Are PR trade bodies doing enough on ethnic diversity?

PR’s industry bodies have promised to work more closely together to improve the sector’s ethnic mix, but are these efforts too little too late, and what more can be done? PRCA & CIPR leaders and diversity chiefs open up in this feature and podcast.

Avril Lee (left) and Barbara Phillips.
Avril Lee (left) and Barbara Phillips.

For almost their entire existence, PR’s trade bodies have largely reflected the ethnic diversity of the sector they serve rather than choosing to represent the change they want to see.

The lack of role models, perception issues within BME communities about PR as a career and non-inclusive working environments have left the industry with shockingly poor representation – only nine per cent of professionals and a far lower proportion of leaders in the industry.

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Although there has been plenty of talk about the lack of diversity within these organisations and at industry events, BME representation on the PRCA and CIPR boards has left a lot to be desired, leading to criticism that these bodies do not practice what they preach on the issue.

PRCA director-general Francis Ingham admits his association has not done enough in the past to improve the ethnic diversity of its main board.

Recently, it took steps to change that by installing several new main board members from BME backgrounds and introducing a new board – the Race and Ethnicity Equity Board (REEB) – charged with improving ethnic diversity in the industry.

“So in terms of the PRCA board, it wasn’t diverse at all until a few weeks ago, and I hold my hands up on this and say, absolutely, we were just remiss in addressing this,” Ingham tells PRWeek.

“We had a few of our board members stand down [in July] to make way for others from more diverse backgrounds. Tony Langham, David Gallagher, Jon Hughes and Ed Williams [stood down], and we’ve now got new members of the board, who’ve joined Barbara [Phillips, who joined in July] on it. We have further progress to make ahead of our AGM in September, and we’ll do that and be held accountable to that commitment.”

The new board members are Kamiqua Pearce (founder and chief executive of Coldr and the UK Black Comms Network), Rimmi Shah (partner at Lansons), Ondine Whittington (group managing director for Golin and Virgo Health), and Hugh Taggart (corporate affairs practice lead at Edelman). The seven-member PRCA senior executive team includes three members from “non-white British backgrounds”.

Since this article appeared in print, the PRCA have added H+K Strategies MD of specialist services Tanya Joseph and PRCA diversity network co-chair and consultant Rax Lakhani to the board.

When pressed on why it has taken the PRCA so long to address ethnic diversity at board level, Ingham says there are several reasons, including the fact that the board is a reflection of the ethnic diversity found in the industry.

“It’s partly an oversight by me, and I take full responsibility for that,” he says. “[The board member] recommendations of myself and the chairman [Fleishman Hillard UK and Middle East chief executive Jim Donaldson] tend to be getting the very big agencies on the board, which all have white senior leadership teams.

“The second element is people putting themselves forward for the board at AGMs, and we’ve had very limited experience of people taking that opportunity.”

Ingham admits that the decision to change the composition of the PRCA’s board is long overdue, and the industry had not “given enough attention” to the issue previously.

'We expect to be accountable'

George Floyd’s tragic death at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on 25 May sparked anger and mass protests across the US and in the UK, with Black Lives Matter rallies being held in spite of the risks of contracting COVID-19. The issue of racial inequality has also led to a period of soul-searching across business and the comms industry.

Ingham admits this movement has ratcheted up the importance of racial equality as a topic.

“There’s been a change in opinion, within our membership and the wider industry,” he says. “We’ve always had diversity as an issue, but it has never made it as one of the top issues. The past couple of months has raised it very significantly up that list, and we welcome that and expect to be held accountable to those commitments.”

One of those commitments is the formation of the REEB, which is chaired by Barbara Phillips and focused on accelerating the recruitment and progression of non-white professionals in the industry.

The 13-strong REEB has been given standing committee status within the PRCA, which means that, unlike the organisation’s other groups, it reports directly to the main board and the issues it raises must be discussed at every board meeting.

Phillips, who also sits on the main PRCA board, tells PRWeek she would have not signed up to REEB if it didn’t have “teeth” to take meaningful action. “It can’t be something where race and ethnicity can fall out of favour and just be a buzzword,” she says.

“This is a permanent fixture within the PRCA and we will be pushing the envelope and agitating. Of all the boards and networking groups I’ve been involved in over many years, especially within organisations, this one actually has some teeth… it’s in a position to make real, substantive change.”

A key focus of the REEB is to promote a safe environment for Black and ethnic minority employees to succeed. This is important because several studies, including the CIPR’s ‘Racism in PR’ report, published in June, have highlighted a worrying set of common experiences that hold back BME talent.

This includes BME practitioners being afraid to make mistakes; not being comfortable to act as themselves; having to work harder for fewer opportunities; microaggressions; and everyday casual racism. Talent is judged to a different standard to that of white colleagues, and there is a lack of support when they speak up about issues.

The PRCA intends to drive greater transparency over the working environments its members foster for BME talent and help them improve.

“If you are experiencing microaggressions, or you’re working in a non-inclusive environment, that’s really, really important, but it’s not listed anywhere and no one puts it to paper; no one has [improving this] as a goal. That’s something we are really in favour of,” Phillips says.

“One of the first things we’re tackling is an ethnicity pay gap. That’s a no-brainer – that shouldn’t be around and it is, so we’re tackling that one first.”

The body will also address diversity in leadership, training and succession planning.

She says the aim is not necessarily to name and shame agencies that are poor on diversity, because PR “generally is not an inclusive environment”.

“If you want to cut it right down to the core, it’s actually cultural transformation and cultural change, because all of the microaggressions, all of the lack of representation – not being promoted, not being recognised, not being paid the same amount of money – comes from cultural processes and cultural environments,” she says.

Importantly, the PRCA is committed to ensuring racial diversity is at the heart of its Code of Ethics, which means that its members could be expelled if they are found to have working environments with “rampant racism”. This would be a significant step-change in the trade body holding its members to account on ethnic diversity.


Podcast: PR bodies dicuss how they plan to improve diversity


'No special seats'

The industry’s other professional body, the CIPR, has a relatively low level of ethnic diversity in the composition of its elected board.

Its chief executive, Alastair McCapra, tells PRWeek that, of the 11 elected board members, only two are from a BME background. However, the split in its workforce is much more healthy, with 40 per cent from BME backgrounds.

McCapra says that, aside from offering “encouragement”, the body does not intend to “create special seats for any particular group”.

Avril Lee, chair of the CIPR Diversity and Inclusion Network, says the organisation released its ‘Racism in PR’ report in June, the product of a 10-month project that sought to shed light on the lived experiences of BME professionals.

It has also relaunched a diversity group that puts on events, provides guidance and provides counsel to the CIPR board.

“We’re also expanding our committee… so we can do more work for our diverse communities,” says Lee, who is managing director, Health, at Red Consultancy. “The diversity pay gap is one thing we all need to look at.”

Lee says the CIPR wants to carry out more work on inclusive cultures and how to benchmark best practice across the industry.

“That’s something we should look at and [how we measure it]. There are various different [diversity] partners and schemes, and we want to make sure that every organisation and every department has its own plan.”

Lee admits that, in the past, “nothing I’ve ever seen from an industry body has changed the culture in any organisation I’ve worked in”, which is why benchmarking and transparency will be key in driving meaningful change.

The Blueprint & DRIVEN

The industry scheme Lee and Phillips say they are most enamoured of is The Blueprint, launched by BME PR Pros founder Elizabeth Bananuka. That scheme requires an organisation to sign up to 23 commitments on topics from recruitment to working culture, and is aimed at promoting ethnic diversity from work-experience to board level. So far, only Manifest PR has been awarded The Blueprint status, with Blurred and InFusion Communications achieving Ally accreditation.

McCapra says the CIPR supports The Blueprint “very strongly”, even though it is not yet open to professional bodies to participate.

“We expect that, as it develops, it will become accessible to people who are not agencies. So we’re going to… shadow that, look at the commitments and standards in that accreditation… so that when it becomes open to us to apply, we will,” he says.

Another initiative that has been released is the DRIVEN Pledge, created by Aura PR founder Laura Sutherland. This is a free guideline that lists areas organisations should consider to improve diversity on a voluntary basis, but is self-assessed. The pledge has been criticised by some BME professionals, who argue that, although it’s well intentioned, it lacks the rigour required to drive meaningful change.

Hearst UK’s director of PR and communications, Effie Kanyua, explains: “I think the puzzled reaction to the DRIVEN initiative is due to the fact that diversity requires deliberate and intentional action that is measurable.

“The fact that it took Elizabeth Bananuka and the senior advisors involved from across the industry two years to get to that point for The Blueprint shows the level of investment required to get it right, which is what the industry is united behind.”

McCapra says the initiatives targeted different audiences. “If you’re running an agency… The Blueprint is probably something you might want to aspire to soon,” he says. “If you’re a sole practitioner, or a manager of an in-house team, [the] DRIVEN Pledge is probably a good starting place, if you haven’t already done something else.”

Ingham says that no one person or organisation has the solution to “deep-seated problems that are built up over generations”.

“We support all of them,” he says of the various initiatives. “For some, The Blueprint is the way forward; for some, DRIVEN is a good starting point. We’ve embedded diversity into our communications management standard… so we support any initiative from any organisation that is credible and meets our common goals.”

Lee, meanwhile, has glowing words for The Blueprint, describing it as very considered and “tough on purpose”.

“It is holding people to a high standard and a commitment, but there are a range of ways of doing it… BAME 2020 [the organisation pressing for 20 per cent BME representation in marcomms] is also looking at how people might measure how inclusive their cultures are as a ‘temperature check’.

“Fundamentally, this won’t be a quick fix – it’s not a ‘tick the three boxes and you solved everything’. This is actually about becoming more aware as an individual and as an organisation, how do you change hearts and minds.”

All agree that changing long-established industry norms and cultures is a marathon rather than a sprint, and will require much closer collaboration and accountability of the main professional bodies.

Ingham says the PRCA and CIPR are already looking to collaborate on common listening, shared data and cross-promoting initiatives that promote ethnic diversity as there are “shared goals”.

“It makes absolute sense in the interest of the industry to work together. And if we don’t, people should make the industry aware… that we’re falling down on the standards we ought to be upholding.”

Closer collaboration for the greater good is to be encouraged, but ultimately industry bodies will be judged for what they do about diversity rather than what they say. Accountability, transparency and progress are the new yardsticks by which industry bodies will be measured on ethnic diversity.

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