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How to create a diverse PR culture

The PRCA’s 2016 Census, found that 91% of the PR profession are white and 89% British. Rebecca Oatley, managing director of agency Cherish PR, describes how her PR agency succeeds in being diverse.

As a PR professional, am I racist? Are you? Why, as an enlightened professional in an industry at the cutting edge of corporate communication and consumer beliefs, should I even ask myself that question?

Last month’s government report is bound to make us all ask ourselves that question. Its audit of racial disparities in 130 public services including education, housing, employment and criminal justice found that minority groups are under-represented in the civil service, they are excluded more from school, they are more likely to be arrested and suffer emotional problems. The report’s findings left us in no doubt that institutional Britain was pushing back on those who didn’t fit the white, middle-class mould, and according to the PRCA’s 2016 Census, the PR industry doesn’t fare well either. It found that 91% of the PR profession are white and 89% British.

If PR is influencing corporate positioning, shaping big company behaviours, focusing public perception and facilitating media stories, then we have a responsibility to ensure that our industry is diverse, open, forward-thinking and dynamic in changing the way we and our clients behave as well as communicate.

At Cherish, we are 20% Asian British, 10% Asian American, 40% White British and 30% White Other (Canada, New Zealand, American). We’re truly international, ethnically diverse and we’re a pretty small company. We don’t have diversity targets or rules, or even a checklist of the types of people we “should” be hiring. We recruit to values, skills, experience, and we’re recruiting diversely. So how then have we created such a diverse PR culture?

Ditching the label
Diversity by its very nature implies that we fall into groups; labels categorised by our ethnic background, gender, sexuality, physical ability, but in reality the only thing that truly defines us is our humanity. Everyone should start on a level playing field. It’s hard. Human nature needs to classify and to rank oneself within a group and against others – take the first question we ask when we meet someone for the first time, “What do you do?” Try to avoid the trap by not actively recruiting for diversity. Take anything that may encourage classification and stereotypes out of the process and start with the person.

What makes your business attractive?
Let’s face it. Certain sectors attract certain types of people. What appeals to us personally will drive our professional choices. As an employer it’s important to make your business attractive to all types of people and professionals. Think about what elements of your corporate environment, the job function, the skill set will attract a diversity of respondents and work on advertising that.

Soft skills first
We flip the traditional recruitment process and review applicants based on their soft skills first. What are they really proud of? What was the funniest thing that ever happened to them? How did they deal with a personal challenge? What are their personal goals and ambitions? If that fits, then we’ll move on to skills and experience but our preliminary judgements have been made on personality fit, not that they were at a certain school, university or have come through typical institutions.

Grow within
Give people a break early on. When you are starting out on your career, the institutional barriers are at their lowest. We see the most diverse applications coming from interns or first jobbers and some of our best consultants have started life as interns. By investing in people at an early stage, you can cultivate great talent and foster diversity in a positive environment.

Celebrate difference
When I first started in PR, I came up against racism, sexism and I’m sure in the not too distant future I’ll face ageism too. In agencies there was too much pressure to conform and this hasn’t changed. Companies hide behind processes but essentially it’s a fear of what difference can do. However, in an age of disruption, let’s tackle conformism by celebrating and encouraging difference. I like being 49 and I want to celebrate everything it brings to Cherish. Just as I want my team to celebrate their differences too.

So let’s make difference a positive; something we want to shout about and not be embarrassed or fearful of. Let’s not let the government use it as a political weapon to say they’re better than the old guard or a baton to rally a new group of voters who are disenfranchised. Let’s do something about it by questioning the way that we, as businesses, think and behave.

Article written by Rebecca Oatley, managing director of agency Cherish PR

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