Race and the PR Industry - How can PR solve its minorities problem?

Although nobody claims the PR profession is racist, the industry faces a serious shortage of ethnic minority job candidates. Larry Dobrow details the need for PR firms to recruit from a broader spectrum of job candidates.

For years, Lagrant Foundation president Kim L. Hunter had been hearing his peers in the communications industry complain about the difficulty of finding qualified minority job candidates. When he decided to do something about it, however, the response was distinctly underwhelming.

Last week, Hunter spoke to PRWeek about his frustration with the industry's lack of support for the foundation, which will annually provide scholarships to ten minority college and graduating high school students pursuing a degree in a communications-related field.

Of the top 25 PR and advertising agencies in the Los Angeles area contacted by Hunter, only one ad firm saw fit to contribute to the foundation. That firm, BBDO West, donated a mere $250. Yet, when contacted by PRWeek, several of the firms who declined to contribute complained about the difficulty of finding qualified minority job candidates.

Hunter stopped short of calling the PR industry racist. 'I wouldn't say that's entirely justified,' he said. He wondered, however, why an industry supposedly bending over backwards to hire minorities wouldn't support a scholarship foundation designed to accomplish those very goals.

'I was disappointed, but not surprised. That's just the way things are in the PR and advertising industries.'

Doing the numbers
Statistics back up his conclusions. According to a 1997 survey commissioned by the PRSA and conducted by an outside firm, 93% of PRSA's 17,626 members described themselves as white or Caucasian; 3% as black or African-American; 2% as Hispanic or Latino; and 1% as Asian.

While comparable data is not available for the advertising or graphic arts industries, the American Society of Newspaper Editors in October adopted a mission statement affirming its commitment to racial parity in newsrooms by 2025. The statement is very clear: 'The nation's newsrooms must reflect the racial diversity of American society.'

The Society of Professional Journalists went further. They 'affirmed' the statement, agreeing with its principles, but also committed themselves to increasing minority representation in the newsroom long before 2025.

By comparison, the PRSA has taken very tame steps to address the concerns of its minority members, though last year a Multicultural Communications Section was founded.

'It's always been an issue,' conceded PRSA director of PR Richard George.

'I mean, what kind of a message does it send when an industry that prides itself on being able to communicate with all audiences is underrepresented in nearly every audience?'

Those attempting to 'prove' the PR industry is racist say the insensitivity manifests itself in smaller ways as well, such as how visitors to the PRSA's web site can access statistical information about total membership, membership by occupation and membership by gender, but nothing about race.

PRWeek also found significant reluctance on the part of PR firms to talk about the specter of racism in the industry, with several sources demanding anonymity and others agreeing to speak only in measured and obviously pre-written sound bites.

Words not action
Every firm contacted by PRWeek agreed they would benefit from having a staff that is more representative of the population as a whole. Lee Brody, senior vice president/director of corporate affairs for BSMG Worldwide described the lack of minority job candidates as 'an issue that every agency wrestles with.' Duffey Communications president Eric Tannenblatt said, 'Our firm - and almost every other firm, I'm sure - feels very passionately about the issue.'

So why is PR still an overwhelmingly white industry?

Most firms claimed qualified minority candidates are difficult to find.

'Firms are taking all the candidates that are coming to the door,' said David Copithorne, president and founder of Copithorne & Bellows Public Relations. 'As more firms need to use PR to reach out to diverse audiences, people with diverse backgrounds are going to be needed more than they already are - and it's already incredibly difficult to find top candidates.'

Or maybe it's just a matter of time and money. 'When a qualified African-American or Latino candidate applies to firms, he or she usually becomes the target of a bidding war,' said Thomas Amberg, president of Cushman/Amberg Communications. 'After a certain point, a smaller business like ours can't compete.'

Added Copithorne, 'The industry is so amorphous and broad. Smaller firms don't have the resources to do the outreach to minority students and candidates.'

The bigger firms, in turn, point to their inability to compete with the vast resources of so-called Corporate America. While corporations have been much quicker to respond to Hunter's entreaties than PR and ad firms - Nissan North America contributed $5,000 to the Lagrant Foundation, GTE and Edison International contributed $2,000 each - it's difficult to believe the biggest PR firms would be unable to match these donations or make impossible-to-refuse job offers to the best candidates.

'Corporations have certainly done a much better job of hiring minority candidates on all levels, from the junior to the senior ranks,' said Brody.

Then there are those who believe the PR industry cares only about appearances.

Said one source, 'Firms want African-Americans and other minorities just so they can say, 'We're supporting diversity.'I don't think most of my peers truly believe a more diverse staff makes a better staff.'

Said another source. 'For most companies, they're happy to have anybody aboard who can help the business.'

This last perspective may well be the most realistic one - after all, if a firm found an albino woman of Eastern European descent who was especially skilled at crafting PR campaigns for inner-city youths, it's not likely they would be anxious to replace her with someone less skilled no matter their race.

In the end, however, the less the public relations industry reflects the diversity of American society, the more probable it is that their messages will be received with skepticism by their target audience. For an industry which is supposed to be about communication, that's an inauspicious prospect.

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