We need to talk about Kiran – tackling diversity in PR

In order to show true leadership, tackling the diversity challenge is crucial for the PR industry. If they meet this challenge, PR firms will have one of the main tools to gain competitive advantage in an evolving industry.

As industries and economies change, so do workforces. Businesses in sectors such as technology become international entities. As a natural consequence, they need to include a diverse range of employees for a number of reasons. There are valuable benefits to be gained with a deliberate strategy of creating a diverse workforce.

Chief among these benefits is the view that a diverse workforce helps firms get closer to and understand a wider array of customers and win potential new business, from different countries with a variety of languages, cultures and needs. Having a progressive attitude to hiring, helps companies attract talent from a wider pool.  At the same time, by selecting talent from different ethnic groups, PR agencies start to redress an imbalance in the industry – the reality is that the PR industry is over-represented by some sections of society and far less from others.

Parts of the PR industry have in recent years made moves to reflect modernity but progress is slow and a lot still remains to be done. Industry bodies and individual PR agencies have implemented policies to attract employees from ethnically different backgrounds. The PR industry is still, by and large, an industry predominately comprised of white middle class, university-educated people.  According to the last PRCA survey, published in 2016, 91 per cent of those questioned identified themselves as “white British” or “other white”, which includes those from the United States and Europe, while only three per cent identified as “Asian” and two per cent as “black”.

The statistics reflect poorly on the PR industry. The Office of National Statistics revealed in 2011 census data that 87 per cent of the population is white, seven per cent is Asian, three per cent is black, two per cent is mixed race.

The efforts of some firms and industry bodies have yielded positive results and highlighted the scale of the challenge. Any results that have been achieved are small scale. The Taylor Bennett Foundation (TBF) aims to increase the number of people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds (BAME) working in public relations. It puts people through a training programme which is sponsored by PR agencies. Other steps include agency internships and industry leaders promoting diversity in speeches at industry events and forums.

While these approaches are obviously a positive step in the right direction, what is also required is for PR agencies to address the challenge with new thinking. Agencies need to put diversity at the heart of recruitment, educate decision-makers about the importance of a diverse workforce and implement employment policies which not only recruit the brightest and best from all walks of life but ensure these individuals are retained and progress in their careers.

Agencies also need to consider which qualifications and skills are most valuable to their business. Creative thinking, organisation and strategic planning are skills which can be gained without having gone to university. To promote new ideas, creative campaigns and share experiences of different cultures, its out with homogeneity and in with plurality.

At the same time, other challenges also need to be addressed – retaining staff and helping progression for BAME staff. Those agencies with a London-centric approach are hampered by not seeking talent based out of the capital. This is one area where a freelance structure works highly effectively – the best client team can be made up of experienced people from outside London. It’s all about the need for agencies to be flexible so they can look beyond employing people with the same, experience and backgrounds, living in London.

Once the more pressing challenges of diversity are addressed, the PR sector can focus time on the next steps; progression and retention of staff from ethnically diverse sectors of society. Looking at the makeup of the largest technology PR agencies in the UK, up to board level, there’s still a long way to go. One needs to access not only which ethnic groups are joining the PR industry and what is being done to attract talent from these underrepresented groups of society, but how far they progress and start to become the leaders in the industry. Only then will there be true diversity in the PR sector. Only if the industry does this, can it move away from any accusation that it is merely paying lip service to diversity.

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