Rise Into A New Chapter: DE&I in Communications with Sharlyn Carrington

Listen to the audio here (skip right to 2:40 and get right to the conversation!):

At Rise Agency, we believe in providing support to the community, women’s empowerment and personal wellness. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) are key values at Rise and we love to be continuous learners on how we can help play a role in making a better community.

We are honoured to have Sharlyn Carrington, Founder & Director of Content Strong Communications join us in the discussion about DE&I and communications.

Sarah:

For people who are just joining, I’m Sarah Kiriliuk, and I’m the president and founder of Rise Agency. We’re an agency that focuses on women’s empowerment, personal wellness, the world community, and where those things intersect. It’s really important for us to do a land acknowledgement when we have meetings or Instagram lives. So, I want to begin this event by acknowledging that we are meeting on Aboriginal land that has been inhabited by Indigenous peoples from the beginning.

Sarah:

As settlers, we are grateful for the opportunity to meet here, and we thank all the generations of people who have taken care of this land for thousands of years before us. Long before today, as we gather here, there have been Aboriginal peoples who have been the stewards of this place. In particular, we acknowledge the traditional territory of many, many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee Longhouse Confederacy and the Wendat peoples, and this is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. We also acknowledge that Toronto, where we sit right now, is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit first nation. 

So, thank you. I wanted to get a little bit of background and context onto why we’re here today, and then I’m going to give you a little bit of an introduction. 

Sarah:

So, what has really been fascinating me recently has been Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, and how organizations are responding and reacting to all the things that are going on in the world right now. I’ve really been trying to dig into that, because organizations (whether they’re big or small) have such a huge part in our lives and our communities and the way that the world is. The expectations on organizations are completely different now than they were 20, 30 years ago. So, Sharlyn Carrington is here with us. Thank you so much. She’s the founder and director of Content Strong Communications. She’s an award-winning communications specialist with over 12 years of experience. Sharlyn has experienced expertise in creating integrated marketing and PR campaigns, working with political leaders and executives and executing strategies that engage key audiences. I happened to know about Sharlyn because on my first day of my master’s program, my professor gave us examples of people who had done a fantastic job in the course, and the paper he gave us was Sharlyn’s.

Sharlyn:

I forgot all about that!

Sarah:

I don’t know if the MCM is on the call, Devin might be busy, but he would appreciate the story that yours was the first piece of master’s level work that our class saw – that set the bar really high. So, I know that Sharlyn is super smart, and I’m so excited to have her today because of that. 

Recently, Sharlyn presented her master’s capstone on diversity in the public relations field. And that completely blew my mind and really got me thinking about how you don’t notice things in your life until somebody hits you over the head with it, which is unfortunate. So, thank you so much for being here today.

Sharlyn:

Thank you! Thank you for having me. I could talk about this stuff all day.

Sarah:

Before we jump into this serious conversation, I actually want to say, you’re a fellow entrepreneur and you’ve just started Content Strong. I know that you were working in government for quite some time before that.  So, how did this come about? And how’s it going?

Sharlyn:

Thank you for asking, it’s going wonderful. You know, I’ve been really, really lucky. I started this journey on… I don’t want to say a whim, but a little bit of a whim when I left the government to go on mat leave. I left really feeling like I wasn’t being challenged, and I wasn’t able to do some of the strategic things I wanted to do. And the other piece of that is (I’m going to bring it right back to is diversity and inclusion), you know, a lot of organizations have this problem where they have people of color, diverse individuals that are working within them and there are barriers that seem invisible to those employees to really move on and move up into the places that they want to move to.

Sharlyn:

A lot of that has to do with mentorship. It has to do with unconscious biases. It has to do with a lot of things, but I definitely felt like I wasn’t being utilized to my potential. I was not able to reach my potential where I was. You’ll see a lot of that in some of the research I did, and you’ll see a lot of people take that jump and decide to go off on their own to choose who they work with and who they work for. So that was a key reason as to why I jumped off on my own. And what’s made me really lucky is that I haven’t had to do a significant amount of outreach to get clients or get myself out there. A lot of that has happened organically. My network has really helped push me along and bring a lot of people to me. I’ve been really lucky.

Sarah:

That’s fantastic, I’m glad to hear it. Although, it does address an issue, which is how many people have to leave organizations because they can’t get where they need to – there’s that unconscious bias.  This brings it back to organizational diversity.

You know I’m a hundred percent white girl Canadian, grew up here with the narrative that Canadians are different from the US – that we don’t have racism here, and you go through life with that narrative. It’s not until you really start looking around that you see some of these problems. And then this year has just been such an awakening.

Sarah:

I’m so happy about that. But also, I look back at all of my work experiences and realize that 98% of the people were around me were white, able-bodied or heterosexual. I was going to ask you a question about that, actually. So, I read something recently that really helped me understand this: in the workplace, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is not trying to make employees toe the line to the corporate induced values. But rather, organizations need to define their own values and culture as a reflection of their employees. My question for you is, where do you see the tension there, and why hasn’t that been done before? What is the root of this?

Sharlyn:

I agree with that statement in part. I’ll say, yes, I absolutely think organizations need to take that step and really figure out who their employees are, what value systems they want to have and what they want to portray. I think we’ll get into this later, but it really does have a key impact on their bottom line and their reputation, period. But where I’ll say there is a disconnect is if you’re looking internally to your organization to help you define what you want to stand for as an organization, but your team is only one kind of person, then how can you create a diverse, inclusive environment?

Sarah:

Right. Like a chicken-and-egg situation, almost.

Sharlyn:

Right, exactly. So, I like to take it from the other standpoint. I really think, who is the organization serving? This is Canada (and I can apply to the US as well, or North America), and this is a very, very diverse place. It’s not just black and white. There are people here of every single shade, many different languages and many different cultural nuances – cultural nuances within cultural nuances. We as communicators need to have a seat at the table, and that’s a completely different conversation…

Sarah:

We’ll get there.

Sharlyn:

We’re going to get into that, but I’ll just say that we as communicators need to be involved in setting the strategy. And that’s really important because communicators are already doing that bigger picture thinking, right? We’re doing the environmental scanning to figure out what opportunities there are for us, and what are the threats. What’s keeping us back? What are barriers for our organization? We as communicators also need to think really critically about who the audiences are – this includes internal audiences as well. Like I said, your internal teams and employees, that’s an audience.  Those are stakeholders, but externally as well. When you’re talking to your clients, your clients are not only one kind of person. Like I said, this is Canada. Your clients are every color, every language, every experience, every culture. So as communicators, it really is part of the foundation of our job.

Sharlyn:

The real value that communicators bring is being able to figure out that there are many different audiences. Am I authentically reaching them? Am I authentically talking to them? Am I saying something that actually resonates with them as a human being based on their own experience? This is why I take it back to looking at your internal structure and your internal teams. If you don’t have anyone on your internal team who would think that way, or who has had that experience themselves, or have people within their networks who could share some of that perspective, then we as communicators aren’t doing our jobs effectively, period. So, as communicators, we also have the chance to make that business case for organizations and for organizational leadership, because at the end of the day, not having diversity within your organization and not speaking to the diversity outside of your organization really impacts your bottom line as a business. It impacts your ability to reach out to clients. It impacts your reputation, which we know has a huge impact on your bottom line, and it really impacts your organizational effectiveness. And we see this so much where, you know, an organization goes out and does an ad campaign or something, and they weren’t thinking about the audiences they’re talking to, and that ad campaign blew up in their face.

Sarah:

I’ve asked several people this, and I’m still trying to get to the bottom of it. As communicators, we use visuals in maybe 98% of our materials these days. I’ve been in the situation previously where your team is like, we need diversity in this photo shoot. So, then you’re taking photos saying, we need an Asian, we need a black person, we need somebody in a wheelchair. We want to look diverse, and sometimes it feels really performative. What is the other option? I keep asking this because I want to make sure that when I’m working with clients or if I ever work in-house somewhere (and just sharing that information too, with people who are watching right now), just throwing diversity into an ad campaign is performative. I think the answer to this is that it has to reflect your business. If those people aren’t in your business or stakeholders of your business, then they have no business being in your ad campaign.

Sharlyn:

Exactly, exactly. I think many organizations struggle with that. And I’ve also been in the midst of those same conversations, too. “Well, there’s no diversity in this picture,” but representing diversity is more than what we see in the pictures. It’s more than who we have on the team. We can be doing things as organizations, like finding partnerships or reaching out to different stakeholders that are able to tell those diverse stories, and who are already connected with diverse communities. And those are different things that go beyond just putting, you know, a black person in a campaign. It’s really thinking about the big picture.

Sarah:

Yeah. I think that I worry sometimes that now (and this is not a slight at any teaching method or college or younger practitioners), because of the conversation over the last several years about being diverse, there may be that tendency to be like, “okay, we have to do all these things. We have to show diversity.” And then, it’s not quite performative, but the understanding of the deeper piece is not there. They’re doing it because that’s the current conversation and they’re trying to stay relevant, but they don’t know how to take it deeper. So, I worry that there’s going to be a lot of that.

Sharlyn:

Well, I think there’s a lot of that right now. I think that’s part of the bigger conversation. The big news story of course is George Floyd, and everyone’s coming back to that, but you know, for an organization it’s more than saying, “I’m against anti-black racism,” putting up a black square in their Instagram, and that’s it. Like, that’s slacktivism, right? You’re not actually doing anything. All you’re saying is, “I’m making a stand,” but are you actually going to show us the actions that you’re doing? How does that impact your organization? Are we seeing those changes in the actions that your organization takes? Are we seeing changes internally in your organizational culture? Are we seeing that on your teams?

Sarah:

Something really interesting I read the other day… I took a year off from my master’s program to start the business, and now I’m doing one of my last three courses. So, I’m writing a research paper right now on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, and how communicators can play a leading role in that. So, I was reading something where the president of a corporation was talking about how there’s corporate activism, and then there’s individual activism. What happens is that when organizations really allow and value people speaking up, there’s 1700 different types of personal activism coming at the corporation activism. They’re saying fight for this fight for that, for climate change, LGBTQ rights, BIPOC rights, fighting racism, protect turtles… Right?

Sarah:

And so, this president was saying that they have to be very selective about things that tie back to their brand strategy. And I thought, I understand where that person’s coming from. But on the other hand, you’re basically saying, “We’re only going to talk about climate change because our product is in people’s kitchens,” or the product is a car, for example. So, there’s another, not a dividing line, but a big question: how organizations and corporations reflect these things? And I hate how these things are being framed as “issues”. Diversity, Equity & Inclusion aren’t issue. It’s something that is integral to life.

Sharlyn:

And that’s it, right? If organizations take a step back and they’re like, “Well, this doesn’t align with my brand strategy,” what is your brand strategy saying? Have you sat back and really taken a critical look at your brand strategy to ensure the diversity is built into that? Because, exactly as you said, it’s not one issue. This should really be weaved into the fabric of everything that you do as an organization. You gotta be looking at your HR, you gotta be looking at your internal, you gotta be looking at your external, you gotta be looking at your sales and your marketing. It’s a full picture. It’s not an issue, right?

Sarah:

Yeah. And the role of the chief communications officer in an organization – there aren’t many CCOs, it’s still just a growing field. But I read yesterday that the CCO is really like the C-suite generalist because they don’t go vertical. They go horizontal – they have to be integrating corporate strategies, everything across. And so, they are most well-positioned to then help integrate that. They’ll have the authority and clout to challenge their peers, who aren’t working hard at metrics around Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. There’s so much complexity here, and that’s why I feel like we could have a conversation about this every day.

Sharlyn:

Every day. Yeah.

Sarah:

So, I was going to ask you, have you seen any organizations that are sort of doing it right, like in your network? Is there anybody that’s getting it right that we can use as an example?

Sharlyn:

I have some organizations that I can think of, but I’m not going to name them. I’ll tell you why (and it’s similar to what I said earlier on), it’s that we have organizations that are doing what seems on paper to be right thing. They’re standing up and they’re saying, I’m against racism. I want to do something about it. I’m taking a stand. And then they go the step further, which I also think is actually quite good. They go a step further and they look into their organizations, and they look at their mission and vision value statements. They really do look at the composition of their teams and they say, well, should I be doing something about this? Maybe I’ll set some targets, or maybe I’ll really think about how we create a different strategy to reach out to new people and connect with different networks, so we get a broader range of diversity on our teams. And maybe I really do need to think about how I’m marketing to different people, and how I’m talking to our different audiences. And then maybe they do the next step, which is also really great: two-way communication, and actually hearing from their clients that, “Yes, I’m on board with this,” or “Yes, I really need to see this from you,” and so on. That really builds diversity into everything they’re doing. 

But then where they still fall flat is not taking the step to hear from their employees and the people that are engaged and asking, “Do you feel included? And do you feel like you’re in an environment that is safe?”

Sharlyn:

“Do you feel like you’re in an environment where you are encouraged to talk about issues that you see? Or where you feel safe to talk about some of the racism that you yourself have experienced, or that you’ve seen other people go through? Do you feel comfortable or supported in your environment?” 

They say, “There’s no mechanism for me to do that.” So yes, there are organizations that are trying to do that, but I still think there are a lot of organizations that are still falling flat in that area. And it’s tough. Right? It’s a tough thing to do. I’m working with a client right now specifically on this issue, and they’re a big organization. They’ve taken the first step to say, “Yeah, we stand against it.” They’ve taken the second step to say, “We know we have a problem.” And then even taking the third step to say, “We’re really working on amplifying these diverse voices so that we can figure out how we address these problems.” But they’re not at the next stage yet where you ask everybody involved, “Are you feeling comfortable? Do you feel like you’re in an environment that is supportive and inclusive?”

Sarah:

That company should be using Learning Snippets. Learning Snippets is what we talked to Melissa about last week – just a plug for them, because I think it’s such a great tool. It’s a daily, mini coaching that’s sent right to the email of everyone in your organization. It’s a little daily brief on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion that uses a real-world sample every single day. What we were talking about last week was habit and how we all say we want to do something about this – we want to change our behaviors. A lot of people are consciously trying to do that, but maybe we don’t know how. Learning Snippets actually helps prompt what the correct response is in a conversation for instance, what to do in that type of situation.

Sarah:

I think it’s starting to change people’s habitual responses to things. Melissa has a lot to talk about on that. So, anyway, that is a huge step I think for organizations. And I asked Melissa specifically, are communicators involved when you come to the table at organizations? And she said, absolutely there are communicators and HR, which I like to hear because that’s why we’re here today – to ask how can we help? And so that was actually one of the questions that I had: what are the key things that all communicators should be doing right now? 

Sharlyn:

I think all organizations need to start with the number one: “Do we have a problem?” Getting them to acknowledge that there’s a problem or they’re falling flat.

Sarah:

And they would know that from employee surveys and things like that?

Sharlyn:

Well, they should know that for many reasons. They should be looking at their teams before an employee has to come and complain about it. Because like I said, if they’re in an environment where an employee doesn’t feel safe to complain about it, they may never hear. So, I think it’s even beyond that, right? I think they really have to take a look around and say, “Well, what’s going on?” I think communicators are 110% in the best position to do that. Communicators, like I said, are the ones that know who the internal and the external audiences are, and really can think about what’s being said to them. Then the next step is exactly like you said: being able to facilitate that two-way dialogue so that we actually hear what it is that they’re saying, and what they’re thinking.

Sharlyn:

So that goes back to what you just said. If employees aren’t happy, the company should be hearing it. The communicators really need to be able to set up a mechanism where employees do feel safe coming forward and saying they have a problem. Whether or not they create a mechanism that is anonymous, let’s say.  but I think the first role of the communicator is to help identify and get leadership specifically to acknowledge that you may have a problem. Or even if they don’t want to call it a problem – that there’s a gap. and then who is it that you’re talking to? Are they being served adequately? Could you be doing more? Then the next step, of course, is communicators need to be able to identify why this is happening, and then facilitate that two-way dialogue.

Every organization is different, and they have slightly different issues. There are different nuances to all of this. But I think communicators can really help identify where there are gaps, and where there are opportunities to make things stronger and better for the bottom line of the organization.

Sarah:

Yeah. I think this is a conversation that happens a lot within our MCM community about communicators at the leadership table. I think this is just another point, that you can’t do these things unless you are part of leadership and have authority, have an influence. I keep thinking about this – if I were coming out of school right now from Humber PR for instance, I would probably be lacking in some of these soft skills like negotiations, being able to talk to all different types of departments and getting everybody around the table to come to a consensus.

Sarah:

Building consensus and negotiating, are the skills that communicators are going to need in this climate right now, where every cause and every organization is having to be agile and completely rethink their values. That’s a whole other conversation, but I think it’s a fair point.

I actually I have two more questions for you. One is, your research project for your graduate program was about PR, and how there’s no diversity in PR. And I was going to say, we both know how lily-white the field is. I had a recent experience where I put a job posting up, got 250 resumes and I’d say, a good three quarters of them were non-diverse.

Sarah:

You can’t always tell, so I’m making a very blanket statement here, especially in areas outside of visible differences. But as a recruiter, I was disappointed to see that.  Listening to your recent session with Terry really reinforced for me that there needs to be more diversity. So, my question for you is, what is the impact of that on an organization, especially in communications teams, particularly now?

Sharlyn:

Oh God, there’s a huge impact on them. I actually did that study in 2018, and people are obviously really interested in it now, but no one was talking about it two years ago when I was sitting here saying, “There’s a problem here!” What I found from my research that I thought was really compelling was that the experiences my interviewees talked about echoed the experiences of studies done 30 plus years ago. I just thought that was so profound because I said, “Well, clearly the industry hasn’t changed at all in 30 years.” Or has changed very little in 30 years. But what it really speaks to for me is that public relations cannot be effective if it’s not diverse. 

You know this, you’re a student of the master’s program too. So, we sit here, and we yell about Grunig all day long. And we talk about the theoretical baseline of what excellent communication is for organizations. But of course, one of the big things he said was that you can’t be excellent unless you have diversity. And that really, to me, always goes back to, your audience being diverse! So, the inside of your organization needs to be diverse too, your communications need to be diverse, because you’re talking to diverse people, period. That is the most simplistic, basic line. I think what anyone here needs to take away from these conversations as a communicator is, you’re talking to diverse people, and therefore you need to know how to communicate to diverse people.

Sarah:

What I’ve realized in the last couple of years is that, as a white person, it’s not just thinking with diversity. There’s a completely different perspective on the world, which we can’t understand. And the reality of that is now sinking in and hitting home for a lot of people. I’m very glad to keep having these conversations because I’m a lifelong learner. I want to push this forward for that very reason – too many of us have worked in communications for too long with blinders on, either being performative or task oriented. “We’ve got to get this campaign out.” And it’s that dialogue again, about how as communicators, can we rise above the task-oriented nature of our business and be that leader in this field? That leads me to my last question, which is can you tell us about the work you’re doing with McMaster right now?

Sharlyn:

As you mentioned, we started this conversation again over the summer, obviously because the world was buzzing with all of this. There really became this loud outcry that we need to be talking about this. They were doing weekly talks, really about any topic related to communications, and then it came back to how this has to do with communications, too – it is really pervasive in every facet of life. So, I was asked to come in and talk about my research, which as I said I did in 2018, and then it became a series. There are other people who have done this kind of research and have this great input to share about diversity, and that grew from there. Communicators are really hungry for this, because as we said, people are only really starting to acknowledge that there’s a huge gap in the communications field. It’s really not diverse at all. And we want to think about why that is, but number one, we want to be able to give communicators tools to take into their organizations and actually make big changes. So, we decided that we need to have a big summit, or something like that. The purpose of the summit is, like I said, to really give communicators something – a toolkit, a Q&A, a script, a guideline… Something that they can take into their organizations and their daily lives to figure out how they make those deep, meaningful, tangible, long-lasting changes.

Sharlyn:

We started off with just a conversation. I think we had this conversation two or three weeks ago, trying to figure out where we as communicators are. We had over 200 people join us in this conversation, we did some breakout rooms. I’ve been having these conversations for years now, some of the other people in the organizational committee have been too. So, some are very well versed in this area, but you have so many others who aren’t. So, it was really trying to figure out how to pull people along and get people to where we are, figure out what they need and move to the next step. We’re continuing this conversation next week on the 15th, to give people the opportunity to speak about where there are gaps for them, what challenges they’re seeing and where they want to learn more so we can build a summit (next year, obviously) that gives them something tangible to take away with them and make changes in their organizations.

Sarah:

I think it’s much needed, and it’s been talked about for so long as communicators. I know CPRS has talked a little bit about it in the past, and I really feel like you’re starting to build some momentum. It’s timing, knowledge, expertise, and I think it’s going to be critical for the industry and for public relations. But also, it’ll be a great value to your clients, to any organization who is thinking about how to develop communicators to be leaders and make this ultimate change. 

Just as a sidebar, my daughter has to do a project for her bat mitzvah – she’s going to rename our school, which is Earl Beatty, Junior & Senior public school. She asked me one day, “Who’s Earl Beatty?” And I had to explain that he was a rich guy born into privilege, who basically got an Earldom for being born into privilege.

Sarah:

She just shook her head, and she decided for her project to advocate and lobby the TDSB to change the name of her school.

Sharlyn:

I love that!

Sarah:

But it just made me think about how we’re laying this foundation for the future generations, and it it’ll take a long time, but we are telling our kids about the work we’re doing and hoping that they continue that work. I think that there will be change. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I think that it’s people like you and Terry who are pushing the envelope and asking, “How do we make this change, and who is it in the organizations making the change?” It’s not just the HR director. It’s not just the operations team.

Sarah:

So, thank you so much for joining us today. This was an awesome conversation, and I’m really excited for the next call with MCM. There’ll be lots of learnings from that. And we’ll share everything on our Instagram feed about your organization. When the things come up with McMaster too, we’ll share that out. Hopefully more communicators that are in my network and at Tandra’s network will be able to join in. 

Sharlyn:

Thanks for having me! Like I said before, I could talk about this all day long!

Sarah:

We’ll do it again! Thank you so much, have a great day.

Sharlyn:

You too!

Helping you sort out your public relations program is what we do at Rise – from strategy to storytelling. Get in touch to find out more about how we can help you to build your PR program from the ground up.

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By Sarah Kiriliuk

  • December 17, 2020

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