Abenaa Hayes on the Expanding Intersection of Comms and DEI
Mixing Board Studio Session
Abenaa Hayes is the founder and CEO of Elysee Consulting and a seasoned communications and brand marketing executive with expertise in healthcare, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and health equity. Building on a family legacy in health equity and racial justice (her parents were health equity pioneers in Trinidad), Abenaa is a champion of racial and social equity in the communications industry. Prior to launching her consulting practice, she founded the Inclusion and Health Equity practice at Real Chemistry, a global health innovation company. Before that, Abenaa was at Edelman, where she was a senior healthcare lead and the co-founder and chair of the agency’s Black Employee Resource Group, Edelman Griot. She’s also held leadership roles at Weber Shandwick, MSL and BCW.
In this Studio Session, Abenaa Hayes and Mixing Board Founder Sean Garrett talk about why DEI has shifted from HR to comms teams; why you have to build a company with equity in mind from the beginning; how to make DEI an offensive strategy; and lessons from Twitter’s Blackbirds and other employee resource groups.
SG: What was your path from Trinidad to doing comms in New York?
AH: I came to New York on a legitimate dare. I was in grad school at USC Annenberg and I wanted to be Christiane Amanpour. That was my dream and vision.
After the Rodney King riots, my grandfather called me and said, “Why are you still living in LA? The city is imploding. You need a new experience. Come to New York and check it out.” So I came to NY and wanted to work in TV news and couldn’t get a job because of the recession in the mid 90’s. At that point, I was thinking — what is the next best profession that I could try, that I could parlay my storytelling skills into something that would give me a paycheck and also do something meaningful?
I ended up landing an entry level job at a boutique agency doing healthcare comms and we were launching an HIV medication. It was a cool science story. We dealt with the gay community and all of the HIV educators. I loved this job because the interesting stories were bringing meaningful, important medicines to a community that has been marginalized and being able to use the power of the written word and storytelling to actually drive awareness.
SG: Your headline focus is DEI and health equity. As someone has been doing this since the mid 90’s, how would you define this work?
AH: I’ll start with the DEI piece before we go into the health equity piece. Most people think that DEI is a strategy or a program that’s often run by somebody in HR with a goal towards diversifying staff, possibly exposing people to different cultures and being able to show that you’re doing something from a CSR perspective. But DE&I is so much more than that — it’s actually a way of thinking, a mindset to truly ensure that you’re being inclusive, bringing in people from different backgrounds, particularly people from historically marginalized communities as well as different ways of thinking. It’s also about centering and addressing equity issues for those who’ve been under-represented and left behind, all with a view to achieving the larger goal of equity and justice.
I always like to say that DEI and the core tenants of it are actually the blueprint for things like health equity. Because health equity focuses on ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to attain their full health potential. To ensure that those from historically marginalized backgrounds achieve that, we need to leverage the elements of DEI.
SG: And what has changed with COVID?
There are several things that get in the way of that which COVID kind of blew the doors open on. With COVID, we literally are all like Anthony Fauci because we all know what social determinants of health are. We know that people who either come from certain racial or ethnic backgrounds are economically disadvantaged, people who don’t have access to food, water, all of those things get in the way of positive healthcare outcomes. Before COVID, you probably thought a bunch of people who went to Johns Hopkins Public School just focused on that from a community perspective.
But with COVID, when you realized that the person who was delivering your food from Amazon was literally on the front lines of that because of their background and where they lived. Then when you looked at the numbers of who were dying and getting COVID, you suddenly realized how all of these things impact people’s ability to actually have a healthy life.
SG: What you’re doing is actually a really interesting progression of comms, tying it specifically to what’s happening in the world and also a business strategy internally that previously maybe just sat in HR. Why would this evolve from HR and move into comms, and what are you seeing as someone who straddles that fence?
AH: I would say that one of the main reasons it has evolved from HR and actually became a core tenant of communications is that communications is the vehicle through which we cultivate relationships with different people. We tell stories, we shape perceptions and build brands. If our ultimate goal is to truly make sure that we are reflecting the people who either work for us or are in our broader communities, we need to do so in an inclusive way. In order to do that, you have to actually think of how you’re communicating to people, what language you’re using, what platforms you’re using to engage them, and then also who those voices are.
The thing that I love about it is there’s so much about comms that actually works really well in service of advancing people’s DEI goals. And where a lot of people get tripped up is they focus on an internal strategy or a program, but they don’t realize that there’s a communications piece to that.
SG: Is there a risk that tying DE&I and comms, makes DEI just really a comms thing and we are just really doing this so we can look good?
AH: I think all the statements we saw after the murder of George Floyd were a good example of that. Everyone had the platitudes and then the question was what are you actually doing? I think a lot of people, such as myself who are doing this work will tell you, you could say the things, but you have to actually show that you’re doing the things, and no one should actually say anything unless they have the receipts.
Because if you’re going to put stakes in the ground, you actually need to, as Jamaicans say — come correct and make sure you have all of the proof points of that story. So I am more often than not telling clients or prospects who want to do stuff — but don’t have a whole lot of stuff going on behind the scenes — that they should fix their internal house before they start saying anything.
SG: What do you tell people when there is that impulse to say “the things”? And then, if they do, how do you validate progress when no one is yet asking about it?
AH: The first question is what do they actually want to accomplish? Because there’s a very in the moment knee jerky thing where I need to do and say something, but you have to get at the why. Once you get at the why, then you have to start asking the questions around what you have to support it versus not. If you do, that obviously informs what you say. If you don’t, then you’ve got to figure it out — do you still say something? Because there are some things that have happened in the world where it may just warrant acknowledging it, but then the question becomes, what’s the plan you are going to put in place to actually show that you were truly committed to this?
To your point about metrics and checkpoints, the only way you can ever put a stake in the ground is if you actually commit to the thing, the KPIs and hold yourself accountable. The accountability is what I always push clients to truly double down on because somebody’s going to call you out on it if you don’t follow it. The fear of being canceled is real, and we know as comms people that we not only help protect and do make the preemptive strikes to make sure that people don’t make the mistakes, but if they go out and say things and it blows up, then we’ve got to obviously help them on the back end with the reputation piece. But those questions always become a larger strategic conversation about the why. Why are they doing this? What do they want to say? If so, what accountability looks like. Then you’ve got to actually build in those check-ins.
SG: What are good examples of companies committing to a new DEI approach and building a substantive approach?
AH: There’s a biotech client that I worked with who started on their DEI journey about five years ago when they launched their first product. Their CEO was vocal on social issues but they started out by just talking about commitments that they have made in their local area. Then they started to build out the internal elements — they built out employee resource groups, elevated key leaders into the DEI roles and set some key metrics around recruiting CSR commitments and then commitments across their business. It’s one thing to say you’re doing DEI from an employee perspective, but you need to pull it through the actual business model to make sure you’re embedding it.
They are a company that has two drugs for diseases that disproportionately affect people of color. So they actually then initiated a range of programs in partnership with influential groups in the Black and Hispanic communities to help with. The products are for genetic rare diseases. So they launched programs to help get people access to the genetic tests. They knew they had to have specific education programs because there’s a lot of mistrust in those communities. Then they worked with trusted messengers and influencers to actually start to galvanize patients. They know they’re not there yet, but they started to make some very specific and deliberate commitments with their corporate brand, their employees, and the patient communities that they serve.
SG: When DEI comes up in conversations, so much of it is a defensive conversation — fixing problems or remediation. Have you seen anyone think about DEI as a more offensive strategy where it’s an opportunity to accelerate the business?
AH: Taking the offensive strategy leads you to finding more authentic, and probably actionable, ways that you could build this out in an organization. Because if you’re building it from the outset, then the mindset and the expectations are set. Versus what people are trying to do now, which is trying to solve a problem because something’s blown up or they’re trying to retrofit it into an existing system. Most people who do this, who talk about this work philosophically, will tell you to get to equity, you have to change and shift systems.
You have to take the offensive strike to do that. I have found that a lot of the companies that are in tech and digital health are actually doing a brilliant job of taking the offensive strategy approach. Because more often than not, the companies that they were building are geared towards addressing the needs of people who’ve been left out or marginalized. You have to build a company with equity in mind. You have others that are now trying to infuse it by virtue of either having acquisitions or recognizing that there’s a need. Headspace Health is a really good example of that, because Headspace started out as a broad general consumer mental health app. By virtue of having the chief diversity officer who’s focused on embedding DEI across the brand and culture, followed by the acquisition of Shine, which happened recently, and it’s an app that was specifically developed to address the mental health needs of Black and Hispanic communities. They’re now having to infuse that into their business and their product offering.
SG: When should an organization start thinking about DEI?
AH: If you are considering either building a brand or revamping a brand, you need to start thinking about DEI. It needs to be at the heart of who a company is, it needs to be infused into your corporate brand. When you’re starting to think through what your employee engagement or your internal comms program looks like, you need to think of it there as well because you need to truly be representative of the people who work for you. When you’re looking at building a product and taking it to market and launching it, you need to think about DEI from the outset. Because if you’re building something, you have to think of all of the audiences who would like to use something, including the people who are left behind. Then whenever you’re building out your crisis plans, you need to think of it then too. Across all of the verticals on all of the different pillars of an organization you need to infuse DEI in it.
SG: We’re obviously having this conversation after Elon Musk took over Twitter recently, and there was a layoff of half the staff. Part of that layoff and part of that also included the dismantling of all employee resource groups (ERG). When you reverse progressive actions, what are the ramifications of something like that?
AH: Tara J. Frank wrote a book called The Waymakers. I’ve referenced her work a lot when I do cultural assessments of companies to figure out where they are. And it holds true of Twitter. Clearly this company is going in the wrong direction — lots of toxicity and some very scary things are probably happening. If that’s how people in the majority think and feel, think of how much worse it is for the people who are from marginalized backgrounds. If you ever want to see where the problems are in a company — if the majority’s feeling something, it’s definitely worse for everybody else. I was a huge fan of Blackbirds and all the ERG communities at Twitter. I’ve done events with Blackbirds. They built a true cultural force in that company.
I don’t know if they can ever rebuild that because there’s probably so much trust that’s been lost with the way the layoffs were actually handled. And even more importantly, the things that we’ve seen Elon post. I don’t think they’ll ever be able to come back from that.
It’s mind blowing. One of my first reactions when Elon took over was what’s going to happen to Black Twitter? Then my friends and I were texting about it and they were saying “Well, why don’t you start it on another platform because you build things, and people come”. If there are places that they’re in that they don’t feel safe, they will go elsewhere. Black Twitter has been such a cultural phenomenon and an important phenomenon, not only just in terms of just cultural commentary, but also social and racial justice activism. Black Twitter is actually a great case study in how comms and a comms platform was used to build a community for people who’ve been historically marginalized, cultivate inclusion, and then drive cultural change and social justice and movements. Black Twitter, as you know, was the catalyst for #MeToo #OscarsSoWhite #BlackLivesMatter, among other causes.
The company pre-Elon was also an example of one that looked to truly build a business and a brand through the lens of DEI, from the way they looked to address equity gaps within their workforce/company, build a culture via a rich resource group community (inclusive of Blackbirds) and then how they cultivated communities on the platform.
Movements are just going to move to other platforms, because let’s say Elon implodes and somebody else then comes in to try to rebuild Twitter. It’s going to take a lot to rebuild trust and credibility before anyone’s going to reconsider going back. The thing about Black Twitter that I’d also been in awe of is the fact that it was emblematic of the influence that the Black community has on culture that people don’t always recognize.
SG: Since you work with the Blackbird folks, are there lessons that other companies can take from what that group did?
AH: They truly centered the way they operated on people who were part of the group. It was about the needs of those Black employees, things that they wanted to honor and celebrate, unapologetically. I built two employee resource groups at two agencies and they were a model to follow.
SG: What is an employee resource group?
AH: Blackbird is an employee resource group. The goal of employee resource groups is to help cultivate diversity, inclusion and belonging in an organization. So essentially if there are employees who either have certain affinities or identities in common, and they want to bring groups of people together to create safe spaces, to educate their peers and also engage in different community initiatives within a company, that’s what ERGs do. ERGs also sometimes serve as business consultants for companies. When I was at W2O, the multicultural ERG used to participate in focus groups for client pitches. We also would pressure test strategy for companies that wanted to do multicultural engagements. That’s where the business piece comes in. Blackbirds was essentially that group driving awareness of the needs of Black employees at Twitter. They obviously did cultural things to bring people together, but very often you find HR and corporate leaders trying to put guardrails up around what they can do and what they can say. But if the intention is to create a safe space, you can’t then try to police it.
SG: So then the natural next question on this, as the economy tightens and you move into different economic cycles and people are saying “Well maybe these are nice to haves, not need to haves.” What’s the argument against that?
AH: The argument against that is if you care about your corporate reputation and the people who are your stakeholders, you can’t walk away from it because all of the data right now, Edelman Trust Barometer, Morning Consult, Deloitte, all of the data points emphasize the importance of DEI, truly strengthening a brand and keeping it relevant. Demographically our workforces are going to become more diverse. In 2030 they’re expecting that we would be living in a minority majority world. This is the world that we’re going to be in. You actually need to embrace the people who are a part of it.
SG: How does health equity fit that into your consulting and why is it so important to what you do?”
AH: I grew up in it from day one. My dad was one of the first health equity pioneers in Trinidad. He brought the first machine called a dialysis machine into the country for people who had kidney failure. When he passed away, my mom took that mantle on and she literally would write brochure copy and distribute it to people during the awareness months. I was doing public health work before I even realized it was a thing.
The other reason as part of my business, I ultimately do the work of equity work across a range of different sectors. The DEI strategy piece and comms piece are parts of corporate equity work. Health equity is the work that I do to help companies apply that equity lens to improving the health and well being of their stakeholders and communities. That work involves helping companies figure out how they need to engage with communities who have been marginalized to address disparities and bridge health equity gaps in a variety of different ways. It’s just the work I do in that sector because it’s one that I spent most of my career growing up in and I have a passion for it.
There’s something very personally gratifying to know and see when you’re actually helping people achieve better health outcomes. The thing about health equity work is that you’re able to tap into not only communities, but you leverage things in their culture that are going to actually help get to a better place, a place of equity and hopefully, justice.
SG: What is the work you’re doing now foreshadowing? What does this look like in five years as it evolves?
AH: My hope is that in five years I won’t need to be the subject matter expert because people will have started to embed this in their work and how they operate. That we are in a place where if I’m looking at companies such as Headspace Health, or consumer brands such as Apple, that their imagery is representative of the people in the world, people who look like me and others. The language is truly inclusive and the products are designed in ways that people who may be differently abled can use them.
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