PR’s Top Pros Talk… Effective DEI Practices
Maria Rodriguez, President & CEO, Vanguard Communications
How can organizations increase awareness around DEI? Maria Rodriguez, President & CEO, Vanguard Communications, urges employers to abandon the assumption that employees only want to work on projects that align with their identities. She shares the value of having open conversations with staff members about what projects they are passionate about and comfortable working on. Maria also recommends that companies partner with organizations like ColorComm, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the National Association of Black Journalists in their hiring process.
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About the Host:
HOST: DOUG SIMON
GUEST: MARIA RODRIGUEZ
DOUG: Many organizations are looking to increase their focus on DEI in their communication strategy and messaging. Maria, can you share one of your top tips that people should be aware of?
MARIA: Absolutely. I would say my absolute number 1 top tip would be not to make the assumption that because someone represents a particular identity community, that you should tap them to lead a particular project. I mean, it’s like anything else. I might be Hispanic and representing that community, but I might have a passion for working with other communities or on other issues. And I think just out of respect, it’s important to really connect with individuals about their personal interests and needs, and then they’re just going to do a much better job on the project.
DOUG: Yeah, there is a natural assumption that you would defer to that. And the thought is, that’s one of the reasons why diversity is so important because you have people who relate on a different level. So, how do you move past that to make it sort of equitable in terms of who you’re assigning to different work?
MARIA: I think it’s about communication. Talk to those individuals and you say, hey, is this a campaign that you would feel comfortable working on, just like if I’m working on a campaign about diabetes, and I would naturally move to someone in the company that might have diabetes or has a child with diabetes or a parent, but I wouldn’t make the assumption that they would feel comfortable working on that campaign. I would have a conversation and say, is this something you feel passionate about? Is this something that you want to work on? I mean, we don’t always have that opportunity to make choices, but I think it just starts with a conversation.
DOUG: That’s a great start. So, what are some other tips you have that can help people be more thoughtful and effective about integrating DEI into their plans, strategies, workforce etc.?
MARIA: Obviously I’m coming at this from a small business perspective, so this could look different for a large communications company. I would say that one thing to do is to really narrow in on what are the expertise areas that you want to work in within the DEI space. So, it’s a very diverse space. Do you want to work specifically with the Latinx community, the LGBTQ community, narrow in first versus saying that you just do all of DEI all the time. And then I would say that I would look inside my organization to see what expertise is already there within those identity communities, within that work that you can tap.
DOUG: Yeah, and you talk about representation in your staffing, that’s important. And even with sort of the caveat that don’t make assumptions that automatically match people on a very surface level. How do you go about attracting more diverse candidates?
MARIA: Well, you really want to work with organizations that already have memberships within those diverse candidates. So, for example, in our communications business, there’s a fabulous organization called ColorComm, and they have a job board that’s quite active and we advertise in there all the time and there’s others like that. I mean, you could go to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists, I would say, just really look at who are you trying to engage? Make sure you cast that broad net across party identity communities.
DOUG: Yeah. So, how do you go about prioritizing DEI across all levels of your organization and what advice are you giving your clients in that area?
MARIA: So, it’s like anything else, if it’s a priority for your organization, it has to be a priority for your CEO, has to be a priority for your senior leadership. It always starts at the top. You have to walk the walk, right? So, at Vanguard, for example, we’ve been doing this work from the beginning. We’re celebrating our 35th anniversary this year, actually. Yeah, congratulations. Thank you. We’ve been applying that DEI lens to our work from the very beginning, but right now, certainly in the wake of the George Floyd murder and just all this renewed attention into racial justice, we too have embarked in a DEI audit, if you will. And I’m part of that whole process, I’m part of the team. I have taken anti-racist leadership classes. I am constantly pushing information out to the organization, to our staff, so they’re seeing it from the top. They’re getting updates all the time, they’re getting check-ins. I think it’s really important that it is a priority at the highest level of the organization.
DOUG: And when you talk about taking the anti-racist courses, do you find that a key part is that people should be treated the same no matter what their diversity and have few programs that work or is it important to treat people differently? I know that can be a personal struggle for a lot of people about what’s the most effective way to manage someone who maybe has different life experiences than you’ve had.
MARIA: Yeah, I mean, one of our values at Vanguard is that we’re people first, so that we put our staff at the center of every decision. And people are, we’re individuals. We’re all different. We all have different needs. We all have different desires in terms of what we want to do and what our family circumstances are. And so, I think it’s hard to say you’re just going to have an across-the-board way that you treat everyone. I mean, you want to treat everybody with respect and treat them well, but I’ll give you an example. Years ago, we had an employee who came forward with a mental health need, and it meant that that employee was not available early in the mornings. My feedback was that’s fine. Let’s adjust the time, do you really have to have your team meeting at 9 AM? Can’t you have your team meeting at 11 AM or 1 PM? Isn’t this person’s expertise and talent important enough that you want them to be part of your team? So, there go you, right? In that particular instance, if you treated everyone the same, you’d say the meetings at 9 AM, right?
DOUG: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And given your expertise in this area, I’m sure your answer to this question will line with a lot of things that your company does. But if a brand, an organization is out there and they’re looking for a DEI consultant or agency, what are some of the checkboxes they should be looking at thinking about, maybe questions to ask that will help them be more effective in that partnership?
MARIA: I would start with really figuring out who you’re trying to reach with the work, as we said at the beginning, DEI is very broad. Chances are you’re not trying to reach everyone with your campaign, so you’re really honing in on who is your audience. That’s your first step. Then the second step would be to look for an organization that has a real commitment and real track record in engaging with that audience. So, I think that’s really important. And I would say the last thing would be if an organization says to you, “we’ve got this, we know exactly how to do this”, that’s a red flag for me because I feel like every community is different and I would want to see an approach that really involves that community in the work. So, how are they going to build partnerships in the community? How are they going to engage the audience in the strategy and in the implementation?
DOUG: Right, interesting. So, it seems like the quote “secret sauce” might be more of a warning sign than a way to go on a path forward when it comes to increasing your engagement on these issues. Maria, thanks so much for sharing your great ideas. Any final thoughts you want to leave people with?
MARIA: I’m just delighted that we’re talking about this issue and that more and more organizations are putting a spotlight on it, and I hope that they take a very thoughtful approach because it’s critically important we’re living in a diverse society, and we need to have everyone feel like they belong.
DOUG: Great, well, I’m delighted to have had this wonderful conversation with you. Thanks so much for sharing your ideas.
MARIA: Thanks for having me, Doug.