Stefan Embry is a 10-year industry veteran who currently leads Praytell’s people, culture and allyship practice focused on helping brands build a more equitable and diverse world — internally and externally.  He previously led the agency’s corporate citizenship work with MAC Cosmetics and the Estee Lauder Companies, guiding the rollout of the MAC and Praytell-produced feature-length documentary, More Than T with Showtime. Embry said in an interview with PRovoke he believes brands have a tremendous responsibility in fostering diversity and inclusion given their size and reach. "I think brands really have a really important role in this, having such a large platform and gaining financial benefit from people of color. They have a responsibility in exchange for that contribution," he said. An edited transcript:

Tell us about the new people, culture and allyship practice you co-lead, and what you hope to accomplish.

What we are hoping to do is help companies match their external facing diversity programs with them driving change internally through systems and policy.  We need to bridge diverse campaigns and diverse representation in creative with actual structural change and equity. So it’s not just to bring clients up to speed on issues of diversity or inclusion or representation but also help them really integrate this work into their daily and ongoing practices. Too often the work of diversity and equity and inclusion is placed on people of color, and that burden often falls to them as extra work, and not necessarily valued in the same regard as other work. We want to make sure this work is allocated in the same way as all other work would be internally and externally.

How behind are companies in doing that?

There’s a lot of work to be done. Companies are at different places. Some are super ahead in this work. We work with the MAC Cosmetics AIDS Fund, and they have raised over $500 million for AIDS. Thinking about systemic equity is in their DNA. For a brand like that, it’s really about helping them communicate that externally and understanding that great legacy. And there are other brands that are catching up, either because they are in industries that thought they were exempt from ongoing social change or are just coming from a different place.

Where does the PR industry fit in on that spectrum?

It’s hard in terms of the PR industry. I think so often it can be difficult, just in terms of where we draw staff from. Internships, for instance, that don’t pay as well as they have in the past have resulted in an industry that is pretty homogeneous, made up of a group of young people who could afford to take them. We need to reckon with that, how we are intaking students and young people into the industry and where we are drawing them from.

You also hear so much about culture fit. Will people fit in here? Will they get along with people here? People look at culture fit as a gateway for how successful talent will be. We have to reframe what culture fit means to understand that it’s not just about how individuals will fit in but also about what perspective they bring, what background they bring that will lead to truly creative campaigns that are forward-thinking for our clients. It’s also thinking about recruitment and barriers to entry, and how we are building a roster of talent that has viewpoints that are diverse and well-rounded.

We often hear that a lack of awareness, and in some cases acceptance, of the comms industry as a career option among communities of color also are contributing factors. Is that valid?

I think in a lot of communities of color we tend to gravitate to those industries we know will provide future economic freedoms — medicine, science, business. There is certainly work to be done in showcasing the breadth of careers that are out there, including communications, for people of color. And showcasing the value too. I think brands really have a really important role in this, having such a large platform and gaining financial benefit from people of color. They have a responsibility in exchange for that contribution. Communications is uniquely suited to help in that endeavor.

Do you find the industry inclusive of those who do wind up working in it?

I remember early on in my career it was challenging, particularly when the conversation shifted toward things I wasn’t super experienced in and I imagine other people of color might not have been experienced in. It can feel a little bit alienating. Something we have worked at a lot at Praytell is making sure people are bringing their culture and experience and what they love to their work. We really work to make sure those experiences are valid, and people have a voice at a table. We should not be pulling from a comms textbook but from our experiences. Diverse input is not only needed when it says 'diversity and inclusion' in an RFP.

Also, as an industry that relies so much on communication style, we need to work harder to eliminate pre-existing biases. The exact same sentence can be perceived as aggressive from a Black person, sassy from a gay person, meek from a woman. And so much of how we’re perceived as communicators plays into career ascension or added responsibility. When we’re all being graded on communications style, we need to actively ask ourselves, 'Am I truly receiving this as my colleague intended?'

Does the industry have what it takes to put that into practice?

A lot of people have felt traditionally like they need to put on a different personality at work or not share experiences that could be looked down upon for any reason. But I think we’re seeing a shift. It’s just the right thing to do. And it’s necessary for businesses to thrive. They have to reach diverse audiences. I feel the changes we have seen over the past three to four years in the agency world have really given the keys to other people to drive that change, to make sure that people don’t feel like they need to hide their experiences and their culture in any way. It's been great to see. The true test, though, is whether organizations don't make this just a numbers game, but transform existing practices to truly make equitable workplaces for voices of color to be heard, to lead and to create. I don’t know what will happen, but I have hope.

You can read earlier interviews in the series here:
Suresh Raj: 'Just Hiring People Of Color Isn't Going To Do It'
Cheryl Overton: 'We Can't Wait For Everyone To Grow Up In The Business To Make Changes'
Amber Micala Arnold: 'Accountability Is One Of The Industry's Biggest Problems'
Teneshia Jackson Warner: 'There Is No Longer A Path For Ignoring The Impact Of Racial Injustice'
Helen Shelton: 'PR Has Been Benefiting From Black Consumers For Decades'
Kourtney Evans: 'Why Is PR Such A White Field?'