Sunday, October 22, 2006

Diversity in Public Relations - Great Idea or "PC Hell"

By Ned Barnett (c) 2008

Intro: Recently, we've commemorated the death and birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - a man who fought for integration and against what we now call "diversity" (but what he might have called segregation). Which is why, I guess, this has come up now.

Recently, the topic of "diversity" came up on a PR list - the poster "assumed" that we'd all agree that "diversity" is a good idea, but based on 35 years of color-blind experience in the PR field, I think that "diversity" in public relations staffing is a terrible idea. PR is all about results, and the color, ethnic origin, religion, gender or race of the PR practitioner is absolutely irrelevant. Or so it seems to me. So I wrote to the list the following (which, no surprise, created a fire-storm of opposition from the terminally politically correct, and ultimately got me booted off the list ... ). So put on your asbestos jockey shorts and enjoy a controversy ...


Basically, I think that "diversity" is a shibboleth - a false idol that distracts us away from what's really important in PR (effective communications); it also has the negative side effect of dividing people when we ought to be pulling them together (it does this by "labeling" people and making those labels more important than the people themselves). Let me give a few examples of where I'm coming from, then get down to the PR issue.

I believe in the absolute equality of all people, and think that each person should be judged (as Dr. King said) on the quality of their soul, not the color of their skin (or their gender, or gender-preference, or any other artificial category). I've tried to live my life that way, and I know I've tried to conduct my business that way.

Before I get into what that means to PR, let me give you a bit of background which will help to explain why I think "diversity" is a curse for PR, and for all PR practitioners, black and white, male and female.


When I was in college at the University of Georgia, I was active in the local and state civil rights movement - this at a time when the police felt it necessary to chase civil rights marchers with batons and leashed dogs. One of my proudest moments was my role in helping to desegregate the Methodist Church in Georgia - at that time, there were three "conferences" - North Georgia (white), South Georgia (white) and Georgia (black). And, at that time, the ministers North and South were guaranteed a living wage, housing and insurance benefits, retirement and other bennies - all paid for by the Conference (churches supplemented that base salary, so some ministers made more than others, but all made a living wage, with benefits and housing). However, the (black) Georgia Conference ministers had no such guarantees; as a result, most black Methodist ministers had full-time secular jobs (to support their families), giving their congregations short shrift.

This was discrimination, pure and simple. It not only hurt the ministers, it also hurt the black congregations, which needed full-time ministers just as much as did the white congregations (besides the fact that it seemed essentially at odds with the core message of Christianity, which all who were involved professed to believe).

After lots and lots of behind-the-scenes negotiations, those of us pushing for equality arranged for the North Georgia Conference to merge with the Georgia Conference - black ministers throughout the state immediately got a living wage, benefits and housing - and they got a paid-up retirement plan retroactive to the day they were ordained. It was a huge triumph for real equality, and I have been proud all my life that I was able to have a hand in it.

That early effort taught me that equality - that we are all the same, and should be treated as such - was far more important than diversity (which focuses on our differences and tends to separate, rather than connect, people). It was a focus on those differences that had led to discrimination against black ministers - an evil, in my opinion, not a benefit.

Later, I became a strong advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment, pushing for it's passage in South Carolina. Some women (my then-wife included) opposed this, because they felt that by being separate (i.e., "diverse") they got privileges (i.e., exemption from the military draft and certain other obligations that fell solely to men) that would be denied them in a world of perfect equality. I disagreed, and even took a leave-of-absence from my job to campaign for total equality for all citizens - and, though we didn't use the term at that time, I was campaigning against diversity.

Several years ago, my oldest son got a position on the faculty of a state-owned university in Tennessee. This particular university is what's known as "a historically black institution," meaning that it used to be segregated (a Jim Crow school) and today most of it's students and faculty remain black. However, my son had excellent credentials in a field where they needed excellent credentials, and in a competitive environment, he was hired - one of only three white faculty members in his department.

In his first year, he had an average of one white student per class (average class size, 70) - and sad-but-true, he caught a lot of hostile crap from black students who were more interested, apparently, in having black professors (which - from their perspective - seemed reasonable to them, as they chose to attend a predominantly black state university and had little desire to associate with people other than black people) than in learning what they were there to study. However, because my son reflects my own views on absolute equality of individuals, he's been able to set that hostility aside and provide superior education (based on student comments to the Dean and his own performance evaluations).

If "diversity" had been the absolute policy, my son would have missed a valuable job and valuable life experience, and his students would have missed the opportunity to see equality in action - to see that they could learn as much from a white man as from a black man or woman. In his way, my son has been able to break down (at least a bit) racial hatred and prejudice merely by showing up, ignoring hostility and providing equal and quality education to all his students. "Diversity" would have made that impossible, and would have (I am convinced) hurt the students by depriving them of a new perspective that has (at least in a few cases) opened their eyes.

However, as a final aside, though my son was always the top-rated teaching professor in his department, he was denied a "tenure-track" contract; instead, he worked from semester to semester with no hope for advancement. Though he enjoyed his job and liked being able to work in his home town, with a family to support, he eventually left to work for a fully-integrated university that was willing to put him on a career path.

More recently, from a libertarian (not "Libertarian" - I'm not a party man) postion of equality of opportunity, I've strongly supported the idea of Gay Marriages (in my view, if Gay individuals want to be married, let them). I support this because I don't believe that people are - at their core, down where things really matter - different, at least not different in ways that should matter when it comes to basic human rights. And because of that, I do not think people should not be treated differently because of factors of birth or lifestyle choice.

I've seen the evil of focusing on differences, even in PR - my former business partner was gay, but he kept that a secret from everybody because he felt that to be himself would cause him to be discriminated against by potential clients ... he wanted to be treated just like everybody else, so he kept his nature to himself. His "status" didn't come out until after we'd closed the agency and he'd found employment with a company that he thought wouldn't care (he was wrong - the job lasted three months).

In a world where all people were seen as equals, where race and gender and orientation literally did not matter, this would not have impacted him. But he bought into all that "diversity" crap, let the world know something that was basically private information between him and his partner (and basically none of the world's business), and wound up losing his job. So much, I feel, for diversity.


Now let's bring this diversity issue home to public relations.

One of the tenets of "diversity" is that "like" can only talk to (or represent) "like" - Gays can only (or at least best) represent Gays, blacks can only (or at least best) represent Blacks, etc. Individual skills, ability, "heart" - none of that matters. To those who advocate "diversity," only the color of your skin, or your gender, or your orientation (or whatever) matters.

That, to me, is the essence of discrimination, the very thing Dr. King fought against so hard, for so long (and for which he ultimately gave his life).

In my career, I have successfully represented Women's organizations (and woman-owned companies), though I am not a woman. I have had client firms that were owned by blacks (including an independent Hollywood film production company owned by one of the former Drifters), yet I am not black. I have represented a gay-themed restaurant, Hamburger Mary's, though I am not gay. I've represented Christian clients, though I have not (at that time) been an active Christian for many years. In each of these cases, I was able to succeed on their behalf - not because I was "one of them," but because I was, at that time, the best PR person they could find for their particular needs. Rather than diversity, I was able to succeed (and feed my family) because my clients were willing and able to set the issue of "diversity" aside and, instead, go with the best person available for the job at hand.

By the same token, when I was hiring, I have put women in jobs that conventional wisdom said could only be filled by men - because the women I hired or retained were simply the best-qualified for the job.

More than once, I've hired or retained black (or Hispanic, or Indian) men and women to handle assignments for white (often bigoted white) clients - I brought them in because they were the best, not because they were black, or Hispanic, or Indian (which should, under a policy of "diversity," have precluded them from the assignments), but because they were the best.

Just within the last two weeks, I hired a gay man (my former business partner) to develop the media portion of a communications plan for a client firm (one owned by Catholics and run by some fairly homophobic gents) because I knew that my ex-partner was the best person for the job. I didn't tell the Catholics that their plan was being developed by a gay guy - it was none of their business - but if I had been going with "diversity," I guess I'd have had to hire a Catholic homophobe to do the work.

And this brings me down to the ultimate purpose of public relations.

We are here to generate results - measurable, meaningful, memorable results. When we send an email pitch to a reporter, that reporter doesn't know and really doesn't care what our race, gender, religion, orientation, etc. is - s/he only cares if our story is newsworthy and our pitch is compelling.

"Diversity" doesn't enter into it.

Good PR people - regardless of race, gender and orientation - ought to be able to communicate effectively to whites, blacks, Hispanics and other races; to men and women, gay or straight or somewhere in between. The only meaningful measure is, at least to me, who can do it most effectively.

The rest is politics, not PR.
And while politics doesn't generate favorable press coverage, solid PR does.

So, bottom line, I come down against diversity as it applies to PR - and, because it is divisive, rather than inclusive (because it makes categories more important than people, and discriminates for or against people based on those categories), I come down against diversity (and in favor of absolute equality of opportunity) in our society as well.

I know this isn't politically correct - but I also know that it is (for me, and, I think, for everybody who wants to get ahead on his or her own merits, who wants to be treated as an individual and valued for who they are as an individual) the right way to go, the right thing to do.

Down off my soap-box, and back to you ...