Penguin Random House: New Stories of Social Impact

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The Penguin Random House site focused on the publisher’s social-outreach programs has a 2020 update on international projects and the company’s own growth in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Image: Penguin Random House, Social Impact Report, 2020

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

A 2020 Report on Ongoing Development
During Frankfurter Buchmesse in October, Publishing Perspectives looked at a new Global Social Impact site rolled out by Penguin Random House.

Now at that site, a 2020 Social Impact Report, as worldwide CEO Markus Dohle says, adds updated views into the efforts of employees who are “responding to the pandemic, acting in support of and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and doing their part to help combat climate change. Leading with action empowers us to connect deeply with our communities, our readers, and ourselves.”

Today (July 22), Kim Shariff, the company’s executive vice-president for diversity, equity, and inclusion updates the staff in a town hall on the status of the company’s progress in the diversity, equity, and inclusion—which Dohle announced in 2016 would be an official corporate priority at Penguin Random House.

Markus Dohle

In the company’s efforts to formulate and implement points of progress, it has brought into perspective the fact that institutional selfhood—the collective consciousness with which a publishing corporation understands itself–doesn’t weigh issues of social importance only on one scale. As we wrote in October, equity challenges between genders, races, sexual orientations, and social-economic status tend to fall most quickly into two questions of what might be called demographic coherence:

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

But, as we said then, a third element here has to do with an outward-facing question:

  • How much do a publisher and its people reach out to the communities in which they operate?
“Leading with action empowers us to connect deeply with our communities, our readers, and ourselves.”Markus Dohle, Penguin Random House

In a time of internal review and development, it’s especially helpful to remember that this realm of social impact, corporate responsibility, may not be directly tied to a publisher’s lists or acquisitions—or it may be. It also may not reflect how a company is wrestling with its “DEI” considerations in-house—or it may.

As book publishing works its way through a shifting and robust landscape of newly examined values, a healthy new gravitational attraction may be developing. Penguin Random House, for its sheer size and position in the industry, is one to watch. What does a company’s internal work on itself provide in terms of thoughtful guidance to employees who want to engage in outreach?

That landscape of values is the very marketplace in which books find their greatest missions and need. Today, a book company and its people have a chance to affect a world in which political posturing gives new oxygen to discrimination and hatred. The opportunity then arises for what’s explored internally to find expression in the community, as well—social impact.

Claire von Schilling

When we wrote in October about this phenomenon at Penguin Random House, Claire von Schilling, Penguin Random House senior vice-president and director of corporate communications, told us that the corporate responsibility programs that PRH mounts in various parts of the world are generated by the local teams of employees, not top-down but people on the ground, citizens responsive to the communities in which they live.

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

The ideas are generated by thinking of what can be done for and in a community, ideas that go beyond the service of the books, themselves, provided by the company.

“We have to strategically think about how we can go beyond the books to further support our communities,” von Schilling said. “And throughout the process of working with our partners and creating our initiatives, we’re always trying to hold ourselves accountable.”

Workforce Reflections

Image: Penguin Random House, Social Impact Report, 2020

Last month, when PRH released the 2020 Social Impact Report, the projects reported in it were again sorted into the program’s three key thematic areas:

Beyond that, however, the program also responded to the company’s policy of annually sharing its United States company’s workforce demographics, which—in this summer’s report on 2020—show white workers making up 78 percent of non-warehouse workers and 80 percent of warehouse workers. Black workers made up 4 and 3 percent of non-warehouse and warehouse employees respectively, Asian workers only 8 and 4 percent, Hispanic workers 7 and 11 percent.

Image: Penguin Random House, Social Impact Report, 2020

As the company cultivates its diversity consciousness, it has been growing now for five years toward a better understanding of what those numbers mean.

After Dohle had established diversity and inclusion as a corporate priority at Penguin Random House in 2016. a council on the issue was formed the next year, and in 2018 workshops titled “Uncovering Bias” were initiated—a series of events that today has seen 1,779 employees participating in it, according to the company.

Each year, new initiatives have been added, including in 2019 a set of action plan points that include:

  • Leadership investment
  • Diversity and representation
  • Career growth
  • Psychological safety and belonging

Kim Shariff

Shariff sometimes uses the phrase “learning each other’s stories.”

As soon as you hear this, you realize that it’s about opening up to the human side of a coworker, a vendor, a colleague, a reader, and it has a lot to do with what a good program in diversity, equity, and inclusion can do in any setting—particularly in publishing in which storytelling is such a fundamental component.

In social responsibility projects, employees not only are telling a story of their own concern, compassion, and interest in their communities, but they’re also seeing those communities’ stories play out—in vaccinated times, at close proximity.

Image: Panorama Project, Immersive Media & Books 2020 Consumer Survey

In fact, one thing community-engaged PRH staffers may start spotting was surfaced earlier this year in the Panorama Project’s Immersive Media & Books 2020 Consumer Survey.

In that extensive research based at Portland State University (we reported on it Tuesday), the study’s data showed men leading women—and not by fractional amounts—in book-consumer patterns. Contrary to typically expected behavior around books and reading in the United States, the Panorama Project found that American men in 2020 were surpassing women as buyers of books, except as gifts. Men were borrowing library books they’d first found online. They were buying titles at bookstores after discovering them at libraries, too. And they were doing these things and more at higher rates than women were.

“Demographics to watch,” the researchers wrote, are “men, millennials, and non-white people of all generations. They engage with more books than middle-class baby boomer women, except in the context of book gifting.”

What makes a context like Penguin Random House’s diversity, equity, and inclusion program so valuable, is that it helps prime a publishing house staff to detect the value of such data as that from the Panorama Project and research it in situ, test it in how consumers are reacting to the work at hand.

Is it an early sign of a shift in consumer demographics? Is it an anomaly? The more open and capable of social-impact outreach a publisher becomes, the better that house’s team can assess such information and explore it in the marketplace.

International Outreach Programs

Image: Penguin Random House, Social Impact Report, 2020

The 2020 Penguin Random House social impact report is replete with examples of PRH corporate responsibility projects, particularly impressive in that many were being handled during the coronavirus emergency. This may account, in fact, for an uptake in upcoming projects, as well, in a future bolstered by vaccination programs, needless to say.

Here are some selected examples of PRH employees’ efforts in the field.

  • In the Western Cape of South Africa, more than 1,300 Disney titles were donated to primary schools, in concert with the nonprofit Help 2 Read literacy program.
  • In Germany personal celebrity visits at schools were replaced with personalized book packages for youngsters on the November 20 National Read Aloud Day, a project that included more than 1,000 audiobooks and books given to schools, kindergartens, and daycare centers.
  • When the Toronto Public Library’s branches were closed amid the COVID-19 crisis, PRH Canada worked with the library’s foundation to add children’s books to food hampers being distributed, a project that came to a donation of some 2,000 books for young readers.
  • PRH Australia, supported by PRH Canada and PRH United States, raised US$75,000 through fundraising events for Australian Red Cross and wildlife rescue organizations responding to the unprecedented scale of bushfires that struck New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia.
  • In Spain, PRH’s Grupo Editorial operations are targeting next year for the transition to plant-based ink, ” along with biodegradable and compostable plastics for book shrink-wrapping.”
  • In December in Germany, PRH signed the “Healthy Printing Charter,” designed “to ensure that all materials are returned to the cycle and can continue to be used.
  • In Canada, the company retained a Black- and Indigenous-owned professional services firm called Future Ancestors to provide anti-racism training to employees and serve as a consultancy on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • In the United Kingdom, PRH partnered with the Runnymede Trust to created “Lit in Colour,” which works to diversify school reading lists, inspiring young people to read outside their classes.
  • In India, a series of conversations with leading PRH authors was mounted with a focus on internationally pertinent issues facing women, journalist Pragya Tiwari leading discussions that touched on domestic violence and sexual abuse, women’s safety, and financial independence.

More is available in the 2020 report, which, as Dohle says in his introduction, sees the company’s employees as its stakeholders and transparency as its promise. Five years into its tenure as a corporate priority, the “DEI” group of issues clearly has a prominent and growing place at the world’s largest publisher.

Image: Penguin Random House, Social Impact Report, 2020

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 Frankfurter Buchmesse is here

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

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.