Elevating Black voices in public relations

Our industry must move faster to close gaps in hiring, retention, and promotion.

In the aftermath of high-profile killings of Blacks at the hands of police, the United States is undergoing a powerful reckoning on the issue of race, permeating virtually all areas of life and business. Public relations and adjacent fields like marketing and advertising are no exception. Our industries must move faster to close gaps in hiring, retention, and promotion.

Achieving progress on racial disparity means executives need to step further into territory that's been uncomfortable for them. There have been positive signs of change with some top firms committing in certain terms to hire more senior leaders of color in the very near term. Still, many executives have largely played it safe, making vague commitments and in some cases only giving lip service to one of the defining issues of our era.

This approach may have sufficed in the past, but simply won't cut it in the current moment we face. According to 2019 data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the demographic makeup of the U.S. PR industry is 89.8% white, 8.0% African American, 1.4% Hispanic American, and .4% Asian American.

At the end of June, I spoke on a virtual panel hosted by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations to discuss strategies for recruiting more people of color into public relations and related disciplines. More diverse voices mean more stakeholders guiding companies to take meaningful, measurable steps to help battle the racial pitfalls that continue to hold America back.

During the panel I proposed five areas of focus to help the public relations industry improve representation by people of color:

Increase transparency around diversity data
To chart a course to any destination, you must first know where you currently stand. The public relations industry, and agencies in particular, have been opaque about diversity statistics. Companies often group their diversity metrics together, failing to provide specifics on racial demographics for fear of backlash. Improvement starts with more accurate reporting to better inform talent management and recruitment initiatives.

Go where the talent Is
We often hear the fallacy that "diverse talent is hard to find." Hiring managers are looking in the wrong places and going to the same dry wells. Companies need to focus on wider and stronger partnerships, for example with historically Black colleges and universities and ethnic communications organizations.

They must also abandon traditional frameworks, checklists, and antiquated notions of the perfect candidate, opening themselves up to candidates with skills not fully appreciated. Selection committees also need to be more diverse.

Assess your culture and address biases
We all bring inherent biases to the table. A regular schedule of training programs can help us recognize those biases and empower employees to combat them. I said during the Plank Center panel that white colleagues are often given the benefit of the doubt while people of color are often given a double, or even triple dose of doubt. This limits opportunities. Promoting regular, open dialogue among the broader workforce can be uncomfortable at first, but it leads to deeper understanding.

Emphasize grooming the next generation of diverse leaders
When people of color, particularly younger people, enter an organization they're often overlooked by senior executives as potential mentees and don't get access to the same level of grooming and talent development. Leaders must bring employees of color into the fold to cultivate their skills and leadership attributes. Organizations need to formalize programming and training to support this mindset through frequent sessions resembling master classes.

Make commitments and promote people of color to leadership
Vague aspirations about hiring and promotion fall short. Be specific. Set measurable goals and execute against them, focusing on the areas that require the most attention.
Report regular updates with success and shortcomings in pursuit of your collective goals.

This accountability will help to tangibly move the needle. More leaders of color can serve as a gateway for junior-level employees who often abandon ship when they don't see people like themselves in leadership positions.

When the Plank Center panel was over, my wife came in and showed me a picture that she had taken of our kids who had tuned in from another room to watch live. This was a powerful moment for me, bringing home the necessity of these changes to guarantee a more inclusive landscape for future generations.

I thought: What meaning did my words carry for my daughter and son? Will they enter a professional world that sees and nurtures their talents? Or inherit the same broken promises of opportunities lost in favor of empty gestures? We have a lot of work to do to address racism, neglect and systemic failures but this could also be the beginning of a new era of solidarity that helps change the fiber and face of America.

Errol Cockfield is SVP of communications at MSNBC and NBC News. He serves on the board of directors for the PRSA and PRSA Foundation, and the advisory council for the Diversity Action Alliance.

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