I recently attended the 2009 Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Orlando, FL, the premier conference on LGBT issues in the workplace. Of the 2,000 attendees this year, only two were from large PR agencies. What does this say about how our industry views diversity as a whole? It was shocking to hear representatives from companies such as Raytheon talk about diversity issues more strategically than we do.
As we like to tell our clients, “The world has changed.” Consider these facts about the US:
- 1980: 32% of the electorate were white Carter voters, 9% were non-white Carter voters. 2008: 32% of the electorate were white Obama voters, 21% were non-white Obama voters. Carter went down to a landslide defeat; Obama defeated John McCain by a healthy margin. 
- The number of Asians in the US is expected to increase 213% from 2000 to 2050.
- Latinos are expected to constitute almost 25% of the US population by 2050. 
And this doesn't even address what is happening globally, with the rise of new economic powers.
The business case for diversity in PR and communications could not be clearer. We pride ourselves on knowing everything about reaching “customers,” “consumers,” “society,” and “people like me.” Integrating diversity into what we do is simply a better way of doing business. How can we truly know our clients' audiences if our account teams do not reflect that diversity?
In addition to being good for our business, diversity will soon be an expectation from our clients. In workshops and informal discussions at Out & Equal, there was much talk about companies demanding diversity from suppliers, consultants, and agencies.
In today's world, every program and project is a diversity project. At the very least, we need to bring internal diversity experts into projects at the start. But our challenges are deeper. We need to change our culture by:
- Ensuring that we value differing opinions, even when they depart from the strategy the senior-most person in the room has suggested.
- Transforming the idea of “team chemistry” so that the person who plays the role of devil's advocate can safely express opinions without being labeled “difficult” or “not a team player.”
- Integrating diverse viewpoints from everyone, not just diverse employees.
- Being wary of the “tyranny of consensus” — looking for agreement at all costs. The right strategy may not be the most popular or the most obvious one.
As diverse employees and candidates are often the ones who provide a different perspective, creating a culture where differing opinions are accepted, expected, and valued will go a long way in our retention and recruitment efforts.
At heart, diversity is a business issue. We are approaching issues for 2010 and beyond with teams that look like they're from 1980 or earlier. Only by changing our culture can we hope to attract and retain those people who will constitute true 21st century teams and provide the counsel our clients deserve.
Jonathan Saw, a 12-year veteran of communications, is president of his own consultancy, Jonathan Saw and Associates, and, in the past, has served on agency diversity committees.