NEW YORK — Amid widespread civil rights protests across the country, and the violence that’s ensued, PR agencies are ramping up concrete efforts to support black employees — while simultaneously grappling with the complexities of being a predominantly white industry navigating a profound racial crisis.

PR agencies are communicating using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and have started mobilizing to support employees through offerings, such as forums and mental health services — as well as diversity pledges. Agency executives are also leading conversations, so that the brunt of handling this current crisis, and the systemic racism it represents, does not fall solely on those experiencing it most deeply.

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Last week, Edelman hosted a call for its black employee network — Edelman Griot — in which employees shared their traumas and personal experiences with CEO Richard Edelman. Sunday night, Richard Edelman spelled out a multi-faceted plan that includes "10 promises" in a note to staff, saying “I know that DJE can and should do more.”

“After speaking with Lisa Ross, COO of the US and Edelman’s highest ranking African American executive, I know we need to accelerate and fully commit to more diverse hiring, particularly at senior levels," Edelman wrote. "We will add more diverse senior leaders to global and US management in the coming year, from creative director to market leader to practice leader. Our sister agency Zeno will be making additional commitments appropriate for their business."

He also said, “We will change our procurement practices. We will make a specific effort to include minority-owned small businesses in our purchasing of services and supplies. We will double our current total purchase spend with these businesses.” Adding D&I training, encouraging client action and increasing the firm’s work with pertinent local NGOs, affected cities and under-resourced communities also were among his pledges.

“And most importantly, we will continue to monitor our progress and hold ourselves accountable through global workforce and other surveys, as well as manager performance reviews,” he said.

Interpublic Group chairman/CEO Michael Roth said today, "I am asking our CEO Diversity Council to work together in a more direct, collaborative and organized manner to ensure that our own house is in order. This means we will more tightly align our recognition and incentive programs with our ability to create a more equitable and diverse culture in our own organization."

“Black people cannot fix this on our own. We need the support of many and that of course includes our white friends and our white family,” said Margenett Moore-Roberts, chief diversity and inclusion officer of Interpublic Group’s CMG group, which includes PR agencies Weber Shandwick, Golin, DeVries, Rogers & Cowan PMK and Current Global.

“Our allies will not be perfect. But what I say to our white allies is you don’t need to be perfect to do something,” she said.

For the CMG group, “doing something” came to a head on Friday, when Moore-Roberts convened agency leaders, encouraging them to follow Roth's lead in acknowledging, and addressing, the situation and “if it were appropriate and authentic” to voice their own outrage over the systemic racism, including police brutality, that has fueled the protests.

“I sent a note asking them to address it because the silence of not addressing it for employees of color feels very alienating,” Moore-Roberts said, adding that her conversation with leaders also addressed the discomfort some whites experience broaching race-related issues with people of color — and ways to get around it.

The group is also making services available to help people overcome trauma associated with the social upheaval and a virtual town hall. The agency's diversity leaders and others are also being made available to black employees.

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W2O started addressing the issue last week, with an email from CEO Jim Weiss “in solidarity” with employees impacted by the events and an all-staff forum to “listen, learn and raise awareness.”

The ongoing effort continued today, as the agency shared resources, pertinent books and the names of organizations to connect with. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, W2O has also been offering employees free counseling sessions and support through one-to-one connections within the team.

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'Silence is not an option'

Despite wrestling with the unknowns associated with Covid-19, smaller agencies also made commitments to employees.

Praytell, for instance, has pledged to extend its project services to non-profit organizations working to fight systemic injustice; pay for coaching or therapy to any employee whose insurance doesn’t cover it; bring in an outside speaker to discuss how to be actively anti-racist; and work with clients on brand responses and employee responsibility.

In a post, Highwire said this morning the agency was providing “guidance to our clients on their own response to this weekend’s division and violence, encouraging them to hit pause on the status quo and instead focus efforts on a unified response to the current crisis.”

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Vijay Chattha, CEO of VSC, told employees, "Racism is one of the biggest stains of society and it is holding our country back from achieving its true potential. I am looking to each of you to think about solutions where VSC can use its superpower just like we did with WorldWithoutCovid and make an impact." 

For some, putting the conversation out there, and admitting the trepidation in doing so, was the first step. 

“It’s hard to know what to say during such trying times. At first, I was not sure it was appropriate for me to speak out on the death of George Floyd or the racism that continues to poison our world,” Finn Partners’ Peter Finn wrote in a note sent to staff worldwide. "That changed due to the firm’s commitment to equality." 

He called for solidarity among staff of all races and ethnicities and encouraged them to vote. “Hopefully we can all contribute to the progress that is so sorely needed,” he said.

'Sending a note to employees sharing empathy is not enough'

Sabrina Lynch, SVP at Taylor, is calling for the industry to move beyond its traditional diversity rhetoric and programs that ultimately have not resulted in notable progress. This includes "getting comfortable with being uncomfortable of taking a stand against moral and ethical injustices."

“Diversity and inclusion should never be a buzzword or trend to ride to gain business dividends," Lynch said. "It’s about acknowledging the plight and fights of communities who have been battling these issues for years. These tensions have always existed, right now agencies and brands should not turn a blind eye to atrocities happening to communities of people who they court to invest in their products, services and campaigns – particularly those who look to be included, or part of, pivotal culture that shapes the economy."

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"You cannot pick and choose parts of culture that benefit the needs of your bottom line. You’ve made a commitment to the person at the center of this culture – who they are, what they stand far, their identity, their values. They are both employee AND customer,” Lynch said to PRovoke via email.

“Sending a note to employees sharing empathy is not enough. Telling your employees to take PTO for their mental wellbeing is not enough.  Organizing internal discussions where minority groups talk about their experience as a listening exercise is not enough. Sending a newsletter to your associates with a list of resources and URL links is not enough. Sending a check to a charity/fund is not enough. We’re tired of words. We need to see action,” she said.

Lynch calls for the industry to take steps towards "tangible allyship."

"Are you holding your clients accountable for the promises they’ve made through previous D&I commitments to employees and to customers? Are you teaching your employees how they too can be allies of their colleagues affected by social issues? Have you spoken to your workforce on micro-aggressions they face in the office and outside the office and how you can help as an advocate-in-arms? Have you asked for advice from your employees on third parties you should align with, and support, beyond being part of the protests against the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. Because injustice doesn’t rest. I expect everyone in the industry to acknowledge what is happening and take a valuable stand. With action.”

Additional reporting by Aarti Shah.
Photo courtesy of Rosa Pineda.