Top PR firms consulting on racism have one big problem: They’re all white

The biggest PR agencies need to get their own houses in order to credibly counsel clients on diversity and inclusion.

Diane Primo, CEO of Purpose Brand
Diane Primo, CEO of Purpose Brand

Every day, companies ask their PR agencies to solve problems that are way too tough, much too complicated and far too sensitive to solve themselves.

And when these companies are legendary brand names worth billions of dollars with millions in earnings at stake, they hire one of the nation's top PR firms.

Yet these top agencies and many, if not most, of the companies they serve have one big problem - a lack of diversity in their own right.

As our nation confronts the latest senseless deaths of Black Americans and the ripple effect that has evolved into the poignant and consequential Black Lives Matter movement, almost every big company has quickly jumped on the bandwagon to show its support.

However, they are being advised in their efforts by PR agencies with executive leadership teams that include few Black people.

I find it ironic that non-diverse companies are being paid to advise other companies that are also struggling to become diverse.

This unfortunate catch-22 situation further compounds the problem, because they are using the communications profession, albeit unknowingly, to systematically subvert real change.

Bottom line, they are doing exactly the opposite of what they are genuinely trying to fix.

An agency PR professional's job is to help clients think critically about communications and the full weight of its messaging on everyone. And the bonds we help companies create with their customers must be inclusive.

These companies must truly understand and speak to a populace that is already nearly 40% minority and, among those under 18, already majority-minority.

How can a team that is not diverse truly address the wants and needs of those who are omitted from the process?

This is a recipe for brand value erosion.

Yet the numbers below substantiate the fact that this is exactly what the current status quo promotes. Because the top U.S. firms, as ranked by revenue in PRWeek's Agency Business Report, have an abysmally small number of Black PR pros in their top leadership echelons.

Of course, structures vary from agency to agency. But I'm talking about the most senior decision-making teams. Every agency has their own name for them, ranging from executive committee at Edelman to global leadership at BCW to a simple"our team" at Ogilvy.

And many of the agencies listed below have a smattering of Blacks at high levels.

For instance, Edelman's U.S. COO, Lisa Ross, is Black, but she sits on the operations committee, a step below the executive committee on the Edelman site. I've been on executive committees, and I believe decision making is held there.

Here are the numbers based on each agency's website: Edelman has zero Black individuals; Weber Shandwick, zero; BCW, two; FleishmanHillard, one; MSL, zero; Hill+Knowlton Strategies, zero; Citizen Relations (owned by BlueFocus), one; Brunswick Group, zero; and Ogilvy, two. Ketchum does not appear to list its leadership team on its website.

While all these firms do excellent work, here's what's at stake: They account for more than $4 billion in net fees and ostensibly have only six Blacks between them on their top leadership teams.

Thankfully, most are not D&I officers, a thought brought to mind by a comment I saw by Black PR executive Andrew McCaskill earlier this summer. He noted: "If the only senior person of color in your organization is the diversity executive, you assuredly have a diversity problem."

This dearth of diversity at the top begs other questions: How much are they funneling into diverse supplier networks? Or paying minority team members? And what are they spending to develop talent pipelines that can move minorities into C-suite and leadership positions?

Credit where it's due, we must praise these same agencies for embracing white women. But practicing diversity and inclusion takes more than just putting white women in senior leadership roles and on corporate boards. It also calls for ethnic and cultural diversity.

Teams that embrace D&I have greater returns, according to McKinsey research. A 2019 McKinsey report found companies with executive teams in the top quartile for gender diversity were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile — up from 21% in 2017 and 15% in 2014.

In the case of ethnic and cultural diversity, McKinsey's findings are even more compelling. In 2019, top-quartile companies outperformed those in the fourth quartile by 36% in profitability, up from 33% in 2017.

The management consultancy's conclusion? "The likelihood of outperformance continues to be higher for diversity in ethnicity than for gender."

By the way, McKinsey also has no Black representation among its senior practice leaders listed at the top executive level on its website. This begs the obvious question: How much more profitable could it be if it only took notice of its own findings?

We'll soon find out. Last month, McKinsey issued a statement promising to double its Black leadership and hiring.

In Chicago, we have deep respect for Edelman, which was founded here and is currently the world's largest PR agency. It does groundbreaking work that informs and shapes the entire industry.

However, I was more than mildly perturbed when Edelman put out "Brands and Racial Justice in America," a quick special report done in the wake of the brutal killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others.

It included an eight-step call to action that Edelman's leaders themselves do not appear to embrace. Like McKinsey, Edelman made a statement promising to hire more executives of color, and added a Black female COO to its operations committee earlier this year. Yet this feels like a hollow victory.

As The Executive Leadership Council interim president and CEO Crystal Ashby told me: "Until we see authentic and sustainable action from the top, there's not going to be change."

In truth, D&I starts at the top. And if leaders wanted their companies to be diverse and inclusive, they would be.

It's time for large PR agencies to face the true obstacle to diversity: Their own failure to insist on it in their own hallways.

Diane Primo is CEO of Purpose Brand.

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