Work in progress: Agencies double down on DE&I initiatives, but yet to see results

The pandemic has kept firms from hiring, holding back their efforts to bring on executives of color.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Is the PR industry living up to its promises to improve diversity within its ranks, especially at the executive level? After the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, PR firms lined up with statements in support of Black Lives Matter and social justice, and many agency CEOs pledged to do better on employee diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Now eight months since Taylor’s death and four months since Floyd’s, it demands the question: what progress have firms made?

Each one of the half-dozen agency leaders interviewed by PRWeek reports that their firms are ramping up efforts to make their workplaces more inclusive, but none could yet demonstrate a dramatic improvement. 

BCW is providing more and deeper training for DE&I. The WPP firm has embedded “bias interrupters” into client processes, from ideation and strategy to media and influencer selection. In September, BCW rolled out a polycultural consulting unit. The group’s leader, SVP Kristin Hooper, points out that the unit has been in the making for about 20 months, so it wasn’t launched in response to the events of the past year.

FleishmanHillard created a global DE&I task force composed of leaders across the organization, including talent development, client experience and business development. Since June, it has also expanded inclusivity-boosting initiatives, such as its listen-and-learn series #LoseTheWhisper. Those sessions bring together hundreds of employees virtually for “raw, candid and emotional discussions,” says Emily Graham, who in June was named the Omnicom shop’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer, reporting to president and CEO John Saunders and COO J.J. Carter. 

In June, Weber Shandwick rolled out improved unconscious bias training and made it mandatory for all employees. The Interpublic Group firm also recently started education and training about microaggressions and the Black experience in the U.S. 

Mid-sized firms have also ramped up their inclusivity education efforts. Praytell has partnered with organizations like ReadySet on anti-racism and allyship training. It is also developing workshops based on employee feedback, says VP Naria Frazer, co-lead of Praytell’s allyship practice, which launched in June

Yet PR firms began DE&I initiatives well before 2020, and despite that, agencies by and large are not much more diverse than they were four years ago. And there continues to be a dearth of Black PR pros in leadership positions at major PR agencies.

Mike Paul, president of Reputation Doctor, contends that agencies have failed to take responsibility for the lack of executive diversity.

“Agencies are supposed to mirror the demographics in which they are headquartered, operate and serve,” he says. “But they have failed to hold themselves accountable.” 

As for the excuse that the qualified candidate pool of Black executives is too shallow, as Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf claimed before apologizing for his “own unconscious bias,” Paul says that “there are enough Black college graduates and talent out there. What we need to see is agencies consistently improving their demographics around diversity and inclusion.” 

Some agencies have already recorded progress in hiring as they work towards more inclusive cultures, but say they have been limited by the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In early August, Praytell shared a diversity commitment that in part read, “Over the next few years, we are committed to increasing our Black and Latinx representation to 14% and 19%, respectively.” The firm also published a racial and ethnic diversity employee breakdown that will be updated every month so the firm can hold itself accountable. 

In August, Black or African-Americans employees accounted for 10% of Praytell’s staff and Hispanic or Latinx 9%. October figures show Black or African American employees account for 12% of staff (16 people, up from 14), while Hispanic or Latinx was statistically static. However, Hispanics increased in head count by one to 13. Whites dropped during this timeframe by 1% to 61%. 

Praytell founder Andy Pray says the firm’s first priority this year was to bring people back from furlough and then for everyone to return to full compensation. 

“As those incremental winds have happened, we can now start to move toward strategic hiring,” he says, noting a few “really exciting hires” will be announced soon.

Pray hopes this year will result in transformative change, noting the industry was too “comfortable” to really evolve until witnessing disturbing events. This includes not only caught-on-camera police-related incidents, but the actions and words of President Donald Trump, who during the first presidential debate refused to condemn white supremacy. 

“The lack of comfort is a catalyst, and I hope we stay uncomfortable, because we have to,” says Pray. “We can’t let ourselves off the hook, because the industry will not transform unless we’re committed to this and take some big swings.”  

Weber Shandwick was one of the large firms to release its employee demographics from 2019, showing its percentage of executives who are Black or African-American was in-line with averages at comparable businesses, but the diversity of its overall workforce was lower. 

CEO Gail Heimann pledges to improve those numbers. “We are not proud of that data, but it shows we are committed to moving the needle,” she says, adding that the firm’s focus has been on removing “structural inequalities” within the agency’s internal workings. 

Adding staff this year has been limited because of COVID-19 and the ensuing economic downturn. “However, we are preparing for hiring down the road,” says Judith Harrison, SVP, diversity and inclusion at Weber Shandwick. “This is a really great time for us to look at our relationships for our talent pipeline.”  

The firm has been growing relationships with the organizations such as The Lagrant Foundation and ColorComm and has linked up with the Ron Brown Scholar Program to attract Black STEM students who could potentially work on science and medical comms. It has also partnered with I Choose the Ladder, an organization dedicated to helping Black women move up in the corporate world.

FleishmanHillard recently recruited its largest class of its Alfred Fleishman Diversity Fellowship since its founding in 2012. 

“Hiring talent is an urgent need. Specifically hiring Black talent, and particularly leadership, is not only urgent, it’s essential to make us stronger,” adds Graham. Mentoring is mission critical for our diverse talent, and we’re proud to say that we have partnered every new fellow and diverse hire with a mentor to nurture and shepherd their career experience.” 

"Additionally, we’ve gotten laser-focused on hiring Black leadership. We won’t be satisfied until we see an additional seven to 10 hires before the end of year,’ she says, noting FleishmanHillard has made “three excellent Black senior-level hires.” 

BCW chief inclusion officer Carol Watson, who joined the firm in January from Diversity Best Practices, has spent the past few months with her team going over “how we develop talent.” 

The agency has recalibrated recruiting processes and practices, from sourcing strategy, job descriptions and the interview process to onboarding experience. To facilitate progress, market and practice leaders have had diversity targets built into their performance goals. Those benchmarks are determined after a deep dive into the practice area as it relates to demographic make-up, hiring, promotions and more. 

“We do an extensive data analysis of each market and share with the senior leadership team on a quarterly basis,” notes Watson. 

Asked whether it will share diversity data, the agency said in a statement, “BCW is part of WPP, which has publicly committed to taking all 12 actions in the Call for Change open letter to the industry from Black professionals, which includes publishing its racial diversity data.” However, it remains to be seen whether WPP will break out individual agency numbers.

Nysah Warren, a Taylor account executive, cofounded the Hold the PRess organization that called on agencies to share a breakdown of their employees’ racial makeup and set benchmarks to measure progress against. She reports some progress, but notes that the organization will be watching to see if agencies follow through.

“Overall, we’ve found that companies are starting to take steps towards recruiting Black talent at agencies and understand that it is going to take time,” she said, via email. “However, there were still many companies who did not respond and have still been silent in the fight for equity in our industry.” 

“This said, for the agencies that did respond to our request, we will need to see as time goes on that their efforts are not merely performative,” says Warren. “This will need to be measured not only by the numbers, but also that BIPOC employees are being hired across levels and in roles that are not only centered on diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

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