'PR industry leaders fail to consider BAME diversity in recruitment' – executive recruitment boss

PR industry leaders are not taking any steps to hold recruitment agencies to account and ensure they receive enough BAME candidates in the recruitment process, an executive recruitment leader has warned. Retention is also a major issue.

PR agencies are not holding recruitment firms to account over producing BAME candidates (Photo: Getty Images)
PR agencies are not holding recruitment firms to account over producing BAME candidates (Photo: Getty Images)

The leaders of agencies and in-house teams are aware that there is a diversity problem but have been failing to tackle the issue internally and through their recruitment supply chain.

Last week a groundbreaking CIPR report chronicled the lived experiences of BAME talent in PR. It found a prevalence of racism, micrograssions, non-inclusive cultures and poor career opportunities led to an exodus of BAME talent from agencies and senior in-house roles.

Their experiences are backed up by declining levels of BAME talent in the industry, which fell from 11 per cent in 2015 to eight per cent in 2019.

F1 recruitment chief executive Amanda Fone, who specialises in finding talent for communications agencies and in-house teams, told PRWeek industry leaders are well aware they have a diversity problem, but do not have a roadmap to fix it.

“Organisations that think you can bring in any talent at the bottom end and hope it moves right the way through the organisation are not solving the problem,” Fone said.

“There is an attrition rate. It happens between the second and sixth year – we are losing a percentage of BME talent. If they cannot get on inside an organisation, they often go and set up on their own because they often do not have the same barriers to progression as when you are inside the company.”

In 2016, Fone launched the BAME2020 initiative with Brands with Values founder and managing director, Adrian Walcott.

Its aim is to ensure that 20 per cent of talent coming into marketing, media and communications come from BAME backgrounds, and 20 per cent of leadership roles are filled by BAME candidates.

Statistics suggest that 49 per cent of the population in Greater London – where most of the bigger agencies are based – will be non-white by 2041, which makes improving diversity imperative for businesses that tradtitionally struggle to attract and retain talent compared to other sectors.

“Where we are failing at the moment is keeping the 20 per cent of BAME employees in. It’s the same in the advertising industry and sports marketing industry,” Fone said.

“There are programmes (like the Taylor Bennett Foundation) that are bringing talent into the sector, but we are not very good at keeping it. Companies have to look at how inclusive is [their] culture and really whether it is a level playing field at all. What are the hurdles – [whether] real or perceived – to get on in an organisation?

“The truth is most leaders in an organisation are very aware they have a problem.”

Fone told PRWeek that when she visits a client’s office and looks around the room, the chief executive will often say to her: “I know what you are thinking.”

Fixing the supply chain

Fone said it is incumbent on agencies and in-house employers to ask their recruitment consultancies what they are doing to include BAME talent on shortlists.

“This is not happening,” she said. “When an organisation signs up a recruitment consultancy, there’s a whole procurement process you will go through. It is very unusual to be asked specifically what your commitment is to diversity and inclusion, beyond saying you are an equal opportunities employer.

“Until procurement and the HR team are involved in understanding that recruitment consultancies are part of the food chain, they do need to be called to account.”

F1 recruitment has a policy where it makes all candidates fill out an anonymous inclusion form that helps it monitor the backgrounds of jobseekers. This means it knows that about 20 per cent of the candidates on its books are from a BAME background, but black representation is not high enough.

“Recruitment companies need to audit their candidates, but they are not asked to. Once you get agencies and in-house teams asking them, then you force [the] supply chain to take responsibility,” Fone said.

What recruitment firms cannot do, argued Fone, is “conjure up senior talent”. She recently told the boss of a corporate comms consultancy that there is not enough senior BAME talent in PR because they leave before they get to director level.

“What are you doing to make sure your BAME talent at account manager level are going to stay?” she asked. “At a younger level, up to five years of experience, there are more people from a BAME background in our sector than there are further up the food chain. We’ve all got to be working harder to keep younger people in the profession.”

To provide shortlists with substantial BAME talent at senior levels would require the industry to look for talent from outside PR and retrain them.

Bucking the trend

One agency that is looking to hold its supply chain to account is John Doe. It recently committed to work only with recruitment agencies that can prove they are increasing the pipeline of BAME talent in their candidate portfolio.

John Doe said it will target 33 per cent black representation in all interview shortlists, and work with suppliers that have a 33 per cent black workforce.

Importantly, it said that every talent shortlist presented to a client by John Doe will include a minimum of 33 per cent representation for black creatives and collaborators.

In a statement announcing these commitments, the agency said: “Self-reflection, though welcome, is not enough. Recognising your own privilege and acknowledging the need for change is not enough. We need to harness this moment to effect something more substantive. We believe it is essential that we enshrine our existing practices in policy. Real change comes from cast-iron commitments, and reorganising your business around delivering them.”

Fone told PRWeek that improving the employee appraisals processes and creating a culture of trust are vital to helping businesses retain BAME talent.

The appraisal process should identify career pathways and help talent and businesses identify where they need to develop and what motivates employees.

Fone also believes there is a lack of training in leadership and people-management skills when PR talent gets to an account director level, which means that leaders are often ill-equipped to help nurture and develop talent from different backgrounds, if at all.

“You have to have an inclusive values organisation, and that starts from the top,” she said.

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