Challenging the stereotype Article icon

Challenging The communications industry is failing to attract ethnic minorities and thus failing to represent its audience

Hands up if you have ever written a press release championing the value of diversity in the workplace, whether on the basis of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or disability. Now put your hand down if you’re truly happy with the human diversity of the public relations agency or in-house corporate communications department that you work for. Welcome to the complex and highly-sensitive world of equal opportunities.

Just ask Fiona Cannon, who has worked in this field for 30 years. She is head of a 13-strong diversity inclusion team at Lloyds Banking Group, the first major UK quoted company to make a public commitment to attaining targets for the representation of women in management positions.

Cannon says Lloyds has lifted the proportion of its managers who are female from 27 per cent to 29 per cent in the past 18 months and is aiming for a target of 40 per cent. However, she admits that the bank has had to take a different approach to its other diversity goals with ethnic minority, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and disabled employees.

‘Gender is the one that we have data on,’ she says. ‘We have comprehensive information so we know how many women we have got. With the other groups of colleagues, they have to tell us if they are from an ethnic minority or LGBT. The data is not as accurate as it might be. With LGBT and disability issues, some of that is about people feeling uncomfortable to be ‘out’ at work.’

In public relations and corporate communications, a detailed audit is not necessary to know that at least some of these segments are woefully under-represented. Research from the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) in 2013 found that just eight per cent of public relations professionals identified themselves as coming from a non-white minority ethnic group – well below the 14 per cent of the UK population that fits that description.

‘After more than two decades of everybody in our industry talking about diversity, we have made little progress in actually creating a diverse and representative workforce,’ says Nafisa Nathani, account manager at PR agency Cohn & Wolfe. ‘Everybody says exactly the same thing: it is growing tiresome. The lack of progress that has been made is clear. Quite frankly, it is embarrassing. How can we be experts and advise on consumer insights when the only prism we view the world is through white, middle class, graduate eyes?

‘Instead of discussing, like we have done for the past 20 years, how to make the industry more ‘attractive’ to minorities, we should be asking ourselves why we aren’t retaining minorities. As far as I am concerned, we have a leaky pipeline issue as opposed to a supply issue.’

Nathani feels strongly that when people from ethnic minorities do join the communications industry, they need role models to help them believe they can progress up the career ladder.

She argues that they would also benefit from stronger support networks within organisations, more mentorship schemes, networking groups and better guidance and transparency from senior practitioners about how to tackle day-to-day challenges within the industry and advance one’s career.

Zaiba Malik, director of media at Grayling PR, agrees that there is a problem with a lack of ethnic diversity in the communications industry.

‘My observations and experiences… point to a dearth of non-white faces. Should we try and rectify this? Well, it would make good commercial sense,’ she says. ‘The communications world is now so varied, ranging from strategic advice and media relations to public affairs, and so global that surely we need to draw on the insights and outlooks of a diverse workforce to serve diverse audiences.’

‘And actually this isn’t just restricted to ethnicity. What clients get from me isn’t the ‘experience’ of a British-born woman of Pakistani origin. They get someone who knows the news agenda and how to build corporate reputation. What I’d like the PR industry to do is to embrace diversity in all its forms. Let’s have more people from outside London, from other parts of the world, from working class backgrounds and from other professions. Meritocracy is the key to diversity, not political correctness.’

Industry bodies say they are on the case. The PRCA has a ‘diversity network,’ that works to ‘open up access to the communications profession and make it more representative of the nation’.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations, meanwhile, has a ‘diversity strategy’ that was devised by a ‘diversity working group’. This aims to ‘develop an inclusive culture, raise general awareness of diversity within the public relations industry and increase the number of public relations practitioners from all backgrounds’.

The CIPR says the key areas of this work include improving understanding of PR in communities in which diversity is not a ‘visible’ career option and operating best-practice approaches to internships, re-employment and returning to work.

It also works to encourage members to demonstrate an approach to recruitment based on competence and to take steps to tackle ‘glass ceiling’ issues.

Headhunters also seem to be on board, with Hanson Search linking up with Hanover Communications last year to launch UpSkill with independent charity UpRising. This programme aims to help ambitious young adults from all backgrounds break into the communications industry, equipping them with the skills to improve their employment prospects in the sector. ‘If there is one business sector that should reflect Britain’s society, then the communications industry is surely it and as it stands it doesn’t,’ says Alice Weightman, Hanson Search’s founder and managing director. ‘Our vision is that we work in an industry that doesn’t have to try to find diversity; it just comes naturally.’

Meanwhile, Taylor Bennett, an executive search firm specialising in communications, set up The Taylor Bennett Foundation in 2008 to address the need for greater ethnic diversity in the public relations industry. It says it has been working since then to ‘change the face of PR’ by providing paid-for training for graduates from black and minority ethnic backgrounds to prepare them for careers in the industry. ‘With help from the industry, together we can change individual lives and also create a workforce with a quality and range of ideas, which reflects the diversity and dynamism of youth networks,’ says Anne Groves, a consultant at the firm.

However, the current state of play on diversity in the communications industry is patchy, to say the least. ‘You have to look at the type of employers to understand the diversity within their PR departments,’ says Adrien Gaubert, co-founder of myGwork, a new networking platform for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

‘The public relations staff at Lloyds Banking Group can be expected to be as diverse as the company, which came third in Stonewall’s Equality 2015 ranking. On the other hand, one would expect the construction industry to be less diverse and the workplace less inclusive. Also, some PR agencies are often too small to adopt elaborated diversity and inclusion policies.’

At the other extreme, some communicators believe the diversity debate needs to be widened to extend to men, often the subject of ‘pale, stale and male’ put-downs in equal opportunities conversations. ‘The world of PR is still very female-dominated and there isn’t a strong enough voice from well-established males within this industry to emphasise just how diverse and rewarding working in PR can be,’ says Khristina Atwal, consultant at consumer public relations agency Cherish PR. ‘Over my years of experience in PR and having attended many press events and consumer shows and working in PR agencies, it would appear that gents aren’t rushing to apply for those job roles and when it comes to ethnic minority groups, there is clear determination to become a doctor, dentist and computer programmer.

‘The assumption is you need soft skills, such as being a multi-tasker who is able to plan well and implement under pressure. Often these are traits commonly found among females. As a result, young men may feel the PR industry isn’t suitable for them.’

As for achieving the more common definition of diversity goals, Cannon says setting public targets is making a difference. Rival banks Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland have also adopted similar strategies and Cannon believes that the diversity agenda needs to shift from talk of quotas to ways of creating genuine meritocracy within organisations.

‘Lots of companies have diversity initiatives but without the numbers and the focus on constantly looking and checking, they can often spend a lot of time doing things but not making any difference,’ she says. ‘Our approach treats diversity like any other business issue where you have to deliver a result within a certain time. At Lloyds, this is not delivered by human resources. It is delivered by the business.’

In theory of course, true diversity within the communications industry should mean having the right team, regardless of background, to deliver the best campaign that works hardest for clients. Everything else should then fall into place. Until that Utopian-sounding aim becomes a reality, however, diversity will remain a pressing issue in corporate communication departments and public relations agencies across Britain.