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Avoiding the Perils of Performative Diversity

Published on February 28, 2023, at 6:20 p.m.
by Alaina McDuffie.

Performative diversity is a term that has gained traction in the field of public relations in recent years, particularly in response to the growing push for greater representation and inclusion in various industries.

In the context of public relations, performative diversity can have significant consequences for a company’s reputation and relationships with publics, making it imperative for practitioners to understand and navigate this issue with care and sensitivity.

By highlighting DEI faux pas and one company’s genuine DEI efforts, this article will give PR practitioners the insights needed to evaluate their own PR campaigns.

The NFL’s inconsistency

At its core, performative diversity refers to the superficial efforts made by companies to create the appearance of diversity and inclusivity without actually addressing the underlying issues of systemic bias and inequality.

Jeonghyun Oh, an assistant professor who teaches communication and diversity at The University of Alabama, cited the NFL’s Rooney Rule as a potential example of performative diversity.

Photo courtesy of Colin Kaepernick’s Instagram (@kaepernick7)

The Rooney Rule, a policy implemented in 2003 to promote diverse leadership throughout the NFL, mandates that clubs must interview at least one external minority candidate for any general manager or head coaching position.

Oh stated that this rule may give the impression that the NFL is more diverse than it actually is.

“Right now, the number of minority head coaches in the NFL is just as low as when [the Rooney Rule] began,” Oh said. “If you look at the systems and policies, it seems like there is some diversity being promoted and encouraged, but when you look at the real statistics, that might not be the case.”

Moreover, the NFL appears to only change its stance on DEI and racial injustice in the wake of public outrage.

In 2016, the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell publicly criticized Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem. However, during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, these same individuals called for racial equality and the abolition of systemic oppression.

As a result, critics of the league argue that its new DEI initiatives are just attempts to appease fans.

Starbucks’ sudden change of heart

At the height of 2020’s BLM movement, Starbucks made the controversial decision to ban its employees from wearing BLM buttons and shirts, citing them as a dress code violation.

However, following social media backlash, the coffee brand suddenly changed its tune, stating that it would provide 250,000 specially-made Starbucks BLM shirts for employees who requested one.

Robin Boylorn, Holle Endowed Chair of Communication Arts and professor of interpersonal and intercultural communication at The University of Alabama, highlighted the reason why consumers may find this reversal to be inauthentic.

“[DEI efforts] feel authentic when they are not provoked by something that happened,” Boylorn said. “If you are suddenly being progressive because you made a mistake, then that’s performative.”

Starbucks stakeholders were further outraged to see that while the company has a long history of vehemently supporting the LGBTQ community, the BLM movement and Black rights have not garnered the same level of consistent advocacy. Whereas the company handed out LGBTQ attire and buttons to its employees, it took controversy for the company to adapt its BLM policies.

The reality of Netflix layoffs

Netflix found itself in hot water after laying off an entire team of women of color in 2022.

According to an NPR article, the women — primarily accomplished writers and editors — were hired to work on a new fan-focused website for the streaming giant called Tudum. However, as company stock and subscribers plummeted, Netflix was forced to reorganize internally, with mainly Black, Latinx and Asian women getting laid off.

Some fans considered the layoffs to be convenient and an attempt by the company to “gain clout” for its supposed diversity, especially since the company failed to promote the site and its writers.

To make matters worse, the women only received two weeks’ worth of severance pay.

Dove and championing diversity

While not all of Dove’s attempts at promoting diversity have been successful, the company has taken consistent strides toward making its campaigns inclusive.

Amy Piekarsky, a former campaign and influencer specialist for marketing agency Collectively, shared her firsthand experience with recruiting influencers for Dove’s Self-Esteem Project campaign. She stated that Dove prides itself in choosing women who don’t fit the mold of a “stereotypical influencer.”

“In 2018, [Dove] did a partnership with Getty Images where its goal was to compile a whole database of beauty, or under-represented beauty,” Piekarsky said. “[Dove] ensured that the influencers [chosen] were from diverse backgrounds, whether that be their race, sexuality, gender, body type, ability, really everything.”

Photo courtesy of Dove’s Instagram (@Dove)

When asked how Dove’s DEI efforts have evolved, Piekarsky stated that Dove has not only highlighted women of diverse backgrounds but has also fought to get CROWN Act legislation passed.

The CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, was created to advance anti-hair discrimination the workplace. The CROWN Act would legally prohibit racial discrimination based on natural textures and protective hairstyles.

Additionally, Dove has partnered with LinkedIn for the CROWN Act in hopes of getting equality for employees and hairstyles in the workplace, according to its website.

Through this partnership, LinkedIn will feature the stories of Black women professionals on the platform, provide free videos to hiring managers about how to create a more inclusive work environment and educate users on the impact of hair discrimination in the workplace.

Dove’s willingness to take action to inspire long-lasting change in the workforce — instead of just discussing it — demonstrates the sincerity of its DEI efforts.

A lesson for PR practitioners

Big brands’ DEI efforts — successful or not — teach PR practitioners one simple lesson: If you first diversify the public relations industry, organizational DEI efforts will follow suit.

Boylorn affirmed this point, stating that it falls on companies to have diverse internal representation to prevent performative diversity. She stated that there must be people at the table who will speak on behalf of minorities and point out any messaging that could be perceived as offensive or inauthentic.

“If your intention is not to be offensive, then you don’t realize the possibility for offense,” said Boylorn. “It is important to have someone [at the table] who represents the very identity of that we want to be inclusive of.”

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