Big Story

BUILDING DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION INTO PUBLIC RELATIONS

By Vincent Utere

Diversity and inclusion is the rave of the moment in business and professional cycles. The past few years have witnessed an uptick in awareness of the issues and demands for equal representation of different peoples and genders in the workplace have gone through the ceiling. Organizations that recognize the criticality of these issues to long-term business success are embracing them with open arms and implementing solutions that meet their stakeholder’s expectations. But the laggards who only pay lip service to the issues suffer their reputations and overall business performance.

Unfortunately, the PR industry that should be the moral compass for other industries is far behind the curve when it comes to diversity and inclusion. It seems to be taking a leisure walk when other industries are running fast on a path that creates relentless development and growth for their members. One clear case of negligence is the “Whiteness” of the PR industry at a time when other industries are joining hands with the United Nations to reduce inequality in the world by granting equal opportunities to all human beings irrespective of their tribe, race, gender, religion or physical abilities.

This is by no means speculative. It is a fact confirmed by several studies. For example, 2018 Harvard Business Review analysis of the United States Federal Labour Statistics reveals that the PR industry in the country is 87.9 percent white, 8.3 percent African-American, 2.6 percent Asian-American and 5.9 percent Hispanic or Latinx.

The case is not different in the United Kingdom and Australia. In the UK, whites constitute 92% of professionals working in the PR industry with females accounting for 67 percent, according to the 2019 State of the Profession Report. And in Australia, the industry is dominated by white females according to a 2017 study by Katharino Wolf, titled: Diversity in Australian Public Relations: An Exploration of Practitioners’ Perspectives and published in Asian Pacific Public Relations Journal.

These statistics leave a sour taste in the mouth. USA, UK and Australia are standard bearers for the PR industry globally. Public Relations, as practised today in the world, draws its knowledge, skills and inspirations from these countries. Diversity and Inclusion scores in these countries are an indication of how terrible the global PR industry fares on these issues. It shows that little or no consideration is given to diversity and inclusion in practical terms.

This puts blood in the water around a profession that prides itself as the social conscience of organizations and depreciates its value in the eyes of CEOs and other leaders who are championing the cause of diversity and inclusion in their businesses already. Are they not supposed to look up to PR to play a leading role in communicating and entrenching the ideals of diversity and inclusion in their organizational cultures? How can PR be trusted to play that role effectively when it lacks the very ideals it is supposed to promote in an organization? This article is a wakeup call to the PR industry. It argues for a holistic approach to building diversity and inclusion into Public Relations, holding the view that permeating every facet and culture of the practice is the only way to make it stick.

Diversity and Inclusion Demystified

Diversity is a term that means different things to different people. This has given rise to so many unrelated ideas about what it is, such that it is now cloaked in mystery.

According to a research by Deloitte, different generations define it differently. The older generations in the workforce, whom Americans prefer to call baby boomers (those born between 1946 – 1964) and generation X (born between 1965 and 1984) believe that diversity is all about bringing different gender, faith, sex orientation,  ethnicity and physical ability into the workforce. To them, it is the moral and legal thing to do.

Conversely, the new generation, often referred to as millennials, see diversity as the combination of people of different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives in the workplace, according to the research. To them, diversity goes beyond compliance with the law to include flexible working, freedom to express one’s unique identity, be listened to and be respected by the authorities for who you are.

To succeed in building a culture of diversity and inclusion in the PR industry, a definition that captures the needs of all generations in the PR workforce of today is required. In its 2005 survey report, Workplace Diversity Practices, Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) offers such a definition. According to the professional body, ‘workplace diversity is broadly defined as an inclusive corporate culture that strives to respect variations in employee personality, work style, age, ethnicity, gender, religion, socio-economics, education and other dimensions in the workplace’.

This definition doesn’t just see diversity as mere recruitment and placement of different kinds of people in the workplace. It unifies the perspectives of all generations in the workplace today. Most importantly, it recognizes the fact that diversity without inclusion is a recipe for conflicts. Thus, it sees it as an inclusive culture that gives every member of a diverse workforce a strong sense of belonging; not just granting them a space in an organization because the law or religion says so. It advocates the creation of a welcoming environment for the mix of different people in the workplace and the need to make everyone feel respected and valued for who they are.  Finally, it recognizes that Inclusion is the oil that makes the wheel of diversity run smoothly in any organization.

Diversity and Inclusion as a Business Strategy

Leading global brands are treating diversity and inclusion as a strategic priority and a business imperative; not just as a legal or social responsibility issue. Take the case of Accenture for example. The company says, categorically, that it champions diversity and inclusion because it knows through research that “equality is a powerful multiplier of innovation and growth.” And that it leverages on the unique perspectives and skills that diversity brings to the table to the benefit of its clients and communities.

Accenture is ranked the most diversified company in the world by Thomas Reuter’s 2018 Diversity and Inclusion Index which includes 5,000 companies. In 2017 alone, the company recruited and placed 1,800 employees of diverse backgrounds, according to a report by Forbes magazine. Its board is highly diversifieed in gender and culture. And the percentage of women in its global workforce is one of the highest in the world.

Accenture is not alone in this strategic drive for workplace diversity and inclusion. In 2016, Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, announced that executive bonuses in the company would be tied to  efforts in workplace diversity. And in 2017, Dion Weisler, the CEO of Hewlett Packard (HP) pledged to advance the values of diversity and inclusion in the tech company as part of a CEO-driven initiative known as the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion. And he made good his promise. In no time, the Chief Marketing Officer of his company sent letters to its PR and advertising agency partners demanding that they put diversity and inclusion at the heart of their businesses by ensuring that women and people from minority groups are well represented in creative and strategic roles.

Interestingly, some companies do not stop at embracing diversity and inclusion, but they are taking a strong stand and advocating for it. Nike’s support of American football quarterback and human rights activist, Colin Kaepernick, who went on his knees during American national anthem in protest for social injustice, is a case in point. Procter and Gamble’s ‘We See Equal’ Campaign, which depicts boys and girls defying gender stereotype is another.

This upsurge in support and heavy investments in diversity and inclusion by respectable global brands is a tacit warning to the laggards that the play-field has changed. It is telling them that they ignore diversity and inclusion at their own peril. After all, social media is magnifying the issues and putting them in the front burners of global conversation, and stakeholders’ scrutiny of the issues is at its highest levels.

Diversity and inclusion have also proven to be new assets on the bloc that discerning corporate brands use to gain competitive advantage in the marketplace. They are now tools for attracting and retaining talents; especially millennials, and enhancing reputation and profits at the same time.

Apart from the performance benefits they bring to organizations, it seems we are witnessing a new awakening of human consciousness at a grand scale. It’s a new realization that all peoples, irrespective of race, tribe, colour, experience and background, are part and parcel of the human race and are all citizens of the same universe. Therefore, they should be treated equally. Organizations seem to listen to Timothy Ferris who tells us in his book, Galaxies, Your correct Address, that after you write down your street number, your city or town, your state or province and country, your correct address is the earth, the solar system, the Sun’s neighbourhood, vicinity of the Orion Arm, the Milky Way, the local group of galaxies, the universe, Circa 18 billion years after the beginning of its expansion.

Smart Corporate brands know that to embrace diversity and inclusion is to align with this new awakening of human consciousness and enjoy enormous goodwill from its stakeholders.

The Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion In PR

There’s no disputing the fact that diversity and inclusion is good for business generally. McKinsey’s 2015 Report, Why Diversity Matters,reveals that companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. And that companies in the bottom quartile in these dimensions are statistically less likely to achieve above-average returns. Its 2018 report, Delivering Through Diversity has reaffirmed the global relevance and the link between diversity and companies financial performance.

While the benefits outlined in the Mckinsey’s reports also apply to PR firms, there are a lot of benefits specific to PR that diversity and inclusion brings. Here are some of them:

  • They  Promote Creativity

Creativity is the lifeblood of Public Relations. A diverse team brings a multiplicity of perspectives which promotes the generation of fresh, original and creative ideas for PR campaigns.

Although Thomas Charmorro-Premuzic, in his 2017 article in Harvard Business Review, Does Diversity Actually Increase Creativity?, arguesthat ‘creativity gains produced by higher team diversity are disrupted by inherent social conflict and deficits about which idea to implement’, he also suggests the solution to the problem: that organizations increase diversity in teams that are focused on exploration and generation of new ideas, and use more homogeneous team with convergent thinking abilities, expertise and effective project management to implement the ideas. This makes a lot of sense.

  • They bring in more business for PR Firms

Embracing diversity and inclusion brings more business to PR firms. Brands that have made them their strategic priority prefer to work with PR partners who have done the same. In her report, PR Agencies Need to Be More Diverse And Inclusive, published in Harvard Business Review, Angela Chitkara notes that PR clients are mandating more diversity and inclusion for their accounts. Many Requests For Proposals (RFPs) require PR firms to demonstrate the effectiveness of their diversity and inclusion initiatives. This is exactly what HP is doing. These companies prefer to work with PR firms whose staff are diversified enough to understand the specific needs of each of their diverse audience in order to develop and deliver PR campaigns that satisfy those needs.

  • Diversity and inclusion can make the PR process more effective.

The PR process involves research, planning, implementation and evaluation. A diverse team brings a lot of benefits to each step of the process.

Research has shown that people embrace, and are easily persuaded by, others that look like them. This implies that research efforts are likely to produce better and more reliable results when members of a research team reflect the target audience they are studying than when they don’t.

At the planning stage, diverse perspectives are more likely to make a PR plan richer, more comprehensive and capable of delivering the desired outcomes than when the ideas come from members of only one group of people. It is also easy to spot and remove messages that may be offensive to the target audience.

And at the implementation stage, it is easy to feel the pulse of the audience and know what part of the programme or message to rejig to get the best outcome.

Evaluation is research done to help you know how effective a PR programme has been. Often, PR teams rely on the feedback from the target audience. It’s only easy to get the right and honest feedback when the research team reflects the audience it is studying.

  • They prevent PR crises

With a diversified team that reflects the culture, background, ethnicity and religion of the target audience, it is easy to prevent crisis that could be precipitated by messages that may be offensive to the target audience. Blunders such as the one committed by Heineken in an ad showing a bartender sending a bear past dark-skinned patrons to a white woman with a slogan ‘sometimes lighter is better’ could have been avoided if the creative team had in it knowledgeable and vocal blacks. The video clip for Dove Soap on Facebook that showed a black woman turn into a white woman after using the soap was another terribly insensitive ad. The backlash it generated could have been avoided had the creative team been diverse and sensitive enough.

Without diversity and inclusion, PR would be boring, unimaginative, lame, crisis and conflict-ridden and lacking the human flavor. Diversity is the basic feature of a human society. Even a race or ethnicity has many unique differences and perspectives that make it diverse. Diversity and inclusion are what make Public Relations human. They are what make it a force to reckon with in managing corporate relationships and reputation.

When Diversity Efforts Don’t Add Up

There is no shortage of diversity initiatives in the PR industry. We have seen CEOs of global PR and Communication firms join the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, pledging to share best and unsuccessful practices and  advance the values of diversity and inclusion in their respective organizations. The CEOs of Edelman, Interpublic Group, WPP, Omnicom, Publicis and Porter Novelli are among those who have signed up.

The Public Relations and Communication Association (PRCA) has developed guidelines for European practitioners. And the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has toolkits for American PR professionals and firms. The Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) has also developed a policy to guide the actions of its members on how to address diversity and inclusion issues. Some PR firms are implementing blind recruitment policies to address problems of unconscious bias. Others are doing one thing or the other to address the issues of diversity and inclusion.

Diversity Distinction in Public Relations Award is another initiative sponsored by the PR Council and PR Week to encourage PR firms to embrace diversity and inclusion. Women in PR, an independent networking organization provides a forum to enable its members share their experiences, exchange ideas and support gender balance in the PR industry. There are also foundations such as Taylor Bennett Foundation in the UK that is devoted to improving ethnic diversity in PR and Communication industry by working to improve access to the industry at entry level. It runs a number of training, mentoring and internship programmes for Blacks, Asians and other non-white minority graduates.

Despite all these efforts, what research says about the current state of diversity and inclusion in the PR industry is disappointing and depressing, to say the least. Reports from the Plank Center for Public Relations Leadership, Chartered Institute of Public Relation (CIPR), Public Relations and Communication Association (PRCA) and Harvard Business Review tell a sad story. Here are some highlights:

  • There is no consensus on the definition of diversity among top PR executives. They fail to spot the difference between diversity and inclusion as reported by Angela Chitkara in Havard Business Review.
  • Diversity is still seen as an add-on, not a vital part of an organizational culture.
  • Only 10 percent of the PR industry is racially and ethnically diverse. So, not much has changed since the 1990s.
  • Gender, race or ethnicity dominates the conversation. There is little or no interest in other categories such as LGBTQ, disability, religion, socio-economic status and so on.
  • Straight white men still dominate senior positions in the industry globally. And there’s little or no diversity pipeline to senior positions to correct the problem in the future.
  • Hispanics, blacks and professionals from other non-white minority groups believe the PR industry is not culturally welcoming to them.
  • Pay gap between male and female and between straight whites and professionals from minority groups is still a big issue.

If the true test of an initiative lies in its ability to deliver the desired outcomes then diversity and inclusion initiatives in the PR industry have failed as indicated in the above research findings.

The Way Forward

The PR industry should be driven by the values of diversity and inclusion. They should be part and parcel of its DNA. Disparate and scattered approaches to achieving that just can’t add up. The industry needs a focused, holistic and comprehensive approach with the kind of intensity that is capable of galvanizing the support and buy-in of every player in the industry, including big PR agencies and consultancies, independent practitioners, educational institutions and professional bodies. The values of diversity and inclusion have to be built into the culture of the profession. Here is how to go about it:

  • Do a comprehensive assessment of the state of diversity and inclusion in the PR industry. Till date, there is no global and comprehensive study of diversity and inclusion in the industry. I think it is necessary at this point to do that. This will give the industry an understanding of the level of the problem. This will help inform the industry of what should be the right strategies to correct the problem. It will also become a wake-up call to countries or regions with the most problems. Global Alliance or any big PR firm can take up this responsibility to save the industry from embarrassment.
  • Develop a framework to guide implementation of diversity and inclusion in the industry. So much has changed since the launch of the Melbourne Mandate as a way of building an international consensus for organizational and societal values of PR and communication management. I believe it’s time to do an update to give a special attention to the values of diversity and inclusion.
  • Train and educate every PR professional on the values of diversity and inclusion. He should become not just aware of the importance and benefits that diversity and inclusion bring to Public Relations and its clients. Rather, he should have a comprehensive knowledge, skills and the right level of understanding in order to domesticate and entrench its values within its organization. He should be able to develop PR programmes that meet the needs of his clients’ diversified audience; both in language and tone.

The onus lays on global Public Relations organizations such as the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management to ensure that Diversity and Inclusion are included in the curricular of Public Relations and Communication courses in universities. They should also be included in the curricular for the certification programmes of professional bodies. It’s also important to make them a part of the curriculum of continuous development programmes of professional PR bodies across the globe.

  • PR firms should be made to report their progress in implementing diversity and inclusion yearly. This will put them in the public eyes, motivating them to do the right thing. Regional or national professional bodies should take responsibility for enforcing this.

Embracing diversity and inclusion was once a “nice to do” initiative. Now it is an ideal for which organizations should live by.  As trend spotters and advisers, it is up to the PR industry to mirror the best practices in diversity and inclusion for its clients to emulate. It is the best way to engineer consent and build a better world.

—Vincent Utere, a PR Trainer and Consultant. He is the CEO/Managing Partner of Vinakom Associates.