Helen Shelton is Finn Partner's global chief diversity & inclusion officer, a role in keeping with her personal commitment to “uplifting and empowering people of color, because I know what the struggle is.” Throughout her two-decade career in brand communications, Shelton has worked to advance causes such as adult education and housing, arts and culture access, voter registration, disparate unemployment and community health and disease awareness initiatives. You can read our July 2020 conversation with Shelton here.

Three years ago, the PR industry was at an inflection point in terms of DEI. Where is it now?

2020 was a watershed year and indeed an inflection point as we were faced with the dual pandemic of Covid-19 and extreme racial injustice that played out before our very eyes. These extraordinary circumstances laid bare the inequities in our society. It was a moment that caused all of us to reflect on the extraordinary circumstances and to take action at the same time. Above all, it forced the general market community to realize what people of color in particular continue to suffer through!It was hard. The industry was compelled to look within because what had long been rhetoric around the lack of industry diversity was now an up front and center issue that forced everyone to take real, tangible action steps.

A commitment to DEI is a founding pillar of Finn Partners — not because it’s a trending issue but because it matters deeply to us and guides our work at every level and has done so for more than 10 years. So when 2020 arrived it reinforced our commitment and also inspired us to look even deeper at what we were doing and look at ways to make our industry standard-bearing program, Actions Speak Louder, an even more impactful platform. We expanded our recruitment and education program, ramped up our community engagement and volunteerism efforts from 20 to more than 40 racial justice and equality organizations that we support and partner with, and we further enhanced our internal engagement and inclusion strategy to emphasize belonging, with even more personalized outreach and check-ins with each other. And, in the face of the George Floyd tragedy and the movement it inspired, we expanded our commemoration of Juneteenth to not only make it a paid holiday, but also to launch a Spotlight on Black Businesses initiative that started with about 40 businesses in eight cities in 2020 to over 200 businesses in 15 cities across the country where we have offices.

Now, three years later we are seeing some of the momentum slowing down overall in the industry especially as resources are being cut and reallocated. However, there is consistency and movement. There’s increased collaboration and commitment by industry leaders and organizations. Agencies are being held more accountable for their diversity data, for representation on teams and how they plan to grow and achieve measurable growth at every level. Clients are now asking the right questions and holding their agencies accountable — and making decisions based on factors such as overall diversity, team composition and the agency’s approach not only to DEI but on how they reach audiences of diverse backgrounds. It’s a beautiful thing because as agencies realize they will be held accountable by the clients who keep them in business they will be compelled to address their DEI challenges in authentic ways.

What’s your assessment of the progress that has (or hasn’t) been made during that time in diversifying the industry.

The key is progress. This is not an end game – advancing DEI in the industry is something that must be managed, committed to and measured on a consistent basis. We cannot stop: the industry must dedicate itself to initiatives and actions that are going to continue to move the needle.

The PR industry was jarred into prioritizing DEI due to events of tremendous magnitude, George Floyd’s murder and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Does that urgency still exist? Does the early momentum exist?

For some, the urgency is subsiding but the commitment is still there. Unfortunately, some would argue that the initial shock of what we all saw with Mr. Floyd and others is now behind us. The reality is that we cannot ever, ever forget these tragedies. In fact, these incidents and the racism that it revealed for all to see must be seen as an important milestone in setting the stage for how we as a society can come together and how we as an industry can utilize our resources and our expertise to ensure that we are doing our part.

What do you see as the challenges in pursuing this change? Has anything surprised you?

Nothing surprises me – I have been in business for more than 20 years and have literally seen it all! I came up in the business when diversity or DEI was not a thing. I was very fortunate to have people in my life and career who mentored me and took a personal interest in my professional development. Today, there are so many resources available and guard rails in place that are designed to ensure that diverse practitioners have options and a forum for sharing ideas, access to support and professional development opportunities that simply did not exist not even three years ago let alone 20!

While I don’t like to give any credibility to the challenges in pursuing the change that is needed, the main thing is that we all must be vigilant. I see an alarming trend among some who believe that DEI or the pursuit of optimal DEI in our industry is not important. While they are entitled to their positions, my attitude is that they need to move out of the way and not do anything that will hinder progress. This is why we have mandatory training particularly at the leadership and management levels. A commitment to DEI is a must — and people in leadership positions must commit to being the change.

Do you believe that true DEI in PR is attainable?

That depends on the definition of true DEI. True DEI means a commitment to doing the work to achieve it of setting goals and of taking stock. And as Dr. King said: “But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”