Why PR firms have failed at executive diversity

Large agencies are taking a look in the mirror. What they’re seeing is they still have work to do improving the balance of their top ranks, according to exclusive PRWeek data.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

George Floyd’s death in police custody last month and the ensuing protests across the country prompted organizations of all kinds to reassess their commitment to inclusion and equality.

As the PR industry examines itself, it doesn’t like what it sees: the number of BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) individuals in lower percentages than in the general population, according to newly released data from PRWeek.  

While U.S. agencies are making progress diversifying the racial and ethnic makeup of their staff, the number of non-white PR employees — and especially agency leaders — lags behind the makeup of the general population. 

Only 13% of the leadership in the C-suite or on agency boards are non-white, as is just 24% of the PR workforce at U.S. agencies, according to data compiled for PRWeek’s Agency Business Report from 98 firms.

Those numbers are considerably lower than the general population of the U.S., in which 76.5% of the population identifies as white, according to 2019 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. The disparity is even greater in major metropolitan PR markets. In New York City, the majority of the population is nonwhite, (67.9%), as is more than two-thirds in Chicago (68.5%).

Although the disparity between Census data and PR industry numbers is stark, there has been some improvement. In 2018, 21% of the overall PR agency workforce in the U.S. was non-white, which means 2019 saw 14.3% year-on-year improvement. BIPOC individuals held 12% of the C-suite or board room positions in 2018, meaning this year’s numbers increased 8% on a year-on-year basis.

However, critics say those improvements are not enough, noting that people of color have been underrepresented in PR, especially in the executive ranks, for years. 

Data compiled by PRWeek backs up that critique. In 2019, more than half (55%) of U.S. agencies had no people of color on their boards or in the C-suite. While statistics for larger agencies are better, they’re not great: 39% of the top 25 U.S. firms by revenue have no BIPOC individuals on their boards or in the C-suite. 

Those top 25 firms represent nearly $8 billion in revenue in 2019 and employ nearly 40,000 individuals. One holding company, Omnicom, doesn’t even allow its agencies to disclose diversity numbers for their overall workforce. 

See leadership information for the following firms here:
Edelman, Weber Shandwick, FleishmanHillard, BCW, ICF Next, W2O, Golin, MSL, Brunswick Group, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, WE, Porter Novelli

The data is based on responses from 98 of the top agencies in PRWeek’s 2020 U.S. Agency Business Report, which asked for sets of numbers for 2018 and 2019, as well as the percentage of U.S. board and C-suite members who are non-white. 

Five years ago, Lagrant Foundation CEO Kim Hunter called out the problem in a PRWeek op-ed titled “Where are the black males on the leadership teams of top PR agencies?” Today, Hunter says that agencies have known about the lack of black leadership for years and have never taken it seriously.

“They were all complicit in not having made the senior-level [staff] from diverse talent. They're all guilty as charged,” he says. “It's ridiculous. Not one top 10 CEO has an African-American man reporting to them other than [BCW’s president of North America Chris Foster]. That's it. And what does that say? It speaks volumes.” 

There are several BIPOC women reporting directly to large agency CEOs, including Della Sweetman and Emily Graham at FleishmanHillard, Judy John and Shan Bhati at Edelman, and Judith Harrison at Weber Shandwick.

Agency leaders acknowledge that the industry hasn’t done enough to diversify its executive ranks.

“The simple, disheartening truth is we aren’t nearly as diverse as we should be,” said Weber Shandwick president and CEO Gail Heimann, via email. “We don’t have enough people of color, particularly black employees, across the agency, nor enough representation in senior leadership. We haven’t made enough progress. That’s where we are today. That’s the situation we’re confronting.”

Andy Polansky, chairman and CEO of Interpublic Group’s Constituency Management Group, which houses several IPG PR shops, including Weber Shandwick, said via email that “diversity, equity and inclusion” are deeply held CMG values. He also acknowledged that the PR industry doesn’t “fully understand the issues we are facing and how systemic inequities affect the culture of our companies.”

Agencies are acknowledging the problem, but what are they doing about it? As protesters took to the streets worldwide to express anger over both Floyd’s death and long-standing inequality, industry leaders blogged, posted on social media and issued statements addressing bias and making commitments to solve the problem. 

In a lengthy May 31 blog post, Edelman CEO Richard Edelman offered a list of promises that included accelerating diverse hiring and doubling its purchase spend with minority-owned small businesses.

Edelman told PRWeek there will be an African-American person on the Edelman Global Operations Committee “by the end of the summer.”

He made the analogy with gender equality in the C-suite. “Today, on our operating committee, it’s 50/50. It was 30/70 three to five years ago,” he pointed out. “You can count on it being 25% [in terms of ethnic diversity] in the next three years. We are really putting our minds to getting this done, because it’s what it should be.”

For every Edelman senior search, there have to be qualified people from a diverse background on the list “or we don’t do the search,” added Edelman.

On June 15, FleishmanHillard’s president and CEO John Saunders posted a 14-item list of commitments including hiring its first chief diversity officer and committing to “changing our agency’s face.” This week, Fleishman named Emily Graham as its first chief D&I officer.

In a statement, Ketchum president and CEO Barri Rafferty did not discuss staffing, but pledged her agency would be a “more empathetic, educated and engaged organization” and said it would support organizations like Black Lives Matter and the NAACP.

In her official statement, Weber’s Heimann said the agency is creating a cross-regional “action team” of North America DEI committees and plans to dedicate $1 million in resources to fight racial inequality and injustice. 

In a BCW statement from June 11, the agency touted existing diversity and inclusion efforts. It said that since Floyd died, it has started taking a serious look at how anti-racism can and should be threaded throughout its agency networks.

Marketing services agency holding companies also began talking openly about bias. WPP said it will act on each of the 12 points in an open letter to the industry signed by 1,200 black creative professionals, and it will review hiring, retention, promotion and development practices and publish diversity data. 

Interpublic Group chairman and CEO Michael Roth posted IPG’s diversity data in a LinkedIn Post on June 12 and promised that, among other things, the compensation of more executives at IPG will be based on their ability to meet diversity goals.

In his LinkedIn post, Roth observed that “people are looking for actions, not statements of support” before pointing out that IPG has “been talking about diversity, equity and inclusion for over 15 years.” 

Roth listed specific commitments IPG is making, but his statement begs the question of why has it been so difficult for agencies to move the needle on diversity.

Industry leaders say there are a number of reasons, starting with the word diversity itself.

“That code word ‘diversity’ is a joke,” Hunter says. “I'm talking about ethnicity. And everybody is uncomfortable talking about race. They can talk about gender all day long. They can barely talk about LGBT. But when it comes to race, people just don't want to talk about it.  And if you can't talk about it, then you're never going to solve the problem.”

Kim Sample, president of the PR Council, says the truth is that changing the racial makeup of an agency, let alone an entire industry, can be overwhelming.

“One of the issues is that it’s going to take an investment of time and training,” she explains. “It's easy to fall into the trap that agency life is so demanding. As if there just isn't time for it.” 

However, Sample notes that executives are fired for failing to meet important business objectives and inclusion should be no different.

“You can't use that excuse,” she says. “You have to figure out what makes people want to come and make those changes.”

Many agencies are not approaching the problem correctly, says Helen Shelton, senior partner at Finn Partners, which lists 21% of its staff as BIPOC and 10% of its leadership. 

“People are not necessarily putting the right strategies in place to make the change, make the difference and really commit to this issue,” she explains. “We're really serious about this idea of promoting and fostering this robust pipeline and diverse professionals. In order to do that, you have got to pound the pavement.”

Other industry leaders say the problem is with the nature of the PR industry itself. It’s not as if diversity is never discussed. Industry bodies often hold panels on the topic, and diversity initiatives are regularly celebrated.

However, discussions about diversity suggest language, tactics and sincerity may only partly contribute to fixing the problem. A bigger issue, Hunter says, is that PR agencies can be very difficult places to work.

“And then you have the ‘mean girl syndrome,’ but nobody wants to talk about that [either],” he adds. “I've had more African-Americans tell me about experiences with white women...They can be hateful and mean spirited.”

Newly promoted Fleishman D&I leader Graham agrees that agency life can be tough, especially for minorities, noting, “We cannot deny that to be successful in PR, regardless of [your] background, you have got to be a warrior.”

“You gotta love it to do it,” she adds. “You really gotta love it and to succeed as anyone is hard, but to succeed as a black person, when you're less than 5%, that's difficult,” 

Other agency leaders say a focus on unconscious bias could change agency culture. Focusing on less overt examples of bias could create a more welcoming environment, says Margery Kraus, founder and executive chairman of APCO Worldwide, which has 50% non-white leadership.

“This whole inclusion thing is much broader than people being overtly bullied or excluded,” she explains. “It's whether they feel they can contribute in a culture that will [listen to] their ideas and think they're good. Will people go to [diverse talent] and include them in a brainstorm? Will they even think of them in that way? It's a lot more subtle, which is why if this were easy, it would have been solved a long time ago.”

Kraus and other executives say that, in addition to culture, there must be a focus on accountability to ensure cultural changes and other policies are working. 

“We have a habit, in agency work, of looking for sameness. Our social networks are all very narrow, so we keep continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result,” says Carol Watson, BCW’s chief inclusion, equity and diversity officer. “It takes culture shifts. But it takes accountability. It takes looking at metrics differently, and it takes looking at our systems and practices, and recalibrating all of them to source differently.”

By adding IPG’s diversity statistics to his LinkedIn post, Roth upped the ante on accountability. Other agencies also responded to PRWeek’s Agency Business Report survey with their own diversity data. However, other firms were not as forthcoming. Omnicom shops FleishmanHillard, Ketchum and Porter Novelli all provided diversity statistics for their C-suite and boards but said the holding company does not allow them to disclose the numbers for their overall workforce. 

Though Omnicom PR agencies would not offer statistics for their respective workforces, the holding company has. In 2019, 22% of its U.S. officials and managers were multicultural, an increase of 29% from five years ago with improvement among Hispanic and Latino, black and Asian designations. 

In addition, 29% of its U.S. “professional” talent base was multicultural and women comprised 57% of U.S. officials and managers last year. Some 26% of its 21,000 U.S. employees in the professionals and officials and managers groups were multicultural, while 58% were women, and only 31% were white men. Omnicom’s nine-person board of directors contains six women and four African-Americans.

In recent internal memos, John Wren, chairman and CEO of Omnicom Group, stressed the importance of diversity and equality at the holding company. He has asked employees to “show support and empathy for our diverse communities right now as the constant stream of headlines takes its toll mentally and emotionally for so many. Reach out to your fellow employees and take care of one another.”

FTI Consulting also says agency policy prevents it from revealing diversity statistics for its overall workforce, though it did disclose numbers for senior leadership. For 2019 and 2018, FTI says 60% of its C-suite was non-white and 12% of its board was non-white.

Ogilvy and SKDKnickerbocker did not supply diversity numbers in its Agency Business Report submissions and did not respond to additional requests. 

Despite the statements, statistics, pledges and initiatives, Hunter contends that PR agencies just aren’t serious about making changes to their leadership ranks. And it will take more than George Floyd’s death to force the industry to change, he says. 

“This industry needs a class action lawsuit if we really want change,” Hunter adds. ”I can't imagine this industry had a little wake-up call because of a black man being killed. That's it? I mean, I just don't see it.”

Additional reporting by Gideon Fidelzeid, Juliann Nelson, Frank Washkuch and Steve Barrett.

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