Diversity: Five ways to break the barriers

The UK PR industry is still suffering from a lack of cultural diversity among its employees. Elizabeth Pears looks at possible reasons and explores how the industry can redress the balance.

Interns at Talk PR/Taylor Bennett Foundation
Interns at Talk PR/Taylor Bennett Foundation

If you are reading this, there is a strong chance you are white, middle class and female. Unless you are at the top of the profession, in which case you are more likely to be a man.

This remains the stark truth for an industry that has consistently failed to reflect wider society.

In the PRWeek Power Book 2012, published last week, which lists the most powerful individuals in the industry, only about three per cent were from an ethnic minority background.

Last year's PRWeek/PRCA Census also showed that only eight per cent of all practitioners come from a black or minority ethnic (BME) background – of which a quarter are black African or Caribbean.

The industry does not even come close to reflecting the society with which it needs to communicate. According to the Office for National Statistics, 37.4% of Britons are from a BME background.

The picture in related professions like journalism, marketing and advertising is similar. In the 2011 IPA Agency Census, only ten per cent of the advertising industry was from a non-white background.

There are increasingly strong arguments that this lack of diversity will harm the industry.

As well as offering the diversity of thought and experience possessed by people with different backgrounds, the BME community is a formidable consumer group.

The PRCA Access Commission's Broadening Access to the PR Industry report published earlier this year said ethnic minorities are estimated to have a collective disposable income worth £300bn.

Reasons for the poor ratio of BME professionals in PR are nuanced and complex. Many of those who do work in the industry enjoy successful careers – there are just not enough of them.

Ignite PR founder Bieneosa Ebite says, "Change requires an entire cultural shift. We've heard the ethical and legal reasons, but the motivation is now a business case. It can affect the bottom line".

Here are five steps the PR industry should take to attract a more diverse workforce.

1. Debunk stereotypes and improve cultural sensitivity

The prevalence of Home Counties accents and a lack of visible black or Asian faces seem to deter BME graduates from entering the profession, under the misconception they do not 'fit' the mould.

Other stereotypes are at play too, such as the external image of PR itself; the spin doctor or fluffy Ab Fab blonde. The industry needs to work harder at promoting itself to the outside world.

Internally, the industry needs to be more sensitive to other cultures. A team session in the local over a few pints is unlikely to be an inclusive exercise for those who do not drink for religious reasons.

2. Educate young people about PR as a career choice

"Unless students have watched 'In The Thick Of It', or 'Thank You For Smoking' – neither of which do much to demonstrate the professionalism of PR – or have relatives in the industry, they won't even know what PR is," says Heather McGregor, founder of the Taylor Bennett Foundation, a venture supporting BME graduates pursuing a PR career.

"Many graduates from ethnic minorities entering the workplace are encouraged to look at professions such as medicine, law or accountancy, but PR and comms is a relatively unknown career path."

Of the 275 students on Bournemouth University's PR course, only eight per cent are from a BME background. Professor Tom Watson suggests a solution. "Get into schools before students make their A-Level choices to discuss what a career in PR offers.

"If PR is not on the career compass, we have to put it there. We have a duty to promote our industry if we truly want to encourage diversity."

3. Provide access to networks and mentoring

"If your parents have friends in the right places, you can get work experience, which can lead to an internship, then to a permanent job. If your parents don't belong to the dinner party circuit, you aren't going to have those opportunities," says Insight PR MD John Lehal, who chairs the PRCA's Access Commission.

The Taylor Bennett Foundation uses training and work placements to address this. Sarah Stimson, course director, says, "We give our students a network of people they wouldn't normally have access to. We send them out to lots of different places so they can build PR contacts and team them up with mentors."

In a study by University of Leeds lecturer Lee Edwards, funded by the Economic Social and Research Council, BME professionals also felt positively about mentorship and its impact on career progression.

One participant said: "As well as being good at your job, you do need mentors. I think the people who succeed... are the ones who've got someone bigging them up when they're outside the room."

4. End the practice of unpaid internships

With a high proportion of internships still largely informal, unpaid and based in London, it presents a huge barrier to graduates from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Since October, PRWeek and the PRCA have been running a campaign to call on all the PRCA's members to pledge to pay interns the minimum wage.

The starting figure of 21 agencies has already doubled, but there is still a way to go. If agencies were to pay interns, this would greatly help to even up the playing field.

5. Change the application process

In her report, Edwards found poor recruitment and promotion processes that were too subjective, based on interviews alone that failed to objectively assess skill and capability.

The report continues, "Recruitment processes were often led by all-white interview panels and were vulnerable to bias, in the sense that recruiters tended to hire in their own image."

Attending a private school may also give candidates an advantage, in that these candidates are often better trained at interview techniques and articulating themselves.

"There is a kind of professional class style in the way PR people convey themselves that isn't always accessible to others. It can present semi-invisible barriers for people who aren't used to that dinner party conversation you might first get at home with your family," says MHP chief executive Sacha Deshmukh.

Edwards believes PR teams in the public sector tend to have a better record of diversity in comparison to the private sector because there are stricter recruitment criteria that ask candidates to pass skill tests.

Case studies


Marielle Legair

Name: Marielle Legair

Job title: Corporate finance PR manager

Company: Deloitte

How did you get into PR?

I started my PR career in 2005 as a graduate at GolinHarris. I worked on consumer and corporate clients from British Airways to Orange.

Do you feel you have encountered any barriers in your career?

My career has generally gone in the direction I have planned. I set myself short- and long-term goals and work hard to achieve them. I firmly believe that hard work pays off and good work speaks for itself.

Do you work with any other BME professionals?

In comparison to other firms I have worked at, I see a real mix of ethnicities at Deloitte, which is refreshing. I am the only BME professional in my team, but there are several ethnicities and nationalities in different departments within the firm. I feel encouraged that the firm's multicultural network offers a range of mentoring opportunities to redress the balance.

Is there a need to improve the BME ratio in the PR industry? If so, how?

There is always room to improve the BME ratio. This can be done by shattering the myths that surround PR by making it more accessible. This needs to start at a grassroots level in schools.

I currently mentor a 14-year-old girl at an innercity school in Bethnal Green through Deloitte's i-Inspire scheme. It is important to let BME children see from an early age that all careers are viable options, and that with hard work and determination anything is achievable.

My dad always told me, "work hard and try your best" and that's a mantra I live by.

Leke Apena

Name: Leke Apena

Job title: Account executive

Company: Rocket Communications

How did you get into PR?

During my second year at Brighton, I decided I preferred PR to journalism after researching the industry and finding it to be a better fit to my interests.

Landing my first job in PR involved a lot of cold-calling and internships in order to gain experience. The Taylor Bennett Foundation was definitely instrumental in giving me access to the right people, which eventually led to my current role. 

Do you feel you have encountered any barriers in your career?

Only the same barriers every other graduate, irrespective of their ethnic background, has encountered. Gaining experience in PR is probably the biggest hurdle as it is quite difficult to work for free when you are a fresh graduate with a loan to pay back.

Do you work with any other BME professionals?

I am not the only BME professional, but I am the only black British professional, at the agency. This doesn't bother me as the people I work with are genuinely accepting and open-minded. It is not something I would consider an issue.

Is there a need to improve the BME ratio in the PR industry? If so, how?

There is definitely a need to improve the BME ratio in the PR industry, particularly among those from a black background. In order for this to happen, the PR industry needs to better communicate what PR entails to BME students, as well as illustrate how PR can be an attractive and rewarding career choice.

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