Why retention is the roadblock to a more diverse PR industry

A new survey finds that many employers say their efforts to retain a diverse workforce are successful. But young PR practitioners don't see it that way.

To combat the PR industry’s lack of diversity, employers have focused on recruiting young, multicultural staffers into their ranks. However, PR pros say that to make a real dent in this decades-old problem, they should shift their attention to retaining those individuals.

There’s a clear disconnect between employers and employees on the issue, according to a just-released survey of young black and Hispanic US PR practitioners that was funded by the PRSA Foundation. It examined the experiences of young, multicultural PR professionals who have graduated since 2008 and are working in the agency, corporate, nonprofit, and government and NGO sectors. PR employers were also surveyed.

Nearly eight in 10 (79%) PR employers see their efforts to retain a diverse workforce as being successful. Yet only two-thirds (67%) of young professionals agree with employees on their retention programs. One-third of young professionals say the industry is not effectual at retaining a diverse workforce, compared with one-fifth of employers, according to the study, which was in the field from October 2014 to February 2015.

ColorComm president Lauren Wesley Wilson says bosses might not be paying close enough attention to how long their staffers – minority or not – have worked for them.

"Sometimes [employers] will look around and say, ‘I see multicultural people here, so we are doing a good job,’" says Wesley Wilson. Yet she adds that while it is common to see minorities in junior PR roles, the same level of diversity is not found at the VP level and above.

Respondents to the PRSA Foundation study agree that the PR industry has taken steps to improve inclusion in the workplace, particularly in recruiting a diverse workforce. Yet once diverse practitioners enter the workplace, those surveyed express concern about a lack of support, compounded by perceived biases they believe are negatively impacting their careers.

For instance, 56% of participants say they have not been afforded the same opportunities in the PR field as their white counterparts.

In line with this, Wesley Wilson notes that she has seen diverse PR pros at the account supervisor level or lower denied training or investment.

"[Multicultural PR pros] are often denied the opportunity to go to various conferences for professional development, or being included on an assignment that involves travel, or being part of accounts that bring a lot of money into the office," she says. "As a minority in communications, you have to feel that your company and boss and managers are really investing in you, because if they aren’t, then you might not want to stay."

Wesley Wilson adds that many companies are hesitant to invest in employees at the junior level, because they don’t want to spend money on staffers who are likely to soon jump ship.

And if a business does invest in a staffer, it should make that person aware of the importance of it doing so, versus just sending him or her to an event without any kind of dialogue, she says.

"If a person is made aware of how important it is that the company has decided to invest in them, they will feel more like, ‘I don’t want to quit my job at this moment because I am looking forward to that big conference in March, or that trip to Singapore with a client,’" Wesley Wilson explains. "If they are aware of this, then they will be less likely to leave, because they will realize they might not be able to get such opportunities elsewhere."

Other perceived biases noted in the study by young, multicultural PR pros include not feeling genuinely respected by colleagues (43%); believing they have to be more qualified than a Caucasian employee in the same situation (45%); and thinking multicultural practitioners are put on "a slow moving track" (44%).

Louis Capozzi, president of the PRSA Foundation, explains that small slights, intended or unintended, can make black and Hispanic employees feel like outsiders in the workplace.

The study notes that minority PR pros aren’t necessarily seeking formal diversity programs, but to have a great mentor who is a supervisor, peer, or even another professional outside the organization.

"[Multicultural PR pros] need someone within their daily experience who can affirm, mentor, guide, and support their value and their worth in the workplace," says City College of New York professor Lynn Appelbaum, co-principal of the study. "You can say this is true of any human being, but it is especially true for multicultural professionals who often view their experience through the lens of race."

The survey also notes that while mentors of any race can be important, respondents placed a higher value on mentorship by a senior executive of the same race or a peer of the same race. However, good supervisors or mentors who were another race were found to be equally important.

Cheryll Forsatz, director of communications for McDonald’s New York Metro Region, says joining the PRSA and networking with members at events is particularly important for those who do not have a mentor they feel comfortable going to for advice at their own company.

"Through the PRSA, you can find a mentor within the PR industry, who may not be at your company, but who can still help you," she adds. Other groups include the Hispanic Public Relations Association, the Black Public Relations Society, and ColorComm, which can help young professionals build their network for mentors and professional support.

Most importantly, organizations must establish an inclusive environment before a multicultural PR pro even steps foot inside their doors.

"Work on building an inclusive environment before focusing on the number of multicultural employees at your company," advises Pamela Culpepper, Golin’s chief people officer.

Organizations should also educate their employees about inadvertent bias signals and double standards in the workplace and how they affect professionals with diverse backgrounds, the study recommends.

"Companies get afraid when it comes to diversity," says Wesley Wilson. "They don’t want to be misconstrued as racist, and don’t want to sound like they’re not sensitive to various groups. So there should be training and an open and transparent dialogue."

The likelihood of retention also increases when a senior leader shows a personal level of commitment to a sustainable diversity and inclusion initiative or agenda in a "visible, accelerated, and urgent way," says Culpepper.

"A leader can’t just say it, they must live it," she explains.

And while companies are responsible for taking care of their employees, each staffer – no matter the ethnicity – must also take care of himself, notes Forsatz.

Wesley Wilson concurs, adding that those who succeed in the workplace take control over their own career and come to the table with ideas.

"You have to be able to approach your boss and say, ‘Hey, I want to go to this conference to benefit me and the organization I work for,’" she says. "To get opportunities, you have to be vocal."

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