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When Social Media Meets Diversity

NEW YORK—The Internet is the largest diversity and inclusion tool of all time, experts said March 29, 2011, at the Catalyst Awards Conference held here. But implementing social media for diversity and inclusion is not without its challenges.

When it comes to their core underpinnings, social technologies and diversity and inclusion have a lot in common. Social technologies view discrimination as an impediment to progress, are a tool for overcoming hindrances to productivity and innovation and can help one see diversity as something more than a moral imperative, experts said recently.

“Anybody that is a practitioner or an activist for diversity and inclusion should make the Internet their number one case study,” Joe Gerstandt, an Omaha, Neb.-based speaker and diversity and inclusion facilitator told attendees.

And yet many do not understand how to use social media for diversity and inclusion.

“I think there are a lot of individuals and a lot of organizations having conversations and trying to make decisions about whether to use or not to use it and I don’t think that many of those conversations are very well-informed,” Gerstandt said.

One challenge is that “how we talk about diversity has changed,” said Jessica Faye Carter, founder and CEO of Heta Corp., a Glastonbury, Conn. consulting firm. “But I think using social tools is a great way to leverage or to take advantage of what I call ‘architectures of inclusion.’ ”

Carter founded Open Diversity, an initiative that encourages organizations to use social technologies to increase the innovation, effectiveness, and reach of diversity and inclusion. She said many companies she works with have begun using such tools for multicultural marketing, community relations and diversity recruiting.

“There are lots of things going on on the Web that people are harnessing … as new ways to connect with people across different layers of their identity, and I think companies having seen that, can now do that internally if they are willing to turn that mirror” on themselves, Carter said.

She cited a number of examples among companies that are not her clients:

  • State Farm’s Bollystar promotion. In this 2009 promotion, contestants vied for a chance to star in a Bollywood movie by submitting videos of themselves singing Bollywood songs. The videos featured people of every ethnicity, Carter said. She said it illustrated a way companies can “re-brand themselves externally” and shake any “button-down image.”
  • The American Airlines BlackAtlas social networking site. Launched in 2009 with input from the company’s African-American resource group, the site is designed for people who love to travel and discover African-American and black culture. Users can post videos and share information.
  • Ene-Be-A. This Spanish language version of the National Basketball Association site allows the franchise to meet “people on so many layers of identity,” Carter said. Although more than two-dozen NBA players are of Hispanic descent, Carter said many people “just assume because of their appearance that they are black.” She said the site allows people to “recognize (that) there are people who share your heritage and your background.” She added: “We can do this not only externally but we can do this internally, which is what I’m hoping … that companies will start moving in that direction.”

Conversations Key

Gerstandt noted that the five principles driving social media and social technology tools are democracy, choice, crowd, community and trust.

“Before you can even have a well-informed conversation about which application to use or which platform to use, you have to be willing and able to have a conversation about do we want to share power with people—employees and consumers—do we want to provide them with more choice, are we willing to turn things over to the crowd, will we let them build community, do we understand the trust gap?” Gerstandt asked. “Those are the conversations that make the big difference.”

He said a “very old school—old culture” power company he worked with used Yammer, a Twitter-like site used internally, to reach “across silos” and share information from different parts of the organization, after it realized it had a big disconnect between blue-collar crews in the field and headquarters. “Both blamed each other for centuries of stuff, and there was very little communication,” he said.

Gerstandt admitted it took a while to get started “because it didn’t make sense to any of them,” but that it has been a “pretty powerful tool … they’re changing the culture and making it more inclusive.”

Another company with “significant” race, ethnicity and gender disparities when it came to retention and engagement, started used social media to be “more deliberate about their culture” and to share “the good, the bad and the ugly organizationwide.” Every quarter, the company posts all exit interview data on their internal blog, he said. “[The company has] had some very lively and candid conversations about how to fix that stuff,” Gerstandt said. “It has been a very powerful thing.”

Some Challenges

Creating change can also create challenges. Today, Catalyst’s Twitter feed has just over 3,400 followers. But getting it launched two years ago was not without obstacles. “There was an internal struggle,” admitted Mike Otterman, an author and social media content writer for Catalyst, adding that some “people in senior positions,” were fearful that the group would open the organization up to criticism. “There were a lot of unknowns there, and I think a lot of them had to do with not knowing what this technology was,” he said.

Making matters worse, some higher-ups wanted each “tweet” approved before it was sent into cyberspace, thereby nixing the immediacy of the technology.

“At the very beginning, we didn’t have this trust between senior people and the people who really wanted to do it,” Otterman said.

Today, Catalyst has a Twitter team and uses the site Tap11 (similar to Hootsuite), which allows them to “stack” tweets to go out at scheduled times. That’s particularly important since Catalyst has offices in Canada, Europe and India.

Other Takeaways

Experts encouraged attendees to keep a few things in mind:

  • Don’t lose sight of your objective for each tool. “Otherwise things start to get really sloppy,” Gerstandt said. Some will be internal, some external. Some might be geared toward retention and others to employee resource groups. “If you’re trying to take a portal or a blog focused on diversity and inclusion and make it more appealing across the organization,” he said it pays to find ways to “weave it into the other blogs, other conversations.”
  • Although social technology seems instantaneous, a lot of things “take more time than we realize,” Carter said. When you deal with diversity and inclusion and social media “you are way ahead of the pack. There are so many companies and practitioners that aren’t even using social media or even thinking about it in a D&I context.”
  • Social media isn’t an opt-in, opt-out thing. “If you’re doing anything of any significance, somewhere somebody is talking about it and you should be there,” Gerstandt said. “This idea that you can just not participate at all is kind of flawed,” he explained. “You are participating one way or another. At least by being there, you can learn from those conversations.”
  • Experiment. There’s a limited amount of time you can learn about Twitter listening to someone talk about it or reading about it. Be prepared to make mistakes.

“There is always going to be that fear … a lot of times the surface issue will be cost or security, but it’s not really about that—it’s about the control stuff … because everyone’s thinking what if somebody does something bad?” Gerstandt said. “And someone will, because that’s the truth of the matter. Diversity and inclusion just brings the truth to the surface. But at least once it’s on the surface, we can deal with it and we can respond to it.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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