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  1. Blog
  2. Employer Resources
  3. November 7, 2023

Why Some Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Crisis Responses Fail + What to Do Instead

Plus, data on how a subpar response affects company perception

Woman reading a DEI response on her phone
Photo courtesy of Matilda Wormwood
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Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) crises come in all different forms, and any one of them could significantly impact your company’s reputation—especially if it revolves around a social issue that directly affects marginalized communities. 

In fact, according to InHerSight data, a brand’s response to negative PR or a DEI crisis impacts them this way:

  • 65% of people say the response has the power to change their perception of the organization;

  • 60% of people say the response has the power to change how they spend their money or interact with that organization;

  • 60% of employees say the response has the power to change their perception of their employer;

  • And, 54% of employees say the response has the power to change whether they continue working at their organization. 

In recent years, there has been no shortage of public DEI crises, from police brutality against Black people to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022. Companies have increasingly created communications to address these crises. Some messages have resonated with their intended audiences but many have failed, begging the question, ‘What is the key to a successful DEI crisis response?’ 

“It should be clear and specific,” says communication expert Lucy Samuels. “Not a general statement that could be addressing any myriad of issues.” Samuels, who specializes in communication strategies but also supports a DEI-focused nonprofit in “creating accessible, mission aligned content” adds that companies should be transparent about what specific steps they are taking to address a DEI crisis. Not incorporating these keys—along with a few others—is why many companies fail at effectively responding to DEI crises. 

Why some DEI crisis responses fail

According to research and consulting firm Gartner, a crisis communication is a game plan companies use to protect their reputation when a problem arises—even if they’ve created the problem themselves. You might recall in 2020 when Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf said that gaining a diverse talent pool was difficult because there was not enough qualified Black talent to recruit. 

Understandably, several employees were offended and the public was outraged. Even when the company entered a partnership with the OneTen Coalition to upskill Black employees the following year, few forgot Scharf’s sentiments about Black talent. “DEI crisis communications regarding social issues fail when they feel like empty gestures from the company, such as an obligatory email or a statement on the company’s website. Employees and external stakeholders alike notice when a company’s actions or behavior is out of sync with its communications.” 

Samuels further notes that DEI crisis responses often fail because there is a discrepancy between what the company says and what they do—for instance, “claiming to support reproductive rights not reflected in the company’s health or leave benefits or talk of inclusivity and support for employees without providing any platform for discussing how issues affect them.”

Many companies also fail to constructively respond to DEI crises due to the following reasons:

1. They are not authentic

Next to a nonresponse, an inauthentic response to a DEI crisis is the worst move a company can make. As millennials and centennials—otherwise known as Gen Z—continually demand that companies make genuine efforts to be more inclusive of women, neurodiverse individuals, LGBTQ+ individuals, and others who experience disproportionate discrimination, they will continue to expose superficial attempts at equity and inclusion. You can tell if a company’s DEI messaging lacks authenticity if it:

  • Trivializes a heavy topic with lighthearted messaging.

  • Reduces an important issue to a product or promotion, usually to make money; when Bath and Body Works launched a product line for Black History Month in 2022 and Walmart released Juneteenth ice cream that same year, both companies were accused of trying to make a profit from the Black community when they could have been investing in it.

  • Does not include a solid plan for follow-through.

  • Only applies to customers or clients but not the employees who work at the company.

2. They are not supported by leadership

Some crisis responses fail because the senior leaders within the company are unwilling to support the effort, either by being vocal about its importance or agreeing to offer the resources needed to move it forward. Company leaders are often visible, public-facing figures who represent the organization, so gaining buy-in from them is vital to developing consistent, seamless messaging. 

3. They are not data-driven

One notable mistake that companies make is thinking that DEI messaging is entirely about how people feel. On the contrary, DEI messaging is about feelings and facts. To uncover the facts, you must be willing to measure and assess your current efforts and potentially collect data to determine what you need to do next. A DEI crisis communication that is backed by data is not only easier to track and implement over time but it’s easier to support when it hits the public, who will inevitably have questions.  

4. They are not people-driven

Your DEI crisis response is not about making people feel good—it’s about making them feel heard. If your messaging doesn’t reflect the concerns and experiences of the people you are trying to reach, your communication is more likely to be ignored or harshly criticized, staining your company’s reputation.  

3 keys to a successful crisis response 

When it comes to measuring the success of a crisis response, each company will approach this differently. These three keys, however, should be factored into every company’s DEI crisis communication strategy. 

1. Timeliness

Striking the right balance between releasing a communication too soon and not releasing it soon enough is tricky. As Samuels suggests, “Waiting too long gives the impression that the company hasn’t prioritized the situation or its response.” To get your timing right, consider several factors, including when the crisis happened and whether it is contained or ongoing. 

Still, you must remember that a quality response is better than a fast one. If coordinating an effective response takes a bit longer, consider releasing a preliminary message that acknowledges where your company stands and assures the public that you are further reviewing the issue. Be sure to thoroughly investigate the matter and follow up with a more detailed, action-oriented message promptly.  

2. Accountability

The company needs to take ownership of its stance on the issue along with any missteps in how you’ve handled the issue. If the Wells Fargo CEO had taken accountability for the company’s lack of diversity instead of blaming it on a limited talent pool, the public response may have been different. Whether responding to a widespread issue that every organization has to answer to or an isolated issue that has only affected your company, own whatever it was that you could have done better, sooner, or differently. 

3. Long-term change 

Often, once the dust settles and the DEI crisis has stopped trending on social media, companies resume normal operations without upholding the promises they made in their crisis response—that is, until the next crisis. “Oftentimes, DEI crises are reflections of long-standing issues so responses should be updated to share the company’s ongoing sentiments and support,” Samuels says. The same is true for internal practices; if your company pledges to put women, people of color, and individuals with disabilities in more positions of power, those efforts should continue long after the crisis has faded from the public eye and be updated regularly.

4. Collaboration

Your organization may isolate crisis communications to the HR or communications teams but Samuels says that might be a mistake. “Collaborate across all business areas whenever possible so that communications reflect the company on a whole, not just the business or legal and compliance implications.” Companies can make crisis responses collaborative by including different teams when crafting a response.” Doing so may help you and the company ensure that the message is just as compassionate as it is strategic. “Crisis responses should be compassionate and inclusive, crafted without pitting marginalized groups against one another and with the understanding that DEI crises affect people in different ways.” Developing a response with multiple perspectives ensures that your audience receives a well-rounded message that they can believe in.  

Rethinking the DEI crisis response: How traditional approaches should change 

Many traditional approaches to crisis communications have included short-term, one-dimensional messages based on what is trending instead of what actually needs to change. As current and future generations become more socially aware, companies will need to revamp traditional approaches to DEI crisis communications by:

  • Including the people who have been directly or indirectly affected.

  • Reflecting internal and external needs - Samuels says, “Normalize asking employees how the company can support them.”  

  • Being flexible enough to continually evolve and implement ongoing change.

How to gain support for more authentic messaging

Regardless of your role or area in the company, you can work to influence DEI crisis communications. If you struggle to gain support for more authentic messaging, Samuels advises you to get your coworkers on board. “Talk to your colleagues to support a pitch to management to transform crisis communications.” 

From there, develop a compelling written request for real change. Be specific about what the company can achieve with more authentic messaging, how the company will benefit from making the change on a long-term basis, and what role you are volunteering to play in that process. Samuels even encourages you to train for the role if you plan to see it through, saying “If you have a strong interest in crisis communications, consider tapping into your company’s professional development to get training.”

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