Executing DEI is not just a nice to do for agencies today, but a critical need for their business success. So says Ben Finzel, president of RENEWPR and founding partner at the Change Agencies, a national network of public relations firms focused on communications to multicultural and LGBTQ communities.

In this episode of Taking The Lead, Ken Jacobs interviews Finzel about the business imperative for DE&I, how to lead effectively through collaboration, the importance of acknowledging one’s mistakes, and what agency leaders will take away from attending this year’s PRSA Counselors Academy Spring Conference, of which Finzel is the conference chair.

Here are excerpts from the full video interview:

Tell us briefly what The Change Agencies is all about.

We are the national network of independently owned public relations firms focused on inclusive and authentic communications to multicultural and LGBTQ communities. The idea is that we help businesses and organizations identify, assess, and address the communications challenges and opportunities within these groups. There are 13 of us around the nation, and you can go to thechangeagencies.com to learn more.

What's your response when you hear leaders, in PR and out of PR, say that they're experiencing DEI exhaustion?

First, I would ask those who say this, “You think you're exhausted?” Try being a person of color, or an LGBTQ person, or a woman. For many people, this is day-to-day life, not just an acronym that you quote. You may be tired, but first, check your privilege. Are you living with the realities of what it's like to be what my friend and colleague LaTricia Woods, refers to as marginalized and minimized?

If you aren't, you're not living with that day-to-day, and you should then look at this question from that perspective and realize that for many people, the call for more attention and positive action on diversity, equity, and inclusion is a necessity. From there, let's talk about what diversity is about and make sure that your team is represented.

Engaging equity is about making sure that opportunity, resources, and access are available to everyone on your team and not just some. Inclusion is about making sure that any diversity efforts that you make are genuine and aren't just window dressing with no real opportunity for everyone on your team to be heard and listened to. And lastly, I'd say I think it's really important that we say this is not optional.

DEI is the price of doing business today, and despite what you may hear, read, or see in headlines, we are a multicultural society, and those who understand, appreciate, and embrace that reality are the ones who will survive and thrive in the years ahead.

Who taught you the most about leadership in your career, and what were the most important leadership lessons they gave you?

My boss at Fleishman Hillard, Henry Hubbard, refined my understanding of common sense and client counsel. He had great expressions about leadership that we all know and love.

He would talk about how you have to “Give them the arrows to Toyland. You have to show them how to get there, and you can't just assume they know. He was really smart, understanding and encouraging, and that was so helpful to me.

At my second PR job, my boss Scott Widmeyer of Widmeyer Communications (now a Finn Partners company) gave me the opportunity to expand my leadership and encouraged me when I took the ball and ran with it, which doesn't always happen.

He taught me how to effectively manage up and that's a skill that's hard.

The other leadership lesson came from a client. I had an association client early in my career at FH, and that experience taught me what a positive client-counselor relationship could look like. They asked me for counsel and listened to me when I gave it, and then we talked about it. That seems very obvious and simple, but I think our colleagues in the industry know that’s not always the case.

That experience gave me a template for how to best engage with client teams. It still serves me well today with my new PR clients. I've realized over the years I work best when I can be a partner to a client and tell them not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear.

I'm fortunate that I have that kind of relationship with my clients. I want to be clear, though. It doesn't mean that they do everything I say. In fact, often they don't, but it means that they listen to me, and we can consider what makes the most sense together, and that's really all any agency leader can ask for.

As I was thinking about this when you asked it, I have to add one from my Grandpa. He’d he would say to me, “Don't be so thin-skinned,” and he was right. I'm still learning and relearning that one, but I can hear him saying it to me.

RENEW PR works with many focused on sustainable energy and the environment. How do you approach the work, and what's your philosophy of engagement and collaboration?

I live and work in Washington DC so yes, that is very much a topical, relevant, and timely question. I love it, in particular, because it goes to the heart of my approach and a key reason, I think, for our success.

I talked about this point in my ninth anniversary blog post on my website, https://www.renewpr.com/insight. The post is about why I set up a scholarship for students at my alma mater, which is Texas Tech University. It explains an answer to this question that why we do what we do.

“Texas Tech helped make me who I am today. My education and my exposure to people different and often more conservative than myself has been integral to the approach I've taken in building my business. We don't work at the fringes and just hope that our efforts will produce results. We engage in the broad center where the majority of people are and where smart, strategic, collaborative work can yield positive results. We work to bring people together despite their differences, and we strive to find those areas where we can agree so that we can get good things done.”

So yes, I'm a liberal Democrat, I'm an environmentalist, I believe in clean air and water, I support public lands protection. I know that people in society impact the climate and we have to act now to address climate change, I know all those things and I acknowledge them.

However, I'm also a pragmatist, and I don't want to waste the precious time we have arguing. I want to get good stuff done. That's why I do this, that's what animates me, and what drives me. Patrice Tanaka, our mutual friend, always talks about finding your joy and your purpose. Mine is doing well by doing good. That's what I want to do with this business, and that means that I need to find ways to work with people who want to collaborate, to find positive, effective solutions.

Those are the kinds of clients we have, fortunately, and it's why we do the work we do, and I think it's why we're successful and why people want to work with us.

You are the chair of this year's PRSA Counselors Academy Spring Conference in Palm Springs this April. Please share the key reasons why owners and leaders of small-to-midsize should stop what they’re doing and register right now.

Thank you for asking this question. There are three reasons:

Number One: If you're the owner or the leader of a small or mid-size independent agency, the participants in this conference are your people. I learned that in 2017, and it has been true every day since. When you attend, you will meet people who are facing the same challenges and dynamics as you. You'll talk with people who solve some of the same problems as you're tackling right now, as well as people who can learn from you and the lessons that you can share. It's a remarkable opportunity to reinforce what you already know, and refresh your thinking and perspectives.

Number Two: The learning opportunities at this conference aren't limited just to agency operations or staffing or legal or accounting tips. It's all of those things plus emerging issues. We’ll offer workshops on the newest trends in AI, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, succession planning, stress management, and how to address feeling stuck.

We'll have a Pre-Conference Session, which is free to first-time attendees (in which Ken is one of the presenters) more than 20 workshops (including one given by Ken) and four Keynotes. This year's keynotes represent the most diverse set of speakers we've ever had. In a keynote, they'll be addressing topics that are critical to your agency’s business success.

Number Three: The investment you make in attending this conference will be paid back to you in connections, confidence, and confidants. You’ll meet people who’ll change your business for the better. You'll make friends who will become confidantes in your work and probably your personal life, and you'll gain new confidence in yourself as a business leader and, frankly, as a human being.

It's the best money you can spend and worth investing your time and energy. You can see the schedule and registration details here: https://www.caprsa.com/spring-conference


Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching, which empowers PR and communications leaders and executives to breakthrough results via executive coaching, and helps communications agencies achieve their business development, profitability, and client service goals, via consulting and training. You can find him at www.jacobscomm.com, [email protected] @KensViews, or on LinkedIn.