Agencies called to step up the pace on diversity efforts

PR executives on both coasts say that diversity in the industry is lacking to a startling point, and while firms have made strides to change that, most have a lot of catching up to do.

PR executives on both coasts say that diversity in the industry is lacking to a startling point, and while firms have made strides to change that, most have a lot of catching up to do.

Executives say the lack of diversity in the PR agency world comes into focus when compared with population numbers.

“It's no secret that ethnic and racial minorities are underrepresented, but the actual numbers are staggering,” says Joe Cohen, SVP at MWW and the national chair of the Public Relations Society of America. “Fewer than 10% of PR professionals are African American or Hispanic, versus 30% when you compare it to the US population with growth of 50% by 2050.”

Cohen says that groups are taking steps to diversify the PR world. For instance, the PRSA Foundation has launched a partnership with the United Negro College Fund in an effort to attract more minority students to communications programs. The organization also has a scholarship program and is tracking numerous studies at universities across the country to better understand obstacles that minorities face when it comes to joining the PR field and staying in it.

Sonja Popp-Stahly, director of digital media communications at Eli Lilly and Company and member of the PRSA board of directors, presents an outstanding university service award.

The PRSA Foundation is also planning to extend outreach to guidance counselors at the high school level, notes Cohen, adding that it is important to build a strong foundation.

“[The PRSA is] looking to launch a diversity initiative month that's going to look to galvanize chapters and members in an organization-wide effort to promote diversity,” he adds, explaining that diversity improves an agency's perspective, strengthens business, and reflects the population of the country.

PRWeek runs the Diversity Distinction in PR Awards in partnership with the Council of Public Relations Firms.

The lack of diversity is jarring to many across the industry, especially at the executive level. Kim Hunter, CEO, founder, and president of Lagrant Communications, calls the lack of diversity “pathetic,” saying the offices of some agencies do not reflect the US in 2014 at all. He believes firms have good intentions, but they have to act on them.

“I've always said the agency world will change if the clients demand it,” he adds. “We're all at the mercy of our clients.”

Mike Paul of Reputation Doctor, contends that with no diversity among executives, it's a waste of both time and money to allocate scholarships or focus diversity efforts at the intern and entry levels, because those hires will ultimately leave for another firm.

“These young kids come in, and if you say that you have zero tolerance for racism, it's lip service if nobody looks like them or me,” he says.

Paul adds that many people believe a company located in a major city has a responsibility to mirror that area's demographics. For instance, if a corporation opens an office in China, its staff should not be made up entirely of US expats.

“New York City is now [a majority of] people of color. Look at the numbers – how on Earth could we not think that we have a crisis?” Paul asks. “It's not a challenge, it's a crisis in diversity in our business.”

Paul is planning to undertake a two-day fast next Wednesday and Thursday to bring attention to the lack of executives of color in the PR and communications industry.

The 2010 US Census found that non-Hispanic whites made up 49.6% of the population of New York City and its suburbs, down from 54.3% a decade earlier.

The issue has also come up in court cases and political agendas. Last year, a jury ruled against an Interpublic Group employee who sued the company a year earlier alleging racial discrimination. Last year, New York City Comptroller John Liu called for Omnicom Group and Publicis Groupe, which are in the process of merging into the biggest marketing services holding company in the world, to release the composition of their employee bases by race and gender.

Former Mercury Public Affairs MD Roger Salazar launched his firm, Alza Strategies, this week to help Hispanic communities and organizations communicate their message to mainstream audiences. A problem in the agency world that he has noticed is the challenge of recruiting employees and keep them in one place.

“There's a push for stronger recruitment,” he explains. “Just like anything else, as the demographics change, those of us who have been in this business a long time feel the need to build a very strong bench behind us.”  

While Paul says he often hears agencies say they cannot find diverse talent, Salazar explains that he believes PR isn't the first career path minority students consider. He adds that those in the communications world trend toward running campaigns, working in policy, or in private businesses.

Other executives believe  the PR industry has not done enough to let black and Hispanic students know about the opportunities in the profession.

Growing up, Cheryl Contee wanted to become a doctor or lawyer. Contee, a partner at Fission Strategies and cofounder of, a social marketing automation platform, and former FleishmanHillard VP, said there is a lack of knowledge among minorities that PR can be an exciting profession.

“It can be intimidating if you're the one minority and you're being held to a different standard,” says Contee. “It starts with awareness. Look around your office – if everyone who works there is white, make a commitment to highlight this is not good enough in an America that is changing rapidly.”  

This story was updated on February 7 to correct the fact that the PRSA Foundation has launched a partnership with the United Negro College Fund, not the PRSA. We regret the error. 

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