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Diversity in the PR profession

As part of Media@LSE Long Reads Series

Dr Lee Edwards talks to Silas Scott about the PR and Strategic Communications industry, and diversity within the profession. 

What do we need to change about ourselves that would make the industry a different kind of place to be? That's really the question that needs to be asked and nobody is really asking that question.

Dr Lee Edwards

In August 2020, Silas Scott talked to Dr Lee Edwards about change within the PR industry and what it can do to become a more diverse profession. 

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Where do you think the PR industry is at, compared to other industries, in terms of diversity and making progressive change?

This is a really difficult question really. I think it's been trying to generate change. Diversity has been recognised as an issue for at least 15 years, if not slightly longer, and during that time there've been waves of interest in it. So the Chartered status of the Institute of Public Relations - for example, means that they do have to acknowledge the need for diversity in the professions, and so it's embedded in their objectives from that perspective.

The PRCA is a slightly different animal. That’s the second industry association, but they don't have any charter obligations in the same way. They have adopted diversity over the last decade as a cause, just based on recognising the fact that policymakers, and also professionals arguably, feel that diversity is an important issue and should improve.

The difficulty is that despite those changes, or despite those initiatives (and there have been lots of them) there've been diversity conversation groups, diversity committees, committees for improving accessibility across a range of categories.There’s been training schemes. There's a push now, which is really positive, to avoid unpaid internships. So, internships tend to be paid, that was led by the PRCA, and that's a pretty good thing.

Nonetheless, there's still a real problem with a lack of diversity in the industry, and particularly around ethnic diversity, but also the gender pay gap is still significant. It's still a very classed profession, and there's kind of an inherent emphasis on university levels of education, although again, the PRCA has been driving forward with apprenticeships and trying to improve access by apprenticeships rather than university initiatives.

So, it's certainly a profession that's active in the area and that recognises the importance of diversity. But the actual impact of the changes is not clear. Certainly, in relation to ethnic diversity it has not made any difference. In fact, ethnic diversity has reduced in the last couple of years.

I think that where it needs to go now is to start asking questions about why those things are not happening despite the initiatives, despite the rhetoric and try to explore some reasons as to why this issue is so intransigent.

Do you think there's some deliberate resistance to making real progressive change in terms of recruitment policies? For example, is it the case that employers can really pick and choose who they want to work for them and this may lead to employing people they feel have a similar a background which could lead to, for instance, a particularly male or culturaly laddish workplace?

Public relations is a very feminised profession, about 60 to 70% female, depending on which country you’re in. So It's not so much the lad kind of culture, but the reality of recruiting somebody who is similar to you - I think that's a spectre that haunts most recruiters and does work against diversity.

I think the other thing is that the research shows that it's a profession that's very much driven by a client interests, and so your value as a professional is the degree to which you are seen to fit with a particular client or with a particular brand. The degree to which people would feel comfortable with you representing that brand in in whatever way that might be required.   

The reality is that most clients are white and middle-class and possibly male, possibly female. But most firms are like that. There's relatively little diversity across the managerial professions, never mind just public relations and that lack of diversity across client worlds and practitioner worlds means that there's kind of a double-bind of being somebody who is different from the professional norm in some way or another. And it's not just about ethnicity, but it's also about disability, for example, which is really poorly represented in public relations, and about women getting into senior levels. So, it's 60-70% women, I think roughly in the UK, but that that percentage is reversed once you get into senior management, so there are still glass ceilings, and I think that the imperative to deliver to the client is quite challenging to overcome.

Because that's where public relations gets its revenue from and so you have to be able to minimise the risk to the client when you employ somebody on their accounts, or when you employ somebody in-house - and people from different backgrounds are perceived to be risky. That's part of the problem.

Do you think there is also an issue with working culture? Does the industry expect people in their twenties, who want to build their careers, to work incredibly long hours thereby alienating others who might have families or obligations that they need to let their need to fulfil outside of work?

Yeah, I think certainly. I mean, that's something that's in the Access Panel run by the PRCA in 2011  that was certainly something that they wanted to look at. I think there have been initiatives around facilitating parents, particularly women, because it's such a feminised profession, to return to work in a way that's feasible for them. But it is tricky because of the need to respond to the clients whenever the client needs you to respond. That's regarded as part of the contractual obligation that public relations practitioners take on.

Some agencies are better at managing that than others. But that's clearly a barrier for somebody who's potentially, you know, mid 30s, early 40s and trying to start a family as well as juggle their relatively senior career. So it's not necessarily a very forgiving place for parental responsibilities or other care responsibilities.

Do you think that the move from office-based working to more flexible working during the pandemic might open doors to a more diverse group of candidates who would benefit from more flexible employment practices?

I think that's really hard to say because I think that's also something that has yet to be established. Really, there's a little bit of time before that really properly unfolds, and it will probably depend on context for individuals.

For some people it might, as you say, alleviate that kind of perception of their difference. For other people, it might make life harder because they've got a more difficult home context to work in, and so even if their own identity is mitigated through it, actually the reality of working from home is not feasible at all for them. So, I think it will probably vary, and that's probably an open question at the moment. PR week has commented on this already, but it certainly has opened up the possibility of working from home as normal rather than abnormal as an option, and I don't think that's a bad thing necessarily, as long as it's managed carefully and not imposed.

What do you think the impact of the lack of diversity has on actual content production within the PR industry - are they able to put out content that is generally reflective of British society as a whole? Is there a real issue with content production just targeting certain audiences, or do you think practitioners can get over that regardless of their own personal backgrounds?

There has been some research in the US by Vardeman-Winter, Tindall and Jiang who talk about the need to have practitioners who understand the lives of their constituents, so that they can produce communication that actually works for those constituents, that relates to their concerns and interests. I think there's certainly a case for arguing that.

The other thing that you see in the strategic communications industries more broadly, because organisations are so insular and because they employ the same kind of person over and over again, is that they make horrendous mistakes around gender and race in particular that then create all sorts of crises that they have to manage reputationally. So, I think it is true that if you have a better understanding of the communities that you are dealing with and if you are able to in  particular understand the lives that they lead and the pressures that they face and the context in which your communication is being received, then the chances are you'll produce the kind of communication that they're more likely to listen to.

I am really hesitant about the business case for diversity, though. The business case is this idea of matching your practitioner with the audience that you're supposed to be serving, and adding diversity to your own organisation, which enhances creativity, productivity and ultimately, the bottom line. The difficulty then is that diversity becomes disposable. If your business changes the case for diversity disappears, or if an agency comes along that can replace your diverse in-house staff by delivering well-targeted campaigns, the rationale to improve in-house diversity is gone. And for me, that's a really dangerous position to take. You have to combine that very obvious utility of having somebody who understands your communities, with the moral case for employing a diverse range of people and broadening access to the professions.

Do you think the Black Lives Matter movement will trigger change within the industry? What do you think that the real impact will be in the future and do you think people will still be talking about it or will things return to the status quo?

Well, I think we've already seen an easing off of people talking about it. I expected that, it's unfortunate, but it's true. I mean, the PR industry was the same as many other industries where lots and lots of companies were saying.. right, time to create change. And that outpouring of grief and anger, I think it did mark a particular moment in the contemporary context of discrimination, prejudice and racial violence. And as lots of people have commented on Twitter and LinkedIn, it's very easy to say that you care and then not do anything about it.

And to do something about it is actually really difficult because you have to share power. If you're genuinely going to engage with others, you have to share the power that the established groups of people in your organisation or your industry enjoy. And they don't always want to share power. That's not something that comes naturally to people, particularly when their argument is that they have had no inherent advantage in getting that power, they got it purely on merit or talent which is what the narrative of the PR profession promotes.

That said, I think there was an opportunity that the industry did take to speak more broadly, more across industry about the issues. And it didn't come from the industry associations initially, it came from practitioners themselves. For example, BME PR Pros which is run by a practitioner called Elizabeth Bananuka,  was actually in the process of launching their Blueprint for companies that want to promote diversity. There's also BAME 2020, which covers all the promotional professions and has been trying to promote diversity for quite a long time, and they had some extra visibility at that moment as well. And the UK Black Comms Network has also been recently set up to provide a hub for Black communications practitioners to connect and network. That energy for change, and that demand for change has tended to come from practitioners rather than industry associations. Industry associations have been a bit like the government actually, they’ve produced data and said that they're going to do something about it, but actual strategies somehow seem to take rather a long time. An exception may be the PRCA’s Race & Ethnicity Equity Board, headed by Barbara Philips, which does have some real power within the association – and that could make a big difference.

I think it's a moment. I think it remains to be seen which organisations actually genuinely commit to action that democratises their structures and cultures. I think that's an open question still.

Do you think the market requires the industry to change? If clients are adamant that they want to promote social change, might this actually put some pressure on the PR industry, or is that just wishful thinking?

No, I think that does sometimes happen. I mean, the recruiters that I've interviewed have said that a client is officially not allowed to ask for a specific type of practitioner. However I think if the client, whether that's an in-house client or or an external client, says that they want diverse people on the teams, then they then the agency has to deliver or the department has to deliver. I think that the client imperative is potentially a very powerful locus of change. It is one important possibility.

When applying for a role in PR, candidates are likely to have to go through a recruiter first, presenting another barrier in gaining access to the to the profession. Are recruiters screening people because they don't fit a mould of someone who works in PR, or are recruiters recommending a diverse range of candidates and pushing for change?

Based on the research that I've done with them, the need to find candidates who will fit with their specific client is really important, and they act as powerful gatekeepers for that. It’s not universal, not everybody uses recruiters, recruiters are expensive and some organisations take that function in house, but generally the idea of fit is reflected in, for example, the initial telephone interview, where a candidate is assessed based on their quality of voice and their perceived personality through that conversation. It’s assessed through the engagement in the recruiter interview and then when they go forward to the client there is often a chemistry interview where they meet the team. People decide whether they're nice, if they want to work with them. So through all of that process, there's an assumption that skills are taken into account as much as fit, but when recruiters talk, they talk about fit and they don’t talk about skills.

I think that's probably because many people have similar types of skills in public relations, and although obviously sectoral experience will differ, fit is kind of an instinct-based notion, and being able to find somebody who fits is or who they perceive will fit is a demonstration of the recruiter’s understanding of and quality of service to the client. It allows them to demonstrate their own expertise and so it pays them to deliver it. It also means that the risk associated with putting forward individuals is perceived to be lower – and the opportunity for reward is higher.

What would you prioritise now to ensure that, in the future, the industry is more diverse?

I think that the question that has to be asked is why haven't things worked so far, when so much seems to be done? The narratives around diversity, they go back to the same old tropes of, well, you know, ‘we need to make people aware of the industry’; ‘we need to make sure there’s pipelines’; ‘we need to recruit in different places’; ‘there aren't enough people at that particular level’; ‘there aren't enough people interested’ - you know, none of that stands up to scrutiny and the kind of measures that people have taken haven't made enough difference.

The other thing about diversity arguments is that they tend to put the blame for the lack of diversity on the diverse individual. So maybe they need to change their skills. Maybe they need to become more aware. Maybe they need to be interested, maybe they need to have the right kinds of qualifications from the right kinds of universities. And while some steps towards, you know adjustment to those perceived realities exist, such as recruiting in non-Russell Group universities, introducing apprenticeships - and they're important - to create real change there needs to be some really challenging self-introspection in the profession. I think we need to start asking what it is about whiteness and about middle-classness that we want to protect, and start challenging those norms and fears and really scrutinizing our own behaviour. What is it about us that stops us welcoming ‘difference’ to the field? What is it about us that stops us hiring people? And what do we need to change about ourselves that would make the industry a different kind of place to be? That's really the question that needs to be asked and nobody is really asking that question. 

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