It’s not often that a company’s internal anniversary becomes an award-winning documentary, but in Procter & Gamble’s case that’s exactly what happened.
In 1992 the world’s biggest advertiser became one of the first Fortune 500 companies to add sexual orientation to its equal employment opportunity (EEO) statement. This was almost entirely down to one man, Michael Chanak, the company’s first openly gay employee whose courageous and painful seven-year battle ensured P&G’s LGBT+ employees would be protected.
Brent Miller, P&G’s associate director of global beauty communications and leader of LGBTQ+ communications, was the man who found the story and co-produced the documentary, made in partnership with CNN, which won a Cannes Lions silver award this year.
‘The Words Matter’ film is a powerful message about bias, homophobia, and ultimately, how determined individuals can change a company – even one as big as P&G.
However, it also humanised P&G and gave the FMCG giant the “credibility”, sometimes lacking from other businesses, to talk in the diversity space.
“You have to learn to embrace your history,” Miller tells Marketing Week. “There are things in every company that you look back upon and wish they’d done differently, but by sharing it you add a human element to the company that’s honest and people can relate to.”
Chanak took a job at P&G in the mid-1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was rampant, homophobia was rife and P&G, the world’s biggest advertiser, was no different.
“I’d walk down the hall and get called ‘f*ggot’ by some folks. That’s the work environment,” he explains in the film.
The statement is jarring but it was important that P&G told the whole story “warts and all” says Miller. Not least because it was crucial to Chanak’s involvement.
We’re not always going to get it right but if we wait until we get everything right we’re going to miss a huge opportunity to further the dialogue.
Brent Miller, P&G
Miller explains: “It was a long, hard-fought battle that had a lot of resistance and [Chanak] took it on the chin. So, when I called him [about taking part in the documentary] he was very reluctant. Not because he didn’t think it was an important story to share, but because he questioned what is our motive would be.”
Miller believes telling the story will ultimately benefit P&G, though, as it gives the multinational business much needed personality. “In today’s world, where people are looking for companies with personality, heart and soul, this is a way that demonstrates that honestly and creates a connection,” he says.
And despite his initial hesitation, Miller says Chanak is happy his story has finally been told, telling him: “I am so glad you called and that I am alive to pick up the phone.”
Using brands to make people rethink diversity
The story coincided with the P&G’s Winter Olympics advertising, which was reportedly the first ad on American television to feature the Pride flag. Miller says it’s important to “use brand voices, not just the company voice, to help carry forward a message of inclusion”.
He explains: ”What was so interesting about [the Pride flag ad] was it was done without fanfare. There is so much to do in terms of the depiction and normalisation of the community and P&G intends to show people what a truly diverse world looks like.”
The advert for Head & Shoulders shampoo features Gus Kenworthy, the first out US Olympic athlete.
“It was an extension of our ‘Shoulders of Greatness’ campaign, which looks at different challenges that athletes have to overcome so [Kenworthy’s] story was natural to the campaign,” says Miller.
“He was hiding in the closet but once he came out and was open about his sexual orientation his skiing got better and for the next year and half he never missed a podium.”
Miller is adamant that companies such as P&G that have a big reach and a huge voice “have an obligation to continue that diversity dialogue”.
“However,” he says “It’s about more than showing up with a rainbow bottle for a month. You create more systematic change by adapting part of your brand ethos and making sure it is a consistent part of your brand communications.”
And there is a strong business case to. As younger generations look to brands with purpose, P&G’s decision to be more diverse also drives loyalty.
Miller says: “The role that companies are playing has shifted fairly dramatically. This is the first generation of young people who believe more in the private sector than the public and that’s how they’re buying and choosing their brand affinities.
“They expect their brands to be a reflection of themselves and their values and that requires you to have a position and not to sit on the fence.”
Practice what you preach: Helping employees
While the documentary ends in 1992 with the inclusion of sexual orientation in P&G’s EEO statement, Chanak’s fight didn’t stop. Once LGBT+ employees had protection they started to campaign for more rights.
“It’s night and day internally compared to then,” says Miller. “Michael was fighting just to get those two words into that statement. Those two words led to same-sex marriage benefits and the beginning of P&G’s LGBT+ employees’ organisation.”
Today, the company is leading the way with its transgender employee work, still a vastly underrepresented and discriminated group, with support networks for trans employees, as well as parents of transgender children, something which Miller is “incredibly proud” of.
It has also ensured that those employees who change gender can do so easily within the company with P&G putting a cisgender HR employee through the system to catch failures.
Miller explains: “If you show up at your first day at work representing your true gender identity and you scan your work badge and the picture of your former self comes up, security people won’t recognise you. We caught that so that a trans employee doesn’t have to go through that explanation and can be who they are without it being out of the ordinary.
To the sceptics, Miller says: “It’s not about treating people differently, it’s about making sure you can treat them the same.”
However, there is still work to be done. The advertising world is far from diverse with ads featuring LGBT+ people still out of the norm and employees still hiding in the closet.
Miller says: “While they’re still uncomfortable there is still work to be done. What we’re doing as a company is being clear about the conversations we are creating. We’re the largest advertiser in the world and if we can use our voice to impact change we should.”
“We’re not always going to get it right but if we wait until we get everything right we’re going to miss a huge opportunity to further the dialogue.”