Continuing the Conversation: Diversity in the PR Industry
Published on October 6, 2021 at 8:03 p.m.
by Ashley Cunigan
COVID-19, presidential debates and racial injustice — all three are important topics that shaped 2020. But how do industry leaders continue the conversation to bring about positive change related to these issues?
Professionals in the public relations industry are concerned that diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives within the workplace need more than just a roundtable discussion. These conversations deserve action, and action cannot be taken without a deep look into who’s at the table.
Cecil Robinson, junior account associate and DEI leader at Real Chemistry, gives insight into how agencies can become better allies for inclusive change. “DEI isn’t just something that you can just kind of bring on and take off whenever you feel as though it is a great model to have; it’s relevant to the current conversation,” he explained. “It’s something that should be ingrained into the very fiber of your organization.”
According to PRovoke Media, only a few agencies have published their 2020 diversity reports, and some have decided not to publish at all. While many have opted to create diversity and inclusion committees around recruitment, there are still concerns around “retention, micro-aggressions in the workplace, pay equity, and promotion opportunities that need to be addressed.”
For PR practitioners — those who represent diverse publics — this ongoing situation is concerning. Kiara McKinney, founder and CEO of Boost Public Relations, said that diversity in the PR industry is “especially crucial because you are putting things out there to the public, and the public doesn’t look exactly like you.”
Many large agencies like Real Chemistry decided to join the Diversity Action Alliance (DAA) and adopted best practices for implementing more diverse talent in the workplace. PRsay reported that “diversity is a business imperative,” and the best return on investment any company can have is bringing on individuals from diverse backgrounds.
The events of 2020 were a wake-up call for organizations to educate employees about diverse representation. Robinson stated that after the three murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, “there was just so much going on that it could not be cycled anymore … and it’s really translated into how people can be better allies.” Likewise, McKinney believes “that was really an emotionally raw time for so many people, especially because of this counter argument where people are kind of dismissing your reality.”
Patrick Ford, professional in residence at the University of Florida, is the immediate past chair of DAA and the former vice chair and chief client officer for Burson-Marsteller. He is also a member of the board of advisors for The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and was named the 2016 Diversity Champion by PR Council and PRWeek. Ford believes it is important for students to be aware of these DEI conversations when entering the industry after graduation.
“More than half of Gen-Z is non-white and diverse, and they are much more attune to it. The expectations are increasingly there for their voices to be heard and respected,” Ford stated. Students looking for a career in PR need to be “proactive” and “intentional” in developing their own purpose while networking and looking for jobs, he said.
PRSA has taken action for students to learn more about diversity and inclusion by creating Diverse Dialogues. This series allows leaders to present topics around leadership, awareness, advocacy and action. Participants are encouraged to add their thoughts and opinions to continue the conversation around diversity.
McKinney wants to “encourage more young black and brown students to get into PR because [the industry] is lacking.” According to the Institute for Public Relations, the PR industry is 91% white and less than 10% people of color.
Not only is public relations lacking in diversity, but other professions are too. According to McKinney, “black and brown women are having to work twice as hard as their male and white counterparts just to have the same upward mobility and the same opportunities.”
Diversity, equity and inclusion are not just centered around race and ethnicity. They involve gender, sexual orientation, economic status and religion. In order to progress conversations surrounding DEI, Ford advised allowing diverse voices to have a seat at the table, thus giving them space to provide feedback and be heard. Both men and women should seek opportunities in the PR industry and celebrate different voices while servicing clients, he said.
As Robinson noted, “You have to truly care about [diversity] and can’t just say you care about it. It can’t be just for public relations reasons. Especially as professionals in PR, we know when a company is doing something for show. So the number one approach is authenticity.”