Agent of Change
Ben Finzel communicates equity and inclusion
By Melissa Lowery
Ben Finzel knew he was bound for Capitol Hill when he graduated from college. After working in two congressional offices, the Washington, D.C. native wanted to save the world, literally, as a lobbyist for the environmental community. Instead, he fell in love with communications and public relations.
Now a PR veteran, Finzel is the president and founder of RENEWPR, a communications consulting firm that provides senior-level advice, counsel and outreach on strategy, messaging, media and partnerships to alliance, association, coalition, corporation, foundation and non-governmental clients tackling energy, environmental and equity issues and opportunities.
We met up for a conversation in November, squeezing in a call first thing in the morning before the long Thanksgiving weekend. I expected him to be a good interview in the sense that, as a PR man, he would know how to stay on message and give me useable quotes. What I did not expect was someone who is challenging his own white cis male privilege before breakfast.
“PR was not on my radar”
Finzel earned a degree in history from Texas Tech University in 1989, then moved back to D.C. where he served in legislative and communications staff positions for two Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives (North Carolina’s Tim Valentine and New Mexico’s Bill Richardson). In 1995, he was ready to explore other opportunities when a former mentor, Neal Flieger, invited him to interview at Edelman, a global public relations firm.
“I hadn’t even thought about PR as a career, it was not on my radar,” Finzel says. “I took a few classes in college but it’s not what I thought I wanted to do. But hey, it was an interview. I ended up getting the job and once I got there, I realized it took skills I had been learning in college and my years on the Hill and brought them all together. I really liked it, I thought it was fun. It was that experience at Edelman that made me want to keep going in PR.”
And keep going he has. Other than a little over a year working for the U.S. Department of Energy as a presidential appointee during the Clinton administration, Finzel has spent the past 25 years working at global, national and boutique communications firms. He has counseled Fortune 500 companies and major businesses, U.S. government agencies, industry trade associations and non-governmental organizations on public affairs and consumer education campaigns, media outreach and partnership development programs and stakeholder relations strategy and outreach.
“I have a responsibility to talk about this”
Saving the world is still what drives Finzel. In 2004, he helped launch FH Out Front at FleishmanHillard, the first global LGBTQ communications practice at a global PR and marketing agency. Just having the opportunity to work on the project was hard-won.
“Not only was it not easy being openly gay when I started in this industry, it was a challenge to get the opportunities to do the extra work required to help build out an industry around LGBTQ communications,” he recalls. “I worked nights and weekends with my FleishmanHillard colleagues around the globe to build out that communications practice. It was my second job.”
Here Finzel calmly begins challenging centuries of privilege, beginning with discrimination against LGBTQ people.
“There’s still a pink ceiling or a purple ceiling, whatever color you want to use, there’s a ceiling for LGBTQ people in the PR industry,” he says. “This is still a very straight white male industry. If you’re a lesbian or non-binary or queer or a person of color, it’s still tough.”
Finzel is quick to acknowledge that while he has faced challenges as an out gay man, he is a cisgender white male himself and lives with a vast amount of privilege. This, he says, is exactly why he should be talking about issues of diversity and equality and inclusion.
“Yes, I’m gay and that definitely puts me in a different category and certainly it’s challenging, but I’m also white. I have a responsibility to talk about this, white people have a responsibility to talk about these issues, otherwise, it’s never going to change,” he says.
He is beginning to see changes in his industry as more and more people realize that agencies need to better reflect the communities they serve. But he is not satisfied.
“You look at these lists of employees and it seems like we put the people of color in the DEI role. Who are the CEOs? Who are the CFOs? Who are the CTOs? Where are the people of color? Where are the people with disabilities? Where are the gay people?” he asks. “It’s great that you’re focusing on DEI, you should, but if all we do is put the marginalized communities in those roles, we’re not exactly doing the work we need to do.”
Finzel is willing to do the work. In 2019, he was one of six PR leaders who came together to create The Change Agencies (TCA), the first-of-its-kind collaborative of multicultural and LGBTQ-owned public relations firms in the United States focused on providing inclusive public relations to multicultural and LGBTQ communities.
“It was really an ingenious idea for a collaboration,” said LaTricia Harper Woods, Founder and President of Mahogany Xan Communications and a founding partner of The Change Agencies. “Ben and I had spent year after year after year presenting about inclusive public relations. Ben called me one day and pitched the idea for The Change Agencies and I was in as soon as he asked. (How could anyone say no to Ben Finzel!) He really is the driving force behind the TCA collaboration and a visionary who keeps generating ideas that move us forward.”
“It’s Not Pie”
When Finzel talks about pursuing equality and inclusion, he frequently references pie. Not the actual dessert — although pie is on our minds with Thanksgiving dinner on the horizon — but the concept of getting your piece of the pie at the expense of others. For all that he loved working at other PR firms during his career, one thing he disliked was the competitive mindset, sometimes against his own colleagues. When he struck out on his own, he worried about finding clients in a town saturated with PR professionals.
But he quickly realized that work and opportunities and money are not finite. It was a profound revelation that altered his perspective as a business owner and as a human being.
“If you look at our industry and look at the work from a place of abundance, you realize there’s enough work for everybody,” he says. “You having equal opportunity, equal compensation and equal responsibility doesn’t take anything away from me. I think that’s the crux of the broader societal issues we’re having.”
This mindset led Finzel to partner with other agencies to create It’s Not Pie, a service specifically designed for organizations that have made the decision to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion, but are now getting pushback from stakeholders.
“Let’s say, for example, you’ve already launched a program and committed to it, but you’re getting pushback in this post-2020 world,” he says. “Maybe your board is saying ‘that’s so last year,’ or your employees are asking why you’re focusing on it so much, or customers are saying it’s just PR fluff. We can help with compelling messaging and outreach to various audiences to explain why DEI is important to you.”
It’s Not Pie can also clarify and fortify promises companies made in response to events in 2020 and beyond. Finzel sees an opportunity to use his expertise to help them keep those promises — it’s another way to save the world.
“All kinds of promises were made — we’re going to spend this amount of money, we’re going to change this, we’re going to do that. Some of them are moving forward, but some are not, and I think we’re going to continue to see people and companies called to account. It’s not enough anymore to say this stuff and hope nobody notices when you don’t do it. That world is gone.”
The Total Package
One of the first things Finzel did after launching RENEWPR in 2015 was begin the application process to become a certified LGBTBE(r).
“I knew that was going to be super important as a way to differentiate myself,” he says. “The fact is that I’m one of lots of smart people doing this work, but I’m also a gay business owner. That’s a whole different set of diverse experiences that make me better than a lot of my competition.”
Finzel said his NGLCC certification provides external validation as a gay-owned business, which not only helps him get more LGBT-centric work but more work in the energy and environment communities. After all, he brings a unique set of skills and perspectives to the table.
“Wouldn’t you rather work with a firm that’s more well-rounded? Wouldn’t you rather work with a firm that has extra abilities and diverse experiences?” he asks, knowing he makes a compelling argument. “And in my case, because of The Change Agencies, I can bring in that whole equity piece and really talk about the broader issues that are now front and center for the energy and environment communities in particular.”
And, Finzel points out, choosing to work with a minority- or women- or LGBT-owned business lets companies back up their DEI promises with action. It’s the definition of a win-win.
“If you care where your dollars go, how cool is it that you can lift up small businesses that are LGBT-owned or owned by people of color or women or veterans? You can do that while also getting quality products, quality service, whatever you’re in the market for. It’s the total package.”
Validation and Affirmation
In 2021, Finzel was inducted into the Public Relations Society of America National Capital Chapter Hall of Fame. I ask what it means to him to receive such an honor when he clearly has the energy and enthusiasm for another couple of decades in the business. Far from retirement, initially, the idea of being nominated for what is usually a lifetime achievement award seemed “ridiculous”, he says. But after he was inducted, he reframed the honor not as a capstone to an impressive and meaningful career but as validation that his work is making a difference.
“My first reaction when my friend, Shonali Burke, said she wanted to nominate me was, ‘I’m not eligible, that’s ridiculous,’” he recalls, admitting that he then realized he was eligible. “Since then I’ve been thinking about what this honor means to me. It’s validation and affirmation, not just of the work I’ve done, the late nights and weekends, but of the work that still needs to be done.”
Ben Finzel and his work can be found at renewpr.com.
Melissa Lowery (she/her) is the Editor of BEQ Pride Magazine and a contributor to other publications focused on economic equality. A native of Kansas, she enjoys subverting stereotypes and is determined to maintain her status as World’s Greatest Aunt to her 13 nieces and nephews.