While the past few years have seen serious commitment to the PR industry's diversity problem, the 2008 PRWeek/Hill & Knowlton Diversity Survey shows that much still needs to be done in recruitment and retention.
When Bill Imada, currently the chairman and CEO of IW Group, started out in PR, a fellow Asian American told him to “get out of this business.” The industry didn't have opportunities for Asian-American practitioners, she said, and it would be too difficult. Twenty years later, Imada runs a successful Los Angeles-based agency, focusing on Asian-American advertising and PR.
“I think things have changed,” he says. “There are more Asian Americans and there are more opportunities for people of color and people with disabilities to really move into this field. But I don't see a lot of Asian Americans matriculate into the senior ranks of these companies.”
Imada's thoughts fall in line with the results of the 2008 PRWeek/Hill & Knowlton Diversity Survey. While the survey has traditionally polled HR managers about the level of diversity within their agencies or corporate communications department, this year's survey for the first time polled ethnically diverse PR professionals about their experiences getting started, and moving up, in the PR industry.
Of the survey respondents, 59.2% are African American; 31.7% are Hispanic; and 9.2% are Asian or Pacific Islander.
According to the survey, 85.2% of respondents agree that the PR industry has a problem with recruiting ethnically diverse talent and 69% agree that the industry has a problem retaining those professionals. Furthermore, 54.2% of respondents say that one of the barriers that prevents ethnically diverse professionals from joining and remaining in PR is that the industry is not actively recruiting ethnically diverse students. In fact, 94.4% of respondents say the PR industry should follow the lead of the ad industry and institute more robust programs to recruit and retain diverse talent.
“I hope it's a wake-up call,” says MaryLee Sachs, US chairman and worldwide director of marketing and communications for H&K. “We have a diversity committee here at [H&K] and we've looked at the issue from every single angle. Initially, we were really focused on recruitment, but we've become increasingly focused on the retention piece as well. We understand that is just as critical to keep people once you get them in.”
While the issue of diversity has always been a concern for the PR industry, the election of Barack Obama as the country's first black president has thrust the topic even more into the spotlight.
“The face of America is changing and it is a diverse face,” says Jennifer Gonzalez, director for diversity communications at PainePR. “We need to be one step ahead in recruiting and fostering the internal culture inside the agencies.”
The demographic makeup of the younger generation is increasingly diverse, and those coming into PR now have grown up with this increased diversity and are optimistic about the future of PR.
“I always hear about the problem of diversity, but I think that within the agencies, or at least within Weber Shandwick, they do a lot for it,” says Mai-Lise Nguyen, an SAE at WS who started in PR with an internship at Burson-Marsteller in 2005.
“I think one of the biggest measures of success is when you don't feel any different than another employee,” she adds. “And I've never felt, because of the color of my skin, where I'm from geographically, or my gender or anything like that, that I have felt different than somebody else.”
“I hope that the situation is improving, at least at the entry level, because, ultimately, that will allow us to grow our own,” Sachs says. “About three or four years ago, we realized it was going to be difficult to hire in at senior levels. Although that is something we encourage our general managers to do, we are recognizing that it is easier at the more junior levels and [are] really focused on the retention piece and growing our own folks.”
Recruiting is a start
“I think we can broaden our recruiting universe in terms of which schools and colleges we establish relationships with,” says Mike Fernandez, VP of public affairs at State Farm and the current co-chair for the Institute for Public Relations (IPR). “We need to encourage agencies and corporate departments to interact in the process of minority recruitment for their firms. I think we need to also look at making sure that recruiting teams are diverse.”
Indeed, according to the survey, 57.7% of respondents cite “not enough role models within agencies” as a barrier to recruiting and retaining diverse talent.
“These kids are much smarter today than [when] I was growing up,” says Kim Hunter, president and CEO of Lagrant Communications. “They are going to look down the road and say, ‘I don't see anyone who reflects me and therefore my growth is going to be limited.'”
“I think that's going to continue to be a challenge, regardless of how much effort the company puts in terms of recruiting on college campuses, HBCUs, and the like, as well as any internal corporate diversity training programs,” says Kevin Hooks, SVP at The Axis Agency. “People really need to see that there is a real chance for them to reach the highest ranks by seeing people already there.”
But even those who say the PR industry can do better with recruitment admit that part of the problem is the small talent pool.
“The sad fact is that fewer kids coming out of urban America are graduating high school and going on to college, even fewer of them than the general population are graduating from college,” Fernandez says. “So there is a little bit of a pipeline challenge at the front end of all of this.”
PainePR's Gonzalez also sees the challenge of a small number of ideal candidates. Gonzalez, who says she has been helping with recruitment at her firm, is one of the 60.6% of respondents who report that they are personally involved in helping to recruit and retain ethnically diverse talent to the PR industry.
“I've seen a trend to try and recruit more diversity,” she says, explaining that her agency has been aggressive in increasing diversity on staff. “But I've seen the challenging aspect. The right and talented people – everyone is fighting over them.”
And in that fight, PR isn't winning a lot, quite simply, because of a lack of awareness about PR on high school and college campuses. Many of those came to the industry from other areas, including politics, journalism, and human resources, and the survey finds that for 59.2% of the respondents, PR was not their first career choice. Additionally, 40.8% of respondents cite a lack of information and understanding about the profession as a barrier.
“I think the biggest challenge has been the lack of awareness and understanding of the opportunities within the field,” says Romina Bongiovanni, VP of multicultural at Edelman. But awareness of the PR industry is growing among the younger generations.
According to the survey, 47.7% of those 35 years old or younger majored in PR or communications, compared to 28.6% of those ages 36 or older. Additionally, 84.7% of practitioners 35 or younger first became aware of PR as a profession while in college or earlier, compared to 59.8% of those 36 or older.
But awareness, Bongiovanni emphasizes, extends beyond just letting young people know about PR as a career.
“We all, as managers, have that obligation to mentor others and create awareness for the opportunities and provide guidance to better advance within the field,” she says. Those mentoring programs can help retain employees as well.
“Our industry as a whole, we do not do a good job of development, regardless of ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation,” Hunter says.
Likewise, survey respondents cite economic troubles, high turnover rates, and losing talent to in-house PR teams as additional reasons that agencies lose ethnically diverse practitioners.
“If you really want to move the needle in terms of diversifying this industry, you have to do the recruitment, development, and the retention,” he adds. “If you don't, you're going to keep going back to the same place. We hire them, but they don't stay. Are you getting to the heart of why they don't stay?”
One way to improve diversity within senior ranks, says Hunter, is to have succession plans in place, including those that involve employees from diverse backgrounds. He uses the example of his firm, Lagrant Communications, and how Keisha Brown, currently SVP and GM there, is set to take over as president in 2010. Hunter will stay on as chairman.
Succession plans go hand-in-hand with mentoring, networking, and reaching back to the mentor. The survey finds that 52.8% of total respondents currently have or have had a mentor of a similar ethnic background. That number is slightly higher for respondents ages 35 or under: 58.5%.
“I take mentoring very seriously, especially in the Hispanic PR space and [the] multicultural PR space in general,” Bongiovanni says, explaining that she works with her team at Edelman, as well as reaching beyond agency walls. “It gives me an opportunity to share my experience, my knowledge [with] people who are actually eager to learn and understand what diversity is about.”
Networking is also a crucial part of success in PR, according to several of the survey respondents when asked to explain why the industry has a problem retaining diverse applicants.
“PR is a field that relies on connections,” says one respondent. “Many people of color do not have the same connections to decision-makers.”
“Many individuals have not built the necessary personal network to aid in advancement,” another respondent says. “And an equal number of people have not prepared themselves to grow in this industry.”
Hunter agrees that networking is important, saying that “a lot of the younger generation hasn't taken it to a new level.” Some of the responsibility, he says, lies with ethnically diverse individuals, who need to reach out to find mentors and learn more about the industry.
Fernandez says his current company has done a lot in this space, going so far as to even initiate a “reverse mentoring” program.
“State Farm has done a very nice job in this regard,” he says. “For a number of years, they've identified younger, talented, diverse individuals to mentor senior executives so that the senior executives might have a better understanding of the marketplace that each of these individuals represent, as well as get to know some of this younger talent. It becomes a two-way street in the process.”
What to do now
Those interviewed – and surveyed – gave a lot of advice and recommendations for what PR agencies can do to retain diverse PR professionals. One of them is to look toward clients and corporations, which most agree are doing a better job at hiring diverse staffs than agencies.
“We learn from our clients, and particularly those that are aggressively pursuing to achieve diversity inclusion within their large organizations,” says Patricia Taylor, senior account manager at The Jeffrey Group. “They are bringing in such wonderful ideas that are focusing on such great plans for the future. It gives the agencies that work for them additional tools to bring into their own world in the PR discipline to make sure that we are also implementing the right approach within our own teams and groups.”
And making sure that senior management is on board is also a key factor. According to the survey, 67.6% of respondents feel that their company's senior management is committed to a more diverse workforce.
Along those lines, Imada recommends training managers on how to work with diverse staffs. While there is training on diversity and how to work with diverse consumers, he says, colleges, universities, and PR associations should teach managers how to oversee a diverse staff, as there can often be differences in communication skills and backgrounds.
“Senior management and HR personnel fail to recognize and address the cultural differences and often ignore the needs of such [diverse] talent,” notes one respondent when asked about the reasons for the industry's problems in retaining diverse talent.
Another respondent likens it to how firms and corporations discuss how to recruit and engage Millennials: “There is a general lack of awareness of how to grow, develop, and support ethnically diverse talent once they are employed.”
Another hindrance to retention and growth within a PR agency is when ethnically diverse practitioners get pigeonholed into working in the multicultural division at a larger firm.
“It can come across as a cliché,” Hooks says. “If you happen to be African American, Hispanic, Indian, or any[one from] a diverse cultural background, they tend to put you in those groups that focus on speaking to that audience. What ends up happening is your diverse talent starts to gravitate toward that one area. And that becomes part of the continuing challenge.”
Those campaigns also tend to be smaller, not allowing practitioners working on them the experience or reach of a larger campaign, says one respondent. “This lack of opportunity may add to retention problems,” that individual adds.
“One of the things I've seen professionally, is as general market firms see the emergence of the minority majority and try to seize those opportunities, they will hire individuals and expect them to create a department, grow [their] Hispanic business, or single-handedly deliver a market,” says Patricia Perez, a principal at VPE Public Relations. She adds that this essentially sets up these diverse practitioners for failure.
“[Saying,] ‘You're a Latino, so you should be really good at Hispanic stuff,' is a waste of what this person can do,” says Billy Sanez, director of corporate communications for American Airlines. By getting out of that mold, he says, PR professionals can expand their experiences and find what areas interest them.
In fact, 28.2% of respondents to the survey work in multicultural PR agencies, the biggest percentage, followed by corporations (24.6%), and general market PR agencies (14.8%). Those working at nonprofit organizations and those working as freelance consultants each make up 8.5% of respondents, while education PR professionals made up 2.5% of respondents. Government agencies and trade associations both come in with 0.7% of the respondents.
Clara Potes-Fellow, director of media relations at the California State University system, says she sees more diversity within corporate PR than in education.
“Corporate America seems to be more tuned into diversity because they respond to their markets,” says Potes-Fellow, who spent five years working at a Fortune 500 company before getting into education.
“Where corporations differ is that they might have stronger diversity recruiting, but not necessarily do so much on the employment [training] front,” adds WS' Nguyen. “I worked on the corporate side before I came to Weber. Maybe it's because agencies are smaller and there is more of that team environment, even with the senior leadership, and a complete open-door policy. Maybe [ethnically diverse practitioners] feel a little more active and really taken seriously.”
One respondent cites examples of ways ethnically diverse pros are not respected when they begin working at an agency or corporation.
“PR agency life typically doesn't engender loyalty because it gives young people of color ‘grunt work' to do,” that individual says. “I mentor young professionals and college PR students all across the country, and I repeatedly hear from them that they are getting coffee, logging press clippings, and inventorying boxes, among other menial tasks that keep them confined to the corners of GM agency offices and not thinking, contributing, or acquiring expertise.”
The survey also looks at what activities companies currently do to increase ethnic diversity on staff. The top activities are outreach to universities and schools with ethnically diverse populations (46.5%) and internship programs (46.5%), with speaking to audiences of professional groups, such as the National Association of Black Journalists, close behind (43.3%). Other activities include mentoring (35.9%), hiring diverse HR and recruitment pros (35.2%), sponsoring career workshops (23.2%), scholarship programs (19%), and implementing new hiring practices (10.6%).
“At Weber, we are required to do diversity training and we have a women's leadership network to encourage career advancement within the industry,” Nguyen says. “When I worked in the corporate industry, something might be rolled out, but not everyone took it as seriously as they do at Weber.”
Another component is whether or not a company has someone dedicated wholly to managing ethnic diversity. The survey finds that 35.9% of respondents say their companies do, while 51.4% do not.
“I really would like to see a bold movement in our industry,” Hunter says. “I would love to see [the PR organizations] make a major statement that they are going to increase ethnic minorities among the agencies, 5% or 10%.”
And other ethnically diverse practitioners think the PR industry's organizations can do more to help with diversity: 79.6% say such organizations are not doing enough to address the issue of diversity within PR.
There are some organizations that are doing a good job, including the Lagrant Foundation, says Nguyen, who received a scholarship from the organization in 2004. The organization still keeps in touch with her and other scholarship winners, she says. Hunter, founder of Lagrant, says the Arthur W. Page Society also has a commitment to diversity.
Edelman's Bongiovanni and VPE's Perez both cite the Hispanic PR Association (HPRA) as an organization that is doing a lot for the industry.
“We try to link young people and those interested in the profession not only through the HPRA, but also through the internship program here at our firm and just being active and visible on campuses and speaking,” says Perez, who adds that she recently spoke at UCLA and was able to have one-on-one time with a student interested in PR.
Involvement in such organizations and associations can be a great resource for ethnically diverse professionals to make connections, learn more about the industry, and feel more a part of their agencies and corporations. Yet only 50% of those surveyed say they are a part of such groups.
“I think it's interesting because for many people of diverse background and ethnic minorities, they come into a situation that is very foreign for them,” Sachs says. “And what we're trying to do is alleviate that foreign feel.”
The Jeffrey Group's Taylor agrees that diverse PR professionals want to feel included and important within their workplace, whether it is an agency, corporation, or other organization.
“That means opening up your mind to different lifestyles, different cultural backgrounds, different ages, all those things make us more effective,” she says. “[It is] one of the most important things to engage with, speak, and connect to our colleagues, team members, [and] employees in a way that makes them feel included.”
Connecting over culture and career
Ana Toro and Fernando Valverde
Ana Toro and Fernando Valverde have two PRs in common: public relations and Puerto Rico. Valverde, who cofounded the Masters Degree program in communications at the University of the Sacred Heart in Puerto Rico, met Toro when she was a student in 1992.
Valverde, currently retired, describes Toro as a standout student who asked shrewd questions and offered insightful comments. He says he knew then that she would be a leader in communications.
“Fernando always treated you like a colleague,” says Toro, who is now the VP of FH Multicultural at Fleishman-Hillard in Atlanta. “He always challenged you to pursue excellence in every aspect. He challenged many practitioners, including me, to become APR.”
The two stay in touch, Toro says, despite living in different states. Valverde was always passing on articles pertaining to the industry, she says, and sending tips on how to be a better PR pro. Valverde says his advice is always a little deeper than just how to craft a press release. It's more about how to work with clients and learn their need.
“Mentoring is like being a coach or counselor,” he says. “You help mold and motivate them and try to reach people, especially young people who are dynamic.”
After Toro graduated, Valverde asked her to come work for him at Focus Business Communications in Puerto Rico. That experience was “awesome,” Toro says, because it allowed them to see different sides of each other.
“Practitioners are trying to compete against each other and... shine,” she says. “You have to get a mentor. It's a key thing because a men-tor cares for you and will lead your way. It can really open doors.”
Learning from a mentoring relationship
Bill Imada and Priti Mehta
Priti Mehta didn't always know she wanted to go into PR and communications. But once her career got started at the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, where she is now the associate director of community outreach, she found mentors in her colleagues at the Foundation, as well as in Bill Imada, chairman and CEO of IW Group.
Mehta, who has been working in PR for two years, met Imada in 2006, when the Foundation hired his agency to help with its multicultural outreach program.
“One of the things which I have learned from Bill is the importance of organizations and groups of individuals to work together,” Mehta says in an e-mail. “Also, [he] taught me how the media can be used as a tool to raise awareness for people living with paralysis and their caregivers, and also build trust within the community.”
Though he has more than 20 years of experience in PR, Imada has learned from Mehta as well.
“Her perspective and experience working in the world of paralysis has broadened my thinking about how we as [PR] practitioners can communicate more effectively with people living [with] disabilities,” he notes.
Imada adds that when he was coming up in the PR world, he once asked a mentor how he could thank him, and the mentor said to pay it back by helping 100 other people.
“I'm going to do better than that,” Imada says he told him. “I'm going to add a couple of zeroes.”
Ronald Childs, Iman Jefferson, and Nellie Bradley
Ronald Childs, media relations director at Chicago-based Flowers Communications Group, started mentoring Iman Jefferson (top) and Nellie Bradley (below) when both were still students in college.
“Both of them took it upon themselves to place a phone call to me and ask good questions,” he says.
Jefferson, media relations specialist at Burrell Communications Group, describes it differently: “I basically bugged him to be my mentor.”
When he was coming up in PR more than 20 years ago, Childs says more seasoned PR professionals didn't always make time for younger pros. So he vowed to be different when he became more established.
Childs keeps in touch with Jefferson, who is also based in Chicago, and Bradley, who is in Atlanta, through phone calls, e-mails, instant messaging, and Facebook.
“Ron was, and is, always available for any questions I have,” says Bradley, PR coordinator for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. “He gave me straight-up information about how to move up in the industry and how to take my career and make it flourish.”
Jefferson says Childs was always willing to give honest advice about the industry as she made the switch from journalism to PR a year ago. He has especially helped with the development of her writing and finding her own voice.
“He really [was] very patient when I was kind of naïve and starting out,” she says. “I think you need somebody [as a mentor] because people have a lot of misconceptions about PR and it's about having someone to guide you.”
The PRWeek/Hill & Knowlton survey on diversity in the workplace was conducted by PRWeek and Millward Brown. E-mail notification was sent to approximately 500 diverse PR pros and a total of 142 completed the survey online between October 21 and November 7, 2008. The results are statistically tested at a confidence level of 90%. Results are not weighted. The complete survey results can be purchased for $150 by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.