Increasing diversity: The steps PR must take to better reflect the society that it communicates with

By now PR should better reflect society, instead of being the domain of the white and middle classes. 

As Jodie Harris, head of content and digital PR at agency MediaVision, says:There is a lot of talk and not enough action around inclusivity in public relations”. Harris says that the problem is that the industry still relies on degree-educated candidates from red-brick universities who have cut their teeth in big agencies. “Instead of hiring someone based purely on where they’ve been and what they’ve studied, we should be looking to acquire people with raw talent and transferable skills.” Below, other senior PROs outline the steps the industry needs to take to be inclusive, and PROs from BME (Black and minority ethnicities) discuss their experiences of working in PR.

How to create more diversity  

Be aware of the problem says Daljit Bhurji, CEO and co-founder of PR agency Diffusion: “Awareness usually needs to come before action, so I personally welcome the ever-higher volume of the diversity discussion. We are finally seeing a growing acceptance that addressing diversity is not about ‘being PC’ but instead a genuine commercial imperative that safeguards the effectiveness and relevance of the PR industry and crucially attracts and retains new pools of talent. Whilst we are making progress, there is still a lot more talking to do until the leadership teams of every UK agency and in-house comms team have sat down to honestly discuss their approach and commitment to improving both diversity and inclusion.”   

Support the Blueprint initiative adds Bhurji: “Many enlightened organisations, particularly those with public-sector connections, are already taking action which is to be welcomed. However, there is arguably a vacuum of PR-industry-specific guidance on best practice when it comes to addressing the entire diversity story from open recruitment and company culture to retaining and developing BME talent at management level. That is why I am supporting The Blueprint initiative from BME PR Pros alongside other industry leaders, to develop practical diversity advice and guidance, whether you are a team of five or 500. I personally believe developing a common set of standards will be the fastest and most consistent way to help the PR profession continue to talk the talk on diversity and walk the walk with real confidence and in a spirit of common endeavour.”  

Put pressure on recruitment agencies says Amanda Fone, CEO and founder f1 Recruitment, who co-founded BAME 2020 with Adrian Walcott, founder of Brands with Value: “In a near-full employment market it is too easy for recruiters to rely on moving the same talent from agency to agency. This leads to wage inflation and a workforce that has little loyalty and commitment to their employers. New pipelines of talent create a better balance in the market. We want agencies to put more pressure on their recruitment partners to demonstrate what they are actively doing to increase the pipeline of BME and ‘diverse’ talent into the PR industry.  

“In house talent teams and external talent partners are part of the solution as well as part of the problem. So engage with them and ask them about their plans to help your agency hire and develop more BME and ‘diverse’ professionals.”  

Integrate more says Jasmine El-Gabban, account manager at agency Alpaca Communications: “The lack of diversity in leadership roles and senior creative positions is a real problem. New recruitment policies and changing workplace culture seems to have become ‘the answer’, but it’s not. It’s not just about there being more people of colour in agencies, it’s about changing the way people think.   

“BME PROs see the world differently, we pull from our diverse backgrounds and experiences and provide different insights into what’s ‘newsworthy’, and yes even create Cannes winning work. But, we can also lead agencies and teams, and we’re not just here to provide a ‘diverse’’ take on a pitch problem.  

“I believe that greater integration is the solution, we need to work together as much as possible. I believe that our industry’s mentoring schemes, for example, should provide the opportunity for leading BME professionals to mentor young white-middle class PROs and vice versa. An understanding, awareness and appreciation of each other will then develop to everyone’s benefit.”  

Offer paid internships says Victoria Naylor-Leyland, chief commercial officer at communications agency Pembroke and Rye: “When hiring, it’s not good enough to say that there weren’t any candidates from a BME or ‘lower-class’ background. It is insufficient to say: “we hire on talent alone”.

“PR needs to be an attractive, attainable career for interested people – whatever their background, educational attainment or skin colour. What does this mean in practice? Well, there’s no single, magic solution. But there are steps we can take. Getting behind excellent initiatives like BME PR Pros and the Taylor Bennett Foundation is a great start. Offering fully paid internships is another. 

“We make a special effort to go to universities that don’t have ready-made connections into the industry. Every intern is paid at least the London Living Wage. We also run seminars for everyone in our business highlighting some of the biases that can impact on recruitment and include them in that process.”

Think about your website says Maria Adediran, senior account manager at PR agency Wimbart: "If you take a look at most PR agencies’ websites, rarely do you see BME on their team page especially in senior positions. As a black woman, it wouldn't drive me to want to work at such agencies because everyone else looks the same – predominantly white. I definitely think PR firms and departments need to make a conscious effort to not only recruit BME talent, but attract them.

“Public relations was never a career choice until my current boss introduced me to the industry and equipped me with the knowledge and skills that I need to excel. We’re a small team of seven at Wimbart – all BME and mostly women – so for me, diversity was never a topic I thought much of until I started attending PR events. In one instance, I attended an event with no more than six BME people out of over 200 PR professionals. In order to really tackle this issue, PR agencies need to proactively ensure that their team better reflects society." 

Start at the top says Nicole Rohde, PR manager at bag makers Maxwell-Scott: “In order to achieve diversity in the PR industry, the change has to come from the top down. If you are a manager and are in a position to hire a new PR team member, try to embrace difference rather than gravitate towards what you are familiar with. A diverse PR team encourages different thinking, a sensitivity toward other cultures and ideas. The world and your audience is diverse and your PR team should reflect that. Having a different cultural background myself, I can confirm that it is invaluable to look at PR projects from an angle that might not be obvious to somebody who has been born and raised in a particular culture. Completely homogeneous PR teams are simply a thing of the past; they have no place in an increasingly international and interconnected world. It’s about time hiring managers understand that.”

Mix with a more diverse crowd says Marilyn Devonish, director of consultancy TranceFormations™: “I’m not in PR, however, I write for newspapers and magazines and am have worked as a corporate trainer and have held my head in my hands more times than I care to remember as I look at the things which ‘slip through the net’ and land in the media.

“One tip would be to talk to black people and those from other races and cultures, particularly when you know the image or item in question is potentially dodgy. Find out how they/we feel about it and why? Get some new friends. We live in a pretty closed society; The Old Boys’ Clubs, and that extends beyond the private school system. People tend to hire and give good opportunities to those who look like them. I don’t know many prominent PR agents or editors who look like me so if I’m not a mate there’s less chance of my views or what I’ve been written being represented.”

Follow through says Myasia Burns, social media & public relations manager at Red Ventures, a portfolio of digital companies: “I think our industry is missing the mark on follow-through. Most large agencies tout some sort of diversity internship as an opportunity for underserved communities to 'have a chance', but they are often in name only. Make no mistake – they are hiring top diverse talent, but the programs often make no effort to groom interns/entry-level employees past that stage of their career. What then happens is the mid-career slump, because past entry-level, there is a lack of diversity in leadership creating opportunities for diverse talent. What good is it to be hired as a diversity intern when there are no diverse mentors, no career tracks that differ once you are hired on full-time? The aspect of diversity is lost once your internship is over – you are just like every other non-diverse employee, with the added difficulty of unconscious bias working against you. Creating in-depth career tracks, robust mentorship opportunities and ensuring that young talent is offered a seat at the table when considering the 'diversity issue' would certainly be a start to ensuring the PR industry better reflects society.”

Learn from professional services firms says Claire Hutchings, head of marketing at communications agency MSL: “We can learn from some of the big professional services firms who have made huge leaps forwards in the last decade to attract more women and BME into the game and now social mobility is high on their hit list. MSL has worked with EY on their employer brand and talent attraction for the last 15 years and for the first time this year we were able to shift the conversation from being about diversity to one about inclusion with our ‘Don’t just fit in. Belong’ campaign.

View diversity as a business benefit says Fabiana Xavier, creative director at computer software firm Connectt and president of network SheSays London: “I could simply say ‘Employ people from diverse backgrounds, race and gender’, but I understand that we need a business cultural shift for change to happen faster. And the best way to achieve it is through an economic drive. We must approach ‘diversity’ and its business benefits (a better reflection of our society, fresher ideas, innovation, etc) as a self-promotion and client acquisition asset.“

First person

Ronke Lawal, PR and communications consultant at agency Ariatu Public Relations, discusses her personal experience of working in PR and why it is important to encourage more BME into the industry.

“Sometimes when I say that I work in PR, I notice a subtle and strange disconnect, as if people don’t quite understand or even believe me. So I get bombarded with questions which I’m expected to answer to confirm that I work in the industry. Can I blame them? Yes because I shouldn’t have to validate my success to anyone, but also popular culture has often reflected the fact that PR is predominantly a white industry (thank goodness for the Olivia Pope character in Scandal, she made it easier for me to describe what I do). One of the excuses used as to why PR is not diverse is that there is a pipeline issue which isn’t fair given the fact that many young people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds who study PR/comms want to work in the industry and are ready to, but either don’t get the opportunities, don’t stay or don’t get promoted beyond a certain level.

“There is also the idea that those who do get given access have to be exceptional, from top universities and yet if we’re trying to tackle this from both a race and social mobility level, surely this type of elitism shouldn’t be encouraged. PR has done an excellent job of dealing with the gender inclusion, I’m on the CIPR board of directors and it’s one of the first times I’ve been on a board that has a gender balance which reflects the world we live in. However if it weren’t for initiatives like BME PR Pros in the UK or ColorComm in the US I would probably not see many reflections of myself in terms of ethnicity. Lest we forget that diversity also has to include religion, disability and sexuality. PR leaders have to care about these issues, diversity conferences/events should be an obligation to attend for ALL team members and leaders needs to highlight the steps that they’re taken to address issues in a sustainable way beyond work experience opportunities.”

Andrea San Pedro, founder of agency ASP Public Relations, describes why a lack of diversity in PR is wearing her down: “I’ve been in the industry for 14 years – working agency-side, client side and now as an independent consultant for my own company. Lack of diversity in PR is fundamentally one of the many reasons why I am fed up of this sector. It is populated, largely, by a homogenous group of people – typically white, university educated, middle class and young. The sector is beleaguered by so many ‘isms’, and not enough discourse and action is being taken in order to level out this playing field. You see it in the PR press, month after month, the most celebrated and noted consultants and movers and shakers comprise white men in directors of comms positions within blue-chip or public-sector organisations, and white women in consumer sector-led roles. The Power Book that is published annually, if anything, shows the deficit in professionals who are also people of colour – hardly representative of society or the audience base that likely consume the products that their clients sell.

“Then there’s the issue of class; when I worked in the PR arm of a huge Soho-based advertising and marketing agency, there was no one of working-class descent (apart from me – the one person brought up on a council estate); this is anecdotal but I suspect this was a microcosm of the wider industry at large – where most people come from the Home Counties, and had relatively well-to-do, if not exceptionally privileged, backgrounds. By no means do I begrudge them of this – they had no more control over the circumstances they were brought up in than I did. But the point was, there didn’t seem to be a conscious recruitment approach to balance out the diversity of the teams; for a creative industry, it’s about selecting the best of the best – but without much regard for thinking that a non-diverse workforce, in itself, stymies creativity.

“Then there’s the issue of age: the way the industry recruits fresh talent with terrible adverts festooned with adjectives such as “fast paced”, “dynamic”, “exciting” (all code for “PR sweat shop”) serves to underscore, surreptitiously, the message that this is an industry for the young and unstrung – free to work ungodly hours and not bound to require flexibility in working hours because of school runs, regular childhood illnesses and school holidays. This is why you see agency life dominated by 20-somethings and less senior people within organisations. The latter leave for consultancy jobs that pay a good day rate because there are very few and fair agencies that accommodate parents. 

“Need I mention gender? More males dominate the top director of communication jobs than women?”

This article has focused on the lack of ethnic diversity in PR, but as Andrea San Pedro says, diversity also means having a balance of ages, classes, LBTQ+ people and genders at the top of the profession. Times are changing, society is changing, PR is getting there, but needs to move faster.