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- Employees at Omnicom Group-owned ad and public relations agency GMMB asked for a list of proposed reforms and a conversation about “systemic racism and inequity” at the firm.
- GMMB is a campaign favorite for progressive causes, and has counted Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, and Hillary Clinton as clients. It’s now working with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
- The agency responded by naming its first Black partner, Micheline Kennedy, and pledging other steps.
- The development comes amid Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd and companies are held accountable for their record on diversity and inclusion.
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Staff at GMMB, a public relations and advertising juggernaut in politics, sent a letter to the firm’s partners on June 11 signed by more than 130 employees asking them to address “systemic racism and inequity” at the firm, according to an email shared with Business Insider.
The letter proposes sweeping reforms across hiring, staffing, client work, procurement, administrative work, and thought leadership. You can read the letter in full below.
Founded in 1983, GMMB is a campaign favorite for progressive causes, having in the past had such clients as Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Hillary Clinton and now, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. Owned by one of the largest PR firms in the world, Omnicom Group’s FleishmanHillard, the agency also has had Emily’s List, the Democratic Governors Association, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as clients.
Employees said they wrote the letter in response to a campaign GMMB launched, #TogetherAgainstRacism, to raise funds for racial justice organizations as Black Lives Matter protests take place. The campaign ignited backlash from former and current employees who criticized the firm as having a lack of diversity on its leadership team and for actions they said were racist.
Business Insider spoke to 12 former GMMB staffers, five of whom identify as Black, indigenous, or of color. Eleven of them said that while GMMB touts its work for figures like Obama and Mandela, the political advertising and communications firm fails to live up to its stated values.
The 12 former staffers said that over the past decade, employees have criticized the agency for failing to promote people of color, listen to their feedback, include them on strategic work, and having a culture of microaggressions.
GMMB responded to the employees’ letter with a statement Tuesday saying it named its first Black partner, Micheline Kennedy. Kennedy has been with the firm since 2012 and specializes in issues comms, global health, and social justice.
The company also said it would hire a growth and diversity officer as a first step toward addressing employee concerns. GMMB said it would also continue working with a Black-owned external diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant and renew efforts to hire and retain people of color.
“We appreciate the very thoughtful and careful feedback we’ve heard from our staff,” GMMB partner Susan Feeney told Business Insider. “We worked really hard to make GMMB a place of inclusion and diversity, but we’ve fallen short.”
Read the full letter below:
Over the last two weeks, as the country has reached a boiling point over the pervasive racism in our country and mourned for the Black women and men who have lost their lives, many GMMBers have felt helpless, heartbroken, and frustrated. Some of us have experienced this evil that’s plagued America for all our lives, while some are confronting it for the first time. But as a GMMB family, we’re continuing to support each other, starting from our morning team check-ins through coming together to march for justice.
In light of the recent comments of our respected former colleagues on GMMB’s social channels and in the spirit of the #TogetherAgainstRacism campaign, many of us believe that it’s past time to not only have an honest conversation about systemic racism and inequity within our own walls (even if they are virtual, for the moment), but to implement reforms that eradicate it from our workplace.
The ideas below represent the collective effort and thinking of over a majority (130 and counting) of current GMMBers, across a broad range of levels, teams, and offices, as well as backgrounds. These proposed reforms come from some GMMBers who have been at the firm for over a decade and some who have been here for less than a year, but all of them are rooted in GMMB’s values to:
- Respect All
- Aim for Applause
- Put Passion Forward
- Break the Mold
- Deliver Real Results
- Uncover Possibilities
- Do What’s Right
- Think Family
The outline below is intended to reflect a sincere desire to engage senior leadership in constructive, respectful dialogue, serve our clients even more effectively, and make the firm a better place.
Proposed GMMB Reforms
In order to ensure that GMMB’s staff is representative of the world and the issues we advocate for, we propose that GMMB:
- Review existing hiring policies and personnel involved in the decision-making process to ensure objective, merit-based standards are being applied
- Make specific, measurable, and public commitments to improve Black representation at all levels throughout the firm, especially in senior and leadership positions
Commit to meeting these requirements at a team, as well as agency-wide, level
- Make specific, measurable, and public commitments to improve all BIPOC and LGBTQ+ representation at all levels throughout the firm, especially in senior and leadership positions and within the GMMB internship program as a pipeline for new staff
- Commit to meeting these requirements at a team, as well as agency-wide, level
- Share a timeline and goals for increasing diversity of senior staff (at the VP, SVP, MD, and Partner levels)
- Extend agency outreach to a more diverse representation of colleges and universities
- Foster a culture of inclusivity and access by revisiting policies around Partner referrals for intern and AAE candidates
- Track and publicly report workforce diversity data to create accountability for both our agency and the communications field at large
We propose that GMMB create a more equitable and healthy work environment by making the following commitments to:
- Define within the GMMB handbook, and implement across all offices, an explicit no-tolerance racism policy for GMMB staff and contractors, including mechanisms to report racist incidents
- Develop an internal process of reviewing exit interview data to identify supervisors/coaches who receive objective, consistently negative feedback and providing training or other corrective measures for improvement
- Tying Partner, MD and SVP compensation and/or bonuses to metrics on individual success in hiring, developing, and promoting Black and BIPOC staff members versus managing and retaining primarily white teams
- Increase transparency of wages and pay bands for staff, and where there are disparities, introduce a wage equity plan to ensure that Black women, Black men and people of color are being compensated fairly
- It is not enough anymore to say that Omnicom precludes us from sharing this information, we should lead by example.
- Note: Per the National Labor Relations Act, companies covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) cannot limit employees’ concerted activities for the purpose of “collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection,” according to Section 7 of the NLRA. (Source)
- Include a diverse representation of junior and mid-level staff on GMMB’s decision-making committees and working groups, particularly in the D&I committee
- In close collaboration with junior and mid-level staff, develop a new and trusted system for reviewing supervisors and reporting concerns about supervisors and senior staff within GMMB’s organizational team structure
- Create a series of team-specific plans to invest in the career growth and development of staff at all levels, including non-account staff (accounting, operations, creative, digital, media, production), with an emphasis on supporting BIPOC staff members, and review that plan regularly at team meetings
- Regularly surveying who supervisors are coaching and mentoring to ensure there is equity in that pool.
- Create and make available within three months a standardized list of core competencies expected from each position and what is required to be promoted
- Create a standardized list of responsibilities for managers related to coaching and professional development for the employees who report to them
- Commit to greater transparency and timeliness around results of firm-wide surveys, including sharing:
- Breakdowns of responses to questions such as “Do you see yourself here in five years?” by junior, mid, and senior level staff
- Making complete survey results available to staff, along with GMMB leadership’s plans to address key learnings
- Make updates to the annual firm survey findings report, including:
- Incorporating feedback from exit interviews
- Reporting the demographics of people who are promoted versus those who leave GMMB, broken down by level
As the center of our business, it is imperative that GMMB’s anti-racism efforts extend to our client relationships. We propose:
- A new business review board, with representation across the firm (including junior and mid-level staff), that discusses potential new clients during the RFP process and ensures honesty around diverse staffing for those RFPs and eventual projects
- Greater transparency around existing standards for what kind of clients we bring on, and a commitment to an annual agency wide discussion about updates to those standards
- Developing and implementing anti-racist standards for all new clients we take on, and inclusion of a specific no-tolerance racism policy in all existing and future client contracts, with a clear system for handling both overt and covert racist words and actions, and an outline of when GMMB will cut ties with clients over racist interactions
- Greater transparency with our existing clients to evaluate and address whether they are perpetuating systemic racism, directly or indirectly
- For political clients, an understanding of where they stand on issues central to GMMB’s values (with an emphasis on racial justice, police violence, and militarization)
- Ensuring staff members of diverse backgrounds are identified to work on issues where it hurts the firm’s credibility not to have any people of color, such as our political or environmental work that has a racial justice component
- Developing a clear and consistent policy to allow staff to opt out of working on accounts that do not align with their views/beliefs without fear of retribution
We propose that GMMB commit to using our purchasing power for good by:
- Committing to annual agency-wide reporting on the percent of money spent with POC vendors and contractors
- Actively seeking out new minority-owned businesses and vendors to work with on future projects
- Conducting conscientious media buying, ensuring that the millions of media buying dollars that come through GMMB every year are not used to support sites and platforms that are actively harmful or perpetuating misinformation and/or racially insensitive content
- This can be achieved by further developing and committing to regular reviews of the existing blacklist, as well as greater transparency across the firm of where our ads go
Staff Wellness & Support
In order to better support Black, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ staff, we propose that GMMB:
- Create and invest in spaces for diverse GMMB team members, including:
- Formal or informal networks for specific employee groups including APIA, Black, Latinx and LGBTQIA+ issues. Based on the group’s needs, these can take the form of a listserv, Teams Chat, or regular events
- A diversity and equity GMMBook Club that highlights the work of unique authors, and focuses on important issues including race, gender, and ability
- Prepare to respond to moments of national outrage and mourning over racism and police brutality by developing a plan for when and how GMMB will:
- Encourage employees, especially Black employees, to take time off whether it’s for mental health or to protest/take other action
- Offer support for GMMB employees arrested or injured peacefully protesting
- Create time and space for all staff to process major national crises, potentially including shutting down the office as appropriate
- Enable staff to take action, and activate our extensive network to support response efforts by fundraising, raising awareness, or taking other action
In order to ensure that these efforts contribute to real and lasting change within GMMB, we would like to see a GMMB charter/agreement stating how these efforts will be sustained over the long-term, and commitments including:
- Developing of a well-known and easily accessible place for anti-racist resources for GMMB staff (on Box and in offices)
- Setting aside a specific annual budget to cover fees for BIPOC employees (especially junior-level) to defray the cost of joining professional organizations for minorities like Colorcomm and the Black Public Relations Society
- 15 percent of GMMB’s social, digital, and media presence dedicated to elevating the voices of people of color and highlighting the tangible ways that GMMB is moving past just supporting these issues to actively perpetuate anti-racism
- GMMB Social commits to at least 2-3 posts per month
- A focus on racial inequities in GMMB’s service and charitable activities, including:
- Celebrating Juneteenth as an official GMMB Day of Service
- Allowing minority-led/owned organizations to continue using our office space for annual meetings and conferences, for example like our relationship with Colorcomm
- Integrating racial justice work into +Service offerings, with at least two annual events dedicated to this issue
- At least 15 percent of GMMB’s end of year donations made in service of fighting racial injustice
- A set amount of time for staff to do pro-bono work/volunteer trainings on issues or causes that can’t afford to pay us normal rates (with a goal of networking to increase the potential for creating new business)
- Inclusion of the charter and zero-tolerance racism policy in onboarding for new hires, as well as external versions to be included in client contracts and available on the GMMB website
As a values-led organization, GMMB has the potential to be a thought leader around systemic inequities in our society in a way that benefits both staff and clients. We propose:
- A commitment to using GMMB’s strengths to cause the effect for today and tomorrow, by committing leadership time to:
- Developing white papers and webinars on effective PR strategies for Black and POC-led organizations that are not yet established enough to afford hiring a PR firm
- Where possible based on Team 6 conflicts, supporting or advocating for legislation in Congress around racial justice issues including use of force, anti-lynching bills, police reform, and qualified immunity
- Increase awareness of and opportunities for senior leaders to donate time and strategic counsel to efforts that align closely with GMMB’s values
We are hopeful that by sharing this full list with you, we can begin an agency-wide discussion about how to implement these actions or hear directly from you about what we can’t do and why. Ultimately, we believe that these changes will make our workplace safer, more supportive, and more productive for all GMMBersーand look forward to turning our ideas into action with you.
Got more information about this story or another tip about the PR industry? Contact Sean Czarnecki on Signal at 734-249-1166, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @SeanMCzarnecki.