How the PR industry is tackling its diversity deficit

Has progress been made? Yes, say experts. But there's a long way to go.

Ask executives around the PR industry about diversity in communications, and they agree on one thing: it’s getting better, but still nowhere near an acceptable level.

As for the reasons why the industry has trouble recruiting, retaining, and promoting especially black men and women to high-level positions, they say it needs to do a better job of actively seeking a diverse workforce even before college graduates hit the job market.

And that’s only step one. Many experts say where the industry fails is by not helping members of a diverse workforce move up the ranks after they join an agency or in-house team.

"There’s a positive focus on the pipeline and an admirable focus on affinity groups. There are many more opportunities for growth and development, but what’s happening is the pipeline is being filled, but then we get to retaining and promoting employees," says Richelle Payne, president of the National Black Public Relations Society. "The ceiling is low, and a lot of the time, people are hitting their heads on the ceiling."

One area where the industry has improved is convincing black students that PR is a viable career choice for them, says Aleisia Gibson-Wright, SVP of health at MSLGroup and a former global comms practitioner at GE Health.

"For many people in my generation, PR wasn’t a career destination, particular in minority populations. If you studied mass communications, it was because you wanted to become a news reporter," she says, recalling that when she switched careers from journalism to communications, there were few black PR practitioners.

"If we make PR a career destination for young people, we will get to a point where we have many more at a senior level," Gibson-Wright adds. "It’s one of those things: If you build it, they will come. If you create an environment that fosters diversity from the top down, you will attract talented, like-minded people to your agency."

However, many experts say both agencies and in-house communications teams need to widen the search, going beyond just traditional PR and communications students. That outreach also reflects the widening types of work done at PR firms.

Pamela Culpepper, chief people officer at Golin and former SVP chief global diversity officer at PepsiCo, says agencies should "start to broaden our search for talent in the PR industry." She mentions recruiting students from art schools or those who want to work at advertising agencies as two possible places to look.

"For the most part, there’s a good presence on campus with a lot of PR firms, but one thing that could be done differently or better is broadening the range of campuses we go to," Culpepper says, adding that firms "need to make sure we are reaching out to new or unusual places."

Recruiting a diverse workforce also requires making contact with students before they reach college in some cases, says Malcolm Berkley, VP of strategic communications and engagement at UPS Airlines. He adds that PR as an industry needs to convert students who may not be considering comms as a career path.

"PR is not what it used to be. It’s so broad now, and there are so many avenues you can take — are we having those discussions with everyone we need to be?" he explains. "And, as we find interest, what are we doing to nurture that and find opportunity?"

The next step
Many of the African-American PR executives who spoke with PRWeek say that while agencies have improved their recruitment and hiring of black PR pros at entry levels, they must do a better job of advancing their careers and keeping them interested.

Gibson-Wright notes that MSLGroup has numerous affinity groups for black employees, women, LGBT staffers, and other groups, and she praises their role in creating a diverse and welcoming work environment.

"Having these groups is critical to gathering the employees together in shared experiences and bonds at a professional level. Both [MSL and previous employer GE] did that very well, and I personally found them enormously helpful because you see people who are like yourself and doing what you’re doing," she explains. "More diversity at high levels is going to take time. Many efforts are still young, and there’s a concerted effort to make it happen."

Culpepper adds that firms need to go beyond just mentoring young staffers of color, but going to bat for them, noting there is a long way from the entry level to an agency’s top ranks.

"I speak more about championing than mentoring," she says. "It’s one thing to be mentored, it’s another to have someone raise their hand and [vouch for young employees]."

While experts dismiss the idea that the client side is inherently much more diverse than the PR agency world, in-house teams can offer young employees a wide breadth of career options that often can’t be matched at an agency.

"What has kept me engaged on the corporate side is that I’ve had at least 10 comms roles in 18 years in the same organization," says Berkley. "I’ve had multiple careers within one organization."

Clients as the driving force
African Americans will account for $1.3 trillion in buying power by 2017, according to late 2013 research from Nielsen, which noted that "black consumers have notable distinctions from other consumer groups, and understanding this group critical to making lasting connections."

Deisha Galberth Barnett, senior director of corporate communications at Walmart, notes that the diverse customer base of the retailer – the world’s largest – requires it to have staffers who are a working reflection of the people that shop there.

She cites a groundbreaking initiative by Walmart’s legal team that required outside partners to also reflect that diversity, and other departments at the company, including marketing and comms, have adopted that value.

"I’m pretty pleased with the diversity I see on the [agency] teams in terms of a mix of African Americans, Hispanics, and women and men. There’s a nice mix in terms of people," Galberth Barnett says, citing Mitchell Communications as an example. "It’s all about looking at the customer and making sure the people working on your business are lined up just like the consumer and can do work reflective of that."

Noting her experience at PepsiCo, Culpepper adds that brands must look to firms to have a credible level of diversity to be reflective of their customers.

"What we should be encouraging is that every firm should have a level of diversity where multicultural doesn’t stand alone," she says. "Every firm should have an ability to meet all demographics because of their makeup."

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