Chris Daniels
Jan 14, 2024

Evolution, not extinction: How brands and agencies are responding to the war on DEI

Amid feverish opposition, many companies aren’t backing off diversity, equity and inclusion work, but they are talking about it differently.

Photo: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images.

After George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in May 2020, organisations of all kinds pledged to do more to eliminate systemic racism and foster a more just society. Many made corporate diversity, equity and inclusion pledges, investments in communities of colour and created diversity-focused roles. 

Nearly four years later, the environment has shifted dramatically. It’s no exaggeration to say the practice of DEI is under siege. 

A major blow was struck when the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action policies in college and university admissions. Hundreds of anti-DEI laws have also been passed or introduced at the local and state levels. 

The mainstream media is also entertaining articles and opinion pieces positioning the DEI industry —including consultancies, DEI practices within big PR firms and DEI comms practitioners—as a wasteful billion-dollar industry. One example: journalist Conor Friedersdorf’s piece in The Atlantic, “The DEI industry needs to check its privilege.”

Now another cottage industry has emerged: anti-DEI groups. 

Legal activist Edward Blum, whose group Students for Fair Admissions brought on anti-affirmative-action cases against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, has targeted fellowship programs at law firms. He was also behind an advocacy group that went after pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which has since removed race-related requirements from its fellowship program.  

America First Legal, which describes itself as a “charitable nonprofit and civil rights” organisation providing legal services to “victims of unlawful discrimination,” has also lodged complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against companies like Kelloggs over “woke ideology,” as well as Macy’s, targeting the retailer’s five-point diversity plan for violating civil rights. The group was launched by Stephen Miller, an adviser to former President Donald Trump. 

The change in the political and social environment has sent a shudder into corporate boardrooms— and the agencies they work with. 

“Companies are being sued for even having goals, and that is totally scaring some organisations. They’re thinking twice about what they’re doing,” says one agency leader who requested anonymity. 

“Then there are companies whose general counsel is like, ‘Bring it on. I would love to have that conversation,” the executive says. “They are preparing to withstand any legal challenge to ensure that they’re well-positioned for the future rather than abandon diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Deidra Johnson, SVP of the global justice, equity, diversity and inclusion advisory service and practice lead at Porter Novelli Atlanta, is happy to see clients not back down despite the courtroom battles. 

“All that, coupled with a noisy minority made of political pundits, a former president and politically fueled business leaders, flooded every outlet with disinformation on why DEI should die,” she says. “But for the most part, businesses began to quietly audit their DEI programs for legal risks, while staying the course on building the operational apparatuses they need to create real diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

However, clients and agencies are tightening up how they talk about it both internally and externally. Many have stopped making public comments about diversity, equity and inclusion. Amid tweets like one from Elon Musk that “DEI is just another word for racism,” some have also removed the term from their lexicon even as they quietly continue the work. 

“We need to stop saying ‘DEI.’ It’s easy to vilify three letters; not as easy to vilify is what they stand for, such as fairness, decency, creativity, brilliance and purposefulness,” says Soon Mee Kim, EVP and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Omnicom Public Relations, which in addition to Porter Novelli includes FleishmanHillard, Ketchum and MMC. “I’d like to see us move from talking about cosmetic diversity to transformation.” 

"The industry at large has been pretty quiet over the last year or so, but in light of what we do, it’s important that we in comms are able to lead the conversation on this topic,” adds Kim. “In order to do so, we as an industry need to grow in our understanding of diversity, including how we talk about and cover it.” 

If DEI is to be viewed as a nuanced, solutions-oriented practice, “a big part of this is not talking about DEI, but about diversity, equity and inclusion,” concurs Johnson. “Diversity is valuing different identities; equity is creating environments for optimal outcomes, regardless of identity; and inclusion is appreciating differences.”

MikeWorldWide also expects agencies to move away from the moniker “DEI” in their client language and service offering.  

“Because the term ‘DEI’ is being increasingly co-opted and more politically and socially weaponised in our society, agencies are aware that brands may start responding differently to the language that surrounds the work,” says Amber Micala Arnold, group VP for diversity, equity, inclusion and justice and corporate reputation at MWW. “Some brands are starting to move away from saying ‘DEI’ specifically and incorporating it into their broader ESG and CSR platforms, or opting to use broader or adjacent terms like ‘purpose,’ ‘social impact’ or just ‘inclusion’ or ‘equity’ to emphasise outcomes more.” 

“As such, we may highlight our ESG communications, impact storytelling and multicultural marketing offerings a bit more to appeal to both B2B and consumer brands,” she says.

“DEI fatigue is at an all-time high,” adds Arnold, but clients are focused on assessing the legal risk of their DEI programs. “Many brands are hyper-focused on trying to evaluate and reduce the risk of DEI-related litigation without alienating their key stakeholders in the process. This is where agencies can continuously show their value to clients when it comes to DEI right now.”

Crystal Borde, VP and diversity, equity and inclusion practice lead at Vanguard Communications, says agencies are having tougher, more thoughtful conversations with clients right now. 

“Recent events questioning the effectiveness of DEI approaches are opportunities for PR professionals to engage in more transparent conversations within their organisations and with their clients,” she says. This includes “acknowledging the complexities of DEI communications work while highlighting our profession’s commitment to DEI and its place within core values and engagement strategies.” 

As another exec notes, this is a moment in time in the evolution of diversity, equity and inclusion, and it was bound that the pendulum would swing back after corporate America embraced DEI in 2020. Ultimately, this executive says big business needs to realise this is a coordinated attack in the name of self-interest. 

“What is happening is really about power—who has it, who doesn’t, who fears it, who is using levers to try and create a common enemy or grievance,” says one executive. “Because no one would say, ‘Sexual harassment training hasn’t solved for sexual harassment and therefore doesn’t work.’ The fact is, a mandatory 60- to 90-minute bias-training class is not going to solve 300 years of slavery in this country.” 

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