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Photo Credit: Marc Wathieu via Compfight cc

By Colby Reade, APR
The Hoffman Agency, Portland-Vancouver

A variety of issues surrounding workplace diversity has permeated the public conversation recently, from demographic breakdowns of major companies to gender equality. It was even a key point made at this year’s PRSA International Conference in Washington, D.C.

To say that the topic of diversity is a hot button would be a hyperbolic understatement. Diversity, and all of the sub-topics that comprise it, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and age, is an emotionally charged issue that can have enormous impact on the way people are treated and the lives they are able to live, both at work and at home.

When looking at these very real, potentially inflammatory topics, it can be intimidating to weigh in. In fact, as a public relations practitioner, you might think that your organization is better served trying to stay out of the conversation altogether. I would argue that’s the wrong approach and, if anything, now is the time to be even more proactive in your conversations about diversity, both internally and with your stakeholders and customers. Failure to prepare for this conversation leaves you and your client vulnerable to a potentially embarrassing cycle and loss of support by your audience.

For example, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, experienced this first hand as a result of his remarks regarding when and how women should ask for pay raises. Businesses like Amazon have come under fire for positioning diversity data in a positive tone even though the figures don’t align with their audience’s expectations.

But before I go on, please let me be perfectly clear. I am not suggesting that we as PR professionals try to use the current conversation about diversity to generate positive coverage for a client. We should not “seize the day” and try to insert ourselves into the dialogue, nor should we advocate for our clients to engage in some sort of diversity-related promotion just to score a few quick points.

Instead, we must take the opportunity to better understand what our audiences expect from us and from our clients on this wide range of issues. PR is about fostering an honest, two-way conversation between the organization we represent and the audiences we serve. The key phrase is “two-way.” PR is as much about listening to feedback from our customers and supporters as it is about providing them with information on the work we are doing.

Once we understand the expectations of our audience, we must then take time to truly grasp where our organizations and our clients stand when it comes to these issues – both in terms of our goals for the organization as well as the reality of where the organization stands today. And, finally, we must be prepared to appropriately share and discuss these facts with our audience, be that by responding to questions, providing resources surrounding the diversity of the organization on owned channels or including relevant data in proactive releases.

Here are some steps I recommend:

  1. Listen to the conversation your audience is having on the topic. What are they saying? What are their opinions? Are there specific programs or initiatives they support and why? Do these opinions align with your company? How are they different?
  2. After listening to the topics that matter to your audience, talk with your spokespeople. All of them. Anyone who might get a call from a reporter or send a tweet. Start by asking their opinions on the different topics and then discuss their answers. This is not to suggest that spokespeople can’t have their own opinions or that they should be prepared to share inauthentic talking points, but thinking through responses can help avoid confusion and painful misstatements.
  3. Do your research. What are the current statistics on diversity in your organization? Are there areas where the stats might raise an eyebrow from an outside observer? For example, does your organization employ 90 percent men? If a reporter were to ask you about this today, how would you respond?

Again, I am not suggesting that you jump into this conversation around diversity to secure coverage for your business or launch some other sort of promotion as a means of grabbing some quick, positive publicity. This conversation is far too important and requires far deeper, thoughtful dialogue for such activity.  But it is a valuable time to consider where your company stands on the issue, how you align with your audience’s expectations, and what changes may be called for. This kind of preparation will do wonders to help prevent an embarrassing crisis situation and will also prepare you to appropriately share information about your organization’s position.

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