James Burnett on Kane Communications’ ‘open door’ policy for discussing difficult topics

Last updated on July 6th, 2020 at 08:39 am

BizTimes reporter Maredithe Meyer recently caught up with James Burnett, director of strategic public relations for Milwaukee-based Kane Communications, who discussed the public relations firm’s “open door” policy when it comes to talking about race and social justice issues in the workplace.

BizTimes: What do conversations about social justice/racial equity look like at Kane?

“As an African American man who has been on the receiving end of people being dismissive about the importance of D&I, I have been thrilled since I joined Kane’s team at how we take this so seriously and how it is an integral part in our approach to how we communicate with the community and how we participate as a corporate citizen.

“One of the things I like about Kane — it’s such a cliché to say, but it’s real — we have an open-door policy. By open door, I mean open topic policy. So, every employee, from Kimberly (Kane) as the CEO and founder, to myself as the director of strategic public relations, down to our newest youngest associate, our policy is that no topic is off limits.

“Because that is generally the atmosphere at our agency in ‘normal times,’ when these issues that we are seeing trouble the country nationally came up recently, as an organization, we discussed them. We discussed them in all staff meetings, we met with our teams and we talked about these things. We told team members, ‘Feel free to ask any question that you have. Let’s engage, let’s speak aloud about these things …’

“Frankly, I joke with members of my own team, the public relations staff, that we need to always remember that we need to have a policy with one another that we are all each other’s priests, we are all each other’s bartender. If we need to vent or pose questions about these difficult topics to each other, we should do so in a thoughtful manner with an open mind.

“One of the things I’ve appreciated during this time is I’ve had a number of coworkers, from my direct reports form my peers in the Kane leadership team, reach out to me and say, ‘James, we recognize that you do have a unique perspective as a person of color, having dealt with some of this stuff publicly and also being a leader in this business and a leader in the communications space for a number of years. What do you think? What should we think? How should we approach this or that?’

“I appreciate that my colleagues feel comfortable enough to do that. I’ve talked with peers who are leaders at other businesses who told me that their colleagues, by comparison, are terrified to say something wrong or are walking on eggshells because they’re not quite sure how to pose a question or how to raise an issue about a difficult topic revolving around social justice or racial equity. These conversations go unsaid, and because of that, inadvertently and maybe ironically, there’s increased tension in their workspace. We don’t have that at Kane because of this open book policy.”

Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.