Bernard Matthews, Norfolk's famous turkey supplier, might not initially spring to mind as a trail-blazer in diversity policies, but in the last few years it has been recognised as a leader in the field. Its adoption of an employee diversity programme has had such a dramatic effect on the company's demographic that its non-UK production workers has increased from three per cent to 30 per cent.
The fact that more companies are flagging up their diverse credentials - be it in terms of race, religion, age or disability - shows just how important social and cultural differences can be when organisations are looking for a point of difference.
Others leading the way include BSkyB. It has a 'disability strategy', a policy not only intended to embed disability awareness into its business culture, but which also feeds into new products and services being offered to disabled people. In this case it makes business sense, but it is also a perfect marriage between HR and PR because diversity is seen as core to a firm's culture, rather than as a cynical PR stunt.
It is for this reason that promoting diversity has become the guiding theme for this year's World PR Festival, which takes place in Trieste from 28-30 June. Topics to be covered include: how PROs can communicate their company's behaviour to promote goodwill; and how to avoid damaging boycotts and conflicts.
'Firms still wonder if diversity should be treated as its own concept or as part of other CSR policies,' says Toni Muzi Falconi, event organiser.
'PR can be wary of diversity as it risks accusations of political correctness, but we must accept that it has its own value. Business should communicate with diverse groups. It is a hell of a difficult task for PROs to tackle,' he admits.
For those who have already put diversity at the centre of their business, the PR opportunities can seem to flow effortlessly, as Rachel Fellows, head of PR at Asda - the store synonymous for employing older people - explains: 'In 2001 we were about to open our store in Broadstairs, Kent. The area had a large older population so we launched the 'Goldies' PR campaign to recruit 50 per cent of staff who were 50 or older, by approaching people in Bingo halls and tea dances.'
The campaign was such a recruitment and media success that the policy has spread to all Asda stores. It is still garnering media coverage with its 'Benidorm leave' holiday entitlement, and with government partnerships supported by extensive case studies of older employees, some in their 80s. This month, the supermarket will be making headlines again as it launches a campaign to increase its proportion of older workers from 20 to 25 per cent.'This will promote the business benefits of an older workforce - lower staff turnover, and reduced recruitment costs,' adds Fellows.
'It's about getting PR involved from the start, and working it hard.'
The wide-ranging festival will touch on issues including religion, sexual, gender and disability. Keynote speakers will appear from such companies as illy, Citigroup and Benetton (see panels above).
But perhaps the most high-profile diversity case study in the UK is that of the police force. Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police's new Commissioner recently conceded his force would fail to reach Home Office targets of having 25 per cent of officers from ethnic minorities by 2009. Non-white officers number about 2,150, or seven per cent.
However, according to Met diversity press officer Ruth Shulver, PR activity is starting to show results. Seventeen per cent of new recruits now come from ethnic minorities.
'It's fundamental we're seen to reflect the community we police, and London is unique in being so diverse,' she says, 'In recruitment we've been making real inroads targeting titles like Muslim News, Sikh Times and Asian Voice. This is alongside promoting the work of the Positive Action Central Team (PACT), which has teams in each borough encouraging those from under-represented racial groups to consider a career in the police.'
The Met also embraces all the other diversity areas the conference will tackle. 'Two years ago was the first time uniformed officers marched in the Pride parade,' adds Shulver. 'It is important that we are seen to have gay police officers and we now sponsor the event.'
Plenty to ponder
If more companies had such an explicit PR and diversity approach, the World PR Festival would have less to ruminate than it does. 'Diversity is not new, but with anti-discrimination laws front of mind, it's high on the agenda,' says Athena Lamnisos, former director of comms at Friends of the Earth. 'It can be a positive issue PROs can make the most of.'
But as Toni Muzi Falconi concludes, this is a festival for finally stamping diversity on the PR map: 'Only a handful of companies in Europe are managing diversity in a conscious and structured way. Less than half of these are communicating this. We must master communicating what we are doing if we want to avoid becoming a commodity function.'
CASE STUDY 1: BENETTON
Benetton promotes its diversity through art or, more specifically, Fabrica, its communication research centre, in Treviso, Italy. The centre was formed in 1994 to support artists in music, photography, painting and other forms, who in return produce work that it can use as part of its comms global PR and comms strategy.
'It's funded directly by Benetton's advertising director,' says a spokeswoman.
'We give scholarships to 50 artists for one year, who in return work on some of our comms projects.' Some projects do not carry overt Benetton branding, but will appear in exhibitions in an anonymous fashion. Others will carry the Benetton brand name, associating it with the arts and diversity. British photographer James Morrison is a recent find, and he has taken a series of photographs of Apes which will be exhibiting at the Natural History Museum next month.
CASE STUDY 2: ILLY
Trieste-based illy, coffee maker since 1933, is the festival's local representative. Its worldwide ethics and values policy sees it take a paternal instinct to its suppliers, essentially treating them - as CEO Andrea Illy says - as employees and members of the illy family.
'We want to transfer our coffee-growing knowhow to turn farms into sustainable businesses,' he says. 'Our Brazile Prize is awarded to Brazil's best coffee growers, and it is supported by the Universidade illy do Cafe - which teaches aspects of coffee production, roasting and grinding to suppliers at a local level. It means we can buy illy standard beans direct from the growers, giving us traceability and the ability to pay a sustainable price'.
He adds: 'We want to tell this story to the consumer to sensitise them to what is beyond that cup of coffee they are drinking. It means we communicate to growers and to consumers.'
When: 28-30 June 2005
Where: Trieste, Italy
Theme: Communicating the theme of diversity as a positive force PROs can
use to set the business agenda
More information: www.wprf.org
CASE STUDY 3: CITIGROUP
For Citigroup, diversity is not an extra bolt-on, but it's a way of life, according to Lynne Fisher, head of diversity, EMEA, who will be speaking at this year's festival. The firm hires 98 per cent of its 275,000 global staff locally, which has led it to develop 21 diversity councils worldwide.
The most recent is in Japan and it meets twice a month to review diversity policy and share best practice. In 2003, 33,756 employees in the US, the UK and Europe were put through diversity training with feedback collected with its Voice of the Employee survey. Citigroup also has many employee networks, including the African Heritage, Hispanic and Pride Networks.
'Our Women's Network encourages females to rise to the top jobs, and is an example of how they not only exist to share best practice, but make a bottom-line contribution to profit,' she says. 'Women-owned enterprises bring in more than $590m worth of business to Citigroup.' These policies have contributed to Citigroup recently being named as a top employer for minorities (Fortune magazine ranked them in its top 50), for working mothers (by Working Mother magazine) and for Latinas (in LATINAStyle).