CommsCon21: Does PR have a diversity problem?

For CommsCon21, Cision hosted five industry experts for a fascinating event titled ‘Does PR have a diversity problem?’ Salma El-Wardany, writer and presenter for the BBC, led the panel and noted that "the fact we have to ask if PR has a diversity problem shows how large the problem is." Deon Pillay, Head of Marketing Operations at Legal & General, went further, stating that "PR is going backwards. In 2015, people of colour made up 11% of jobs. In 2019, it was 8%."

Jessica Hope, founder and Managing Director of Wimbart, spoke about how other PR professionals were often surprised that her entire team was made up of people of colour. "I’ve dealt with huge agencies and they’ve asked me if it’s a charity or a CSR (Corporate social responsibility) thing, but we intentionally built a representational team for our clients. We work with a lot of Nigerians, so we hire a lot of Africans who bring more cultural understanding and nuance and can connect with international journalists to bridge that gap."

Asking if people of colour were only hired out of charity is incredibly offensive and treats them as nothing more than symbolic gestures. The topic of tokenism was explored further by the panel, with Political Cartoonist Khalid Albaih remembering how he began as 'the Arab Spring cartoonist' after covering the protests in 2011. "Then I was the black cartoonist. You go from one box to another. In one article they called me a hero, and I’m not. People were dying in the streets and I just drew cartoons. All the time I get the sense that people think they’re doing me a favour and patting themselves on the back and it’s not a good feeling."

Deon mentioned the issues of token hiring and why it often leads to constant judgement from others, instead highlighting the need for a "top-down approach. Build and nurture talent and give them a chance to progress. You don’t want to do it to just tick a box, it’s not sustainable. Real meaningful change comes from policy, it’s your senior executives and middle management buying into the value of diversity. If they don’t, you’ll find it stops somewhere in between."

Many people feel uncomfortable talking about race but pandering to that uneasiness will get us nowhere. "They’re difficult conversations because people get on the defensive and give you all sorts of excuses about why things aren’t the way they should be", explained Obabiyi Fagade, Global Marketing Communication Manager at Heineken. "You need to be ready to have these conversations though, and eventually you need to get white, middle-class people invested in this too."

The Black Lives Matter movement understandably drove discussion at times. Salma made the salient point that "suddenly people cared about these issues, but there’s a part of me that thought "oh now you care, even though it’s been going on for so long." Jessica agreed, saying that during the BLM protests, "all the big white agencies were talking about things that we’ve always been doing. It shouldn’t have taken George Floyd being killed for you to start hiring more ethnic minorities."

There’s no point pretending that, on its own, George Floyd’s death would have made PR firms realise they should be hiring more people of colour. Where was this outrage a few months before with Breonna Taylor, or years earlier with Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner? Closer to home, why didn’t the deaths of Roger Sylvester, Joy Gardner or Sean Rigg cause PR agencies to reconsider their hiring policies? This is why Jessica called much of the reaction "opportunistic" as other agencies "used BLM to gain coverage for themselves."

But it goes beyond hiring people of colour – efforts must be made to retain them. People of colour have to work harder to get into PR, but once they’re in, they have to manage in work environments that often don’t support them. Retention and mentorship are just as crucial as hiring, with Jessica reiterating the idea that "you need a company culture where people feel comfortable about staying in the environment. If senior professionals can’t improve their work cultures they may leave."

To conclude the event, Salma asked each speaker what one helpful thing they would tell PR executives, offering her own suggestion that companies should release a statement confirming their commitment to diversity. Obabiyi said firms needed to stop relegating diversity issues to the future and just start acting, while Deon said he would summarise the challenges and then turn it back on them and ask what they were going to do. Khalid indicated that he would turn to HR and examine pay gaps to reflect on the wrong that had been done, and finally, Jessica homed in on optics, stating that a lot of people of colour would look at the majority of company websites and get the impression they wouldn’t fit in.

About Andrew Shaw

Andrew Shaw is a Research Analyst for Cision UK and freelance journalist who's written for Metro Online, the Mail on Sunday and The Financial Times Group.

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