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Ethnic diversity and racism in PR – what will it take to create change?

The current explosion of interest in ethnic diversity began with the brutal murder of George Floyd and the PR industry’s engagement with ‘race’ has arguably been prompted by demands for organisations, in all sectors, to respond to racial injustice. But the challenge of racism in the industry is not new.

Change matters

It has been encouraging to see the volume of interest in the lack of ethnic diversity in the public relations industry over the past few weeks. The CIPR report ‘Race in PR: BAME lived experiences in the UK PR industry’ highlights the pervasiveness of racism in the sector, the pain it causes, and the price individuals pay in terms of career progression and profile. The launch of The Blueprint, a ‘kitemark’ for diversity in the industry developed by the BME PR Pros founder Elizabeth Bananuka and her advisory board, provides a much-needed toolkit for companies who want to improve how they deal with diversity in their day-to-day practices. Our own survey on the experiences of BAME professionals across the promotional industries, conducted by researchers at the LSE and Goldsmiths College, also launched last week. A new Black Comms Network has been set up, and statements about commitments to reducing racial inequality and discrimination proliferate.

One might assume that this confluence of events and interest is an indicator that change is on the rise. There are no dissenting voices. On the contrary, most are saying that the racism and lack of ethnic diversity in the industry is shameful. But this is not the first time that the industry has enthused about ethnic diversity.

Past studies

The first comprehensive study of the experiences of Black and minority ethnic practitioners was conducted a decade ago by Dr Lee Edwards at Manchester Business School. Fifty practitioners participated in focus groups, interviews and kept diaries. Company websites and industry media were analysed. An industry report was published, and our networking group, Ignite, was set up in 2009. We ran regular networking events until 2012 and published a manifesto for change, all with the support of leading agencies (information about the group and its activities can still be found on our old website).

At the industry conference that launched the report, the PRCA, the CIPR, and some of the industry’s leading consultancies welcomed the results and insisted that the industry could do better. The PRCA’s Access Commission, the CIPR’s Diversity Working Group, and the Taylor Bennett Foundation were all set up around the same time period. Then, as now, there were no dissenting voices; most were saying that the racism and lack of ethnic diversity in the industry was shameful.

Backward steps

In the end, however, the industry has gone backwards. It would be too generous to say it remained in the same position. The numbers of non-white practitioners have gone down almost consistently through the decade; the data on the experiences of BAME practitioners remains woeful; and the excuses for their absence remain old tropes such as the pipeline problem, a lack of awareness, a lack of enthusiasm among ethnic communities, a lack of PR for PR. We worry that the current initiatives will be one more flash in the pan among industry leaders, and that Black and other minority ethnic practitioners will continue to bear the brunt of professional effort – and professional pain – when it comes to ‘race’ in public relations.

Solutions to the problem lie not only in knowing about the lack of ethnic diversity, and persistent racism, and wanting to make a difference. They require more fundamental action. The PR industry needs to hold a mirror up to itself and confront the truth: it is part of a system that maintains white privilege. Change will only happen through systemic reform, not alteration or adjustment. The industry and its practitioners have to be rule-breakers: radical professional voices that actively seek out and challenge racist assumptions within the field and beyond it. Listening to voices that disturb the dominant view and point out the industry’s failings is essential to effective change. As Kamiqua Pearce has argued, it is not about empathy, it is about solidarity.

The future

Improving diversity is an exercise in democracy: sharing power, privilege, and decision-making – not just evening up numbers. This is not a simple ask. Research shows that professional fields like PR tend to pursue change only when it facilitates power for those who already enjoy status and legitimacy. To really overcome racism, the industry needs to engage in an ongoing, challenging and detailed exercise in self-reflexivity about its intractable whiteness. Only then will the promises of change be realised.

Written by Caroline Bernard, Magda Bulska, Bieneosa Ebite, Lee Edwards, Sarah Middleton, and Paul Nezandonyi of Ignite, the organisation that promotes the benefits of cultural diversity in PR

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