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It‘s time for PR to change says Bieneosa Ebite, chair of Ignite, the organisation that promotes the benefits of cultural diversity in PR

The findings of Manchester Business School’s Dr Lee Edward’s research, which explored the experiences of black and minority ethnic practitioners working in PR in the UK, kick-started a new momentum in the debate around the need for greater diversity in the industry.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen the debate focus on unpaid internships and the subsequent impact this practice has on creating barriers to entry for people from under-represented groups. Most recently, there has been interest in the findings of Lord Davies Review of Women on Boards, with questions raised about the lack of women in PR at board level and possible solutions to improve the situation.

In an unprecedented move, both the CIPR and the PRCA have launched initiatives (at the same time) to “identify the scale and nature of the challenges facing the PR profession in order to become more diverse on every level” and “to look at the barriers to entry which exist within our industry, and to examine how to widen access so that the very best people are attracted to PR as a career” respectively. I welcome the positive steps that both organisations are taking to address an issue which has been relegated to the back burner for far too long. However, I must caveat this welcome with the need for these initiatives to go hand in hand with a commitment to long-lasting and tangible change.

In 2005, the CIPR launched a policy to boost diversity and to make practitioners more aware of diversity issues. Despite institutions such as the Commission for Racial Equality (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission), the Disability Rights Commission and Stonewall acting as advisers for the CIPR on the development of its policy, the CIPR failed to translate policy into action and the initiative was condemned as a tick-box exercise. We cannot afford for this to happen again.

The failure of the industry to diversify its workforce has kept it locked in a demographic bubble, while the external landscape has become more diverse than ever. By failing to draw on the widest talent pool possible, we have been limiting our collective creativity and innovation, reducing our ability to engage with different audiences and failing to spot upcoming trends. While these arguments may seem woolly to those who are sceptical of the diversity agenda, let’s not forget that diversity means business. This year, the combined spending power of Britain’s ethnic communities is expected to exceed £300 billion and the disabled market is worth in excess of £80 billion. Both of these groups are seriously under-represented in the PR industry.

It is clear to me that the PR industry is at the crossroads of change. This time, the price for remaining a spectator is far too high: we will simply get left behind and cease to be relevant to heterogeneous audiences both at home and abroad.

As PR practitioners we know that behavioural change does not happen overnight and that there needs to be a critical mass of people in support for the change to take place. Our industry bodies cannot act in isolation, nor can they solve the problem in isolation. However, both the CIPR and the PRCA are in a position to educate and lead change by developing a clear vision for the future of the PR industry in relation to diversity and, importantly, how things will be different.

To move beyond hollow rhetoric, our industry bodies need to put supportive structures in place to empower and encourage people to realise the vision. It’s not going to be an easy ride and they will need to have the steely conviction to remove obstacles and obstructions to change. As readers of John Kotter’s The Heart of Change will know, sustainable change needs to be embedded and become part of the general culture of how things are done. We have a realistic chance of achieving sustainable change if we acknowledge that the time for the PR industry to change is now.

Bieneosa Ebite (@bieneosa) is the managing director of Bright Star Public Relations and is the chair of Ignite, an organisation that promotes the benefits of cultural diversity in PR.

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