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Paramount’s Crystal Barnes on Creating Impactful Change

“Consistency and measurement are transformational in the entertainment industry.”

Paramount’s Crystal Barnes on Creating Impactful Change

“Consistency and measurement are transformational in the entertainment industry.”

Published 07-17-23

Submitted by Paramount

Crystal Barnes

By Nicole Bitette 
Photos by David Williams

Our In the Office With ... series, gives Paramount executives the opportunity to reveal a little bit about who they are, how they lead, and what drives them in the day-to-day.

“I thrive off creating new things,” says Crystal Barnes, EVP of corporate social responsibility and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) at Paramount.

For much of her career, Barnes pursued roles that were previously nonexistent. She came to Paramount in 2019, with a focus on expanding its CSR strategy and building on its legacy of supporting underrepresented communities. She established the Paramount ESG team in 2020. And in 2021, she helped to expand BET’s Content for Change initiative companywide, which uses data-driven insights to transform Paramount’s creative ecosystem.

Recently, Paramount announced a partnership with Salesforce to create the Paramount Production Diversity Measurement Infrastructure. The platform furthers the Content for Change initiative by enabling Paramount to track the diversity and gender of its production suppliers. On a larger scale, it aims to redefine how the industry is keeping track of diversity and ensuring representation across all aspects of content creation.

Barnes spoke to the Newsroom about the evolution of CSR and ESG at Paramount and her career.

Nicole Bitette: You started at Paramount (then Viacom) in 2019. What excited you about the position?

Crystal Barnes: When I took this role, I knew we needed to figure out how to lean into our superpower. A natural part of that process meant reviewing our portfolio of community partners and philanthropic giving to refine our strategy and make more strategic decisions with our dollars. It also meant doubling down on key relationships and building new ones in the areas that are most material and relevant to our industry, audiences, communities, and brands. We have a legacy of using our platforms to inform culture and spark conversation on issues that fuel the world – like diversity, civic engagement, mental health, and countless others.

We have children to great-grandparents in our audience. No other media company has that to our extent. What these past three years have displayed is that there is a huge need for multi-generational dialogue in homes around tough topics. No other media company can help facilitate that the way that we can.

Now, we're here in the moment with Content for Change — that's our superpower. It’s about infusing different processes, different thinking, diverse backgrounds, diverse mindsets, and different backgrounds into the entire content creation process so that the output of anything we create is through a Content For Change lens. Where we are right now is where I wanted to get to when I first took the role.

NB: How does Content for Change reflect the future you envision for Paramount and the industry?

CB: Content for Change is an outpouring of that opportunity. It builds on the amazing work of our Office of Global Inclusion and centers on understanding the role media plays in where we are today as a society. We're transparent about our evolution, and we're doing the work to see where we are in our own journey.

The goal is that diversity, in every form, is woven into the fabric of who we are and how our business succeeds. It's in our culture. It's the expectation of our talent when they come to work with us and how we show up at tentpoles. It's the visuals that you see that represent our organization and the content we produce. It also should be reflected in our suppliers. It’s the ambition that if you’re going to do business with Paramount, we both require and uphold a commitment to progress in this space. Content for Change is a systems approach to change. It will take time and intention but I believe we are on a path to accelerated progress. 

NB: Can you share more about the Paramount partnership with Salesforce?

CB: We realized there’s no database or consistent system across the board that tracks diversity numbers within our productions, which was wild to me. On the corporate side, Paramount is able to track its diversity numbers for its full-time employees, but it becomes much more difficult when you start to look at productions with third-party staff, such as crew, makeup artists, extras, vendors, etc. Various departments were keeping track of this data in spreadsheets, Decks, documents, etc. And at other companies, we were hearing very much the same.

Tanmay Manohar, VP of people analytics and workforce planning, and his team took a Salesforce infrastructure that was custom-built for CBS and built it out so that it can accommodate the DE&I production data across all of our brands. We use it on a few of our TV projects now, and we plan to roll it out across all of our domestic television productions to start.

Our Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Marva Smalls often says what gets measured, matters. This partnership with Salesforce reinforces our commitment to making more data-driven decisions around our content and its creation. Big picture, we’d love for this platform to be adopted by the industry to begin standardizing data collection from productions.

NB: What are we learning from the research part of Content for Change?

CB: Content For Change has two research buckets. The research with the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative is around representation. We held the mirror up to ourselves across a slew of programming to figure out where we stand. It's a sample, but it's a good start.

The other bucket is the research with Stanford SPARQ on portrayals. We're trying to evaluate how our representation comes across in juxtaposition to character portrayals on screen. If diverse roles are stereotypical, then the impact is consequential. That's where I get excited and that's where I think we're actually doing things differently. It's not just about more diverse faces on screen, it's going deeper to evaluate the speaking roles of those characters and how they are positioned and represented within storylines. It's about being responsible for the narrative of the stories that we tell. That's where I think Content for Change is most powerful.

NB: What do you find the most impactful about your work?

CB: The fact that it has real-world application. The team makes great efforts to continue to motivate our employees and help them to feel connected to our purpose as a company. People are doing a job, but they want to know that what they're doing matters. We help to bring that to life for employees, whether it be through our CSR initiatives like our annual global day of service. Even in the middle of the pandemic when everything was scary, we heard from many people that they didn't want Community Day to stop because it was a unifier, it fostered connection when we needed it most, and it provided a way to spread love and care to people and communities. That honestly still chokes me up to this day because the world was chaotic and yet people still reached out to our team to say “Don't stop. Keep doing this. We need it.” And our amazing CSR team stepped up to the challenge.

Those are the things that make me feel like I’m walking in my purpose and in a great position. It’s the humanity of it all that fuels me — and the fact that we are able to bring it to life every single day is both a journey and a dream.

NB: How has Paramount evolved in the ESG space?

CB: The leaders on our ESG team are rockstars. They built an ESG strategy and external reporting structure from the ground up. One of the reasons why I came to Paramount was that there was foundational sustainability work happening across teams, including for decades on our Paramount Pictures lot, however, there was an opportunity to build an ESG team and develop a structure and process for sustainability globally.

We were able to look across the house and gain an understanding of what was happening, give people the credit that they deserve for work already happening, create a strategy around it, and start reporting publicly on ESG. It’s becoming a larger expectation for companies to publicly report and to be transparent about their data.

We published our first ESG report in 2020 and we worked on how we could develop our own narrative as a company. We now have environmental sustainability goals. We have a UK pilot to set greenhouse gas emission targets.

I'm proud of the infrastructure that the ESG team has set up with our partners across the company. Our board and CEO Bob Bakish have charged us with being the leaders of ESG in the media and entertainment industry — and we're working through defining what that means for us as a company and telling that story externally.

NB: Let’s talk about your career overall. What was your first full-time role?

CB: I started off at Nielsen in a rotational program, doing different jobs in New York, L.A., Tampa, and Chicago. Companies were just starting to do management rotation programs more frequently, and we were Nielsen’s first cohort in quite some time. The irony of me eventually coming to Paramount is that the rotation program was like “The Real World”. Three guys and three girls in an apartment building We came from everywhere with all different backgrounds, but all had some sort of connectivity either to media and entertainment or to data insights and research.

NB: How did that experience evolve into CSR?

CB: While at Nielsen, I worked with a friend and colleague to help to build Nielsen Cares, which was all about using data, research, and analytics to help non-profits accelerate their work. For example, when the Ebola crisis struck, surveyors were dying as they were going to evaluate what was happening on the ground. Nielsen data scientists and researchers helped to map out how to use mobile data and technology to extract and collect the information so that people didn't have to be physically present to assess what was going on.

Who knew data and research from a media company could save lives? Data for Good was our mission and making that connection for the company was transformative.

NB: What led you to join Paramount?

CB: I wanted to go to a company that had the resources to do great things, a history of doing great things, and an opportunity to make new things. I thrive off of creating new things.

I knew it was a great fit when I interviewed with Julia Phelps, Paramount’s chief communications and corporate marketing officer. I said in my interview: “Listen, this is who I am. I'm always going to be me. I'm always going to be real. I need a runway to build and create because that's where I find energy.” That’s my mentality and she was fully supportive. When I'm able to find a company or a role with a manager that allows for that flexibility, that’s my sweet spot and how I'm able to lean into my superpower for good.


Q: What are the qualities you look for in a hire?

CB: The ability to communicate effectively, willingness to take on challenges, find opportunities and step into them, and be self-sufficient. Another thing: The ability to sell. You need to build trust and sell what we're doing because, especially on the ESG side, in many cases, you are talking about a topic that is fairly new to most and has become highly politicized. You have to build their trust in your thinking and process because ESG is a team sport – it’s only successful if everyone is on board.

Q: What is your current obsession?

CB: Boxing. I didn't initially realize the depth that George Floyd’s murder had on my mental health, personally and professionally. Being a mom, a black woman in corporate America, and sitting in this seat you see, hear, and experience the thoughts, opinions, and pain of others alongside your own. So I started boxing in 2020 and I boxed regularly for a year. It helped me to release tension—to take it out on the bag and on my poor trainer.

Q: If you weren’t in this industry, what would you do for a living and why?

CB: I would be helping entertainers and athletes set up credible foundations that are connected to their passions. I always say when I retire, I'm going to do that pro-bono because it's sometimes just a couple of small tweaks that could personalize their work and take their philanthropy to the next build and create because that's where I find energy.” That’s my mentality and she was fully supportive. When I'm able to find a company or a role with a manager that allows for that flexibility, that’s my sweet spot and how I'm able to lean into my superpower for good.

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About Paramount Global
Paramount Global (NASDAQ: PARA, PARAA) is a leading global media and entertainment company that creates premium content and experiences for audiences worldwide. Driven by iconic studios, networks and streaming services, its portfolio of consumer brands includes CBS, Showtime Networks, Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, BET, Paramount+, Pluto TV and Simon & Schuster, among others. The company delivers the largest share of the U.S. television audience and boasts one of the industry's most important and extensive libraries of TV and film titles. In addition to offering innovative streaming services and digital video products, Paramount Global provides powerful capabilities in production, distribution and advertising solutions.

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