When George Floyd was killed by police in May 2020 and protesters took to the streets across the country, it sparked a long-needed movement to reexamine police brutality and systemic racism. Neither of these issues was new. What was new is how companies large and small took a hard look at their own policies on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), as well as their roles in promoting a more just society.
In July 2020, our sister company, The Dallas Morning News, promoted longtime journalist Leona Allen Ford to deputy publisher and asked her to spearhead DE&I efforts across the Morning News and Belo + Company. Allen Ford, a Pulitzer Prize winner and 26-year veteran of the Morning News, has been involved in DE&I initiatives her entire career, and she is the driving force of change throughout our parent company, A. H. Belo.
It can be a challenge for companies to create a more equitable and inclusive workplace for everyone. It requires asking hard questions — and being willing to listen to, accept, and act on the answers. The key is getting started.
We asked Ford for some advice about what leaders and employees can do in their own organizations to promote a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment. It’s not up to only a small group. Everyone has to participate to affect positive change in the workplace.
Belo + Company: Briefly tell us about your career in the field and how you ended up as A. H. Belo’s head of diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Leona Allen Ford: I’m closing in on more than 35 years working in the media business as a reporter, editor, and in leadership. Much of that work has involved promoting and encouraging diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the workplace as well as in the communities we serve.
I was tapped when it became clear that our company needed someone to formally focus all our efforts to ingrain DE&I in everything we do. This position marries my background throughout my career in making sure all readers are represented in our news pages and my community service work.
B+C: Why do you think diversity is important in a company?
LAF: The most successful companies understand that they will not grow unless they have different perspectives at the table to foster innovation. They win when they seek cultural knowledge and understanding of their employee bases and remove barriers to a fair chance at success. They also understand that there is great potential in building trust in underserved communities and audiences and building their businesses inclusively serving them.
B+C: What are you doing to make sure everyone feels included?
LAF: We’ve created a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council comprising an inclusive set of representatives from every department in our company. It’s intended to be a conduit and a feedback channel between employees and top leadership. Much of their work includes making recommendations on how we give our employees a sense of belonging and to make sure they feel heard and valued.
I’m prioritizing my work using an employee survey we conducted last summer in which employees told us what’s important to them and where we need to improve. Quite simply, we’re listening to what they said in a robust and aggressive way.
We also recently completed mandatory unconscious bias training to make sure all employees are cognizant of the unintentional biases we harbor about our differences, how to overcome them and not allow them to negatively affect our actions.
I continue my listening and touch-base meetings with full staffs and individuals from different parts of the organization to learn what’s important to them.
B+C: What is A. H. Belo doing to help enrich our community?
LAF: To date, our biggest company-wide initiative is our DMN Charities fundraising effort in which we raise money for nonprofits that serve the homeless and hungry. We’ve raised more than $30 million over the years that directly goes to services to help those in need.
The company has been intentional about our commitment to volunteerism — so much so that we’ve mandated a full day off for employees to use for community service. In addition, The Dallas Morning News has partnered with leading North Texas companies to produce FWD>DFW, a cause marketing platform for which volunteerism is a critical pillar.
B+C: What tips do you have for companies to be more mindful of diversity and inclusion?
LAF: Facilitate frank conversations around all the fault lines: race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, disabilities, veteran status. Diversity, equity, and inclusion can’t be an afterthought; DE&I has to be discussed at the beginning of every project, during brainstorming sessions, when determining with whom you will do business. Actually asking the questions: How are we being inclusive? Is there diversity among our business partners? Make everyone in the company accountable for diversity. It can’t be one person’s job.
B+C: What can marketers specifically do to promote diversity and inclusion?
LAF: Develop strategic partnerships to gain cultural knowledge and understanding. Marketers should ask themselves, “Whom do our products serve?” And most important, “Whom don’t they serve?” Take time to frankly and openingly discuss how to make products more inclusive and build authentic outreach and marketing plans.
B+C: How important is it that companies share their diversity information publicly?
LAF: It’s most important that there are metrics and accountability. That comes from having a starting point from which to assess.
Certainly, leaders must know exactly where the company stands and develop ways to improve. The more transparency, the better, in my view. Companies have to work through how to protect confidential information, but I believe they have to find ways to let their employees know where they stand to measure their progress.
Companies need to be aware that more and more clients require diversity information in making business decisions. They should develop strategic plans on how and when they will communicate it.
B+C: What are some potential pitfalls for companies seeking to focus on diversity and inclusion?
LAF: Diversity is about inviting everyone to the table. Inclusion is making sure they are heard and feel they belong. It’s a pitfall to concentrate only on staffing numbers and another to simply check the box on, say, representation in images.
Clients and top talent are looking for information on where a company stands on DE&I — the value placed on inclusion. Companies falter when they don’t convey in words and actions that different perspectives are not only valued but expected.
B+C: What are some good resources for employees looking to learn more about the subject?
LAF: Books, articles, resources that have made me more aware:
B+C: What advice do you have for Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), Latinx, and other minorities looking to grow their career in the marketing field?
LAF: My education on the marketing field is ongoing. I have, however, worked with hundreds of employees to help them guide and grow their careers. At the heart of it all is a desire to be valued, heard, and developed.
Seek out companies that are intentional about their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Ask specific questions about what they do to help their employees develop. At existing companies, seek out allies and bosses for feedback on improvement. Take responsibility for a big part of your own development, seeking out opportunities and taking advantage of them.
Leona Allen Ford is a Pulitzer Prize winner and the deputy publisher for The Dallas Morning News. The Dallas native has been involved in DE&I initiatives her entire career, including the 26 she’s spent with the Morning News. As deputy publisher, she is driving even more change at A. H. Belo, the parent company of The Dallas Morning News and Belo + Company.