Diversity in PR – A Time to Move beyond Token Gestures?

diversity in the workplace

Following the death of George Floyd, businesses around the world are facing growing pressure to address racial equity at work. The scale and intensity of the protests that followed, send a clear message that we cannot go back to ‘business as usual’. It’s one thing that most can agree on. However, achieving real progress is quite another.  

There is undoubtedly a good business case for diversity at work. Employees of different backgrounds and experiences are more representative of the audiences they aim to engage, opening up a big potential customer base. Many businesses understand this and, consequently, have been using diversity as a marketing tool to tap into the growing buying power of minority groups for years. The downside is that this has been happening without any parallel initiative to move the needle on workplace diversity in their own organizations.

How Far for PR?

The PR industry is no exception. For too long, there’s been talk about the need for greater diversity in the workplace. Fast-forward to today and an industry that is still broadly white and middle-class. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ethnic makeup of the PR industry in the U.S. is 87.9% white, 8.3% African American, 2.6% Asian American, and 5.7% Hispanic American.

This painfully slow progress, if any is achieved at all, points to myriad reasons. However, at the very heart of it is a rigid system that disadvantages people of color right from the very beginning and makes any attempt at participation more difficult. For instance, a study conducted by the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College in 2016/17, found that applicants from ethnic minority backgrounds have to “send 80% more applications to receive a positive response from an employer than white applicants.”

Attitudes that are more than Skin Deep

Despite anti-discrimination legislation being in place, the color of your skin can – and often does – affect your employment chances. This highlights what we know already; that legislation alone is not enough. We need a significant shift in attitudes to achieve any meaningful change.

But racial equity is not about benevolence or pity. It isn’t about ticking boxes, or polishing your brand reputation; it is simply about levellng the playing field. The question is, what can we do about it and are we really serious this time? There are a number of ways employees of color want their companies to address racial equity.

Here are 5 basic steps I want companies to consider:

Please, just acknowledge the problem

Chronic underrepresentation is systemic and those who still reflexively bristle at the term, ought to explain the overwhelming data that brutally exposes the problem over and over again. With study after study showing unequal access to career opportunities, pay disparities and marginal chances of ending up in senior decision-making roles, we are long past denial. Instead, businesses should create spaces where black professionals can talk about their experiences, articulate concerns or make suggestions.

It Starts at the Top

The recent anti-racism protests offer a unique opportunity for businesses to review their racial equity policies (or lack of). Silence is an example of poor leadership. If your company has been silent on the subject matter or responded insufficiently, it’s not too late. Clarify your position and incorporate it into your company’s core values. CEOs and directors must demonstrate that they are serious about addressing the structures that have led to past failures.

Introduce Policies and Initiatives

There is no one-size-fits-all-model when it comes to developing policies and practices. Each business should have its own strategic logic and resources to execute.

  • Set realistic and measurable objectives
  • Educate your management teams and wider staff around topics of racial equity
  • Keep authenticity in mind when hiring diversity trainers. This doesn’t mean that white people can’t be involved in diversity work, but that it should be led by people who can relate to the problem
  • Learn from other companies where appropriate
  • If possible, get involved in external initiatives (i.e. donate to anti-racism causes)

Ensure Transparency and Consistency

Now that you have established policies, commit to tracking and publishing reports that document the impact of your strategy. This step is vital in driving change and fostering a sense of accountability. Without understanding the context of racial disparities, it becomes very difficult to develop any long-term solutions. The true challenge lies in preserving the momentum long after mainstream media have lost interest.

Remove Barriers in the Hiring Process.

After recent conversations with fellow black PR professionals in London, there was a sense of dismay at how we were all too familiar with being ‘the only black person’ in the room. If London, a city that boasts the highest black population in the country, can’t leverage its diverse population, recruiters have to answer serious questions about their hiring practices.

Start putting pressure on recruitment agencies and in-house recruiters to look outside of their conventional circles. If possible, work together with colleges and universities to inform black and ethnic minorities students or graduates about PR career prospects. Offer work placement schemes and internships to help them get their foot in the door.

No More Business as Usual

No business should be able to ignore the urgent knocking from this diverse pool of talent any longer. No business can afford to ignore it. Now is the time for everyone to commit to pushing that door wide-open once and for – the benefit of – all.

Saman Ali is an Account Manager at Mulberry Marketing Communications, an award-winning full-service B2B communications agency based in Chicago, London and Australia. She enjoys the challenge of making global PR campaigns locally relevant.