Brands: don’t let cancel culture curb DE&I focus

In a PR360 session spotlighting transformational DE&I campaigns, in-house comms leaders were asked whether DE&I has dropped down the corporate agenda versus 18 months ago.

“Broadly, I think it has dropped,” said Phy Adjei-McCarthy, head of external comms at EE, BT and Plusnet.

She described it as the “black-square vacuum”, in reference to brands posting black squares on Instagram in a gesture of solidarity after the killing of George Floyd.

“We all, in 2020, saw some horrific things and we all posted black squares and made lots of promises and we, all of a sudden, had DEI chief officers, and all of that kind of stuff.”

But Adjei-McCarthy said the focus has “shifted”, and in a period of “economic strain… people are thinking about how to redeploy some of that money and that focus”. At the same time, “they’re worrying about cancel culture and getting cancelled”.

“It’s slipping down for some people, you can see that; just scroll back into their social feeds – the square’s there and then nothing else. But I do think for the majority of those big brands, it’s important that we’re still doing it.”

She made the business case for brands ensuring they are talking to diverse audiences that could become customers.

Adjei-McCarthy added: “Brands that can really read the temperature of the room will just keep going, and they should just keep going, and they should really just invest.

“We’ve all got money to spend and if you’re not consistently talking to people, that is going to be a problem.

“And as much as you may worry about cancel culture, ultimately I think it really pays to make sure you’re talking to everyone.”

Also on the panel, Jonathan O’Lone, global brand PR lead at Heineken, said: “I don’t think (DE&I initiatives have) slipped down the agenda, as much as that people don’t want to do them. I think they’ve just recognised that with cancel culture, certain things happen, and what they intended to do didn’t come out in the same way, so why would they put themselves in a position of risk?

“Certainly, our guidance internally is that we have to push through these things because we know it’s the right thing to do… but we also have to be certain that we are credible in what we’re going to talk about.”

And Holly Mitchell, easyJet head of PR and public affairs, said the DE&I focus is “more important that ever before” at the airline.

“It did fall down the list during COVID-19, as you would expect in the time of an all-consuming crisis. But I think, because of the lingering impact that it had on the business and the industry, especally in the beginning, it was well understood that diversity was going to help us recover and be a big part of that recuritment drive.

“At the moment it’s firmly back up the top.”

Earlier in the session, the trio gave presentations on different DE&I-focused campaigns from their companies.

Adjei-McCarthy discussed work to highlight online abuse suffered by sports people and to campaign for better regulation, alongside steps to be more inclusive of people with disabilities.

Mitchell offered insights into easyJet’s moves to encourage more female pilots.

And O’Lone spoke about campaigns to encourage gender diversity in Heineken’s football sponsorships, including where football stars-turned-pundits Gary Neville and Jill Scott swapped their social media accounts to spotlight sexist trolling (below).

PR360, PR’s biggest conference of the year examining major themes in the industry, took place in Brighton on 8 and 9 May.

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