Ethnic PR: Blurring boundaries

While comms is now taken more seriously by CEOs, Adam Hill finds there are still few places for PROs in the boardroom.Ethnic minorities form a lucrative market, but successfully selling to them is a complex affair. Alex Blythe reports.

Trendsetters would have many PR agencies believe that ethnicity is where they should be devoting their resources - ethnic minorities make up eight per cent of the UK population, and 16 to 35-year-old minorities have a collective disposable income of £32bn.

It is not surprising that this has become a target market: between 1991 and 2001, the number of non-white Britons grew 53 per cent, compared with one per cent growth for the white population. However, while agencies scrabble to include ethnic provision, there is a suspicion that the concept of 'ethnic PR and marketing' is becoming outdated.

Some would argue that the lines between minority groups and the majority of the population are blurring. In the 50-odd years since the arrival of the Windrush (the first boat carrying Jamaican emigres to the UK), ethnic minorities have become increasingly integrated into our mainstream culture, while 'white Britain' has opened itself up to alternative influences. This cultural phenomenon begs the question of whether there is any value in targeting ethnic groups separately.

Focus Consultancy has worked with organisations such as the Army, the Blood Donation Service and banks on ethnic diversity comms. Marketing director Jagtar Singh argues that some second and third-generation groups have many identities, and would, in the most part, prefer to be regarded as British, rather than as stereotypical 'special groups'.

Reaching minorities

'Just as most whites can be both Scottish and British, or Mancunian and British, for example, we can also be Pakistani and British,' Singh says. 'Someone who reads Asiana might also read Cosmopolitan, and companies should communicate with that person through both media.'

The problem, though, is that taking the broad-brush approach and seemingly ignoring the idiosyncrasies of different groups can also cause difficulties. Marketing agency Uproar has worked on campaigns for the Prince's Trust music festival, New Era headwear and Rubicon fruit juice. Director Julian Davis says he found an ad for Galaxy ice cream offensive because of the line 'Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo'. Although the ad did not include the second line of the nursery rhyme, the words are well known. In the face of complaints, the ad was withdrawn.

Maybe the confusion comes from the fact that most PROs are white. To address this issue, the CIPR has formed a diversity panel, while the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) has set up an Ethnic Diversity Group to address the fact that only four per cent of IPA agency employees are from an ethnic minority.

Cultural identity

Anjna Raheja, account director at Media Moguls, a specialist ethnic marketing and PR agency that has run campaigns for brands such as Johnnie Walker Black Label, Ford and Jaguar, believes it is an oversimplification to assume that ethnic groups are disposing of their heritage to be British. She points to smaller groups within ethnic communities that deserve specific attention: 'Communities are diverse. For instance, South Asians do not make up a homogeneous group. Companies need to communicate differently with each individual group.'

Her view is that many second and third-generation minorities are still keen to retain their ethnic traditions. They are asserting their own cultures ever more confidently and are increasingly providing the driving force behind British culture: Chicken Tikka Masala is the nation's favourite dish, the Prime Minister's wife has been photographed in a sari, and rap artist Busta Rhymes apparently sent sales of Courvoisier rocketing after name-checking it on a track.

There is much that companies can do to improve their communications in this area. In the absence of in-house experience, companies can form relationships with communities and religious groups, as they often provide invaluable advice. Taking it a step further, some companies endeavour to gain endorsement from so-called gatekeepers and opinion formers.

Davis says: 'Some ethnic minorities not only have a lot of money, they also punch above their weight in terms of making a brand popular. This is why McDonald's is offering rap artists financial incentives to namecheck it.'

Diversity in action

He also says that going beyond the obvious channels is necessary to reach specific groups. 'Barbers' shops are important to the black community,' he argues. 'They are relaxed places where people share ideas and don't feel like they're being sold to. As a medium for reaching young black people, they can be as important as MTV.' But the real message is that companies need to take a long-term approach to ethnic marketing, not just invest in it because it represents a market opportunity.

Zena Martin, managing director of piranhaKid, an agency that has just launched a diversity marketing offering in conjunction with sister agency Hill & Knowlton, says: 'It is definitely time for the UK PR industry, and its clients, to recognise that acknowledging diversity will lead to better commercial success. In the US, there is an abundance of these specialist agencies. In the UK, there are only a handful of very small, under-resourced specialist agencies.'

But above all, PR agencies need to recognise that, in many cases, they will continue to be up against a huge credibility gap. Singh says: 'It is not like building a new factory or opening up an extra line. There is no simple equation where money in necessarily leads to money out. If they are to communicate effectively with people from ethnic minorities, companies need to listen carefully, invest heavily, and be in it for the long haul.'

CASE STUDY: RECRUITING CHILDCARE PROVIDERS

The Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership (EYDCP) is a government-funded body that works to provide childcare provision. To encourage more applications from members of ethnic minorities, it ran a three-month pilot communications programme to enhance the image of childcare as a valid occupation among the Indian, African, Caribbean and Muslim population in Camden, Croydon, Harrow, Birmingham, Bradford and Calderdale.

The EYDCPD ran 191 events, including presentations to community groups, meetings with influencers and gatekeepers, and visits to ethnic minority childcarers. It also set up visits to training and education establishments that cater for childcare, offered work experience opportunities and 'direct recruiting' events. It managed to raise the issue at established events, such as the Vaisakhi and Eid celebrations.

The campaign generated an exceptional amount of interest among ethnic minority communities. It boosted the number of ethnic minority responses by 90 per cent compared with the previous year. It reached 12,791 potential childcarers, with 1,237 expressing an interest. The success of the pilot has resulted in a proposal to roll out a national campaign.

With reputation management, CSR, and supplier and employee relations rising up the priority list for UK plc, heads of comms have more responsibility today than ever. Despite this, and the fact that an error in PR strategy can affect share price and profits, it is still the case that relatively few PROs command a seat on the board.

In a study last November by the Centre for Public Affairs Studies, half of the sample came from FTSE 350 companies, yet only eight per cent said their role came with a main board directorship. And this is despite almost all of them having direct access to the CEO and reporting to a main board director.

Little seems to have moved on since a 2003 study by Watson Helsby which revealed that, while the activities of in-house comms directors had grown beyond traditional areas - such as external affairs, media relations, internal comms, financial PR and IR - the executive authority of PR had not risen proportionately.

Company boards shrinking

One practical reason for PROs' absence from the boardroom is that UK company boards are shrinking in size. PR is far more likely to be represented, at best, one level below the main board, on an executive or operational board or management committee.

Alastair Eperon, who spent 12 years as director of corporate affairs at Boots, now runs Eperon Consulting. He says: 'Executive membership of company boards at group level has shrunk as good governance suggests they should be outnumbered by non-execs. You will probably have the CEO, finance director, operations director and one other on the board, so the likelihood of PROs being on the full board is not that great.'

Chime Communications chairman Lord Bell adds, perhaps mischievously: 'There is also pressure from FDs, who do not want other directors who control budgets on the board. They prefer to be the only ones seeing the CEO.' Vodafone group director of corporate affairs Simon Lewis joined the company last year with a brief to shake up comms, and with a seat on the company's executive committee a key component of the job. But he points out that there is a difference between the main corporate functions - corporate affairs, HR, business development, company secretarial, strategy and legal - and the business units, such as finance, of a company. 'The commercial reality is that the executive directors on main boards tend to represent the largest parts of the principal business,' he says.

And while the CIPR produces guidance on evaluation on most PR matters, anyone expecting it to use its new chartered status to wave the flag for PR in the boardroom may need to look elsewhere. 'To be frank, it is not something which the institute gets itself worked up about,' says CIPR president-elect Tony Bradley. 'If you look at the importance organisations attach to reputation management, OFR, stakeholder engagement and other areas where PR is driving the agenda, I don't think we have much to worry about.' He believes most PROs are now part of the decision-making process even though not all have a seat at the top table. This is particularly true of local authority in-house teams, he says.

Reputation is main battleground

Bradley's view may appear laissez-faire, but it is echoed by many senior PROs. 'I do not really detect a widespread clamour from the PR profession to get onto the board of major companies,' says Patrick Law, Centrica director of corporate affairs. 'This does not diminish the position of comms professionals within organisations.'

But there is a need for PROs to continuously prove their worth to the board, he adds: 'To work effectively at this level, corporate affairs directors need outstanding technical skills in terms of how they relate to key stakeholder groups, but also management and business experience.'

Since PR still has to prove its cost-benefit equation in a way that marcoms disciplines such as advertising and direct mail now have, perhaps reputation management is the main battleground for PROs fighting to get a foot through the door.

Eperon says: 'The role of corporate comms and the importance of reputation management has been better understood over the past ten years - increasingly by CEOs. This is partly because they have seen attention paid by the media, analysts and other stakeholders to the characteristics of company leaders.'

Reputation damage was one of the main themes of a 2003 report by the influential Pharmaceutical Shareowners Group, while the spectres of Enron and Worldcom still hang over boardrooms. 'Reputation management is coming up the agenda and the corporate affairs professional is as well placed as anyone to be the guardian of this,' agrees Lewis. But he is reticent about the notion that elements such as the Operating Financial Review (OFR) will automatically catapult PR into the boardroom. 'OFR will build on the greater trend to transparency, and transparency, in turn, is about communication,' he says.

There remains a perplexing disconnect between the acknowledgment of PR's importance and its corporate position. One UK head of corporate comms for a US-based multinational, who did not want to be named, throws some light on this: 'PR people are under-utilised. There is still a lack of understanding of what is involved in comms. A lot of what we do is under the radar.'

If true, this, ironically, does not say much for the authority of PR. If communications professionals are not talking up their own value and achievements, who will?

CHARLOTTE LAMBKIN, BAE SYSTEMS

'Board membership not important'

BAE Systems group comms director Charlotte Lambkin does not sit on the executive committee but believes daily contact with the CEO means this is not a problem.

'Being on the executive committee depends on your ego and the hierarchy of the company. Perhaps PR does not have the clout but we are a young industry and it will take a long time, if ever, for us to be on boards. I do not think it is particularly necessary in terms of the effectiveness of the job you do, which depends instead on your access. Boards should be lean and mean, they are there to run the operational side of the business. Non-executives provide the checks and balances for that. They do not need me there as well.

'There is a vast disparity in the way PR is treated in businesses. In some, you are in at the beginning of the decision-making process. In others, you are simply at the end of a phone if something goes wrong. Our biggest difficulty is proving our cost benefit to the bottom line; the more you prove that, the more weight you will have in the boardroom.' ANNETTE SPENCER, ROYAL & SUNALLIANCE

'Board membership is important'

Royal & SunAlliance UK head of external affairs Annette Spencer is responsible for all media relations, public affairs and reputation management for the UK business. Her remit includes subsidiary More Than.

'The executive team, the quasi-board running the business, has agreed to my attendance at monthly meetings. It is a very recent thing that we started trying this year and so far, so good. It is rare but I think it is a growing phenomenon and reflects the importance of the comms team seeing how the business is working.

'For an in-house team it is very easy to lose sight of the bottom line and what we are in business to do. If you are trying to give advice then the mechanics of how and where you make money is obviously important. In the past, people have said that comms should be better represented at senior level. As PR practitioners, perhaps we have not done enough to demonstrate why we should have that access.

'It is about treating the relationship you have with your colleagues and the business in the same way as you would with your target media - spend time with them, create trust. If you do not have that embedded, built-in knowledge you do not have credibility.

'The insurance business is quite cyclical and understanding where you are, in terms of the long-term direction of the company, is important. This knowledge informs my discussions with journalists, for example. It can ensure that they understand the broad direction of the company. It is also a way of making sure my team is not working in isolation, showing that there are benefits to the communicators, media and the business itself.'

Spencer adds that PROs need to continually prove their worth. She has argued that her place at monthly meetings of the management board helps her team contribute to the success of the business by understanding its nuts and bolts: business cycles, sales opportunities, and so on: 'I needed to demonstrate to my colleagues that there is an advantage to me and to them. It is not enough just to bang your fist on the table and say you should be on the board.'

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