No more excuses. PR firms have to make progress on diversity.

Analysis of diversity data gathered for PRWeek’s Agency Business Report shows there simply hasn’t been enough progress in the past five years – and the industry shouldn’t wait for a lawsuit to rectify this.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Just under five years ago I wrote a blog suggesting it was time to introduce numerical benchmarks to measure the progress on PR agency diversity and inclusion.

The suggestion was in response to a U.K. initiative by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), the equivalent trade body for the advertising industry as the 4A’s in the U.S.

The initiative benchmarked the then composition of the ad workforce and set targets on gender and ethnic diversity representation that should be met by 2020.

We will find out in spring 2021 whether those targets were met. The inaugural benchmark survey comprised 37 of the IPA’s biggest agencies with either gross revenues above £20 million (at the time about $30 million) or more than 200 employees.

By 2020, the goal is to have at least 15% of people in leadership positions from a non-white background – in 2016, that figure was 8%. The IPA had an existing commitment to help the industry recruit 25% of new joiners from BIPOC (black and indigenous people of color) by 2020.

All the major holding companies took part, including Omnicom, which to this day refuses to break down the diversity statistics for its agencies in the U.S., including its PR firms FleishmanHillard, Ketchum and Porter Novelli.

At the time, I noted there was nervousness in U.S. agency circles to commit to a similar initiative, due to potentially falling foul of regulations such as the New York City Commission on Human Rights, which has carried out diversity surveys of the advertising industry periodically since 1968.

Separately, more than five years ago, The Lagrant Foundation’s CEO Kim Hunter wrote an op-ed for PRWeek pointing out the severe lack of diversity at the top level of PR agencies, especially in regard to black males. The piece featured image grabs from the websites of the biggest PR firms showing their C-suites and graphically illustrating the issue.

Today, PRWeek has unveiled an analysis of the diversity numbers at PR firms in the U.S. based on data received during our 2020 Agency Business Report process, which covers the period of 2019. And, honestly, the situation regarding diversity hasn’t changed much in the intervening years, especially as regards representation of black PR pros.

In terms of total U.S. workforce, the percentage of non-white employees at the 98 firms that submitted data for 2019 was 23% of total workforce, just 13% in the C-suite.

In the top 13 firms (excluding the three Omnicom agencies that aren’t allowed to reveal data) the overall workforce numbers hover between 20% (W2O Group) and 29% (ICF Next). Edelman and BCW both check in at 26%, Weber Shandwick’s number is 22%.

It’s at the board/C-suite level that the numbers start to be really concerning, with the range spanning from 0% (Hill+Knowlton Strategies, ICF Next, WE) to 33% (MSL).

The largest PR firm in the world, Edelman, is noticeably lagging by this yardstick, at 14%, though CEO Richard Edelman told me he will have hired an African-American board member by September.

BCW is also behind the curve, at 16%, as is Ketchum, at 11% (the Omnicom firms are allowed to state C-suite numbers as they are in the public domain anyway). Weber weighs in at 25%, FleishmanHillard at 22%.

Many of these numbers trail the ethnic composition of the general U.S. population, as measured by the Census Bureau, which is 23.5% non-white. And the situation becomes even starker when you consider the diversity of the populations in some of the biggest PR markets, such as New York City (30.3% non-white) and Chicago (50.6%).

Non-white is also a nuanced term, as is the definition of city boundaries in relation to these measurements, so none of these data are set in stone.

For example, if you use the “White alone, not Hispanic or Latino” Census categorization the “non-white” U.S. population number rises to 39.6%. If you take other definitions of “New York” the non-white population can rise to as high as 68%.   

But one thing’s for sure: Everyone has been talking about real change in the aftermath of the death in police custody of George Floyd and ensuing mass protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. This feels like a seminal moment that must be capitalized upon.

Police officers have been fired and charged with murder for their egregious behavior where previously they were subject to more lenient treatment. Not before time, you might say. In some cities the whole structure of the police force is being looked at in a bid to come up with a system that displays less racial bias.

Business has responded this week, with legacy food brands including Aunt Jemima’s, Uncle Ben’s, Mrs. Butterworth’s and the Cream of Wheat reviewing their positioning and packaging that has long been accused of relying on racial stereotypes of black men and women. Again, not before time.

Corporations have also allocated millions of dollars in contributions to organizations promoting racial justice. According to Axios, half of the companies in the Fortune 100 have pledged a total of $2 billion to fight inequality since George Floyd’s death. The top 10 companies comprise $1.86 billion of the $2.05 billion total, committing an average of 1.14% of their 2019 profits.

PR agency leaders also recognize they need to do better.

Weber Shandwick CEO Gail Heimann told PRWeek: “The simple, disheartening truth is we aren’t nearly as diverse as we should be. 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.”

The leader of the world’s largest PR firm, Richard Edelman said: “We need to lead as we’re the people who have the better chance of persuading our clients to do something. Therefore, if we’re going to advise we’d better come from substance instead of impressions.

“It’s our time to do this. It’s our time to lead. We’re one of these companies that may start off behind but we will catch up and go ahead. Because, it’s important.”

But black PR professionals are growing tired of waiting for change to happen. Kim Hunter concluded that maybe it will take a lawsuit to shake the industry out of its complacency.

In a LinkedIn comment on PRWeek’s story about legacy brands reviewing their tone deaf packaging, black PR pro Charles Poole, CCO at Prospect Medical Holdings in Los Angeles, cautions that the real test will come when the current hyperbole calms down and relative normality returns.

“It’s interesting to witness the ‘bandwagoning’ happening. But what will ultimately be relevant is how they address racism in how they operate their companies and promote fairness and equality in tangible ways," said Poole.

“Talk is cheap. Throwing money around is cheap. Erasing symbolism seems responsive. But unless those who can effect change really do the work, change the culture and make racism unacceptable on any terms it’s all just lip services and imagery. Let’s see what happens in six months or a year, when all the attention is off the issue; that’s when we’ll know who meant what they said.”

Hear, hear.

We simply can’t be sitting here in another five years bemoaning the exact same things that were wrong with the industry five years ago and generations before that.

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