Diversity in PR is a whitewash

The industry's attitude to class and ethnicity must change if it wants to attract talent that can reach out to diverse audiences.

Diversity: the fact that PR is a relatively new industry may work against it.
Diversity: the fact that PR is a relatively new industry may work against it.

We all know PR is not the fluffy business that the stereotype might suggest – a stopgap for white, middle-class, Home Counties girls between university and having a family.

But if PR routinely rejects this cliché, why has the 2013 PR Census again thrown up the slightly embarrassing fact that just six per cent of people working in the industry are ‘non-white’? Of those who dec­lared an ethnicity,one per cent are black, two per cent are Asian and three per cent are ‘other ethnicity’. For an industry largely based in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, this is a poor showing.

But it’s not for want of trying. Both the CIPR and the PRCA have diversity and schools outreach programmes, plus paid internship and apprenticeship initiatives, all with the aim of widening the talent pool available to the industry. There is also the Taylor Bennett Foundation, set up five years ago by the recruitment company of the same name in a bid to make vacancy shortlists more diverse. In that time it has helped train and place 100 candidates from different backgrounds into agency and in-house roles. So what is the problem?

PRCA comms director Matt Cartmell says there remain two significant issues: "First, the primary routes of access that people have into the PR industry are still inadequate for the variety and breadth of talent in the UK today. Second, there is still not enough visibility of PR as an industry across diverse backgrounds and younger age groups."

The fact that PR is a relatively new industry may work against it. According to several practitioners spoken to by PRWeek, Asian families often do not see PR as ‘respectable’ compared with law or medicine and may discourage it as a career option.

Zaiba Malik is an award-winning journalist-turned-PR who joined Grayling last year. If her experience is typical, young Asians choosing a PR career risk family disapproval. "When I left law for journalism, my father didn’t speak to me for months, such was his disappointment," she says.

While the image of PR is an issue (let’s face it, it’s not just Asian families who view PR as little more than glorified socialising), the bigger picture is that the industry does not appear very accessible. There is a whole section of society for whom PR is just not on the radar as a career choice. The fact that PR is staffed mainly by white, middle-class graduates means it offers few networking opportunities or role models for youngsters from diverse backgrounds. The PRCA/PRWeek paid internship campaign is still relatively new, as are apprenticeships for non-grads, and this all points as much to an issue of economics and class as it does ethnicity.

John Doe founder Rana Reeves agrees, and stresses that viable candidates must come from a cross-section of society: "Agencies shouldn’t hire just because it looks good for an award entry or on their website. Talent is talent, whatever the background, but part of the reason the industry does not see talent from a wider pool is an unwillingness to take candidates that have not had an obvious educational path. For me, that is more about class than ethnicity."

Malik agrees: "Being open-minded about recruitment is crucial. We need people with different experiences and insights to serve increasingly diverse audiences. It is just as important to have people from outside of London, from other parts of the world, from different socioeconomic backgrounds and not just those with degrees in our teams. Quotas are not the solution. Meritocracy is the way forward, so let’s start recognising and hiring the breadth of talent that is out there."

However, both the CIPR and the PRCA are determined that things should change. Catherine Grinyer, a director of Big Voice Communications and the new chair of the CIPR’s Diversity Working Group, says the key to greater diversity will be moving from initiatives and pilots to a situation where diversity and inclusion are second nature. She is hoping to join forces with organisations such as the National Union of Journalists and the Chartered Institute of Marketing to work on embedding inclusive policies in training, recruitment, day-to-day management and in the delivery of campaigns.

Certainly building a more inclusive industry will not only benefit potential recruits from all walks of life, but also encourage a wider, more creative industry producing campaigns for clients that resonate through all levels of society.

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