By Soon Mee Kim, Porter Novelli

In the wake of travel bans, Charlottesville, DACA and other issues, CEO voices have become more and more prominent across all industries. As our leaders determine when and how to best speak up, the act of listening is more important than ever.

I had the privilege of attending ColorComm 2017, the conference for women of color in communications, in Key Biscayne, Florida in late July. If you haven’t been to ColorComm before, you should know it might be one of the friendliest places to learn and network. It offers a unique level of honesty and vulnerability, making it ideal for getting to the heart of the matter – a critical component for progress on any issue. While there are many takeaways from the conference, I’d like to focus on the critical inter-agency work of the E3 Task Force and the listening sessions we conducted across the U.S.

For background, the E3 Task Force, which stands for empower, elevate and emerge, was created coming out of ColorComm 2016 when Lisa Osborne Ross, APCO Worldwide’s Washington, DC managing director, was struck by a lack of women of color in the C-suite of the major PR agencies. She had the idea of bringing agencies together to investigate this matter, conducting listening sessions with women of color in communications in major markets around the country. I had the pleasure of attending three of the multiple listening sessions – Atlanta (hosted by Ketchum), Seattle (hosted by Porter Novelli) and Washington, DC (hosted by APCO). 

Across the board, a few common themes emerged:

  1. The Need for Community. Universally, I witnessed an appreciation for the opportunity to be around other women of color. Many expressed a weariness from so often being the first, the few and the only for much of their professional lives. These listening sessions provided a time to shed the burden of always having to “represent” and a chance to discuss topics rarely addressed in the workplace. Naturally, many wanted to maintain connections afterwards.

  2. Diversity isn’t enough. We need inclusion and equity. The participants expressed frustration at the lack of opportunities, misunderstandings, and unconscious bias, which create less-than-welcoming or even hostile environments. There was a discussion of socioeconomic bias that can also be a factor. In many cases, people of color have been opting out of agency life to create their own businesses or leave the industry altogether.

  3. Many couldn’t answer the question: How long do you think it will take your company to be a diverse place to work? Sadly, too many experiences of unfair treatment led to a deafening silence when facilitators asked when we could expect to achieve diversity in our industry. When pressed, we heard answers of 20, 30 and even 40 years – numbers that we can all agree are much too far away.

Underneath it all – anger, frustration, even comic relief – there was a deep, unmistakable pain. Despite this, there was also a resolve to forge ahead for the sake of those whose shoulders we stand on, and those who will someday stand on our own shoulders.

On the final day of ColorComm, representative E3 task force members Lisa Ross and I along with  Mildred Galvin, senior vice president and senior partner, talent development for FleishmanHillard, and Trisch Smith, executive vice president and managing director of diversity and inclusion at Edelman had an opportunity to share key findings with a panel of our CEOs: Brad MacAfee from Porter Novelli, John Saunders from FleishmanHillard, Brad Staples from APCO; and Edelman COO Matt Harrington. Unlike most panels, the CEOs’ primary job was to listen and that is what they did. They intently took in each insight, comment and concern as audience members stood up and contributed their own stories to the task force’s findings. I can say without reservation that the CEOs were visibly moved.

This simple act of listening made a profound impression on everyone around the room including the CEOs themselves. At the end, Brad MacAfee issued an action challenge to the CEOs beside him and in our industry, asking those around the room: “Hold us accountable. See what we’ve accomplished by ColorComm next year.” 

That is what I’m taking away from this year’s conference: the power of listening to make a difference. Looking at everything going on around the world, we must do our part to make meaningful change in our industry. We must create opportunities for dialogue and listening to spur to action and accountability at the highest levels of our organizations.

To that end, I submit for your consideration a brief list of questions we should all ask our CEOs:

  1. In your view, what are our organization’s specific diversity and inclusion goals?

  2. How will you demonstrate your personal commitment to diversity and inclusion?

  3. What efforts will you take to continue to listen and learn regarding diversity and inclusion? What truth tellers will you tap?

  4. How will you identify and address barriers or gatekeepers to enter, stay and rise within our organization for under-represented groups?

  5. How will you champion the talents, aspirations and careers of people of color to reach the senior-most levels of the organization?

  6. How will you measure progress?  

Through the cheers and the tears of what we experienced at the listening sessions and beyond, there is no doubt our industry must do better. My hope is that in 2018, we’ll each have meaningful advancements to report as we act on the moral and business imperative to create diverse and inclusive environments that benefit us all.

Hold us accountable.See what we’ve accomplished by this time next year. We don’t have time to waste.

Soon Mee Kim is executive vice president and global diversity and inclusion leader for Porter Novelli. Porter Novelli was proud to support the work of the E3 Task Force, which also included APCO Worldwide, Burson-Marsteller, Capitol Strategies, Devries Global, Edelman, FleishmanHillard, Finn Partners, GCI Health, Hill & Knowlton Strategies, Ketchum, Ogilvy Public Relations, Possible, PR Council, PRSA, Vox Global and Weber Shandwick. The full report of the E3 Task Force’s findings is expected in September 2017. We extend our sincere appreciation for all those who participated in the E3 Task Force listening sessions.