Joining me on this week’s episode is Cedric F. Brown, APR, an independent consultant who uses digital strategy to produce equitable outcomes. His decade of experience includes the use of analytics and research, to develop content that achieves social impact. He has earned international recognition in the profession for both his work in diversity, equity and inclusion advocacy efforts.
Cedric discusses a number of important topics, including:
- What to do when you see racist behavior at work
- Why hiring diverse junior talent isn’t enough
- Why we can’t just look forward
I gave a brief overview. Why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your career?
It’s really been a long and winding road for me. I was first introduced to public relations when I was studying sports management at a small university in Michigan. And when I learned about PR it was appealing to me because it was a profession that lures people who know how to communicate, and it had more promising salary expectations than sports management at the time. I don’t know if you know this, but a lot of entry-level professionals in sports and entertainment barely make the crumbs to make ends meet.
So, I switched to marketing and management my sophomore year because my school didn’t have a PR program. But what I ended up doing was working part-time as a student assistant in the university’s PR department. And that was a pretty eye-opening experience. At the time, I really enjoyed being able to write press releases about student achievements and then see those get covered in the local news. It was cool to see a local community paper cover a student who made the Dean’s List or the President’s List. There’d also be some press releases that I would write about campus activities that were geared towards improving relationships with the community.
When I graduated from my undergrad, I decided that I wanted to do freelance work, but because I knew that I didn’t have an education in PR, I also pursued full-time work in marketing related functions. I did that for about four years and at a certain point, I just reached a point where it was just, I really want to do PR and it is incredibly hard to break into. So, that’s when I decided to go to the Syracuse University where I was a student underneath Dr. Rochelle Ford, who’s now the Dean of the College of Communications at Elon University in North Carolina. What appealed to me about Syracuse was that it was one of the top communication schools in the country and I could leverage that network to get to where I’m at right now in the Washington DC area.
And I knew that if I made the right connections and I networked, then I could make things happen here, because this is really the home for social change and trying to make an impact on the behaviors and the actions that we want people to take for a better world. I’ve been in the area for about four plus years. I’ve worked at a boutique agency, a small firm and a racial justice nonprofit. And right now, I’m actually on the job market, and I’ve been curious to see what digital opportunities are out there that I could pursue, using analytics to really help informed decisions. But I’m just kind of taking it day by day to kind of see where things go.
Thinking over your experiences, what’s been the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
I had to confront racism at work. I noticed that some black colleagues of mine were sharing a lot of the same experiences that they were having and dealing with particular staff members and particular members of senior leadership. It was to the point where some of my colleagues would be in tears because they were berated over their work, among other pretty blatant actions that were taken against them. These actions and the way they were treated drove some of my colleagues away from the organization.
It felt like at times, our senior leaders just sat on their hands and did nothing about the problem, or what was really starting to become a problem, for people of color in the organization. So when I had the opportunity, I spoke up. I couldn’t really bottle in the frustration that I had felt, especially when one colleague of mine was a mid-level professional, who had spent several years in the organization and I had to see her move on just based on the way she was treated. She deserved better. And that’s really all I want for black and brown professionals, diverse professionals, regardless of your race, your age, your orientation, your religious beliefs, I just believe that everybody should be treated fairly.
You mentioned there was a lot of racist abuse being heaped on your colleagues. What’s your advice to somebody when you see somebody acting like an a-hole either because they’re a racist or they’re just a complete a-hole?
What happened in my particular situation was that, the organization offered a survey to identify some problems. The organization allows employees to come together by their title and come together to present their issues to management and then also the board of directors.
So those were some concerns that I had voiced and they were presented anonymously to management and leaders. I could tell that it was taken very seriously. Leadership started to have interviews and closed-door conversations with people to gauge their individual feedback on what they felt some of the issues and areas for improvement were in the organization. That’s how this particular issue about how my former colleagues were being treated, came to light. Ultimately what happened is a diversity and inclusion consultant was hired to really take a look at how the culture was really operating.
I was at this particular organization long enough to where I felt comfortable that I was providing enough value in my actual work, that I had some leverage, to speak up because yeah, I could risk being targeted for retaliation. I strongly believed the quality of my work, would make it tough to get rid of me. What I would advise others, unfortunately, is to be able to play corporate games a little bit. Demonstrate that you bring so much value to the organization that you make it hard for people to part ways with you.
Is there other advice you’d give to somebody if they’re really trying to raise awareness of these issues about senior executives that may be racist or acting in inappropriate ways?
With the issues of racism in the workplace, many people carry out microaggressions. Things that on the surface, come off as compliments, but are not. They might be unintentional; they usually are unintentional. So for instance, if you as a white man, comment on me being articulate, that’s microaggression because it’s steeped in this idea that I probably wouldn’t speak properly because of the way I look. There are other microaggressions like black women will often face and hear, “I like how you wear your hair a certain way, usually straight and ‘neat'”. But that’s again, based on your Eurocentric standards, and honestly, man, our standards of professionalism in the workplace and in corporate America are defined by old white men. We just have to reimagine what we consider is “professional.”
When you’re looking to talk about racism and address issues of race in the workplace, the advice that I give is to never call out specific people. As you can see, I’m really doing my best to really not disclose the names and their identities. But I did the same thing when I had talked to the senior management who had taken time out to the kind of, I guess, interrogate me about some of the issues that were brought up. You have to be able to pinpoint that it’s not one specific person. If it’s not one specific person, but you have to paint it as it being a trend.
That’s really good advice. The minute any names get involved or things get called out, people start to get defensive and they close down and don’t want to hear it because it’s one of those fight or flight mechanisms. People at least have some tendency to listen a little bit more and be willing to listen and act when you talk about broader issues.
Beyond this example, what are you seeing as some of the other key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
Well, after the summer and the year that we had in 2020, all of a sudden, organizations are starting to take an interest in racial justice and racial issues. It’s an ethics challenge because we still have a long way to go as far as diversifying the PR profession. And many people will say, “Oh, well, we have more hires than what we’ve had before.” But look at who your hires are. Are you mostly hiring them at the lower levels? You can keep tabs on them. Many people are not comfortable with somebody that doesn’t look like you having the same power as you.
That’s a common theme that we see across organizations is there’s more hesitancy to move black and brown talent up throughout the organization because we get uncomfortable with them having the same kind of level of authority of us. The other issue is really being able to quantify and evaluate how successful you are at diversifying, and making sure your workplace is inclusive and also equitable.
The way I see it is that diversity is really the easiest part because it’s basically a counting statistic. You can hire a black person off the street to be a janitor. And if you have them listed on your staff website, you can claim you have diversity. That’s how easy it is.
Absolutely. And it’s the same thing when they hire interns or an entry level type of position. And they’ll say that, “Oh, we hired this person and it didn’t work out.” But what kind of work did you give them? Were you really committed to that particular person’s professional development? Or were you just assigning them menial tasks, like matching newsletters and fetching your coffee. Did you provide a set of guidelines and clear and concrete steps for their advancement within the organization? You’ll be surprised at how many organizations, that’s not really the case. Unfortunately, the thing with PR is we are still very subjective people. So we make decisions based on how we feel rather than looking at things analytically and critically.
I was talking to Mike Paul a few weeks ago, and he hit that nail even harder. He says, when we’re talking about improving diversity in the PR industry, people talk about, “Well, we’re hiring interns. We’re hiring junior level people.” And he’s like, “You know what, you’re missing managers, VPs, executives.” It’s the same thing if you’re talking about, we’re trying to get more women and you suddenly say, “Well, we’re partnering with the Girl Scouts and we’re giving a scholarship.” You have to look at it consistently at all levels.
Yeah, absolutely. I talk to Mike Paul on occasion. And so yeah, I thank him for really driving that point into my head.
It’s a little concerning that it took 2020 for many people to wake up.
I know. I read all the statements and I’m like, “There well-crafted statements, most of them, but they’re statements, what’s the action behind it.” What’s your advice for organizations that are looking to put action behind the words? Aside from focusing on the equity, which I think is a really key one, are there other elements people should be looking at and doing?
The thing that was a little bit troubling about some of these organizations that put out statements last year, is if you talked to their diverse employees, regardless of race, orientation, gender, what have you, many of them would say, “This organization doesn’t treat me well. I don’t feel included here.”
Organizations need to be able to look within themselves before they put on an outside front. That’s an ethical challenge. Many people in many organizations don’t like looking backwards. They only want to look at the good things that they have going, but honestly you can’t really know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’ve been. And it’s going to take really looking at and really being able to atone for some of your past inaction’s towards racial diversity, gender diversity and orientation diversity. You need to be able to address some of those injustices that have happened within your organization in order to be able to move forward and build trust, because otherwise, it rings hollow.
And the example that I like to think of, it’s just that, in a regular conversation, someone would tell a black person who speaks about these injustices that, “Oh, slavery ended in 1865. Get over it.” That’s discounting somebody’s lived experience because racism is more than the ending of slavery. My take is just that slavery really just evolved into different forms. And there are far more prejudicial practices that have been put in place that have prevented black and brown and diverse publics advancement in our society. So, you need to be able to say and apologize for those past actions and just say, “Wow, I can’t speak for my ancestors and our history. But I can commit to doing a better job and trusting your lived experience and listening to you as to how I can be a better support for you.”
What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
I don’t think I’ve ever been given ethics advice. I think just through my lived experience the best advice is just to be yourself. Even if it’s to a fault. I will admit that I’ve been in places where I have been myself to a fault, but I like to think that I’ve been willing to learn from those mistakes and learn from those setbacks and to become a better professional.
The advice that I would give to anyone is if something in your gut feels wrong, speak up. Don’t be afraid of retaliation. If the organization is going to retaliate against you, then is that really the place that you want to be? You have to think about that. It’s easier said than done, and you can sit there taking this retaliation for being willing to speak up, but at some point, it’s going to be the organization’s loss because they continue to turn a blind eye to the issues that you bring up, like you being your authentic self. At the end of the day…being ethical, it’s just about being you.
Are there organizations you want to call out that you think are doing a good job, that others should emulate?
Everybody knows, Ben and Jerry’s has been winning the day of late because their statements are addressing the root of America’s issues. They’re not tiptoeing around things and talking about white supremacy. They’re addressing it head on. That’s something you really didn’t see from a lot of corporate statements. And one thing I really liked was their statement after the presidential election results were confirmed. They stated that “Yeah, for many black and brown people, Joe Biden’s win isn’t really a symbol of hope. We need to be mindful not just an organizations, but as a country, we need to be mindful of the skepticism that people have towards our society and our democratic system.” Ultimately the statement said that there’s a lot of work to be done, and it doesn’t just end just because Donald Trump is no longer in the Oval Office.
But as far as internal processes and organizations that do hiring pretty well, I would look at HP as an example. I believe Strategies and Tactics recently featured them and a case study that they did a couple of years ago, where they benchmark and evaluated the number of diverse talent and diverse hires that they had. But to also put some context into their working experience, they came out with a video series and I believe one of those videos showed the pain that diverse people face when they end interviews. And the key line at the end of every interview that was in that video, “We’ll be in touch.” We’ll be in touch usually doesn’t translate well.
It’s so disheartening no matter how talented you feel or how qualified that you feel that you are for the position that you applied for, to hear those words, it’s just usually not a good sign. HP really understood and really sought out to understand the lived experience of diverse professionals and to utilize that to educate their current staff. They made a tangible effort to evaluate how much diversity, equity and inclusion was improving in the organization. I believe because of it, they won a Silver Anvil for their work.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:
- What to do when you are faced with nearness and drinking bias – Melissa Vela-Williamson, APR - July 26, 2021
- What can PR professionals learn from the open source community? – Laura Kempke - July 19, 2021
- What to do when your boss doesn’t value honesty as much as you do – Gary McKillips - July 12, 2021