What will it take to diversify PR agency leaders?

Agency Business Report cover suggests there's still a long way to go on diversity

Leaders of the top PR agencies from PRWeek's 2014 Agency Business Report
Leaders of the top PR agencies from PRWeek's 2014 Agency Business Report

PRWeek’s May edition always provokes a lot of comment and feedback: it’s our Agency Business Report and our biggest issue of the year.

This year was no exception. But one factor elicited more comment than anything else – the lack of diversity on the front cover, which featured the most senior leaders at the top 13 agencies by revenue and the top two agencies by revenue growth in 2013.

It was indeed a striking image. And one that couldn’t fail to say a lot about the industry, dominated as it was by middle-aged men.

Let’s for the moment leave aside the fact that there were only four women among those 15 individuals, in an industry where 65-70% of the workforce is female – that is another important topic, and certainly not one that I’m diminishing.

The factor that stood out to most commentators was the all-white nature of the faces, not only on the cover, but also in the 50-plus agency profiles – save for Anita Bose at Cooney Waters and Sergio Roitberg at Newlink Group.

From my point of view as editor-in-chief of PRWeek, the argument is that those faces are the most senior leaders in the PR agency sector and we are merely holding up a mirror to the industry. Some firms have made real efforts and there has been some progress; but this is still not properly represented at the senior levels of agencies.

This is, of course, not a new issue. It has been a heated and protracted debate in the industry for many years, with much gnashing of teeth and not a few weasel words dispensed around the subject. But little has been achieved in terms of real tangible progress that can be shown to young people looking for senior PR agency role models to aspire to emulate.

(By the way, I am conscious that, while I work for a company with an extremely diverse workforce, I am a white, middle-aged man writing this who leads an editorial team that, at the moment, is diverse from a gender perspective, but not so much from an ethnic point of view - so I’m not sitting on a high horse here.)

PR sector campaigners have started to despair at what seems a circular wheel of good intentions that prove to be no more than constantly rehashed platitudes when it comes to real progress.

One senior in-house communications executive was particularly disheartened by the absence of people of color among the Agency Business Report. He referenced his son, a senior at a top school for public communications, and wondered whether, having seen this lack of diversity in senior leadership, he would consider agency public relations an appealing opportunity when researching his first job opportunity.

He suggested it "underscores an industry potentially out of step with the plurality nation we’re becoming and are in charge of engaging." And, indeed, it’s difficult to disagree with him.

He believes PR agencies should be on fertile ground to lead change: "Many are located in the nation’s most diverse markets. They’re almost by definition required to bring the full range of perspectives to client issues. And they generally sell their expertise in reaching customers of all sizes, shapes, and colors across the US and globally."

His assertion that PR agencies should be "diversity magnets" for aspiring multicultural communicators is spot on. And he would be very disappointed if young people such as his son looked in other directions for their career path "because they can’t picture the great possibilities that may be offered in what is a very important arena."

Mike Paul, The Reputation Doctor, who in February went without food for two days in a fast to protest at the lack of diversity in the PR industry, suggested the Agency Business Report issue could have been entitled "The white face of PR firm CEOs continues."

He asked: "In our diverse world, are there truly no executives of color qualified to be CEOs of global firms?" And he said that true diversity "doesn’t start at the bottom, it starts at the top."

Kim Hunter, CEO and president of Lagrant Communications, and Diversity Champion in the first PRWeek/Council of PR Firms Diversity Distinction in PR Awards, continues to be outraged that, in the "sea of white faces" in the Agency Business Report, there are "hardly any people of color."

Hunter echoes the earlier point that young, talented, diverse individuals will not pursue a degree in communications or consider the PR industry for employment if they "don’t see themselves" in agency leadership roles. He "refuses to believe" that, in 2014, "ethnically diverse talent does not exist."

It is noticeable that there is much more diversity among senior in-house PR industry leaders. Newsmaker profiles of senior clients from diverse backgrounds by PRWeek in recent years include Bechtel’s Charlene Wheeless; Mondelez International’s Bonin Bough; Ricardo Reyes at Tesla Motors, now Square; Waste Management’s Barry Caldwell; Mike Fernandez, then State Farm, now Cargill; and Bill Whitman, then of McDonald’s, now USPS.

These are just a few of the diverse professionals who hold senior in-house communications roles. Others include Jon Iwata at IBM; Torod Neptune at Verizon; James Boyd at Singapore Airlines; Richard Jones at Guardian Life; David Albritton at Exelis; and Oscar Suris at Wells Fargo.

So why aren’t PR agencies "diversity magnets" in the same way that, without overstating it, in-house PR departments appear to be?

Maybe clients are the ones that hold the key to real change taking place. Of course, there is a business benefit in having a diverse and representative agency workforce that mirrors the markets and customer bases in which their clients exist. But that is still a relatively "soft" outcome.

If clients actually tell the agencies that pitch them they won’t get or retain business unless the senior people working on the accounts and the senior leaderships of their firms are as diverse as them, their staffs, and their customers, that may be the incendiary device that appears to be required to cause the explosion that can kick start real – and necessary – change in the communications industry.

PRWeek is accepting nominations for the 2014 Diversity Distinction in PR Awards. Click here for more information. Deadline: 6/19, 2pm EST. Entries & questions to diversityawards@prweek.com

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