The PR Show podcast: 'A lot of agencies don't care - PR has a lot of racial prejudice'

The PR industry is merely paying lip-service to improving the ethnic diversity of their workforces, with most agencies either apathetic or interested only in the 'sexy aspect' of diversity.

A panel of PR leaders from BAME backgrounds has slammed efforts to improve the ethnic diversity of the communications industry.

In the latest episode of PRWeek’s podcast, The PR Show, a panel of industry leaders from BAME backgrounds said tokenism was still rife – agencies often wanted black and brown faces to appear more diverse for 'awards', without actually understanding why diversity is important and beneficial to business outcomes.

Although there were pockets of impressive progress, the broader PR landscape was well behind other sectors on ethnic diversity, punctuated by research that shows nine in 10 PR professionals identified as being ‘white’.

BME PR Pros founder Elizabeth Bananuka, Manifest London brand director Julian Obubo and WX leader Zoe Stafford joined PRWeek news editor Arvind Hickman in a no-punches-pulled debate about why PR struggles with ethnic diversity. 

"I think a lot of people don't care about diversity and do not want to do the deep work involved," Bananuka said.

"The road to diversity is littered with liberal good intentions. I think people want the sexy aspect that will get them in PRWeek or a tweet that's retweeted, or nice content in LinkedIn," she added. "We've got a lot of racial prejudice [and] sexism in our sector."

Bananuka estimates that of the top 150 consultancies, only about 20 have diversity and inclusion (D&I) policies in place.

A good litmus test of how well a sector is tackling diversity is to look at how many agency leaders are from diverse backgrounds – which among the Top 150, is less than a handful.

"There is an element of prejudice where we've decided a man has to be in charge, Oxbridge-educated makes the best reputation-management person, and you have to have white skin to be in a PR agency," Bananuka said.

Another problem plaguing the industry is that it is set up so that people from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds can thrive.

A lot of entry-level jobs in communications are poorly paid, which means only talent from wealthier backgrounds are able to take them up.

WX – a social enterprise set up by W Communications – was established on the foundation that diversity in thinking, rather than appearance, was needed in agencyland.

"One of the reasons that WX was founded… [W founder and CEO Warren Johnson] was looking at the output and his workforce and thinking: 'Everyone has got the same opinion and life experiences and we need to change that,'" Stafford said.

"It's an industry-wide discussion, and WX is his attempt to look at how the model can change, how we can get young people into the business because they are full of ideas, an untapped pool of creators and, for the most part, a lot of our target audience for the brands we work with."

Obubo believes the industry is far too obsessed with 'fads' and 'trying to win an award' rather than driving meaningful change to provide career paths for people from diverse backgrounds.

"In PR in recent years, there was this push that diversity is important, but nobody really knew why we need to do it… [It became] about 'How do we win awards and show that two per cent of our senior team is diverse?'" Obubo said.

"We need to move the mentality towards understanding why diversity is important. And not just from quota of 'Let’s have some non-white faces in the office,' but how does it feed creativity and improve your ideas. The discussion hasn't matured to that."

*Obubo, Bananuka and The PR Show host Arvind Hickman are among 30 speakers at the BME PR Pros conference - comms in a post mainstream world on Friday. Tickets can be obtained here. 

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