Fixing the agency diversity conundrum

Executives explore what their firms can do better to create a more representative workforce.

Fixing the agency diversity conundrum

What can businesses do to lead change that creates more representation in their workforces? How can they once and for all push the conversation past static dialogue into meaningful action with long-lasting impact?

Those were some of the questions discussed on the Agency Diversity Conundrum panel at PRWeek’s Racial Equity Summit, which explored how recent incidents of white privilege and police brutality against Black people have heightened the focus on issues of diversity. 

Richard Edelman, CEO of the eponymous independent agency, said his firm must do better to improve diversity at its highest levels. 

“In our agency at the moment, we have too few senior people who are diverse,” Edelman said without hesitation. “To combat that, we’re doing lateral hires; in fact, 50% of the senior hires we've done since June are diverse. I've also realized that CEOs like myself, who have been on the job for 20-plus years, need to lead from the front. My waiting time is over. As leaders, we need to take that responsibility onto our own shoulders.”

“The truth is,” he continued, “we've talked about this for years, but one thing that’s different now is that we’re seeing a huge cultural shift led by young people. Secondly, companies have stood up and said, ‘I exist to make the world a better place.’”

Suresh Raj, chief business development officer at Blue Impact, said everything starts at the top.

“Only when you have a brave heart to do the right thing will true action and change happen,” he said.

Raj told the story of his nephew, a 20-year-old Black man who he raised as his own son. Now in his third year of college, Raj’s nephew emailed to say he was considering switching his major from anthropology to communications.

Raj read aloud the email he sent in response. “Are you absolutely sure?” he asked his nephew. “You have to be beyond outstanding in your field of expertise and far outshine your contemporaries, who will mostly be white. The chances of you ever becoming a leader will be slim to none.”

“I was your nephew 20 years ago,” Purpose Brand CEO Diane Primo jumped in to say. “I’ve been able to establish a career in the agency world, and what I would say to those not seeing themselves represented is, ‘We need you. If this is an industry you want to be in, there are opportunities for your voice to be heard. There is a place for you at the table.’”

For Trish Smith, global chief diversity and inclusion officer at Edelman, DEI is a movement, not a moment, and must include employees at every level. 

“It is everyone's role to play in this work,” she said. “It is the responsibility of everyone within a firm to ensure the creation of a diverse, inclusive and equitable workplace. Everyone must assume accountability and responsibility each and every day.”

“I completely agree with what’s being said,” added Raj. “It’s the responsibility of every single individual, but what it comes down to is the mindset of the person who's leading the business. If leadership at the most senior level does not change their mindset, there is no role model to look up to. Nobody can turn around and feel that they can actually, one day, aspire to that role. Right now, for me, 23 years in, I still don't have that vision because it remains a glass ceiling for someone like me.”

In closing, moderator and PRWeek VP and editorial director Steve Barrett asked for actionable ways people can be held accountable for their DEI efforts. 

Smith suggested “various types of unconscious bias training and opportunities to continue to learn, maybe making them mandatory; actively participating in employee network resource or affinity groups; and if you're in a hiring position, looking at individual [key performance indicators] as well as team KPIs to drive progress, ensuring there's diversity on your team and monitoring the organization’s overall diverse representation.”

“We have to get people to volunteer,” added Edelman. “It's deeply important to see the work being done on the ground.”

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