How the PR industry can improve diversity in the C-suite

Lisa McGill, founder of LM Strategies Consulting, shares lessons from clients and agencies that have made the most progress in this area.

Lisa McGill
Lisa McGill

While there is growing access into the industry for black and Latino professionals, pathways up remain limited. 

As the PR Council and PRWeek prepare to announce the 7th annual Diversity Distinction in PR Awards – and with recent studies indicating that the industry is making some improvement in recruiting and welcoming people of color – it is a good moment to ask why those gains are largely confined to entry- and mid-level positions.

Dr. Rahsaan Harris, president and CEO of the Emma Bowen Foundation, and I have identified some best practices and challenges that stand out.

There has been some progress on overall diversity in the PR field:

  • The Public Relations Society of America’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee highlights agencies that make diversity a priority in hiring and promotion and that actively develop management talent among underrepresented groups.

  • Porter Novelli and Burson-Marsteller have earned accolades for their diversity councils, mentoring programs, and innovative approaches to recruitment.

  • The PR Council recently started a partnership with the Emma Bowen Foundation to identify high-potential college students of color to create a new talent pipeline for member agencies. 

  • Interpublic Group commissions an annual Climate for Inclusion survey seeking feedback from its agencies’ employees on D&I performance at management and agency levels. A signatory to CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, it also launched the Interpublic Diverse Emerging Aspiring Leaders (IDEAL) program to coach and mentor diverse talent.

But we have seen little progress toward diversity in the C-suite. Gender balance and LGBTQ representation in executive management is showing some promising gains, but people of color continue to encounter barriers. Few firms have senior teams that reflect the reality of our multicultural markets. Increasingly, PR firms lag behind the very companies and industries they serve in terms of ethnic diversity in leadership.

A year ago, LM Strategies Consulting, a diversity and equity firm, designed and conducted a perceptions study, commissioned by the PR Council, to understand the experiences of black and Latino professionals who opted to leave their jobs at PR firms. They were high-performing, mid- and senior-level people who had the talent, drive, and desire to advance, but who left when they felt stalled in their progress up the ladder. Our goal was to explore their perceptions on trends in and barriers to advancement, and to illuminate solutions.

We reviewed the literature and existing studies, and then conducted focus groups and in-depth interviews, as well as surveyed more than 150 black and Latino PR professionals. We found that there is no clear road map to the top.

While most respondents said they believe employment prospects for black and Latino PR pros have improved overall, few (8.5%) feel that these groups are making great strides as key decision-makers in agencies. Our interviews confirmed what recent data indicate: too many professionals of color feel they must leave their agencies if they want more responsibility and a bigger salary. Tellingly, most don’t leave the field. Instead, they take in-house positions, freelance, or move to other positions in the industry.

If the PR field is arguably the guardrail for helping businesses connect with and engage their audiences in a meaningful way, how do we open pathways to leadership for people of color and retain talent critical to preparing the industry for a society that is increasingly ethnically and racially diverse? How can firms meet the demands of clients that want to engage multiple publics, across multiple geographies, through multiple media?

There are some lessons we can take from clients and agencies that have made the most progress:

  • Address agency culture: Perception is reality when it comes to an agency’s culture. CEOs must set the tone and put policies in place that recognize the importance of diversity at the top levels. Agencies that do the best in C-suite diversity typically have strong executive-level champions who not only mentor junior staff, but have the authority to help pave the way for promotions or new opportunities within the firm.
  • Rethink performance reviews: Too often in PR firms, supervisors make assessments that include nebulous perceptions of "polish" and "readiness" that hint at unacknowledged racial and cultural biases. It’s time to catch up to other industries that use objective metrics for job performance, and then tie the advancement of senior leadership to the diversity and success of their team members. At Sodexo, performance on the firm’s Diversity Scorecard is factored into bonuses for top executives as well as senior and mid-level managers.

  • Get serious about the data: We know we need to do a better job recruiting and hiring diverse professionals – in 2014, only 9% of PR specialists were black or African American, 9% were Latino, and 4% were Asian. But beyond those numbers, there is not enough industrywide data on the demographics of the C-suite. We need data that will tell us what’s working and where the pipeline has leaks. And collection is just the start; we need to make this information public. If each agency issued an annual "diverse leadership pathway" report, it would go a long way toward ensuring accountability. Individually, agencies could use the data to inform annual HR action plans; collectively, we would have a clearer view of the barriers to advancement. This will also allow us to acknowledge groundbreaking agencies that do this work well, charting a course for others to follow.
  • Learn from what’s working: Men hold 70% of executive positions and women hold close to 60% of management positions. But there is movement. Ogilvy PR communications chief Jennifer Risi reports that she is one of eight women on a 17-member board. Of Ogilvy’s eight North America office heads, five are women. And its "30 for 30" program "fast-tracks successful female leaders and creates opportunities for them to grow at the agency." What stands in the way of widening efforts like Ogilvy’s to identify and develop the leaders we need from the industry’s black and Latino professionals? The talent is there; value it and make it visible.

When this year’s Diversity Distinction in PR Awards are announced, let’s pay close attention to the agencies that are seeing progress in holding on to talented professionals at all levels. This goes beyond the issue of equity or "doing the right thing" – it’s simply good business.

Lisa McGill is the founder of LM Strategies Consulting

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