For more than 25 years, Ed Patterson has championed socially conscious organizational change as a key communications strategist to agency, global corporate brands and nonprofits. Ultimately or purposefully, he carved a career that has uniquely allowed him to live his truth as a gay man in a position to show how inclusivity achieves business gains. Ironically, he acknowledges women leaders as key influencers in his journey, most notably his mother. As global communications leader for Hill+Knowlton Strategies, he finds that 2020 has ratcheted up the quest for accountability for change.
Q: Change doesn’t happen overnight. What are fair milestones to mark progress?
A: Such a truthful statement. And I think what also needs to be understood is most of us who work in this space do not expect it to happen overnight. It must be strategic, consistent and done with purpose—setting goals that are achievable and needle-moving. I like to use an example of my time serving on the Human Rights Campaign National Board of Governors. Our annual Equality Index looked at how businesses and organizations performed (internally and externally) in support of LGBTQ+ employees, customers and stakeholders. The numbers I found to be the most interesting—and impactful—were those that showed year-over-year improvement. From some organizations not even participating, to in just a few years being 100 percenters, the annual index allowed for goal setting, progress tracking and a plan to do more and do better. I encourage organizations to take a similar approach to their DE&I efforts.
Q: What does it mean to be an “ally?”
A: Goodness, I’d like to make it easy and say “my mom is the epitome of an ally”—she is. But how she got to be and how she works at it is the real definition. I am blessed she is a woman who values learning and embraces opportunities to expand her thinking and understanding of people, issues and problems. She did that with me a couple of decades ago, and she continues to do it now in how she looks at racial injustice, gender inequality and immigration. When America was being asked to read, learn and educate themselves following the murder of George Floyd, she was years ahead of this. As a woman born and raised in the segregated South, she lived through the horrors of racism during the 50s and 60s (and as she says is still living with systemic racism that surrounds her) and has always been on a quest to be a better ally to me and others. She is always reminding herself to see her day-to-day living through the lens of others. She understands her privilege and uses her intelligence to teach others, share her experiences, bringing perspective to others who may not see the world through that lens. But she also uses her actions to be an ally—when she shops, she shops with her Equality Index in tow. A true ally.
Q: As a professional communicator, how do you guide executive leadership into taking bold measures?
A: The past year has seen C-suites take some of the boldest steps we have seen in the work for true diversity and inclusion. It has allowed communicators to help our leadership be bolder; set more meaningful DE&I commitments and goals, and importantly, hold them and the organization accountable like no time in our history. This has called upon those of us to drive communications to bring this thinking to life. And I see the C-suite looking to us to be just that: a driver. I used to say that we communications professionals earn our keep when a crisis/issue rears its head within the organization—now I add the quest for real DE&I within our organizations as another such moment. We are not just wordsmith; we are the counselors that not only craft the story, but we are helping to lead the day-to-day work and progress.
Q: What are meaningful metrics of diversity, equity and inclusivity progress?
A: I am a bit bold here. Having worked with organizations on LGBTQ+ issues for many years, I have always stated that no one expects perfection; and certainly not even close to perfection tomorrow or next year. However, until leaders and organizations put metrics in place that have seismic impact, we will be having this same conversation two years from now; five years from now. Leadership metrics; hiring metrics; coaching and development of current employee metrics; community engagement metrics—all matter. And even more importantly, leadership compensation and goals must have DE&I metrics included. If we are going to continue to reward the highest levels of organizations with substantial compensation for a job well done, that job must include attainment of DE&I goals.
Q: Are there mentors or thought leaders you’d recommend for communicators?
A: I do try to read and talk to folks I find so helpful. But I’ll keep to a few who I know, and those with words, actions and passions that are so important today. First, I had the pleasure to attend a Leadership Atlanta program a few years back with Natasha Rice Reid—Associate Pastor at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta and General Counsel for Habitat for Humanity. Whenever I get a chance to touch base with her and my friends from that class; hear her on panels; read her inspirational messages on social media, I do that. She’s a gem. I had the opportunity to interview and get to know Annise Parker—former three-term Mayor of Houston, the first openly gay person elected mayor of a major city in the US, and currently president of the Victory Fund. Her life, her work—her continued work—and her outlook on the issues and challenges that face us is inspiring and important.
Ed Patterson: Head of Global Communications, LGBTQ & DE&I Strategist, Hill+Knowlton Strategies
Ed has provided cultural and organizational communications counsel to C-suites and boards of global organizations for more than 25 years, through which he was an early champion of diversity and inclusivity as operational guideposts for brand growth and workforce success. Today he leads global communications for PR agency stalwart Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a role that canvases news from its 80 offices across 40 countries. He recently announced H+K’s hiring of the global WPP’s company’s first top DE&I global and US officers. Ed is working toward a Master of Communications Management from the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University and is an alumnus of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.