Cheryl Overton has been an ardent champion of diversity throughout her career, working on high-profile campaigns furthering inclusion for the likes of P&G (“The Talk”, “Redefine Black” and “My Black is Beautiful”), Unilever (Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty”), American Heart Association (“Go Red for Women”) and corporate DEI efforts for Procter & Gamble and Astellas among others. After senior leadership roles at agencies including Egami and Zeno, Overton now runs her own consultancy, Cheryl Overton Communications. She also serves as board chair of non-profit viBe Theater Experience, which provides underserved women and girls the opportunity to share and perform stories based on their lived experiences.

Is this the industry’s moment of reckoning when it comes to diversity & inclusion?

It’s not just the industry’s. It’s the country’s and, by extension, it’s the world’s recognition and reckoning. Our industry is not going to be able to not lean into the systemic changes being demanded in this country and around the world now.

The awakening, and a mass realization of the inequities, goes beyond one specific industry. But what that means is that our industry is going to have to go with the new flow of the world and a world that is becoming more inclusive. Frankly, because our industry has been maybe slower in pace than others, we have got some fast reforms to make. So it will probably feel very disruptive and very jarring. But some of the reforms we need to make in improving just knowledge of the bias that exists, having a real concrete understanding. Cultures, hiring changes, sensitivity training — all those things need to be at a fast pace with more regularity and consistency. No one is going to be able to get away with celebrating Black History Month and call it a day.

What are you hearing from your white colleagues?

One of the things that I am hearing from some leaders in our industry, people who are not people of color, is how surprised they are by this, and the feedback they have been hearing from their Black employees. They are surprised at the lives (those employees) lead outside the office and inside the office. They are surprised their employees haven’t felt comfortable bringing their authentic selves to the office. You may eat lunch together, you share milestones, but the recent events have opened the window and I have heard from many they are very surprised, and saddened and humbled, by what their Black employees are carrying around, are dealing with or living with. It makes me sad, of course, but I’m not surprised.

Have they not been paying attention?

I don’t think its intentionally ignoring glaring issues. But I do think some of the evidence (of systemic racism in the industry) has been apparent if you know where to look for it. For example, when you look at succession rates, and you look at whether or not Black employees are promoted at the same pace (as white employees), and look at the data, you see that they are not. It points to unconscious bias and systemic issues. Maybe these people aren’t invited into the side conversation that leads to the big conversation where decisions are being made, or getting prime assignments. Maybe they are not at the happy hour where employees get together and come up with an initiative. There are any number of metrics. The information is there if you are on the lookout for it and you prioritize having inclusive culture. It’s surprising if you’ve been able to say it’s an anomaly.

Given that the PR industry has prioritized D&I for years, why did it take events of such magnitude to really push agencies into taking action?

I think we are at a perfect storm in time. I think that the world has awakened to this and it has a lot to do with the fact that we have been self-isolating at home. We all got to see the same thing at the same time regarding the Breonna Taylor case, the Ahmaud Arbery case and the George Floyd incident. Black Americans (have always) seen these things, on social media feeds, carrying the stress and grief of this brutality. Maybe this is the first time in a long time that everybody saw, and there is no way you could deny that this is brutal and targeted, and this is stuff that only happens to Black people.

Have agencies’ D&I efforts up to this point been genuine?

I think they have been for real but they haven’t been enough.

One of the things that I hear people in the industry talking about is how proud they are about programs with HBCUs, efforts to bring in interns and fellows and cultivating young people. And I applaud all that, it should continue and grow. But it’s not a solve. We need to diversify at the senior ranks — c-suite and board level. That’s where business vision is set, core values are modeled, resources are allocated, and accountability rolls up. And when young people see few people of color in senior leadership roles, it’s an unspoken message. So, while college recruitment should remain in the plan of course, we can’t wait for everyone to grow up in the business to make changes. Real resources must be devoted to retention and securing senior talent for the executive function. The talent exists and we are ready.

Do you think the industry will make that happen?

I am feeling optimistic. Black people are uniquely and supremely resilient. There is not a Black person employed in this industry who hasn’t experienced prejudice in the workplace. Yet we persevere. Now that there is greater mainstream awareness and the beginnings of understanding what systemic racism looks like and it’s lasting effects I am confident productive changes will take place. Black professionals deserve it. Allies now have a better understanding of their role in achieving it. The industry won’t sustain without it. But the accountability is paramount. There is no place to hide now. Talk to me in three months or six months to see if I feel positive. I am going to look for actions. We have to make these changes and can’t just walk away.

You can read earlier interviews in the series here:
Suresh Raj: 'Just Hiring People Of Color Isn't Going To Do It'