PR’s Top Pros Talk… Social Justice – Donovan Thompson
Donovan Thompson, Executive Producer of the Grapevine, on The Current State of Diversity and Racial Awareness in the Workplace
The time to speak up is now. Executive producer of The Grapevine, Donovan Thompson, breaks down the current state of diversity and racial awareness in the workplace and shares thoughts on the effective ways to implement change.
PRWeek reported that only 13% of the leaders in PR agencies are non-white, even after five years of trying to increase diversity in the industry. This is a trend that goes beyond the PR field; black people are underrepresented in leadership roles across all industries. As a result, there is no one to speak to the diversity and colorism, says Donovan. He encourages that organizations allow diverse people to be experts in diversity, without alienating them. Donovan stresses the importance of empowering black employees with actual leadership roles, instead of just giving them diversity positions.
Diversifying your organizations could be tricky. Should the companies be explicit about their efforts? Donovan emphasizes that they need to be very overt about it, they need to make a real effort. Black employees find it complicated to speak out about systemic racism, fearing that it will follow them throughout their careers and create obstacles along the way. This is why it’s imperative for organizations to lead the way intentionally, allowing black people to take charge and encourage these conversations from the top down.
It’s ok to have awkward conversations, everyone needs to sweat a little bit, says Donovan. For employees, now is the time to speak up, advocate for changes that you’d like to see in the workplace and offer your services. Donovan is convinced that if organizations allow black people to be their full selves, it will revolutionize and promote the business in ways you wouldn’t imagine.
The Grapevine TV:
Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPf5…
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About the Hosts:
Host 1: DOUG SIMON
Host 2: TAMEEKA HENRY
Guest: DONOVAN THOMPSON
DOUG: I’m here with my colleague Tameeka Henry who is vice president of analytics and media syndication at our company, and our guest, Donovan Thompson, with The Grapevine.
TAMEEKA: Yes, and The Grapevine currently has over 20 million views on YouTube. They talk about hard hitting issues from colorism to interracial relationships. As a panel style discussion, and today we have the executive producer and panelist, Donovan Thompson. It was actually founded by Ashley Akunna, and we’re excited to speak with you today.
DONOVAN: Of course, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me, I’m excited.
DOUG: PRWeek, an industry leading trade just came out with a study that found only 13% of the leaders in PR agencies are non-white and this is after five years of trying to increase diversity in the industry. What’s your take on that?
DONOVAN: You know I would have to say that for me there is a thread that runs through every industry and the lack of diversity it happens everywhere. I’ve been in tech companie, I see it in the neighborhood when you look at police officers you can see it in the black owned neighborhoods in a black neighborhood. It’s like black people are very very underrepresented when it comes to leadership roles. I would say that for me I don’t think that is done, just happens to be that way rather. I think that that’s a part of the design. And those are one of the things that we have to acknowledge. It’s not just about diversifying, it’s about equity, It’s about reimagining and thinking through why are things where they are and that’s not really a profitable question to ask. So, I think that that’s why things look that way.
DOUG: I noticed, just going through some of the segments on your site, things you talk about, colorism as an example, aren’t necessarily part of the conversation at leading communications agencies when it comes to advising their clients. What type of advice should they be giving their clients right now during what seems like a moment of possible change?
DONOVAN: Yes, that’s a great question. And I actually just want to take that to the first question kind of like build a bridge. Because there is in fact a lack of diversity from the top down, what happens is that there is no one to speak to the diversity in blackness, there’s no one there to speak about colorism in blackness, texturism with hair texture. The fact that if you have a wider know you can be seen and treated with a certain kind of way. Being too ethnic, being darker is, in fact, a marker across whether you’re black, Asian, whether you consider yourself to be Arab, people from the Middle East, there’s colorism throughout anywhere where there was colonization there’s colorism. But because these conversations are often led, by you know, white men mostly and then of course white women, we do see that there is no room for these conversations to be had. And then even I would say for a show like The Grapevine where we actually talk about this a lot because, even for example, I’ll speak openly about this because I know that reports hit today about some of the issues of Complex. The only reason why I’m bringing that up is because we’ve heard about this, there were these rumblings, often times if you’re in this game you hear a lot of rumblings about what people practice and what people do, and what we’ve experienced was that maybe there wasn’t an interest for us to be covered in a myriad of, whether it be magazines, whether it be digital publications, whether it be video publications, because of the fact that we’re led by a dark skinned black woman. The question then becomes, do people want to see this? The colorism conversation, the question then becomes do people care about this? And we all know that yes, people do care about this, but without, once again, that diverse representation in a board room, that diverse representation in the production room, there is no one to speak to those nuances that will actually make black people a loyal follower to brands that are more encompassing of our experiences. So it’s one of those things where no one acknowledges, but it would actually improve performance a lot better across industry, not only for black people, because there are a lot of people experience colorism.
TAMEEKA: And I think we see brands and companies falling short with that recently, especially with some of the major food and beverage brands, as well as clothing brands who lack diversity within their corporations and have received backlash because of social media and everyone experiencing or seeing that ad campaign wasn’t representative of what today’s role is, or maybe they have a brand that made sense 50 years ago, but in the year 2020 it just doesn’t fit. And because situations, like the recent current events within Minneapolis or New York, now people are bringing those conversations to the forefront and saying, hey we always knew that this didn’t make sense, but now we’re telling you to change it.
DONOVAN: Absolutely, I agree with that 100%, and that goes to the conversation, simply of just having someone in the room with the education. I wish if people would allow diverse people to be experts in diversity. I wish that people would allow people to be able to come in and speak for themselves meaning, I remember being in a media company, and being brought into a room to discuss a potential celebrity to lead a show, a show that’s actually very similar to The Apprentice, and they ask me if this celebrity, who is a black man, “do you think he’ll do well?” This show has already been greenlit, this show has already been produced, the show is already going to market, and now we’re talking with the data team about whether or not black people will actually enjoy him now. Here’s something that the data won’t tell you – sentiment. It cannot tell you what black people are talking about in our homes. It can’t tell you about what we’re talking about when we’re having our ki and we’re getting together on a Friday night, about what we’re excited to watch, and what we want to talk about. So, I being in that space, I looked at them and I said there are no black people in this room and I know that made many people very uncomfortable, but I said it because I enjoy making people uncomfortable when it’s so obvious that you’re going down the wrong path. Why are there no black people in this room?
DOUG: Tameeka and I were talking before this about the importance of asking “uncomfortable questions” and having uncomfortable discussions. So we like, I think there have been uncomfortable discussions for black people going on this whole time, It’s really about white people having to address those uncomfortable discussions. I should point out that you and Tameeka went to college together, and one of the issues we also wanted to talk about was how about working within diverse groups within your own organization. Any advice for that area, Tameeka, if you want to dive into that.
TAMEEKA: Oh yeah for sure. You know, right now there are companies who are doing the right thing where they do have a diverse staff, but there are companies that are now playing catch up, and, you know, what do you think would be the best practice for them to diversify their corporations or their companies, and should it be intentional, or should it be something that is not as overt, should it be something that they’re doing and they’re not talking about, should they put a post on social media? How would they best go forward with adapting to the changing times?
DONOVAN: Great question. I think that they need to be very overt about it. I think that for black people in particular the racism, the alienation has been overt for us, right? There has not been a secret, that’s not how it works in America, maybe some place else, but definitely not here. We’re very aware that, I have friends who changed their first names so that they can make sure that they get an interview, we are very very well aware. So, I think that at this particular point it is about being overt. It’s about making a real effort to right the wrongs. Black people are totally fine with that effort being overt in the same ways that we see, you know, Kim Kardashian getting her latest deal, we want to start seeing that tides change, we want to start seeing some black people being celebrated. I’m going to use one example. One example, very quickly, is about, one of the hardest things for a black person to do is to speak out about these things, it’s terrifying. It’s can I be able to pay my bills, will I be able to be able to provide for my children, If I talk about the systemic racism that will then follow me for my entire career if I say something right now. Just because this moment is happening does not mean that black people are still not fearful of that. It may be easier to do that because you may think you may get the support of other people, but what would be even better, or what would be amazing to see is for corporations to lead the way intentionally. Allow black people to come into lead. Also, something that I would like to see is a pipeline for black people to lead. I want to see associates programs across corporations where they bring in young diverse talent, start bringing them in higher up meetings, start asking their opinions, start doing evaluations that include the opinions of young people who are on your force because these are the people going to be leading the future, and also young people are in tune with what’s going to happen. Companies need to start thinking about what’s going to happen as opposed just trying to keep things the same. So, I think like just two quick things, diversify your C-suite, that’s OK, it’s all right, It’s OK to diversify your C-suite. The person on your C-suite who’s black does not have to be the diversity lead. You can abandon that.
DOUG: I hate that.
DONOVAN: It makes no sense.
DOUG: Great, we’re going to increase diversity, I’m going to hire a person of diversity to lead the diversity group like why differentiate with this artificial differentiation? Already you’re creating an implied different level of performance and expectations. It gets me sometimes in a weird place when I have that conversation. We were interviewing someone for position that was multilingual, and I was like, no I don’t want you to just be selling Spanish language projects. That would be a bummer for me if that’s all you’re doing, you should be able to sell across the board, which I thing brings us to a point, then I want to leave time for Tameeka to hit you with one more question, and, in fact, why don’t you just jump in now, Tameeka, if you want to wrap things up about what about employees working within this environment in companies?
TAMEEKA: Yeah with employees, I mean, the ones that commonly do exist in the corporations and companies, how do you feel like they should best maneuver within this climate? Is it important to speak to your higher-up, is it important for you to stay quiet? Should you send an email like Juneteenth just passed. Should an email been sent about, hey is it OK if I take this day off? Will it be considered a vacation day or is it a paid holiday for me? Is it okay if I take MLK Day off if I don’t get it? Should we be having these conversations outward?
DONOVAN: Yes, 100%. We do need to be having those conversations. And once again I am not putting a lid on this revolution that’s happening. I am one of those people who are like peel that thing off. And so, for me it’s very much about having these very very awkward conversations. I think everyone needs to be sweating a little bit. I think that everybody needs to understand that this is not simply a function of what’s going on the outside but this is obviously something that’s going to be coming on inside of these walls, inside of this building, so I have to participate, and I know that it can be intimidating like we just spoke about black people feeling like, should I speak is this going to follow me? These people are powerful, what happens when this is all over, are they going to come after me then? What should I do? And I would definitely say this is why I think that the time is now. If you are going to say anything, say it now. Be on record being an advocate for what you want to see in the workplace. Now one of the things that I would say, for anyone who is in the corporate space, and not yet not yet where you want to be, and you have the attention potentially of somebody, if you don’t say anything, they can literally say you never said anything, but if you do say something and you put that on record now it’s known, you spoke up for yourself, you said that you wanted to be an advocate for change you will offering your services by being somebody who would actually bring it to the attention of whomever it is, and that is a real advocacy. Also, you have to think about this in terms of you’re going through the door and you’re leaving that door open. If you’re a black employee somewhere, you want to keep that door open. You want to find out if there is a pipeline, you want to understand what that pipeline is, you want to find out how you can be able to help get more black people and help get other people, and what does that look like? And then finally I would say, it’s also helping, I know that it’s very rough in terms of thinking about black people actually educating people in this space, one thing is really important now. A lot of businesses are going to start asking black employees about what they think and how they should do better. That’s not our job. So, part of it is, I think, it’s advocacy of self, and then a part of is also corporate responsibility, and also helping your boss understanding what their corporate responsibility is. Meaning, that I know that we’ve written checks for thirty-five thousand dollars, forty thousand dollars to hire someone to come in and train on how to be a better leader by understanding empathy. We can easily spend that thirty-five thousand dollars forty thousand dollars on someone who is black who can come in and talk to you about the dynamics of being black in a workspace who does that for a living.
DOUG: I might advise some of the communications people watching that they should spend that money to sponsor some of your programming to get an understanding of what’s going on beyond just paying attention and watching and listening. But really get engaged with black owned businesses that have an understanding of how things are changing what they need to do to engage.
DONOVAN: Wow, thank you for that, I appreciate that. And you know that’s one of the things that we do in general. We have these conversations and we feel like everyone should be having this. But, you know, for us we were told that we were niche. And we’ve been told that, you know, everyone doesn’t want to hear these things, but we do in fact have a lot of the pieces to the puzzle. And I think, you know, when you allow black people to be our full selves, it will revolutionize your business. It will make your business so much better; it will fill in gaps, it will help expand reach it will help promote your business in ways you wouldn’t imagine. What happens when you actually increase the morale of your black employees, what does that do for your business, and that’s not that’s not a question that we often hear and get to answer so now is the time, so speak up, speak out and encourage your corporations to go with the times and go with the flow. Do not fight against this change.
TAMEEKA: And I think you hit the nail on the head with intent. Everything needs to be intentional during this time, whether it be advocating for yourself, advocating for your company, whether it be change that you’re making within your company, everything needs to be intentional, and it needs to be heard. Everyone wants to know because everything has been secret for so long. And I think with that, that was a great ending to the conversation. Donovan, we want to thank you for speaking with Doug and I and speaking on “PR’s Top Pros Talk,” we look forward to seeing more interviews and sessions on The Grapevine. So, thank you so much for your contribution and thank you so much for the conversation, we appreciate it.
DONOVAN: My pleasure, thank you guys for having me.
DOUG: Our pleasure, thanks.