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The Progress to improve diversity in PR is slow

Heard the one about how long it takes the PR industry to fully embrace Britain’s diverse employment base? Ask again in 2020 when the sector might have an answer.

That may seem harsh but back in 2009 when the Chartered Institute of Public Relations formed its Diversity Working Group to raise awareness of the value of diversity in public relations and identify key issues, it found that just seven per cent of Britain’s public relations professionals came from non-white backgrounds.

Seven years later, that figure has advanced by just two percentage points to nine per cent. And the working group, which had expected to disband after making key recommendations, is still striving to improve diversity in the PR industry.

‘The years of the group’s existence have seen success and failure, as well as reasons for great optimism and frustration,’ says working group member Cornelius Alexander in the foreword to the CIPR’s latest report on the subject.

In the research, entitled From Diversity to Inclusion: the Progression of Equality in Public Relations and Challenges for the Future, Alexander says the group has found evidence of a ‘great change of attitude’ through talking to PR practitioners but still needs to ensure that its working group is leading to ‘tangible change’.

‘We must strive to improve the day-to-day reality for those working in public relations, but we can’t do it alone,’ he says. ‘Together we need to build on the work of the last five years and ensure that 2020 sees a more open and inclusive PR industry, which reflects the society that it seeks to engage.’

This is not just about race. The CIPR’s most recent gender pay gap research, published last February, found that an average gap of £8,483 exists between PR men and women – a difference that it says cannot be explained by any other factor, such as length of service, seniority, parenthood or a higher prevalence of part-time work amongst women.

Another CIPR survey found that, while the industry is thought to offer a discrimination-free environment for professionals of different sexual orientations, there are still sectors within it where non-heterosexual PR practitioners ‘may feel uncomfortable about being themselves’.

The CIPR’s latest report also refers to disability as ‘one of PR’s dirty little secrets’, with participants in the research stating that it is the diversity issue least spoken about in the industry, despite an estimated 20 per cent of the UK population suffering from some kind of disability.

So why is it taking communicators so long to employ more people from multiracial and diverse gender and ability backgrounds?
It’s not for a lack of communication on the subject. The business, ethical and societal reasons for embracing diversity are well-versed and oft aired.

As the latest report states, Britain’s future workplace will reflect the global movement of people, new societal trends, corporate market expansion, technological advances and new talent pools, resulting in multi-generational teams of generation Xers, baby boomers and millennials and many more women tempted into the workforce by home and flexible working.

‘We don’t need ‘people like us’. We need smart, creative and committed talent,’ it adds. ‘We need folk who get social, fragmented media and new communities. We need to challenge the old ways of doing things.

‘We need diversity to keep us creative and insightful via new input and ideas from a wide group of fresh minds and cultures.’

Indeed, two-thirds of PR professionals polled by the CIPR in 2014/15 agreed that diverse teams produced better campaigns.

There are some pockets of progress. Ogilvy PR has partnered with charity Stonewall to set up Ogilvy Pride, a network aimed at creating a positive employment experience for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.

The Taylor Bennett Foundation, set up by the eponymous recruitment consultancy to provide public relations training and career support to ethnically-diverse individuals, was widely praised by participants in the CIPR research.

Represent, formed in 2014 by Joanna Randall, managing director of PR agency Purplefish, and recruitment executive Liz Gadd, works in secondary schools to promote awareness of careers in the creative sector in young people of all backgrounds.

And other PR agencies, such as Ketchum and Edelman, have made public commitments to diversity and inclusion, as well as leading the campaign to end the discriminatory practice of unpaid internships.

The Public Relations Consultants Association has a ‘diversity roundtable’ and also publishes the names of agencies and in-house public relations teams that have committed to pay interns at least the national minimum wage.

Guto Harri, who recently stepped down as director of corporate and public affairs at News UK, publisher of The Times and The Sun newspapers, believes that the newspaper company’s communications office is one of the more diverse in the PR industry.

‘We had a turban-wearing Sikh and a 60-year-old with Parkinson’s disease. More than half the team were female and there was a mix of Australian, American, Spanish, Italian, Irish and Welsh passports or blood,’ he explains.

‘If you only aim to communicate with a small homogenous group of a certain age, gender, ethnicity and disposition, all living in the same small area, you can probably pick a team that reflects that. We aimed higher and benefited hugely from the different attitudes and accents, homes and hinterlands that we had between us – a rich cultural mix, a combination of logic and emotion, fresh youthful enthusiasm and some battle-hardened experience.’

Richard Brookes, a freelance communicator who formerly worked as head of PR at News UK and for John Major’s Government and London mayors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, was born without arms and says he experienced discrimination early in his PR career.

‘Things have come a long way since my communications role in the 1980s when, on the instructions of the managing director, I was employed at £2,000 a year less than my colleague at the same level,’ he says.

‘It’s important that the communications sector has a good representation of disabled employees. It’s not only right but it makes business sense. When such a large proportion of markets are made up of consumers with physical and mental disabilities, having empathy for that, as well as other diverse groups’ needs in decision-making and communications planning is surely a bonus.’

Colin Byrne, chief executive, for the UK and Europe, the Middle East and Africa at PR agency Weber Shandwick, feels that progress is being made on tackling gender equality, though there is some room for improvement on equal pay.

‘The elephant in the room is racial and social diversity,’ he adds. ‘We are an overwhelmingly white middle class profession. We don’t look anything like the Britain we claim to understand. I always joke that, as a working class Northerner with a second-class minor university degree, I wouldn’t get on my own graduate training programme.

‘The PR industry needs to work harder to reach out to schools and colleges with more diverse intakes, and stop being so relaxed with the status quo.’

Few in the industry expect progress to be rapid. As the report concludes: ‘Diversity is tough. There are no ‘quick fixes’ or shortcuts.’

Alexander’s talk of 2020 may turn out to be wildly optimistic. But this is one communications industry campaign that cannot afford to fail.