How the PR industry can improve its record on diversity

Making the PR industry more diverse requires a personal commitment from everyone, a panel of experts said Wednesday.

NEW YORK: For the PR industry to make progress on diversity, individuals must personally commit themselves to the cause, communications experts agreed at the PRWeek Conference in New York on Wednesday.

Diversity is a challenge for many industries, not just advertising, marketing, and communications, noted Shante Bacon, founder of 135th Street Agency. However, she said $13 billion is spent on PR firms globally per year, but only 1% of that is spent on African-American PR firms.

"That is a huge example that there is a question about the value these agencies bring to the table," Bacon explained. "As soon as [executives] see a person of color, [they] doubt their credibility when it comes to strategy and comms as a skill. They are automatically devalued."

To deal with the issue, Bacon said the PR industry must address how people think about diversity without redefining what diversity means.

"We don’t need a new generation of African-American interns and assistants; what we need is African-American EVPs, SVPs, people who have a seat at the table, who can make decisions and who are trusted to manage a budget and make strategic divisions," she added.

Wells Fargo corporate comms EVP Oscar Suris said personal commitment, vision, and leadership are essential to improving diversity.

"We are not making progress because each of us has not individually decided this is an important issue," concurred Deisha Barnett, senior director of corporate comms at Walmart.

The PR industry has been making changes in how it is handling the issue, said PR Council president Kathy Cripps, adding that the past should not be focused on — only current efforts.

"Agencies have made big changes in the way they are recruiting in that they are approving talent, interviewing differently, and doing more perceived bias training," she said. "These bias issues need to be addressed on an ongoing basis."

She admitted that the PR industry has a long way to go to address diversity, but added there is the "will, focus, and resources" to make progress.

"I am not saying we are feeling like we have done things well, but we are looking to change and the numbers have changed," Cripps said. 

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