Diversity and inclusion in the PR profession: The case for change

The bottom line is that our industry must set a higher bar.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

The need to build organizations that are inclusive and represent the changing face of a global economy is especially pertinent to professions within the U.S.  If we turn the microscope to minority representation in one of our nation’s fastest-growing industries -- communications -- we can see that much progress is yet to be made. According to the Public Relations Society of America, studies indicate that the industry struggles to attract black, Asian, and Hispanic professionals.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article by Angela Chitkara, PR track director at the City College of New York, the author interviewed 18 CEOs from the top 100 global PR agencies. Thirteen of the CEOs were men and five were women; 17 were white and one was Latino. She found that there wasn’t even consensus on the meaning of diversity and inclusion. Four of the respondents defined diversity to specifically include gender diversity while nine defined it to include only race and ethnicity. Even worse, most of the CEOs conflated diversity with inclusion.

The biggest epiphany the author found is that employees in PR who don’t feel a sense of belonging leave by the mid-level mark, and most agencies admitted that they did not dedicate resources to building an inclusive culture. The problem is not unique. The legal, technology, and architecture professions also face similar challenges.

Chitkara’s analysis also points to the fact that the ethnic makeup of the PR industry in the U.S. is 87.9% white, 8.3% African-American, 5.7% Hispanic-American, and 2.6% Asian-American. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2020, 36.5% of the U.S. population will be comprised of blacks, Asians or Pacific Islanders, Hispanics or Latinos, and Native Americans. If our industry does not mirror this statistic, we lose. The inclusion of these diverse groups within our industry can only add to the richness and diversity of thought, thereby bringing the best ideas to life and stimulating abundant creativity. Some companies demand that agencies they hire reflect this diversity, but more need to join this effort to see meaningful change.

There are several definitions for what diversity means, but one of the most common is that diversity means understanding individual differences. These can be along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or other ideologies. It is the exploration of these differences in a safe, positive, and nurturing environment. Diversity is a reality created by individuals and groups from a broad spectrum of demographic and philosophical differences.

It is extremely important to support and protect diversity because valuing individuals and groups free from prejudice and fostering a climate of equity and mutual respect can lead to a harmonious and productive workplace. Studies have shown that when there is diversity of thought, corporations can be extremely successful. In an article titled "Why Diversity Matters" by McKinsey & Co., the authors state that companies in the top quarter for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Companies in the bottom quarter in these dimensions are statistically less likely to achieve above-average returns. Diversity is probably a competitive differentiator that shifts market share toward more diverse companies over time.

That isn’t enough. There’s no point in boasting the unique attributes of diversity if there’s no follow through on inclusion. Organizations and industries that succeed show the interdependence of diversity and inclusion. In fact, during my long tenure at Johnson & Johnson, CEO Alex Gorsky was consistent in his message that diversity without inclusion is pointless. He holds his senior leaders accountable to create a harmonious environment where everyone thrives. Other companies leading this charge include AT&T, Mastercard, Eli Lilly & Co., Hilton, KPMG, Accenture, and Comcast NBC Universal.

Regrettably, the PR industry has a lot of catching up to do. In a recent article by Ellen McGirt in Fortune titled "Why is public relations so white?" Andrew McCaskill, SVP of global communications at Nielsen said, "The only people who really understand how big the diversity problem is in public relations are the people of color." He added that multicultural Americans are not only driving culture but driving markets. "If your teams don’t reflect or understand your customer base, it’s not just bad optics; it’s strategy malpractice," McCaskill added.

There are many CEOs who boast diversity in their workforce by staffing disproportionate numbers of women in HR and communication roles to satisfy their diversity agenda. While it is good to see that there is an agenda for diversity, and that several white women and LGBTQ professionals have senior-level positions at leading firms, racial and ethnic diversity is sorely lacking. A former senior female Merck & Co. executive described this to me as "the pink ghetto," a phrase that was coined in 1983 to describe the limits women have in furthering their careers, since the jobs are often dead-end, stressful, and underpaid. As far as other ethnic minorities are concerned, the argument that there aren’t many who could be considered for these roles has gotten stale.

One might ask why this is important.  

There are several advantages to having more diverse representation in agencies. It encourages, among other things, the best thinking, nurtures a sensitivity toward other cultures, opinions, and ideas, and helps to win top talent. Minority candidates see the world differently, can often pull from their diverse backgrounds, and provide unique insights into what drives customer behavior, purchasing decisions, and brand loyalty among key audiences.    

The bottom line is that our industry must set a higher bar. We must make conscientious efforts to make disruptive changes to our investment in diversity and inclusion to reflect a changing world and a changing America. I encourage public relations and communications agencies to dedicate resources toward this effort and to actively recruit bright candidates from colleges who are truly diverse. PR firms should also work on creating an inclusive environment where minorities can feel comfortable, voice opinions without fear of retribution, and thrive.

Let’s break down the barriers of entry and celebrate a more inclusive public square. I also encourage PRSA and other organizations to actively track and report how we’re making progress and what are the drivers or barriers that hold us back. Executives who are minorities should help mentor future practitioners and socialize their ideas at key meetings and in the digital park.

Let’s do all we can to be proud of our industry by adapting to change that is truly meaningful and reflects the dreams and aspirations of all employees and clients.

Srikant Ramaswami is EVP of global and emerging markets for healthcare at rbb Communications.

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