Yes, PR has a racism problem. And we all need to act

As global media became dominated by disturbing images of protests and violence following the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, the PRWeek UK team received some sobering emails from UK-based black PR professionals.

(Credit: Lyubov Ivanova via Getty Images)
(Credit: Lyubov Ivanova via Getty Images)

Why was the PR sector – like society at large – not united in condemnation of the police brutality? Why wasn't everyone immediately offering messages of solidarity to their black colleagues and peers? Don't they get it? Don't they care?

Many industry organisations, including major agencies and trade bodies, subsequently issued statements condemning police actions and talking up their diversity credentials. But speaking to black PR pros in recent days, there's a palpable sense that, for many, much of it is little more than lip service.

That's not to say genuine champions of ethnic diversity in the sector don't exist. But even here, some PR pros tells me, there is often a lack of understanding about how deeply this issue affects those who have faced racism, both overt and subtle – and ignorance about what behaviour can be alienating for people from BME (black and minority ethnic) backgrounds.

I recommend reading this post from KPMG PR manager Jennifer Ogunleye, which highlights some of the issues. It's also worth listening to this PRWeek podcast from October that looks at racial prejudice in the industry.

Clearly, as a white man, I have no personal experience of these issues. And, like many white people, I've spend recent days questioning my own assumptions, attitudes and actions regarding race and prejudice.

Representation

Statistics for the comms industry tell a stark tale.

According to the CIPR State of the Profession 2019 report, just eight per cent of practitioners say they are anything other than ‘white’. The proportion was even lower than in the previous year (12 per cent).

The lack of representation at senior level is even more pronounced. Data from PRWeek's UK Top 150 Consultancies Report found that, on average, non-white people account for just 5.5 per cent of PR agency boards.

Given most PR employers, agency-side at least, are based in big cities with significant populations from ethnic minorities, the data is a powerful reminder of the work that needs to be done. How many of the top 50 agencies in PRWeek's annual UK Top Consultancies list have non-white chief executives or practice heads? How many FTSE100 comms directors are non-white?

Jessica Hope, owner of PR agency Wimbart, which has an entirely non-white workforce, spoke to me after discussing the recent events with her colleagues.

"As an entirely BME team, you can understand how we've all been emotionally triggered and charged by what's happening," she says.

"We know that we are in a pretty unique situation; we are able to talk openly about our experiences and frustrations without having to defend and explain everything we say. Women on the team can passionately express their anger at the situation without subsequently being labelled as an 'angry black woman'. That's the good news.

"However, as we discussed further, the collective mood moved quickly towards despondency – why are we still discussing racism and microaggressions in the workplace? Why are we still debating the race agenda in society?"

Actions

Hope highlights a key problem: words not being matched by actions.

"While we were discussing as a team what the appropriate response should be from our company, we were triggered (again) by people in the PR industry 'speaking out' and trying to own the narrative, when we know full well that they do not use their positions of power or influence to create enabling environments for BME people in the PR industry.

"Speaking on panels or verbally committing to 'more diverse teams' is not enough. It needs to be followed with some concrete actions. For us, the racial disparity in the sector, and the genuine lack of understanding around it, is worrying – but also, a reflection on what is happening more broadly in society."

Several Wimbart employees have agreed to write for PRWeek about their personal experiences and discuss issues such as media bias, diversity in PR and where problems exist in the sector. These will be published in the coming days and weeks.

Steps

This is not to say positive steps aren't being taken in the industry.

PRWeek's Best Places to Work Awards highlighted several commendable schemes. Ketchum won the inaugural Diversity & Inclusion category for the work it has undertaken as part of its three- to five-year plan, started under UK chief executive Jo-ann Robertson in 2018, to tackle the lack of diversity in the business.

Robertson tells me 24 per cent of the agency's UK workforce is now non-white, and the consultancy recently hired its first BME professional on the leadership team. The CEO stresses the importance of promoting non-white people to senior roles: "People of colour will often leave our industry around that mid-level because they look up and they cannot see anybody who's like them."

But despite the progress, Robertson says: "It's still not enough. I think there's so much work to be done.

"The easier bit is to increase your stats, like we've done on BME [representation], because you can be intentional about the decisions you make – who you recruit, how you recruit.

"What's even more difficult is inclusion. How do people feel within the workplace when they're still a minority – when they might have different cultural backgrounds, different heritage, different ways of doing things?"

She gives the example of the industry culture of marking celebrations with alcohol as a default, which may alienate people who don't drink.

Robertson stresses that there are no easy answers, but in her view, one key element is to avoid judging every employee by the same set of criteria.

"People can really struggle with that because it doesn't sound fair, like 'everyone should be judged on these five procedures', for example, or 'these five skills that are expected'. I think that's a very old-fashioned way at looking at your workforce.

"In the modern world, you have to look at what it is that someone brings that is different to table. Not everybody has to have all five skills; in fact, having people who think and act differently is really critical to the business," she says.

"As you can see, it gets really complicated – balancing the need for diversity within the business, the need for an inclusive culture where everyone can feel like they belong, and everyone can be who they really are in the workplace because they absolutely get the best out of them; [and] at the same time, building a framework for things like promotions, like recruitment, that seem fair and equitable.

"There's a constant juggling act between those things, and that's why I say it's really hard."

Introspection

The trade media also has a role to play, and in recent days my PRWeek UK colleagues and I have been reflecting on whether, historically, we've done enough.

The answer is almost certainly not.

That's why in recent years we've introduced targets to include a higher proportion of non-white professionals on judging panels and speaking at PRWeek events (and not just about race and diversity).

We've also been making a conscious effort to include more non-white commentators in our editorial.

However, we are always looking to do more to improve the diversity of voices in our articles and at our events.

PRWeek UK will now go further. We pledge to produce a list of BME PR professionals willing to be quoted on different topics in PRWeek. To be included, email me on john.harrington@haymarket.com and include your specialist areas of expertise, and/or preferred subjects for commentary.

PRWeek has also been active in other ways; supporting BME PR Pros for the BME Mentoring Scheme since 2018, for example, to support the careers of up-and-coming comms professionals from non-white backgrounds. BME PR Pros founder Elizabeth Bananuka deserves huge credit for her tireless campaigning for non-white professionals in the industry. PRWeek UK news editor Arvind Hickman also chaired a session at the organisation's BME Conference last year.

Elsewhere, for the past few years we have required data on diversity in application criteria for the agency and in-house categories in PRWeek UK Awards, and in 2020 introduced a Diversity & Inclusion Champion category. A commitment to diversity is also a key element of the Best Places to Work Awards and many BME young professionals have been spotlighted in the annual PRWeek 30 Under 30.

But we need to do more. I can only hope recent events can be a catalyst for positive change in our industry. We all have a responsibility to make that happen.

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