Seasoned PR professionals such as Jemia Kinsey Singleton can do a lot to dictate how a company is seen, heard and, in a sense, felt.
How they smell, however, isn’t so much up to them.
“Particularly when it comes to diversity and inclusion, consumers can tell when a company doesn’t pass the smell test,” she said. “If a company lacks authenticity, and their leadership team is all the same face telling you they’re diverse … customers can sniff that out.”
Singleton, a leader of her own PR outfit, Kinsey Communications, has been doing communications work for about 20 years. Her interest in engaging organizations on diversity has been there throughout, as someone inspired and at times mentored by some of the creative professionals pioneering how diverse communities would be marketed to in the new millennium.
And, after 2020’s chain of events, just about everyone in PR shares that interest.
“In the midst of last summer, it was constant calls from companies that wanted to have conversations about diversity and inclusion,” she said, “It’s top of mind, and we’ve come a bit of a way — even if, unfortunately, it did have to take the murder of George Floyd and the period of racial reconciliation we’ve seen to really get it to be a major topic of discussion.”
As brands rushed out marketing messages that aligned themselves with progressive causes, they — time and again — stumbled, Singleton noted.
PR professionals have played rear guard in those situations. They hastily issued statements when, for instance, media outlets reported that Starbucks was banning employees from wearing Black Lives Matter accessories despite publicly proclaiming its support for the movement.
In the end: The new opportunities that brands had to connect with demographics over shared concerns about race-related issues came with a new magnifying glass that sometimes didn’t do those brands favors.
And, even in the absence of activist or journalist scrutiny, Singleton said sometimes it was the brands doing it to themselves — with simple wording on something like a social media post.
“Brands have had many missteps,” she said. “Nine out of 10 times, that’s because there wasn’t someone at the table who could say, ‘Hey, you know what? That’s probably not the best word to use because of how it might be seen as offensive.’”
To reach diverse audiences in a meaningful way, Singleton argues, requires that an organization has some diversity itself. And that means in the topmost rungs of the corporate ladder, too.
That’s the proof in the pudding, she said. And it’s what causes companies to fail consumers’ aforementioned credibility checks.
“If you say you’re about diversity, your leadership should really be reflective of that,” Singleton said. “And that doesn’t mean just your token diverse spot, but making a concerted effort to have a diverse leadership team — not only racially, but in age or in having LGBTQ+ individuals.”
At a time when so many organizations find it timely to promote through marketing and PR their commitment to diversity, it’s actions — and, to be more exact, the hiring decisions — that will speak the loudest, she said.
You’ve heard it before: Organizations have to walk the walk as much as they talk the talk.
That’s something Singleton can’t emphasize enough. She believes it’s the first step in being more cognizant in messaging as a company — and avoiding the too-often-seen viral missteps and unflattering press.
“Cancel culture is real, whether you agree with it or not,” she said. “We see the effect of it all the time. What you do and say as an organization or individual will follow you, and it’s important to get the messaging right the first time so that you don’t have to come back to clean it up later.”
Singleton, who is also president of New Jersey’s Public Relations Society of America trade group, said all this is doubly true for her own industry. The PR sector, which according to a 2018 Harvard Business Review breakdown of federal labor data is 87.9% white, needs to curate more diversity before it can properly guide clients on these issues.
She’s heard all of the excuses as to why that diversity isn’t already there.
None of them pass the smell test.
“A lot of times, people say, ‘Well, I just don’t know how to find diverse PR professionals,’” she said. “Well, there are historically Black colleges and universities that have wonderful communications programs that can definitely serve as a place to tap that talent.”