Ethnic minorities comprise just under eight per cent of the UK population, increasing from three million people in 1991 to 4.6 million in 2001, according to the Office of National Statistics. Indians are the largest minority group, followed by Pakistanis, then those of mixed ethnic background, Black Caribbeans, Black Africans and Bangladeshis.
These are facts not lost on COI Communications. Last week, the government procurement department announced it was bringing together a new roster of marketing communications agencies to target ethnic minority groups (PRWeek, 12 September).
COI senior corporate PR manager Janice O'Reilly says: 'Research shows that you need to target (ethnic) audiences in different ways. There are variations between how to reach younger and older generations, for example.
It is not just the message, but the media. The make-up of the country is changing.'
For mainstream agencies, this could mean a lucrative new revenue source.
However, according to ethnic communication specialists, few of the non-ethnic specialist agencies are doing anything about it. Media Moguls MD Anjna Raheja contends that mainstream agencies are often frightened of markets of which they have no understanding. 'Mainstream agencies have to be careful,' Raheja explains. 'It is about doing clever campaigns that will get you noticed but will not offend. It's about being at the heart of the community.
'The Asian community is probably the most complex, because it's so diverse.
And there is a huge difference between the aspirations of the African and Caribbean communities. The brown pound needs targeting.'
Part of that must come through the media, but Waybe Bower, MD of Ethnic Media Group, whose publications include Eastern Eye and New Nation, says there is a gap between mainstream interest and the business reality. 'The level of interest around targeting the black and Asian communities has never been higher, but we don't have many mainstream PR companies promoting their clients' products to us,' Bower explains.
This may be the media's fault to some extent, he believes. 'The ethnic media is very young and, in a lot of areas, it is unprofessional and the service levels are very low,' claims Bower.
Yet, it is not as if large consumer brands don't use black or Asian faces in their advertising. McDonald's media relations manager Amanda Pierce says: 'In terms of advertising, we reflect the demographic make-up of our customers, but there's no specific targeting.' In other words, no PR activity to ethnic minority consumers. This is the same at rival chain Burger King, although prospective franchisees in the Asian community are being reached through magazines with largely Asian readerships, says BK communications director Kai Boschmann.
Of course, the term ethnic minority is increasingly misleading in some contexts. In the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, for example, 40 per cent of residents are from non-white backgrounds.
'That is central to our communications,' says Tower Hamlet comms officer Helen New. The PR team has a full-time Bengali press officer and the weekly paper, East End Life, has a section called Harmony, which is translated into Bengali and Somali.
BT has recently cut international call charges to China, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. The firm had a presence at six of this year's Mela events, which are celebrations of all Asian culture, including ones in Bradford and Leicester, and is planning activity in street festivals for the Chinese New Year. This need not be done by specialist ethnic agencies, insists Damian Peachey, BT Consumer head of PR. 'We are simply looking at agencies that can deliver effective consumer PR campaigns,' he says.
But even Robert Phillips, founding partner at Jackie Cooper PR, the agency that handled O2's involvement in the Melas, is aware that the specialists may have the edge. He said:'There is still an uncomfortable bias towards white, middle-class, southern people in agencies. There is a disconnection between the world they (mainstream agency staff) traditionally inhabit and the world real people live in.'
This is backed up by research revealed this month by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, which found that ad agencies were also dominated by this group (PRWeek, 19 September).
Suzy Rigg, PR manager at ethnic specialist Focus Consulting, agrees: 'We have an understanding of specific communities and a multicultural, mixed workforce. But a lot of agencies do not reflect such a mix in their workforce, so there is a gap between research and their life experience.'
However, population shift will surely provide an answer for mainstream PR agencies. Raheja says: 'They'll start employing more ethnic representatives themselves.' And when that happens, one source says, 'It is a case of working with the community rather than seeing it as a commercial block to be exploited.'