'We don’t hire for a cultural fit, we hire for a cultural add' - how to be an ethnically diverse PR employer

All organisations have room for improvement in recruiting, retaining and promoting more BME talent, but it can be difficult to determine what practical steps to take. PRWeek looks at examples of best practice among PR industry employers.

Obubo: 'We’ve always wanted our work to be representative of the society we exist in'
Obubo: 'We’ve always wanted our work to be representative of the society we exist in'

Julian Obubo was something of a fixture on industry podcasts and panels this summer. His agency, Manifest, was the first PR firm to achieve The Blueprint status – the new benchmark scheme for employers’ commitment to ethnic diversity – and many were eager to learn the secrets of its success. Even so, Obubo, a partner whose remit covers diversity and inclusion, is surprised when I ask about the background to Manifest’s approach.

“It’s a reasonable question, because when I have discussions about diversity and what we’re doing… it often launches straight into initiatives, targets and that sort of stuff, without nailing the foundations of the broader context, of why it’s important.”

A warning: if you’re expecting this article to provide a checklist of policies to make your business anti-racist overnight, you’ll be disappointed.

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The people interviewed here have made decent progress and have useful advice to share. But they also recognise that this is a process of constant examination and change; trial and error. There is no silver bullet to resolve historic issues that underpin the situation now, in which just eight per cent of the UK PR workforce is from a BME background.

Obubo, co-guest editor of this issue of PRWeek, says his diversity and inclusion role was “born out of a dissatisfaction with the status quo”.

“We’ve always wanted our work to be representative of the society we exist in. You can not have a good understanding – especially in the UK, especially in London – of the society you’re speaking to if you don’t have diverse voices in the decision-making process.

“We don’t think of diversity at Manifest because that’s what the industry is doing, it’s a buzzword. We do it because we fundamentally believe it enriches everyone to be able to celebrate, live and thrive in a multicultural society.

“A lot of it goes beyond the office. It’s a cultural mindset. There might be a huge economic recession – God forbid – that wipes out half the office, but if you have that cultural mindset, it means that when you do replenish it’s going to be organically diverse, because the way you hire already [encourages] a broader range of people.”

At present, 23 per cent of Manifest’s workforce is non-white, while 38 per cent of interviewees for recent roles have been from a BME background.

Obubo stresses the importance of candour. From early on, Manifest held regular, group-wide discussions on diversity and inclusion, which remain “the most important thing we do” on the topic.

“It’s super-important now, more than ever, to be able to have honest and open dialogue with the company about why things are the way they are. Oftentimes we are trying to solve a problem that people don’t understand the scope of – people don’t understand why it’s this way.”

Manifest wants that openness to be extended throughout the business. One example is the monthly ‘Down Low’, where all employees are updated on issues such as financial performances and client pipeline. This isn’t related to diversity, but helps to ingrain a more inclusive environment.

Manifest is putting together a charter for recruitment agencies relating to diversity targets.

“You need a broad consensus of the industry to push recruiters to adopt these [ideas]… but on a one-to-one relationship it definitely pays dividends in just having a wider range of people being put forward.”

Advertising jobs in ‘unconventional’ places to attract applicants from a greater diversity of backgrounds has been another policy. Personal networks also play a significant role.

“Word of mouth is super-important, especially for ethnic diversity in industries that are not ethnically diverse,” Obubo says. “I think that’s how most Black people I know in the industry are either coming in or move into new roles. You almost need to vet a place first by asking: ‘Is this somewhere I could see myself being included and could thrive in?’ That usually comes from someone you know already, or a friend of a friend.”

On the topic of hiring, Obubo explains: “We don’t hire for a cultural fit, we hire for a cultural add. That’s critical to why we are where we are, numbers-wise, when it comes to diversity.

“When someone is sitting in front of us, it’s not about us thinking: ‘Can we have a drink with them in the pub, I wonder if they know the same people I went to uni with, I wonder if our upbringing was the same?’ It’s: ‘What can they add that is different?’ And there’s the mindset of: ‘How can we be more reflective of the market we serve?’

“Once you put all that in and mix it together you do have a culture that understands the status quo can not be maintained, should not be maintained.”

Another agency that has won plaudits for its positive culture with regard to ethnic diversity is Ketchum. The Omnicom network shop won the inaugural Diversity & Inclusion category at this year’s PRWeek UK’s Best Places to Work Awards.

UK chief executive Jo-ann Robertson says 24 per cent of Ketchum’s UK workforce is non-white, and the consultancy recently hired its first BME professional on the leadership team. She stresses the importance of promoting non-white people to senior roles: “People of colour will often leave our industry around that mid-level because they look up and they can’t see anybody who’s like them.”

But despite the progress Ketchum has made, Robertson says it’s “still not enough”.

“The easier bit is to increase your stats, like we have done on BME [representation], because you can be intentional about the decisions you make – who you recruit, how you recruit.

“What’s even more difficult is inclusion. How do people feel within the workplace when they’re still a minority – when they might have different cultural backgrounds, different heritage, different ways of doing things?” She cites the culture within many agencies of celebrating with alcohol as a default that may alienate non-drinkers.

Robertson urges people in senior roles to avoid judging every employee by the same criteria.

“People can really struggle with that, because it doesn’t sound fair – like ‘everyone should be judged on these five procedures’, for example, or ‘these five skills that are expected’. That’s a very old-fashioned way of looking at your workforce.

“In the modern world, you have to look at what it is that someone brings to the table that’s different. Not everybody has to have all five skills; in fact, having people who think and act differently is really critical to the business,” she says.

Robertson cites a tradition in one particular culture of not challenging people in senior positions. “Unpicking how people’s upbringing and their cultural traditions impact how they act and think in the workplace can really help you to see [their] value… some groups of people [have] a completely different set of standards to others.

“As you can see, it gets really complicated – balancing the need for diversity within the business, the need for an inclusive culture where everyone can feel like they belong, and everyone can be who they really are in the workplace, because they absolutely get the best out of them; [and] at the same time, building a framework for things like promotions, like recruitment, that seem fair and equitable.

“There’s a constant juggling act between those things, and that’s why I say it’s really hard.”

Since we spoke in the summer, Ketchum London has achieved the highest score yet given to any organisation for its commitment to diversity and inclusion by the consultancy Creative Equals. That followed the implementation of changes including a new recruitment approach to advertise roles in multiple spaces, such as the Taylor Bennett Foundation. Ketchum formed an Inclusion Council in London and a tracking system to monitor diversity in new-business pitch teams and ensure different voices were heard in every company meeting.

Once more, it highlights the need for constant evaluation and action.

“The key word for all of this for me is ‘intentional’,” Robertson adds. “You can’t increase representation from certain minority groups in your business if you’re not intentional. You can’t create an inclusive culture if you’re not intentional.

“You also need to learn; you can try things – if they don’t work, stop doing them and try something different. It’s a constantly evolving piece of work, but it should be core to everything you do.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given that it received The Blueprint’s Ally status in June, Leeds-based InFusion Comms employs no non-white staff at present. To be fair, as chief executive Sara Hawthorn points out, the agency employs only four people and churn is low.

Nonetheless, she gives the impression that, like Manifest and Ketchum, the agency’s cultural underpinnings, attitude and willingness to innovate justify the accolade. Hawthorn’s own experience of hearing loss helped inform her view and understanding of the challenges of working in PR as a member of a minority.

For this boss, too, it’s not about quick fixes or numbers on a spreadsheet.

“Since we were awarded The Blueprint Ally status I’ve had quite a lot of people ask me how you build a diverse agency. I didn’t set out to build one and I think that is almost the wrong question to ask. My goal was always to make an agency that was as welcoming to everybody as possible, and one that could be representative – that’s informed a lot of my decision-making.”

The agency was commended for the language it uses in its recruitment ads, which, in addition to asking for “skills that we need”, would ask for “skills that we value”.

“A lot of that is based on some hard skills and some soft skills as well: empathy, kindness, trust etc. We’re really thinking about the language we use to make it as inclusive as possible.”

She continues: “It’s difficult for me to say: ‘We have policy A and this helps us to A, B and C,’ when it’s a much more organic process for us. To really commit to doing it you have to understand why you’re doing it, rather than just doing it for appearances or as a tick-box exercise.”

InFusion is also scrutinising ethnic diversity in supplier lists as “one way we’re overcoming the fact we maybe can’t hire”.

It’s an important point, given many PR employers are holding back from recruiting at present.

“It shows me that you don’t need to be hiring all the time and increasing your teams, and be a huge London-centric agency, to try to make some progress,” Hawthorn says.

Her firm also plans to look at “how we support our clients in changing their behaviours”, so “the responsibility and accountability isn’t just with us as an agency to change what we’re doing, but to change the wider world”.

There are echoes of this approach at Blurred, the other Blueprint Ally agency.

Co-founder Nik Govier tells PRWeek: “A lot of our policies weren’t designed specifically to make it easier to get more Black people into our business. Ours is very much based on the fact we need proper diversity to be good at our job and therefore we welcome all types of diversity, and we create a culture that makes that as doable as humanly possible.”

Govier points to the trend of many non-white PR professionals switching to freelance at a certain level of seniority, “because they’ve been badly treated within the classical agency structure”. “There are all these deep-rooted problems and issues that it’s going to take years and everybody playing their part to change.”

For her, the diversity commitment is inherent in Blurred’s philosophy of having depth of talent. “That means we can’t properly be true to our purpose if we don’t have a diverse team… in every respect. How can we possibly do our job correctly if the people in our organisation only represent a tiny portion of society? It’s simply not possible.”

This is reflected in Blurred’s eclectic ‘cohort’ of specialists, which include Gina Miller, the businesswoman and campaigner who famously took legal action against the government over implementing Brexit, and Katie Perrior, former comms chief to then-Prime Minister Theresa May.

Of course, ‘diversity of opinion’ isn’t the same as actively recruiting an ethnically varied workforce, as Govier acknowledges. The Blueprint process has caused Blurred to look again at its policies – for example, clearly stating in its values that the agency is looking for people of differing backgrounds, after feedback indicated that this was not explicit.

Ensuring the agency’s (pre-coronavirus) regular cultural trips moved beyond typically ‘white, middle-class’ destinations is another change. So is asking new employees to identify their five ‘personal needs’. “That means we can understand and actively ask for the needs of all our people, and sometimes that means there might be issues raised that we can all be considerate of. That’s really effective, regardless of someone’s background… It means [understanding] we’re human beings and [trying to] support more.”

The importance of constant listening can’t be underestimated. Blurred undertakes confidential, one-to-one coaching every two weeks with everyone at the company.

Unconscious bias training also flagged up concerns. For example, the company would talk about “chemistry”, which might imply it wants people in the same mould. “It’s the nuances that need to be tackled,” says Govier. “That’s why I think things like unconscious bias training are so important for us to understand and realise these things.”

She alludes to an important challenge: willingness among white people to discuss these issues openly. She mentions her own concerns regarding language; using the term “BAME” to describe non-white people, for example.

“I worry that people with good intentions say: ‘I’m not going to say anything, I’m not going to do anything because I could get attacked for it, or I could get it wrong’. But if we don’t try, we are never going to get anywhere.”

Back to Manifest, and Obubo lists three priorities ahead: codifying the agency’s culture into tangible company policies; “pushing partners harder” to promote BME talent, such as stipulations in supplier contracts; and “doing more work to embed better cultural understanding of why we got here”.

He explains: “If you start D&I initiatives that are purely numbers-based, without the cultural element, it will work – but only temporarily.

“You might foster some sense of anger at times and frustration from employees… because they don’t understand the ‘why’ – they don’t understand how society became disparate, they don’t understand why there’s a pipeline issue. All you see is: ‘Oh, senior management has said we need to hire a Black person, this must be them, it’s open season on white folks!’ It’s critical that that question of ‘why’ is answered first.”

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