Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: A Conversation with Michelle Sullivan

Photo Credit: Boston University College of Communications

Michelle Sullivan is the Diversity & Inclusion Academic Lead, a Professor of the Practice in Advertising at the BU College of Communication, and the Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. 

Here, Michelle Sullivan shares her insights about diversity, equity and inclusion in communications, and discusses its meaning, initiatives, limitations and the approach that needs to be taken by brands in all aspects of advertising.  

Visishta Dingari: What does Diversity, Equity and Inclusion mean to you?

Michelle Sullivan: To me diversity, equity, inclusion means bringing diverse voices and points of view from many, many different backgrounds to the forefront so that we’re getting as diverse a cross-section of talent as possible in our COM community, and then ultimately into the industries where we’re heading as professionals. We have a lot of alumni at the top of our fields-in Hollywood, every news outlet in America and working in the top communication agencies and corporations in the US and globally.

As COM grads, when we shift into careers as professionals in our fields, we’re really shaping the debate in America, the culture in America, through news coverage, advertising, film, and TV and beyond. I think it’s really important that as we are training people to be communicators, we’re getting those diverse voices, not just from an educational standpoint to be present in COM, while that is critical, but because what happens here in COM from an educational standpoint will help shape how America is transformed.

VD: What D,E&I initiatives are being implemented as the Diversity & Inclusion academic lead?

MS: Well, events are the first one. We’ve been working really hard to make sure that we have at least one event every month, if not several, for students. It’s important that we have events that help us as professional communicators to think about what the role of a professional communicator is in bringing more diverse conversations forward and in raising other points of view that are not necessarily getting into the mainstream because we have the ability to do that in our industries. So, we’re trying to think about how we, as professionals, can really shape the future by bringing more diversity, equity and inclusion to the table in communication and events play a key role in that discussion here at COM. Ermolande Jean-Simon has been spearheading this effort for our DEI committee and we’ve had just a great roster of events this semester and next year is shaping up to be even better. 

We actually have a networking event planned for early next semester. Given the current climate, we’re looking to do more of those virtually moving forward to help our students connect with alumni. There are a lot of alumni who are interested in how they can connect with and assist students. So, we can obviously be a conduit for that. 

A curriculum update is yet another aspect of our D,E&I initiatives, where we’re focusing to ensure that a new COM curriculum will have more diverse points of view, more diversity in the readings, as well as in the topics, lectures, and guest speakers in our classes. 

That will, however, take a little bit until it comes to fruition. As you can imagine, a curriculum overhaul is a huge process. We’re in the beginning stages and will be working on it until the spring of next year with plans to implement it the following fall. 

On the faculty recruitment front, based on the feedback that we’ve received from students, we wholeheartedly agree that we need a more diverse faculty, so this is a major effort as well. Professor Lei Gao did a survey for the DEI committee late last spring/early last summer, where she surveyed close to 600 graduate and undergraduate students and talked to them about matters of diversity, equity and inclusion. Recruiting more diverse faculty and staff to COM was a major theme from that survey and we agree. We think it’s really important that we get student input to confirm that our priorities are aligned with the students. 

VD: Are there limitations within BU COM that limit the ability to recognize the broad range of diversity that exists already?

MS: One that we spoke about a little bit surrounding recruitment, many professionals that we’d welcome as professors are not necessarily ready to make a career change because they are now getting their work showcased and spotlighted in their fields more so than ever before. Diverse points of view and voices are finally being heard in all of COM’s fields and those who’ve been moving those efforts forward within their industry, after working for change for years, aren’t always ready to transition out of their practice area yet. So, that has been one challenge for sure right now. 

Also, the pandemic is a challenge for everybody, and it’s hitting everything. Before the pandemic, we had a lot of plans within the community, such as the networking events that would be in person. We were also planning to do more for students arriving on campus, both undergrads and grads, during the orientation process, to introduce them to COM’s DEI efforts in person and ask them to join us. Of course, at events, we set up tables and talk with people to make the human connection. Now, that obviously can’t happen. So those things have been setbacks. However, we’re thinking about a lot of different ways to celebrate the differences we have in common — through cultural occasions, such as the Chinese New Year, Diwali, etc. We are creating content and connecting through social media and virtual events, but we do miss the human connection.  

VD: Lastly, is it hypocritical for brands to promote a particular topic if they don’t practice it internally? Are the agencies doing enough to incorporate D, E & I?

MS: I think that’s a hard question. Anybody who’s taken a class with me will know that I’ll usually answer that question with “It depends.” So, sometimes it is hypocritical and sometimes it isn’t. I think it really depends on the soul of the brand, the DNA of the brand, who the company is, who its leadership is, and who its founder is. Now, we certainly have brands with true intentions. But we also have brands advertising around social issues, including issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, that are doing so purely for financial gain. 

For me, that is a problem. I do think that consumers recognize that inauthenticity more often than not and see the difference there. So, we have to think as consumers. We have to do our homework and really understand thoughtfully, what we’re choosing and why it does or doesn’t match up with our values. The truth is that we are all influenced by marketing so brands that use their megaphone to help create real societal change can absolutely be a positive force.

There are brands that I do believe are making a difference and making an impact. Ben and Jerry’s, I think, has helped bring a number of issues to the forefront. Patagonia is, of course, one of my favorite examples, one of everybody’s favorite examples. With those brands, I think social awareness is core to what they are and who they are. I think its core to the mission, the heart and soul, and the values of each brand.

Two years ago, when Nike came out with the Colin Kaepernick ad, it was a big moment in advertising, and it got a lot of conversations started. Especially in America, a conversation that had not been going on about the Black Lives Matter movement came over into the mainstream and Nike was one of the catalysts of that.

In the end, I think it’s very important that advertising becomes the way for brands to share their values and get a larger conversation going, which can be very meaningful as long as it comes from the right place.

Visishta Dingari, Staff Writer

Visishta Dingari, Staff Writer

Born and raised in India, Visishta is a second-year graduate student studying Master’s in Advertising, and working at TBWA World Health, NYC. Visishta has crossed career paths from graduating as an engineer to a marketing professional in the world of advertising. She has a combined passion for science, creativity and impact, which drives her to explore a career in Healthcare Advertising. In her free time, she enjoys running, traveling, and trying anything vegetarian. She is a staff writer for the 2020-2021 academic year.

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