With companies trying to dodge the anti-woke bullet, demand for DEI comms support is down, putting the squeeze on agencies — many of which have spent nearly four years bulking up those services.

The communications industry has been feeling the pinch for the better part of the last year, during which business leaders have scaled back addressing DEI publicly due to a range of factors — the Supreme Court’s anti-affirmative action ruling, anti-wokeism and election year politics among them, industry experts said.

The phenomenon is affecting the full range of agencies, small as well as large ones for which DEI comms is just one facet of business. But the firms that depend on companies needing their help with diversity initiatives for their livelihoods — often minority owned — are in danger of losing ground, putting the comms industry at risk of seeing a reversal in its own advancements in making PR more diverse.

“We are hearing from our minority-owned agencies that that business is shrinking, and they are very concerned about it,” said PR Council president Kim Sample. “If this business doesn’t return to growth and stability, we are going to lose diversity of talent in our agencies and our multicultural agencies are the ones that are going to be hit.”

The problem is real, as communicators say they are experiencing the drop-off in public support of DEI take place. Industry leaders also said they fully expect companies to go increasingly quiet as the volatility of election year grows.

“If you are afraid of being called out and being a target you are going to find ways to keep your head down,” said Bully Pulpit International partner Bradley Akubuiro, noting that the number of companies reaching out for DEI support has “significantly dropped.”

“If people are afraid to talk about DEI, it’s hard to sell them on communications around it,” Akubuiro said.

Akubuiro, however, doesn’t equate the declining demand in DEI comms with companies abandoning their diversity efforts, many of which were started after George Floyd’s 2020 murder and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Rather, Akubuiro said he believes “the vast majority” of companies are maintaining their programs around DEI.

Aquinas Early, VP of integrated marketing services at multicultural firm Flowers Communications, said some of her big-name clients are building out their internal and external DEI efforts.

“A brand like Honda, which has been committed from a DEI standpoint for decades, is doubling down again on supporting internally and externally the HBCU community and programming that empowers Black and Latino audiences,” she said. Ferrero-owned cookie company Famous Amos is also standing firm on DEI efforts internally and externally and is “making sure they showcase what they are doing,” she said.

None of which means scaling back on DEI comms doesn’t hurt. Rather, Akubuiro said, companies’ reticence to speak publicly about DEI sends a bad message to the diverse employees that companies have struggled to recruit and retain.

“If you are unwilling to talk about the programs that you are launching even in the context of business strategy you will end up disappointing at least one critical stakeholder,” he said, adding that alienating employees could be more damaging to companies than political blowback.

“People want to do these things that are the right thing to do but don’t want to risk it,” he said. “It actually requires moral courage."

Other communicators, however, dispute the idea that companies are standing by DEI programs.

The most glaring moves involve high-profile companies like Google and Meta cutting DEI program budgets up to 90% last year after significant (and public) build outs, according to CNBC.

In conversations with PRovoke Media, Black business leaders said they are seeing big companies publicly separate from Black-owned businesses through such methods as pulling public sponsorships; those same companies are cutting DEI leaders, they say.  Brennan Nevada, CEO of her eponymous PR firm, said she has clients who work in DEI who are taking serious financial hits because companies are now going back on their DEI promises.

“Unfortunately, a bunch of companies across all industries that made lofty promises to address systemic issues and amplify DEI efforts amidst the George Floyd murder have gone back on their word and are cutting employees overseeing these programs,” Nevada said.

“It's unfortunate and portrays how brands are using Black movements and cultural trends as a way to capitalize off of, and essentially not get cancelled. It's hypocritical to say the least and is a gross portrayal of how organizations view DEI as a nice tactic to garner a larger following than what they originally had in the first place, versus committing to making the necessary change,” she said.

Industry supporters, meanwhile, are looking for ways to reverse the trend.

The PR Council, for instance, is exploring finding an alternative to the acronym DEI that sits better with clients, as the acronym “has become so tainted” by politics and protest, Sample said.

Research supports the idea. Maslansky + Partners, which has studied the impact of language on support for ESG, said finding the right words can boost brand favorability and minimize backlash. Consumers, for instance, are more likely to respond more favorably to a company that “commits to serving the needs of a diverse population” than one that publicly supports DEI.

Akubuiro said companies also benefit from being upfront about DEI and how it pays off for stakeholders.

“You have to be smart, strategic and find ways to show how it impacts and ties into your business strategy,” he said.

“If you are able to do those things and you are able to drive the considerations (behind) why you do what you do, and why it makes sense for you to be doing it, it becomes about being a responsible business and not woke,” he said.

And despite the pushback leaving DEI professionals “exhausted” and “increasingly disheartened,” Akubuiro believes the polarization that is driving the anti-woke movement could be relatively short lived.

“Over the years there is always a period of progress followed by a period of backlash. The backlash is usually shorter and shallower than the progress, but it is intense for a period of time,” he said. “I think we are in a period of backlash that will be followed by progress."