Last year, the IPREX Global Network established a new committee to address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in the public relations industry. Since its inception, the group of diverse individuals developed and implemented a strategic framework with tactics to prompt conversations and activities to help its members have crucial conversations about race, gender, and ageism. Their work also prompted a group of emerging leaders from IPREX member agencies to conduct research and produce a global report on DE&I at the end of 2021. All these intentional efforts have provided insights into what member agencies are doing to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace and workforce.
Looking Back to Look Ahead
2021 was the year companies and entire industries in North America reckoned with racial discrimination in the workplace. These conversations were spurred by the worldwide outrage prompted by the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers, plus other societal issues that were elevated the previous year. While the issue of racial discrimination in American society was widely discussed, conversations expanded to include age and gender discrimination which is more common in Europe and Asia.
Public relations and integrated marketing firms across the globe were charged with helping their clients and their own leadership communicate about these tough issues. But when it came to racism, people were calling for more than hollow statements from brands and corporations. They demanded action and asked, ‘how can you say Black Lives Matter when the majority of your workforce and leaders are white?’
More than 80% of employees in the U.S. public relations industry are white according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not surprisingly, most managers and top executives at PR agencies are also white. I started working in the PR industry nearly 20 years ago and was surprised by the lack of diversity. Although I did my part to hire and mentor practitioners who looked like me, not much had changed in our industry until the Black Lives Matter movement took hold and gained the support of white allies.
IPREX Partners in the U.S. are Focused on Race
At the beginning of 2021, IPREX surveyed its members in the U.S. and respondents indicated their employees and leaders were mostly white. A few months later, agencies that completed the annual partner survey stated they were taking steps to address DE&I, especially on the issue of race. “As a small agency, our primary focus has been first on creating awareness of the situation, talking about what white privilege means and aligning as a team that DE&I is very important to us as a company and personally. We are actively looking at building a more diverse workforce as we grow. One of our team members is participating in a DE&I initiative through our local chamber. As an active leader in the community, the consensus as business leaders is we have not done enough,” said one survey respondent.
“We have become much more aware and sensitive to DE&I and related issues. It has already had an impact on our selection of vendors and will certainly impact hiring choices going forward,” said another.
Some even followed the hundreds of corporate brands, businesses, and organizations in the U.S. that hired a person of color to lead DE&I. A scan of the announcements in business, industry, and news publications, as well as on social media networks, shows professional images of Black men and women who’ve been hired as diversity directors to lead the charge for their employers.
DE&I is Challenging, but it’s Gaining Momentum in the U.S.
Months later, after the IPREX DE&I committee hosted a live webinar and sessions to talk about race and discrimination in the PR industry, a group of emerging leaders conducted additional research to produce a Global Insights Report on DE&I. The findings of the report backed up the notable surge in U.S. agencies and businesses being intentional in addressing their lack of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce. They surveyed IPREX members in the U.S. and conducted in-depth interviews with white and non-white practitioners to hear their perspectives on the subject, myself included.
From this report, published in December 2021, three key findings stood out. For one, DE&I is not
easy to talk about.
“Change is what DE&I is asking us to do — letting go of racist or harmful behaviors we’ve learned as a society. Some people relate in a defensive way because it requires admitting where they have internalized racist behaviors and/or they don’t want to undertake the hard work of change. DE&I challenges people to look at things in a new or different way. The work starts inside — in our hearts and minds. Before hoping to make societal change, you have to make personal change,” said Nico Archer, senior vice president at Desautel Hege (DH) based in Spokane, Washington.
Secondly, success relies on the commitment from your agency’s leadership and the efforts must be
“We didn’t mandate participation in our DE&I caucus across the agency because we knew this had to be employee-led and people had to join willingly. But it was important that leadership demonstrated our support publicly for what this group was doing,” said Shannon Baker-Meyer, President of Gatesman based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “That committee reports a DE&I newsletter internally to our team, reporting on all aspects of DE&I in our firm and things we’re learning and working on with clients.”
Lastly, while many firms have recognized and want to tackle their lack of diversity or inclusion, the pace of change and adoption of DE&I programs may be hampered by several factors. According to the report, obstacles included the lack of available resources and the inability for firms to dedicate staff and time toward DE&I initiatives.
IPREX Partners in Europe and Asia Have a Different Focus
There are many dimensions of diversity, and this underscored when we examine the ways agencies must consider diversity and inclusion outside the U.S. Ann-Marie O’Sullivan is the Founder and Chief Executive of AM O’Sullivan PR in Ireland. She says whenever DE&I is discussed there, it’s usually related to gender. But she believes it should be more than that.
“For me, companies should reflect the communities in which they are based and interact,” O’Sullivan said. “So, as an industry we need to ensure that the communications strategies we develop reflect and are informed by a diversity of lived experience among the team members. Generational diversity is one area where we add value as an agency – our consultants range in age from early twenties to early eighties!”
In India’s public relations industry, women constitute more than 80 percent of the workforce across firms, according to Xavier PRabhu, the Founder & Managing Director of PRHUB, which does business in Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad & Kochi, India. He says that despite the dominance of women, many of the larger firms are headed by men and “interestingly a lot of the smaller boutique PR firms have women founders.”
In a country where the majority of people are various shades of Brown and Black, PRahbu says racism is more complex. “It is not as overt and singular as in other parts of the world. Here discrimination is beneath the surface and is due to multiple factors – caste, religion, skin color, gender, etc. It has weaved into the societal fabric for centuries and hence there is some resistance. But there are some green shoots of late in at least recognizing it as an issue, which is the first step towards addressing it,” he explained.
In China, David Croasdale is the Managing Director for Newell Public Relations based in Hong Kong. He says the topic of diversity crops up from time to time at meetings of PRHK, the public relations industry association in Hong Kong. “But generally, the feeling is that it’s been done to death and isn’t that appealing, which mirrors the state of diversity discussion in agencies. I don’t really think there is an issue,” he said.
He’s the only foreigner in an agency where 95% of the staff are Chinese, in a city that is predominantly Chinese speaking. Gender wise, he says the firm is 90% female staff, “with just one guy in Beijing and myself in Hong Kong.” Regarding ageism, he hasn’t encountered it there.
Yusuke Yamanaka, Director at Asoviva in Tokyo, Japan is going all in with DE&I. “We are thinking about how we can recruit other diverse people who are non-Japanese living in Japan and attract more people from other parts of the world,” he said. “Gender equality is going to be a big focus for us. Senior staff is all male currently so we’re having conversations about hiring senior director people to the agency who are female and how we can do that. Many companies are beginning to hire female candidates into leadership positions which is great.”
Be Intentional and Committed to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
As Chair of the DE&I Committee for IPREX, I repeatedly say we all have to be intentional if we truly want to make changes in the network, the workplace, and the industry. I’ve heard people ‘talk’ about diversity, equity, and inclusion for decades, and nothing much has happened. It was just talk. Over the past year, it’s been heartening to see my partners in the network and the PR industry commit to DE&I with action and intention.
IPREX member Ann-Marie O’Sullivan said it best, “I heard a comment at a meeting about DE&I recently which struck home with me. Diversity is a noun, but inclusivity is the verb – so let’s focus on the action! We need to be vigilant that we are building workplaces where people want to work – that’s inclusion in action.”
So how can you do this? The emerging leaders outlined the following recommendations in their report for agencies to consider:
Hire a DE&I consultant and undergo training as a team.
Conduct a diversity audit.
Recruit talent in new ways.
Build an in-house DE&I committee/caucus.
Build accountability measures for office DE&I.
If DE&I is important to you, your employees, and your clients, remember that undertaking this initiative should not be a one-time effort. Take action when you’re ready to make that intentional first step toward change.
Heidi Otway, APR, CPRC is the President and Partner at SalterMitchell PR, a communications consultancy focused on helping good causes win. Based in Florida, she serves as the chief strategist and advisor for clients including Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, associations, as well as public and private organizations. The agency has been a member of the IPREX Global Network for more than five years. Heidi serves as the Chair of the IPREX Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, and is a member of the Executive Committee.
This article has been published as part of the IPREX Marketing Committee’s Thought Leadership program