Ethical Issues in Diversity, Battle Rap, Cancel Culture and Hate Crimes Against Asian-Americans – Jennifer Cho

Joining me on this week’s episode is Jen Cho, the founder of Pivot and Swerve. She discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

Why don’t you start off by telling me a little bit more about yourself and your career?

I started off my career wanting to be an attorney. I ended up interning for an entertainment law firm, which actually pivoted me into the music industry. I worked for Eminem in college while he was releasing as Marshall Mathers LP. I lived in LA and worked for Virgin Records who represented Aliyah and Timberland at the time, and then continued my work in the music industry when I moved back to New York to work for Sony Music.

Through my relationships, I was able to start and own my own rap label at a very early age. That was probably almost four of five years of my career. It saw a lot of success early on. We came in #7 on the Billboard Independent Charts. I had a lot of success in the music industry and really wanted to look at what the next kind of stage of my career would be. That’s how I was recruited into my first agency. It was an experiential agency launching MetroPCS. I was able to work with them on their national strategy team.

I was there for five years, launched the brand across the country.  While I was there, I had a lot of questions about data. I moved into data, which is very related to ethics and integrity. How do you market to people? How do you understand who they are without breaching those privacy lines? I worked within the data space in the sports vertical for the agency represented sports leagues.

My specific accounts included the NHL, USTA and MLS. I worked within the sports league to understand their consumer journey, help them analyze insights across their different customers and attendees of their events. While I was there, I was recruited into Weber Shandwick. That started my official career into the comms industry specifically because we all know that the PR industry is evolving.

Earned media has now become more of an integrated marketing and comms offering that’s driven by analytics. I was the general manager and EVP of the Southwest region based here in Dallas. I worked with them until I was recruited by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. I led their comms and marketing strategy, and then also was able to bring their annual legislative conference and in-person conference with 10,000 people to the virtual COVID environment.

That included creating a lot of content for different sessions and viewings to represent the members, and then also executive producing their two signature events for broadcast television for the first time in the history of their 49 years. I executive produced content for BET and then, of course, the swearing in on TV1. They were my starting client.

Since then, I’ve been working with a number of different clients specifically with kind of a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens, which definitely connects very much with ethics, civility, and honestly, just being a good person.

You have a very rich tapestry of a career. Thinking about that, from music to telco, to data, to diversity, what’s the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

When it comes to ethics, being a woman of color and representing two underrepresented groups, I think the ethics conversation comes in the most in my diversity work. We talk about morality and what’s right, but we understand that all of the companies that I work for, the clients that I represent, that ultimately they’re businesses. Even nonprofits are businesses.

So as much as we want to kind of flip a switch and make sure that things are being done correctly in this world, there is still a lens where you have to look at how to make a brand or a company profitable. And I think that’s a conflict that I struggle with all the time.

I know that something is the right thing to do, but at the same time, if it requires a budget that doesn’t exist in the operating budget of the company, then you have to find a bridge and have some patience and walk through that process instead of being able to just do what I know is right. That’s always a challenge for me.

But when you look at things from that diversity perspective, the data shows very clearly that more diverse companies perform better. It is not just the moral case, there is a business case for being more diverse, right? How do you use that to overcome the skepticism and to carve out the budgets that the brands need to help them perform better while being morally right?

The conversation always starts with, we know that diverse teams perform better, right? There’s a lot of proof around that, but then where do you invest first, right? If you’re starting a conversation or even if you’re a midway through the conversation, do you focus on pipeline? Do you focus on the future and building diverse teams for the future? How do you recruit mid-level and senior level executives, especially in industries where diverse talent has not necessarily grown up within the ranks?

PR is one of those industries where if you listened to my story, I didn’t start in PR. I didn’t have the advantage of understanding what a career in comms could look like. I pivoted later on in my career with transferable skillsets. But I was able to do that with a lot of relationships, a lot of networking, a lot of trust that I had earned through the work that I had done growing up. But if you don’t have access to those rooms, then how are you making that position for yourself to get that job if you don’t have the 15 years of comms experience that you need, right?

When you talk to a company it’s like okay, well, do you invest in paying interns a fair and equitable wage so that you can be more inclusive of the type of people that are coming to intern for you, or do you focus on PR and branding and reputation building, or you talk about diversity initiatives and you have people out there just letting people know that that’s what you’re looking for, or do you invest in looking at the data within the company? Are you collecting the right data?

I worked for a client that was only collecting male and female gender identification. So if your data is bad, then how do you change it to be more inclusive, right? You can’t tell the story if you don’t have the data. How do you invest there, right? And these are all financial decisions. How do you look at different people at different levels, understanding that as a business, you want to get the best talent for the lowest cost.

But if the talent doesn’t know what the pay band is and they’re not asking for what’s fair for the work that they’re doing, how do you advise your client on that business decision? This is complicated.

I think a lot of businesses right now are guilty of woke washing. They’re all saying it, and then they’re not really doing it. Yes, it takes time to dismantle systemic racism. We want to do it as fast as possible, but it’s going to take a while to do it. I interviewed Troy Brown who was talking about how he helped build a diverse team within MSL. I spoke with Mike Paul about this regarding the pipeline and the recruiting and the need to not just look at the entry level. Where have you seen the greatest initial ROI come?

The pipeline is honestly the easiest when it comes to ROI. Expanding your search. The pay band for an entry-level employee or an intern is lower than hiring someone at the C-suite. There’s less risk involved. There’s also more opportunity for investment in that talent. Like mentoring and coaching so they can grow them into the business. I see a lot of companies starting there and I think that’s a great start. Making sure that you have that pipeline and the awareness for those people that are coming into the business and the industry.

I think it gets more complicated when you get into the higher ranks. But another strategy that I see working well is a fair and equitable recruiting process. Making sure that your recruiter is looking in different places for talent, that you work with the recruiting and interviewing team to eliminate as much bias as possible. There’s a number of different ways that you can do this, and there’s quite a bit of technology out there that’s trying to tackle this.

But if you really start at the basics, it’s like the first phone screen should probably be a *phone* screen. So you’re not looking at someone who’s different than you and judging their initial conversation based on what you’re seeing, right? You want to make sure that the screen is clean. And then coming up with equitable interview panels or a process so everyone gets the same amount of time. Each candidate is looking and talking to the same people.

And then behind the scenes, how do you create more of a mathematical scorecard so that you avoid the typical “I don’t think he or she is a culture fit.” Be quantitative. Can they do this part of the job? One to five? What’s the number? Keep that process clean, and then make sure that everyone goes through the same exact process, and then finish with more of that quantified approach instead of more of a subjective like, “I thought she was great or not,” or whatever that feedback is.

Mickey Nall, the former GM over at Ogilvy in Atlanta, was talking about that was one of the challenges he had with some of the recruiting folks that looked like them. I always blow my students’ minds in  my ethics class at Boston University when I show them the data of resumes and how does changing the name of a resume can result in a 50% increase in interviews.

The only point I think it’s important for business to keep in mind is yes, pipeline is easy at the entry level, but then you also lose them because they don’t see people like themselves in positions of authority. You have to make sure we’re not just focusing on one point. But you’re right. You got to pick the points where they can get in.

That brings up a great point. I’ve been in situations where I brought in racially diverse talent into a fully homogenous office. And in situations like that, you have to be very careful to make sure that you’re creating the support structure for that new person that’s coming in. Also, talk about kind of their experience. How do you deal with the microaggression? If you’re an entry level person in the office, it’s not like you’re throwing racist physical things at people, right?

I mean, I would hope not. Usually, the microaggressions occur in a casual conversation or in social structures. To see an SVP saying something in passing that is not respectful of this new junior person, they don’t have anywhere to share that feedback. They don’t feel safe in going to HR or leadership.

You really have to create structures so that they have people with whom they can have these honest conversations that look like them, that feel like them. You have to search for that type of sponsorship, but then also support their management by saying like, “Hey, here is your track to success. Let me give you clear and constructive feedback. And if this is what you’re looking to do, these are the steps that you have to take.” I feel like a lot of these industries without diversity just don’t have those systems in place.

When you talk about microaggressions, how are you with the assumption, and this is a very big assumption, that the person is not intending to harm. That the diversity related microaggression is because you don’t know what you don’t know. I am a diversity advocate and I’m continuously immersing myself in different learnings. I don’t know everything in the diversity conversation, even though that is my work.

I’m very intentional about learning. How do you educate that person? How do you bring that person along instead of the addressing it in HR where it’s like, “You’re bad. You’re good,” which kind of creates this divide. A divide is not a path forward. How do you bring the two people along so that the person who experiences the microaggression is like, “You know what? They didn’t mean it.” I want to help on their education journey.

And then the person that made the person feel bad, the aggressor, is like, “Hey, oh my goodness, I didn’t mean that to be interpreted that way. And I’m so sorry. And I really want to learn so that I don’t do this again.”  I think there needs to be a new approach in order to move it forward.

The one that I think surprises people all the time when I discuss microaggressions is helping them understand telling someone they are articulate is a microaggression. They commonly say “No, I’m giving them a compliment?”

Great example.

I think you’re only the second guest I’ve had in two and a half years that has experience in the music industry. Are there any interesting ethical challenges that you want to highlight from what you’ve seen overall in that industry?

I mean, where do I start?

 My label was in the battle rap space where civility doesn’t win you views. When you’re looking at battle rappers, the whole point is to win over your opponent and not in the most graceful and professional way. You’re always navigating what’s too far, what can you not bring up. Artists are artists, right? I always say that artists have like a different brain. The way that they are creative is usually not within the confines of what’s socially acceptable. There’s a constant challenge.

When we were putting together our content, I would have a lot of arguments where I would feel like certain battle rap lyrics against women in particular were highly offensive. I really had to come to a compromise between what the audience considered to be offensive and then what I personally as a woman, an Asian woman, felt was offensive. There’s no perfect solution.

Even today, part of the beauty of music is that you can talk about things that are not quite okay in the regular professional world. I always get this pushback, “If you don’t talk about it then how are we going to address it?” If we can’t have those honest conversations about, Hey, this is how I feel. These are the stereotypes that I live by, right? Even if we disagree with those stereotypes, if you don’t say those out loud, then how do you, again, move forward? You can’t fix anything if you don’t know exactly how bad the problem is.

It’s a constant struggle. And personally, that’s honestly one of the reasons I left the music industry. I could not balance the work part of it with my own personal ethics and my own personal brand. It was just too much for me to navigate. Much power and respect to the people that are doing it on a daily basis, but not for everyone.

I’d say setting boundaries is something that transcends industries. I was talking to my students about Burger King and International Women’s Day. I mean, it’s a great example of stupidity, but not necessarily unethical behavior, but it leads to it. You can push boundaries, but sometimes you go too far to get too cute.

Beyond your own personal experience, what are some of the other key ethics challenges you’re seeing for today and tomorrow?

When it comes to diversity, there’s a little bit of this cancel culture happening, which is a big conversation. How far back is too far back? Do you give people room to grow? Do you give people room to evolve as human beings? That becomes harder and harder with social media and the documentation of your opinions. I have my personal opinions. Sometimes I think these things are egregious and unforgivable, but then I have my own personal barometer, and I think everybody does. It’s interesting to hear the cancel culture conversation.

I also hear a lot of conversation about the history of our country. My husband is a history professor. He understands the importance of learning from our mistakes in order to move forward. But at the same time, as an underrepresented minority, I understand that sometimes looking at things or hearing about things in the way that actually happened can be very hurtful, and can actually impact the way that I show up in a room.

If I’m looking at a crazy statue or whatever it is, I might not feel comfortable being my whole self in that room or on that campus. I don’t have a clean answer for that. I don’t think there is like a playbook that people can follow, which makes this whole conversation so complicated – pretty similar to ethics in general, right?

It does. There are the simple ones. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. People get the basic ones. But it’s the others that are challenging. It’s interesting from what you’re seeing about Dr. Seuss and Disney recently.

People I think have come to understand to a general extent what sexist behavior, but they’re not necessarily there when comes to other underrepresented groups. You were talking about how far back do you go. When you’re working with brand, what’s the advice you give them on how far back they go?

Whew. When it comes to brands in general, I think the cleanup is much more aggressive, because brands have the ability to control that. I think the standards for brands are much stricter, and I think that’s been laddering down a little bit with leaders of big brands. There’s this whole big Teen Vogue conversation happening right now. I’m Asian-American. The new editor-in-chief has said terrible things about Asian-Americans in the past.

She says that it was while she was in high school and that she’s apologized for them already. But if I were an Asian-American working at that office, I would have feelings about this, because if you’re at the top of the food chain representing a brand, then what does that mean for your hiring trajectory? What does that mean for your promotion cycle? Just because you said sorry and there’s no meat behind it, does that mean that it should be forgiven? You’re saying sorry because you have to, because you’ve been called to test.

Even that is like a complicated example. And then within the diversity conversation, the #MeToo Movement made a very clear line on what is not okay to do against women. I think that everything since last year and just working for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and what George Floyd impacted and this new resurgence of the civil rights movement, there’s a lot of cancel culture and people getting fired if you are saying something against the black community.

But as an Asian woman, I’m like to me, the Teen Vogue situation had it been for a different community, it would have been different. There would have been different action? But there is no action right now.

The rise in violence and hate speech against Asian-Americans and the Asian community is chilling. We were having a conversation about that with our company just this week in terms of raising awareness and the issues and what’s going on.

That’s right. That’s right. It’s almost a 160% increase and that’s what’s being reported. It is a complicated gray area. Asian-Americans by culture do not report. We try to think about a shared Asian-American identity and a shared Latinx community is experiencing the same thing. But not all Asians share the same culture. But we’re by definition in this one kind of group. I will say the similarity in our upbringing is that we serve our community.

It’s not an individualistic culture. The idea of reporting these crimes is if you get spit on or whatever it is like, that’s egregious to me, but I can’t say that people in the older generation would report that. Their assumption is you’re lucky to be here in the States. We’re living the American Dream. You don’t need to rustle the status quo. Even that data is bad. We started talking about data earlier. If you don’t have good data, then how do you make change against it?

And then because the Asian population is smaller, because we were literally blocked from coming into this country, does that make those smaller numbers any less important? It’s just complicated.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you’ve ever received?

I think the best piece really comes from my dad. The constant need to assess your own ethics, civility, morality, and continue to raise the bar for yourself personally. And that’s a moving target for every individual. Especially with this new conversation against Asian-American hate, I’ve had to really assess, what am I comfortable with? What actions do I want to see? I can tell you it’s very different than pre-COVID, the things that I thought were passable or okay. I feel completely differently now.

And I think it’s important for everyone to always check in on your own moral compass and adjust as you evolve as a human being, as the world changes, and as you grow within your own personal and professional life.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?

In the generation ahead of me, I saw more of a separation and a delineation between what’s happening in your personal life and your professional life. But I do think that as we move forward as professionals in general and PR professionals in particular, that those lines are disappearing, which will make everything we’re talking about even more complicated.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content, here


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of

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