Why public relations needs more diversity to help it thrive

From sport, to the world of finance, public relations and communications professionals work in every sector, be it agency side or client side. The industry rewards creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking and the roles and the skills required to be an effective practitioner are so diverse that the industry should easily attract people from all walks of life.

However, like so many professions, there is still more to do until the PR and communications industry better reflects the communities it should serve.

The latest figures show that the industry is predominantly female, with 68 per cent identifying as such. While some of the most famous fictional PRs such as Samantha Jones in Sex & The City and Scandal’s Olivia Pope show women working at the top of their game as publicists and crisis communications experts, in real life the most senior roles are often held by men.

Groups such as Women in PR and Women in Public Affairs have been established to increase the number and seniority of women in communications. They provide a mix of mentoring and training opportunities and the chance to network with senior leaders from the world of media, politics, and communications. In recent years we have seen both male and female leaders across the industry championing gender diversity and implementing ways of working that attract and retain senior female talent and greater recognition of the fact that childcare is not a women’s issue, but a people issue.

The outbreak of Covid-19 led to mass migration to working from home which proved to many of the naysayers that people can deliver great work away from the office. However working from home during a pandemic is not the same as flexible working. Many professionals who are working from home have also had to home-school their children at various points during the pandemic, and the burden has been felt, in the main, by working mothers. The impact that this juggling act will have on the progression of female communications professionals is not yet clear, but industry figures show that the gender pay gap has risen from 14 per cent in 2019 to 21 per cent in October 2020.

The face of leadership teams within both agencies and in-house communications teams has remained largely unchanged. However, with the BLM movement gaining pace in 2020 there were more honest conversations about the need to attract and retain Black and Brown talent.

Industry bodies including the CIPR have illuminated the challenges and experiences of ethnic talent in the industry, and we saw long-standing board members of the PRCA stand down to make space for Black, Brown and female leaders to join their board of directors. That said, the latest PRCA Census showed that the industry does not retain ethnically diverse talent - senior leaders are overwhelmingly White British (88%) despite just 54% of account executives identifying as such.

However research, published by the UK Black Comms Network which was founded to increase the number and seniority of Black comms professionals, shows the challenges faced by Black communications professionals as they seek to progress their careers. One of the key findings was that employees of African or Caribbean heritage were more likely to receive written or verbal praise for their efforts in the workplace rather than a pay rise, bonus or promotion which are the gateway to more senior leadership roles. Conversely, this had inspired many practitioners to contemplate establishing their own consultancies in order to take control of their progression.

In addition, communities such as People Like Us have been established, as spaces where Black and Brown talent can network and showcase their expertise. And the industry bodies are looking at how they can affect positive change, with the PRCA recently establishing the The Race Ethnicity and Equity Board providing a permanent platform to challenge racial disparities in comms and effect change.

With measurable actions to improve diversity and inclusion and ensure a more equitable experience for those from different backgrounds in their infancy, change is happening - albeit slowly. In addition, social class continues to be the elephant in the room and conversations about disability and neurodiversity, for example, are sparse and not given the platform needed to drive change.

One thing that won’t change is that PR is a people business and while relying on who you know rather than what you know may cause you to become unstuck, industry relationships can prove to be invaluable throughout your career. The advent of networking platforms such as Linkedin and networks like the UK Black Comms Network make it easier than ever to grow your network in a meaningful way, even in socially-distanced times, by giving you access to potential employers, recruiters, mentors and peers.

The old adage may be that people can’t be what they can’t see, but one of the important ways to improve diversity as an underrepresented group is to ensure that even though you may be the first, you won’t be the last.

Thanks so much to Kamiqua Pearce, CEO of Coldr and UK Black Comms Network blog for writing for us.

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This is part of our Beginner's Guide to public relations