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Publishers: The business case for diversity and inclusion

One of the first interviews I did for the Media Voices podcast this year was with Richard Reeves, CEO at the UK’s Association for Online Publishers. We spoke for almost half an hour about diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the UK media.

The irony of two white men of a certain age discussing the importance of D&I didn’t escape me and I prefaced the interview with a statement saying exactly that.

It needed saying. It’s people that look a lot like me and Richard that, in the past, have dragged their feet over the D&I changes needed in UK media. Equally, if the incongruity of two older white guys talking on a podcast about diversity in the media sparks similar conversations… well that’s a start.

Business benefits

The morality surrounding the drive to create a more diverse and inclusive media is, rightly, discussed regularly. But Richard and I also spoke about the business benefits of a well-implemented D&I strategy and that gets talked about less often.

Making the financial case for something that is simply morally and ethically right can feel somewhat crass, but I wonder if spotlighting business benefits might help bring more long-lasting change. While the righteous indignation triggered by widely reported social wrongs sparks action, it can fade with the headlines. Profitability is never off the agenda.

The last time I spoke at length about D&I on the Media Voices podcast it was with Gary Rayneau, co-founder of Project23, a consultancy that helps businesses build diverse and inclusive cultures. 

We spoke not long after the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Then, as now, Gary saw the murder of George Floyd as a catalyst for change. Speaking to him again recently, Gary said that after the killing, there was a period where he saw publishers engage in lots of education and training initiatives.

“There was lots of soul searching from business leaders in terms of what was going on,” he said, “What do I need to do? How do I need to do it?”

Without the impetus of a murder and a rising social movement to capture the headlines, is there a danger that D&I could also slip down the business agenda?

“We’re moving from talking intentions through to real action now,” Gary told me. “But that doesn’t mean the problems surrounding the lack of diversity and inclusion in the media have been solved. Plenty of people don’t get it. The difficulty is, no one’s ever going to say that.”

Gary explained that, everyone can say the right thing, but there are plenty of businesses out there which are not focused on taking action, which don’t really care about D&I and will still be successful.

“It’s not a case of, you must do this or that or your business will fail. That’s the unfortunate world we live in”, he said.

Gary joked that it might almost be preferable for these types of businesses to be honest, rather than pretending to care, acting tokenistically and just ticking boxes. “I almost find those that say ‘this is not a focus for us’ more palatable.”

But what if these businesses could actually see the commercial benefits that a strong diverse and inclusive work culture could bring?

Business benefits

For Gary, the business benefits arising from D&I efforts are a result rather than a driver and should be seen as a welcome bonus rather than a starting point.

He sees a risk in frontloading the financial benefits of D&I efforts. Companies that state their intention to create a fairer and more inclusive workplace but only because it makes money, will quickly alienate staff and customers.

“When the narrative is too far about the business benefits, it can detract from the feeling of those involved. Some diversity consultants disagree with me and would put the business benefits front and center. I personally think that the driver should be, ‘it’s just the right thing to do’.

That doesn’t mean that Gary thinks publishers won’t see commercial and organizational upsides from their D&I efforts and he spotlights three in particular.

Keeping and attracting talent

Perhaps it goes without saying, but a diverse hiring policy that includes all types of people, increases your talent pool. But when you are considering diversity in hiring, remember that it is wide ranging, including everything from personality types – extroverts and introverts – to the more obvious things like gender, ethnicity and sexuality.

Once staff are through the door, a more inclusive culture also brings out the best in the people. “It’s not just about representation, who we do and don’t have,” said Gary, “It’s about the people you do have and making the environment more inclusive for them.”

In tough economic times it can be difficult to motivate people financially, but getting the best from people by allowing them to be who they are doesn’t have to cost much. And making staff feel welcome and listened to leads to greater productivity, greater creativity and greater innovation.

Longer term, organizations with a strong focus on D&I will find it easier to attract new staff.

Gary explained: “People want to work in progressive organizations. Future talent will be more diverse and if you want to attract them, you need to represent that.They’re voting with their feet in terms of where they choose to work.”

Staying relevant

Number two on Gary’s list is the relevance of the work you do and how your output is affected by the makeup of your staff.

“If you want your product to be as good as it can be, and as representative of its audience or the wider community, then you need to empower your staff to be able to do that in their own way and in their own image,” he said.

As the speed of cultural exchange accelerates, maintaining relevance is way more important than holding on to an officially mandated brand viewpoint. Gary said:

“Relevance is so important and it changes so quickly, the attitudes, the feelings, the trends. If we’re not embracing that, if we’re not bringing in talent to represent that, brands can die very quickly.”

Gary believes that taking a longer term view of relevance is also important; what is relevant this year might not be relevant next year. He tells the story of speaking to a publisher who was reminiscing back 10 or 15 years.

“We were talking about a particular magazine brand and the fact that the magazine died because its readership died, literally died out. They didn’t move with the times, didn’t stay relevant and it literally killed the brand.”

Seizing opportunities

Third on the list is all the things that publishers are not doing, but could be. Gary explained that if he looks outside of what most publishers currently do, he sees so many opportunities to reach new audiences and commercial partners. However, he worries that, without a workforce capable of reaching out from an identity perspective, organisations won’t be able to seize the opportunities that exist.

“There are these untapped markets out there,” he said, “but if we carry on doing what we’re doing, we will never reach them. If we bring in the talent and the identities that are able to tap into those, then there’s opportunity out there.”

It’s obvious to say but if your audience, if your commercial partners are becoming more and more aware of the need for greater diversity and inclusion, then you need to reflect that. Gary points to the ad agency scene where D&I is rapidly becoming baked-in to the buying process.

“We’re working with an increasing number of ad agencies and it’s such a vital part of their creative process now. Their main driver, as it always is with agencies, is clients. Clients are demanding this be in every single pitch and I think there’s an opportunity for publishers to really, genuinely, align themselves with those efforts.”

Moving forward

Gary hasn’t ever encountered an organization, in publishing or beyond, that would claim, ‘Yeah, we are nailing this, we’ve got it spot on’. He said developing a workplace culture that is truly diverse and inclusive is probably a journey that never ends.

“On the lower rungs of the company, diversity is a lot better than it is once you start moving up,” he explained, “It’s often not the case that we don’t have the people. We do have the people, but they don’t get the same opportunities, the same advancement, the same opportunities to progress as others. Let’s put some specific initiatives in place to level up a bit, and to help people move up.”