Penguin Random House’s Global Social Impact: Claire von Schilling

In News by Porter Anderson

The world’s largest publisher—vowing to address its own workforce demographics—releases a Global Social Impact site, bringing together its international programs in corporate responsibility.

Penguin Books South Africa donated more than 600 books for World Book Day, with library shelving to follow. Image: PRH

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

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‘We’re Always Trying To Hold Ourselves Accountable’
Diversity and inclusivity issues have taken on new urgency this year. Summertime protests of systemic racism have roiled many book markets of the world, pumping new energy into publishers’ nonfiction lists dealing with equity challenges between genders, races, sexual orientations, and social-economic status.

The issues for publishing houses tend to fall into two camps:

  • How much a publisher’s workforce reflects the society in which it operates
  • How much its catalogue reflects the needs and interests of its consumer base

In some cases, employee activism has prompted publishers this year to examine their own responses to these questions. In other instances, the national markets’ publishers’ organizations have helped prompt the conversation forward, as the UK Publishers Association’s 10-point action plan for workforce diversity has done over a period of years.

As those critical efforts go forward to evaluate and address these issues in the workplace and the output of the industry, however, there’s a third approach available: corporate responsibility.

This has to do with a company’s community outreach, which may come under a strategic planning department’s oversight, clarifying the importance that management sees in such projects to reach company goals. In fact, in some cases, sustainability–which today we more immediately relate to environmental concepts–has been another term for corporate responsibility, capturing the idea of community citizenship and engagement as being important for long-term success.

Markus Dohle

Late in the summer, Markus Dohle, CEO of Penguin Random House worldwide, wrote a memo to the PRH staff, announcing the launch of the company’s new Global Social Impact site. The sheer breadth of what the world’s largest publisher can do–and in so many markets of world publishing–is considerable.

“By taking advantage of our size and scale,” Dohle wrote as he introduced the site, “we embrace our responsibility as an industry leader to drive lasting cultural and environmental changes that right now, around the world, feel more important than ever.”

The company divides its activities in this new hub online into three main areas:

Scrolling through the Global Social Impact Site, what you see includes information and images from:

  • A program from St. Jordi Day, when PRH in Spain donated more than 4,000 books “to hospitals, hotels, and support centers housing health care workers fighting COVID-19”
  • A donation of proceeds from the company’s sales site to Black-owned bookstores in the United States in honor of Juneteenth 2020 (a date that commemorates the news of American slaves’ emancipation reaching Texas in 1865)
  • A 2019 program in Australia for African-Australian students created in partnership with the Afro-Australian Student Organization in Victoria and New South Wales
  • Commemorating the abolition of slavery in Brazil, the PRH-owned publisher Companhia das Letras developed antiracist education literature for teachers to use in selections of literature, with video resource material produced by Black multimedia specialists

And there are many more programs, from work with Canada’s Festival of Literary Diversity  to the PRH WriteNow program in Ireland, started in 2016 and now with 450 writers having been engaged in a yearlong mentorship program.

Looking Both Inward and Outward

Spanish health care workers at a St. Jordi Day celebration with donations of more than 4,000 books for hospitals, hotels, and support centers housing medical personnel in the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Image: PRH

It may look to some as if Penguin Random House is better at corporate responsibility outreach than in handling its own internal staffing demographics. Certainly, it’s good that a dedicated plan to address workforce makeup is being instituted, and quite openly.

The Global Social Impact site “is really visually driven, and the short-form style of the stories and stats make it easy to digest, which we hope inspires even more ideas and initiatives from our employees.”Claire von Schilling, Penguin Random House

You’ll remember that the company in September opened a new aggregate site of resources focused on “combatting racism and racial inequities in our daily lives.” That offering is called The Conversation. And part of the background in that effort has to do with the transparency the company has committed to, in announcing internal surveys of its workforce.

In the United States PRH division’s nonwarehouse positions, 78 percent of employees were surveyed to be white, 7 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian, and 4 percent Black. By comparison, in warehouse positions, the breakdown was 80 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian, and 3 percent Black.

Vowing to continue sharing its workplace demographics, the company holds up the kind of successes catalogued in the new Global Social Impact Site as a clear example of what it can achieve, within as well as without.

Publishing Perspectives has had an exclusive exchange with Claire von Schilling, Penguin Random House senior vice-president and director of corporate communications, about the release of the Global Social Impact Site, which lays out in far more detail the range and reach of the company’s international activities in corporate responsibility.

We begin by asking von Schilling to tell us about how responsive the various international programs are to their particular markets.

‘Locally Driven’

A shot from the 2019 program Penguin Random House created in partnership with the Afro-Australian Student Organization in Victoria and New South Wales. Image: PRH

Publishing Perspectives: Each program seems driven by its team on the ground.

Claire von Schilling

Claire von Schilling: That’s right. While of course our readers and teams are all around the world, we like to have our social impact work be locally driven. It’s decentralized, just like our publishing.

But we still need to align with our mission. So that’s why we have the three worldwide commitment areas: Diversity & Inclusion; Environment & Sustainability; and Free Expression & Joy of Reading.

You’ll see on the site that we broke these up into separate pages so visitors can really get a deep dive into the commitment areas. But like I was saying, our efforts are locally driven and focused. We take a community-focused approach for the people and places in which we operate. We can be more flexible and dynamic that way.

 PP: And when we read Markus Dohle writing of transparency and how these programs in so many parts of the world can “guide our decision-making across all aspects of our business,” do these efforts led by employees in the field become signals to the executive about where to look for next moves and efforts?

 CvS: Thanks. Yes, transparency is absolutely essential and so important to a business, especially when it comes to social impact.

Transparency and action-oriented commitments guide our decision-making at every level of the company. Even outside of PRH, we know that consumers are demanding that brands stand for something beyond their core business. That’s why our partnerships and programs are always tied with our mission and commitments.

I genuinely believe—and I think I can safely speak on behalf of my colleagues when I say this—that books inherently provide a service to society. I personally feel so fortunate to work for a company that is also, in many ways, a cultural institution. We all are.

So then, we have to strategically think about how we can go beyond the books to further support our communities. And throughout the process of working with our partners and creating our initiatives, we’re always trying to hold ourselves accountable. And the site helps with that.

PP: In light of US CEO Madeline McIntosh’s rollout of the American workforce’s demographic analysis, how does Penguin Random House move toward a kind of adoption or internalization of what the Global Social Impact curation of these efforts shows us?

CvS: Our mission, and our social impact work, is not independent from our business decisions. So I’d like to think that the internalization is already there. But we can always do more. And to best serve the needs of a market, we let our local teams lead the way. We share best practices across our company, and we remain committed to our mission.

‘We Already Have Such Engaged Employees’

Penguin Random House/DK’s ‘Sustainability Working Party’ involves monthly meetings to create and execute global strategy with local employee-led green committees. Image: PRH

PP: Is part of the plan behind releasing the Global Social Impact site aimed at stimulating more such ground-up efforts?

“Seriously, there’s never a shortage of hands in the air when we put out calls for volunteers. And we’ve actually highlighted several of our employee-led grassroots efforts on the site.”Claire von Schilling, Penguin Random House

CvS: Absolutely—and we hope it does! We intentionally designed the site to have a similar look and feel to something like Instagram, so that we can showcase genuine stories as real-time updates and commitments in action. It’s really visually driven, and the short-form style of the stories and stats make it easy to digest, which we hope inspires even more ideas and initiatives from our employees.

All this said, we’re so lucky that we already have such engaged employees in all our territories. Seriously, there’s never a shortage of hands in the air when we put out calls for volunteers. And we’ve actually highlighted several of our employee-led grassroots efforts on the site.

PRH’s company culture nurtures the drive to help. Our social impact team helps bring that energy out for each of us to do our part to make a positive difference in the world.

PP: And in the cases of some of the stories, we see goal dates (as in environmental goals, for example) attached to various programs. How much can this kind of time-line structuring help to support achievement in reaching the results various programs address?

CvS: For years, we’ve been holding ourselves accountable with action-oriented benchmarks. For example, in 2016, we announced our 2020 social responsibility commitments. The ones focused on the environment are good examples of this.

The first commitment was to source 100 percent of the paper we use worldwide from certified mills. By the end of last year, more than 98 percent of our paper was purchased from mills that meet one of the two international standards. And, I’m happy to say we’re fully on track to reach our goal of 100 percent by the end of this year.

Our second goal was to reduce our carbon emissions by 10 percent, which we’ve already exceeded, so we should be able to further total reductions of 20 percent by 2025.

Earlier this year, we announced that we joined Bertelsmann in our commitment to being climate neutral by 2030.

And most recently, as we’ve previously discussed, we shared our US workforce demographics data. Like the UK’s Inclusivity Action Plan, our US company made a commitment to broadly share our data with all our constituencies, and published them on our company site.

We’ll continue to be open and transparent so we can create measurable progress.

More from Publishing Perspectives on issues in diversity is here, and on the climate crisis is here. More from us on Penguin Random House is here, and more on Bertelsmann is here. More on Frankfurter Buchmesse is hereMore from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

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About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.