairfax Financial, and Victor Dodig, CEO of CIBC, the pledge is welcoming to CEOs across industry. There are no strident voices, nothing too preachy, nothing, notably, that would conflict with or squeeze out separate corporate efforts to support Indigenous people or people of colour, nor efforts to promote gender equity.
If you genuinely are committed to making changes to address anti-Black racism in your company, this group has created a useful place to start, with a few measurable goals. Just as importantly, signing the BlackNorth pledge is an opportunity to join hands across industries and follow a Black Canadian leader.
But no. Thirteen of the 18 listed members of The Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms decided to craft their own pledge, released 10 days later. In creating their own pledge, the group had an opportunity to call out some of the industry-specific challenges and opportunities for change, but with one exception, this pledge could be adopted by virtually any company; the PR pledge sticks very close to the content of the BlackNorth pledge, but one of them has no targets or timelines. I’ve matched commitments from each document by theme.
Two Pledges, One Without Measurement
- We will implement or expand unconscious bias and anti-racism education.
- We will increase our efforts to make our workplaces trusting places to have complex, and sometimes difficult conversations about anti-Black systemic racism and ensure that no barriers exist to prevent Black employees from advancing within the company.
- Training & development: We will ensure our training programs for managers and employees explicitly include instruction on how to recognize and eliminate unconscious bias. This also means 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.
So far so good.
- We will ensure that Black communities across Canada are aware of opportunities of employment within our organization and that employment opportunities are set aside for Black people, including committing to specific hiring goals of at least 5% within our student workforce from the Black community.
- Recruitment: We will audit and enhance 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.
The PR industry declines to set a goal of ensuring 5% of students hired are Black. They widen the lens to Blacks, Indigenous and people of colour, tacitly recognizing that our country’s problem with racism is wider than anti-Black racism. They commit to working with PR schools (good), but neglect to acknowledge that it’s common for entry-level employees to live with their parents or far into the suburbs in order to afford the job, creating a wealth barrier to the industry.
- We will set inclusive talent management goals and include them in senior executives’ annual performance scorecards.
- Accountability: We commit to setting clear benchmarks and targets, measuring our performance, and reporting as an industry association on key metrics such as representation and pay equity at all levels.
The PR industry leaders declined to make themselves personally accountable, and commit to reporting at the industry level. They will get back to us on the metrics.
- As a numeric goal provides real impetus for change, we have made a goal of, at a minimum, 3.5% of executive and board roles based in Canada being held by Black leaders by 2025.
- Leadership: We understand that this anti-racism commitment must start at the top, and that our current leadership ranks are not diverse enough. That is why we commit ourselves and our firms to understanding and removing barriers to the recruitment, retention, advancement and experience of professionals from underrepresented backgrounds.
By removing the second measurable goal and timeline in their version of the pledge, the signatories have, whether this was the motive or not, told their employees this: We do not think five years is enough time to meet these targets of proportional representation of Blacks leaders.
If you ask the PR leaders, they will give you other interpretations:
- We don’t think quotas work or are appropriate.
- The problem is wider than anti-Black racism, so we need to look at the problem with that lens.
- We will set our own targets at the firm level that represent our own reality.
- If we address the systemic barriers, it will all come together without the numeric targets.
Any good corporate communications professional could craft a pretty convincing explanation for the decision for their executive to not sign the BlackNorth Initiative pledge more broadly, which does come with its own challenges.
Hurdles to Signing
- While Cisco Canada’s Dagher is helping lead this initiative, many multinational companies block their Canadian leadership from doing anything at the country level. Many of the PR firms in the CCPRF are part of global conglomerates.
- The actions in the pledge were shaped with larger companies (with boards of directors) in mind. PR agencies are much smaller than the banks and airlines, so establishing a diversity council, for example, might be economically unrealistic.
- The PR industry might actually miss meeting the goals.
In fairness, some of these PR firms may also intend to join those companies that have already publicly endorsed the BlackNorth Initiative pledge, including RBC, BMO, Scotia, Medic Alert, Rogers and Beneplan. (The launch is Thursday, and you can still sign up.) Perhaps that’s why five of the CCPRF member firms, notably including Weber Shandwick and NATIONAL, didn’t sign the industry one. Perhaps.
But here’s my take. Companies that build their businesses on urging companies and executives to lead, to contribute to the greater good, to set examples, and to do the right thing, even when – or especially when – it’s hard, chose to do something else in addressing anti-Black racism. They chose to write a document almost entirely devoid of the current context of the death of George Floyd, and uses the word “Black” exactly once. They chose to conflate the experience of anti-Black racism with discrimination more broadly. While they note that executive ranks aren’t diverse enough (looking at LinkedIn head shots suggests only one of the 16 signatories isn’t white,) they chose to include not even a sentence acknowledging that the PR industry broadly is painfully devoid of the diversity that our country offers and is a prime example of systemic racism.
But worst of all, they chose to remove metrics, with a promise to get back to their employees and clients at a later date. As one commenter on LinkedIn said: We look forward to seeing the SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound.
Goals Critical to Progress
Why are metrics important? Because they make it clear whether you are making progress. So you can hold yourself accountable. Yes, there is a risk that you won’t meet the goals; if it was easy, they would be called ‘tasks’. But PR professionals are masters of positioning. Wes Hall gave them the road map to deal with setbacks and failures in the BlackNorth document – share successes and share failures, so we can all learn.
I hope that I’m proven wrong. Individual companies can truly develop great plans. BMO CEO Darryl White outlined the bank’s plan yesterday, which sits as a companion, not in competition, to the bank’s support of the BlackNorth Initiative pledge, but with a scope that includes actions specifically to support Indigenous people and BIPOC broadly. He set a target of 40% of student opportunities filled by BIPOC. 40.
What I do like about the PR pledge is the recognition that the content that PR firms create has powerful impact, and representation matters. That the suppliers and partnerships you form matters. Identifying industry-specific issues where racism can be fought is a good reason to create an industry-specific pledge. Doing so might have made their PR people feel seen. But instead it feels like a promise to do better without identifying what they are sorry for.
The PR industry is small. People move around a lot. The ones that stay with a single firm for the long haul do so for the corporate culture, because they believe in and are inspired by their leaders. I hope that employees hold their CEO leaders accountable here. My worry is that with so few people of colour in PR firms right now there is no one who will feel empowered to ensure follow through.
The most disappointing part of this is that PR firms should have been leading the charge, encouraging their clients across the country to follow up their statements of grief with real, measurable action. They should have been telling their CEO clients that yes, the BlackNorth Initiative pledge doesn’t fit every company perfectly, and some of the commitments will be hard, but the value of working together with the biggest companies in the country provides reputation and learning value. They should have been telling their client CEOs that employees, customers and clients expect them to lead.
They should have been saying: they are not values or morals if you relent when it’s hard.