Valarie De La Garza, CEO, Fenton, shares insights on how to create positive social change through strategic communications. She discusses the shift from just talk to action for demonstrating greater inclusivity. Valarie also goes into navigating the definition of what social good is from multiple perspectives.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: VALARIE DE LA GARZA
DOUG: Let’s get started by talking about how you can create and help your clients create positive social change through PR.
VALARIE: When we talk about positive social change in PR, I mean, it really depends on the type of client that you’re talking about. At Fenton we work with a variety of clients. We work with philanthropy, funders of all kinds, family foundations, community foundations, private foundations. We work on campaigns, we work with nonprofits, and we work with corporations that do good, what we say, do good in the world. So, I think it really depends on the type of client that you’re talking about. Most of our clients that come to us already have an intention that’s already part of their mission. So, it’s pretty rare that we have a client that comes to us sort of seeking out social good. It’s part of what they do. It’s in their DNA.
DOUG: So, obviously, this is an important move that is impact in Battle Creek, where does communications fit into the planning and execution?
VALARIE: So, communications is a strategic driver of what Battle Creek Public Schools is trying to do to completely change the school experience for Black, Brown and Asian students. And we sit at the table of all of the changes they’re trying to make. And what does that mean? That means there are a number of internal as well as external stakeholders. They need to understand very clearly. They need to be engaged in exactly what the changes are that are going to be made. And they need to buy in. They need to not just understand, but they need to feel like they’re a part of these changes. They need to be informed. So, communications is so critical in conveying not just what the school district is doing, but also bringing the community in to be key partners in what that change looks like. So, for us, we’ve been working with the school district for four years, and we have actually seen through surveys, through lots of engagement that that’s helped shape the needle.
DOUG: So, what you’re saying is communications is much more than just announcing that the company is doing, but actually engaging with the community and getting them involved in the program itself because of the communications efforts.
VALARIE: Absolutely, I think what’s really critical to understand is our position and our philosophy on communications and social good. And what that means really is that the community isn’t about just being a recipient. It’s not being a receiver of information. It’s really about engagement. Without getting their buy-in, and when I say buy-in, I really mean embracing what our client is doing, what Battle Creek Public School is doing. It’s not going to matter. They have to be excited, ask questions when they need to, but they have to also really feel like they are part of the change because they are the change. They are the ones at the end of the day when we are gone, when the communications firm is gone, and when the foundation grant is no longer in place to say this is really what our school district looks like. Our school district has been transformed, we’ve been a part of it, we’ve been informed, we’ve been brought along into the process. And communications, clear communications, communications that’s also culturally relevant in language, it has to be at the table always throughout the entire process. So, you’re absolutely right. It’s not really about talking at a community; it’s engaging with the community.
DOUG: And you mentioned speaking the right language, which can work on many levels. Historically, PR has not been known as an industry that’s doing a great job with DE&I. What are some of the things, are you seeing some positive changes? I mean, there’s clearly talk and awareness about that seems to be higher than it’s been. But what needs to happen to really impact that change, which I would assume have better outcomes for clients?
VALARIE: Absolutely. I think that we have seen a remarkable change as it relates to diversity and inclusion, there’s no question. And I think one of the things that I’m very hopeful about is that it’s not just talk, it’s not just a trend, and that companies of all kinds, organizations of all kinds, are beginning to embrace it like never before. And I think that it really begins with thinking about staffing. It begins thinking about retention. And it begins, we were talking a little bit ago about how you engage your stakeholders, and you can be a company, how are you engaging your stakeholders? How are you thinking about putting yourself in their shoes? How are you not just translating? One of the things that that I think is very interesting about multicultural communications is, and I’ve been in this business a long time, is that there’s this notion that, well, we just change the language. It’s not about changing the language. It’s about, there’s words, there’s transcreation, it’s really about understanding where a community is coming from. What are those nuances? We’re seeing that right now, in particular in L.A. County, we’re working with COVID outreach. And this is something that everyone is thinking about, talking about, we’re living as I’m here in my kitchen, everyone has very different views as it relates to what your background is, your concerns that you might have about in history with the government. And so, more than ever before, as it relates to diversity and inclusion, you have to approach communications and say, we can’t take a cookie cutter approach, we have to really think about market segments, we have to think about hiring staff that mirrors the community so that when we are saying what we’re going to reach out to the Latino community in Los Angeles County, that’s just not monolithic. It’s not just about translation. It’s about how older community residents have very different views about the vaccine than the younger residents. It’s the same thing within the African-American community, and I can go on and on as it relates to other communities. So, I definitely think that we are beginning to see a shift, I would hope a sea change as it relates to diversity and inclusion. It does really begin with your perspective on how you are working with clients that you mirror the community that you want to serve.
DOUG: And is it also a challenge that so many people out there have different definitions of what social good is? One person’s social good because of the political divide, even on basic things like COVID care, there’s so many different perspectives on what people should do. How is an agency focused on what you define as social good help navigate that even for clients when people out in the community might have very different definitions?
VALARIE: Look, I think that the intention of companies, everyone has good intentions. So, what does that mean? What is your perspective? For Fenton, we’re unapologetically progressive. What does that mean? It’s quite simple. We hope to see equity in the world. That means greater access to quality education. That means greater access and equity as it relates to healthcare. That means someone like from my background, just as an example, I come from a family of farm workers. I come from a family of people who have been front line workers, what we would call essential workers now. My grandfather was a janitor. We’re talking about those experiences and understanding how can we create opportunities; whether that be healthcare, education, as it relates to the environment, civic engagement, what we’re seeing happening in Florida and in Texas as it relates to suppression, how do we create greater access? How do we level the playing field so that everybody has that opportunity? So, that’s it, when we talk about social good from our perspective, it’s very much about creating that playing field and that equity and that accessibility. But, yes, you’re right, it can be defined very differently, depending on what your view is of the world.
DOUG: Well, congratulations to you on the success of the agency and the work that you’re doing and for sharing these really important insights that will be helpful for our viewers.
VALARIE: Well, thank you. I will tell you that for us, one of the things that we really do that’s quite different than a lot of the other agencies who are doing important work as it relates to consumer, or B2B, or whatever they’re their niche is, is that we embrace the mission of many of the clients that come to us. If your mission is to create better health equity in the world, that for us is very important too. We embrace that mission. Whether that’s in education or that’s in creating greater equity as it relates to civic engagement, for us, it all rolls up into creating greater social impact and a better world, a more humane and more just world.
DOUG: That’s awesome. Thanks so much for spending time with us.
VALARIE: Well, thank you.