OPINION: PR has to sell itself to ethnic minorities

Just before Christmas, I had a worrying conversation with a senior PRO at a large corporation. It shall remain nameless, but, suffice it to say, as part of its public charter it has to ensure that it is reflective of Britain's ethnic mix.

The PRO was bemoaning the paltry pool of available ethnic minority talent when it came to filling senior PR posts. We came up with a few outstanding individuals, but reached the unwelcome conclusion that this profession is white and middle class almost to the point of cliche.

This fact has now made its way on to the IPR agenda - three years after the IPA launched its own diversity programme - and among other things the new president, Anne Gregory, plans research into the real state of affairs.

The results will no doubt confirm the rather obvious fact that in no way, shape or form does the make-up of the PR industry reflect the fact that 7.9 per cent of the British population - and 31 per cent of Londoners - are of ethnic minority origin. More useful findings would relate to why an industry paid to understand the climate of public opinion employs such an unrepresentative sample.

The obvious line is that candidates from ethnic communities find it hard to break into the PR WASP clique, particularly in the private sector, and that the industry just needs to make more places available. But this view betrays an arrogance tinged with politically correct intentions.

There is certainly a sound business rationale for better equipping the industry to pursue the 'brown pound', currently estimated to be worth around £32bn, and the ethnic media are growing at an amazing pace - the South Asian community alone has 18 dedicated TV channels. Failure to advise on how to tap into the influencers of that group can only be described as negligence.

But achieving a staff mix that enables a real understanding of the complex concerns of various groups is not going to be easy, and will involve more than a few dedicated diversity programmes, or (worse still) the creation of 'ethnic business' ghettos.

The industry must face up to the possibility that many highly aspirational ethnic communities just don't see PR as a top-notch career option. While younger generations may be keen to broaden their horizons, first-generation aspirations towards 'proper' professions such as medicine and law die hard.

Whether the IPR's worthy aim of chartered status will help on this front is questionable, but if the PR industry is going to be able to claim to really understand its target audience, it needs to do something fast.

Perhaps one of the best benchmarks of the ability of the industry to manage its own reputation could be its rising ethnic minority quota.

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