FCC’s Hoffman: Diversity Is Good Business

In this second of a two-part exit interview (he is leaving the agency March 31), Adonis Hoffman talks about inclusiveness and why it’s good for the communications business as well as good social policy.

What are your views on diversity in the communications industry?

Diversity is an issue that makes everybody uncomfortable. Companies don’t really want to talk too much about it. Minority executives avoid the subject for fear of being ostracized, ghettoized or typecast. And advocacy groups tend to speak in terms that do not resonate with business. So it is a problem. But it’s not insurmountable. The reality is that America will become a majority-minority nation by 2040, so diversity in the U.S. is already here.

There is a legitimate, bottom-line business case for more diversity in communications, media, advertising and technology, and it is being broadcast right in front of our eyes every week—look at Empire on Fox and the ABC Thursday-night lineup with Shonda Rhimes. There is so much talent, so many good stories, and such an appetite for diverse content in the market, it is imprudent and bad business judgment for companies to ignore.

According to Nielsen, minorities over-index on just about every media—TV, radio, mobile and social—and over-index in numerous product consumption categories. In short, an advertiser’s dream demographic. As in politics, minorities typically provide the margin of victory or profit. So I would say more diversity is a winning and profitable formula for networks, content producers and advertisers. Of course, I would like to see more diversity among corporate executives, law firms, behind the cameras, in the media and beyond.

When it comes to diversity in the communications sector in Washington, there is still a long way to go. Law firms, lobbying shops, trade associations and even the media all have diversity challenges. The policy and government relations divisions at telecom, media and technology companies reflect the same reality.

For example?

It reminds me of an incident just last year. I attended an industry luncheon and was seated at the head table next to the keynote speaker, who is the president of a prominent TV station group. We ate together, chatted at lunch, and then he gave his speech, which was a good one. I even asked a question from the floor during Q&A. At the end of the luncheon, I went out to the hotel entrance to stand on the side to wait for the car, and the TV president came over to me. I smiled at him and he extended his hand with what I thought was his business card—except that it was his valet parking ticket. He thought I was the valet. I could not believe it. So I moved about six inches from his nose, looked him in the eye so he could really see me, and said, “Do you really want me to get your car?” Flustered and somewhat embarrassed, he said, “Oh, I thought you were the parking guy.” Not ready to give him a pass, and wanting to have a little fun making the point, I said, “We just had lunch and conversation at the head table, and you come outside and ask me to go get your car. You know I won’t let you forget this.” So I guess the moral of the story is that even at high levels of achievement, the content of your character does not always make it past the color of your skin.

I guess we have a ways to go when it comes to diversity.

Every company that is involved in a big transaction has the opportunity to multiply its diversity index by involving minority partners. So whether it is broadband, content, video, wireless, mobile or something else at the heart of the deal, companies can find a diverse entity to work with. It is good corporate policy and good public policy as well.

How about at the FCC?

The FCC is like a huge family. It is typically voted one of the best places to work in Washington, and it is not uncommon to see anniversaries of 20, 30 and even 40+ years of service. Like many federal agencies, there is also a healthy measure of diversity throughout the organization—just not at the senior levels. It is not uncommon to attend meetings at the FCC where there is no ethnic diversity among the attendees from outside or inside the building.

That said, in recent years, most chairmen of the FCC have had some kind of diversity push or initiative. The venerable [1970s FCC chairman] Dick Wiley was responsible for the minority tax certificate program that spawned historic ownership of broadcast stations by African-Americans. [Late-1990s FCC chair] Bill Kennard’s push for equity in advertising for minority media led to an historic Executive Order. [Kennard successor] Michael Powell mentored and met regularly with minority communications professionals. Mignon Clyburn advanced inclusion in the auction process for small and minority businesses. And Tom Wheeler has tripled the number of minority television station owners in a little over a year.

So when you look at diversity at the FCC, we have to examine both the internal and external dimensions of the issue—not just the employment numbers. There is room for progress in both areas, but I know the FCC’s current programs to help inform minority firms about strategic partnerships in the industry and access to capital under the Office of Communications Business Opportunities are yielding results. There are promising signs of joint ventures, contracts and financing between major companies and minority enterprises—all helped by the FCC—and there is a newly formed Diversity Advisory Committee to examine these and other issues. So success should be measured on a continuum, not a thermometer. In summary, I think companies should adopt a broad perspective on diversity to encompass working with minority professional service firms, incubating suppliers, vendors and partners, and employment from the mailroom to the boardroom.

The mood on the eighth floor seems particularly contentious?

Of course it is hard to separate the FCC from the environment in which we live. In Washington, partisanship appears to be the order of the day, so it should come as no surprise that the agency has flashes of partisanship from time to time. I am not sure how much of that is intrinsic, and how much of it is extrinsically generated. The issues coming before the FCC affect some of the largest industries in the world. With billions of dollars of investment, profit and market share in the balance, the stakes are high, and companies do everything they can to advance and protect their interests. Often that means bringing political influence and pressure to bear on the decisions. That is one of the enduring features of participatory democracy. Lobbying is the one profession enshrined in the U.S. Constitution—in the First Amendment: The right of citizens to petition the government for a redress of grievances. That is what happens every day at the FCC when organizations come in to make their positions known, or when people call and e-mail to express their views.

Much of the bread-and-butter work of the FCC goes on outside the glare of public scrutiny and without fanfare or controversy. On balance there is a high level of professionalism and collegiality—even on controversial issues. But, we cannot discount the effect of social media and the 24/7 news cycle on the deliberations and decisions of the FCC. This alone adds an X factor to how the Commission is viewed publicly and to how it goes about its work. With bloggers, tweeters and analysts opining non-stop, there is bound to be a little contentiousness. What is undeniable, though, is that the decision-makers all believe they are acting in the best interest of the American people. And if that is the guiding light for the Commission’s actions, then contentiousness is a small price to pay.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.