How PR agencies can initiate a culture of DE&I change

When done right, the work will be painful, says Finn Partners’ managing partner, but it is worth the effort.


Never has the term “growing pains” been more apt than in 2020. Multiple high-profile incidents of systemic racism have spotlighted inequity and bias—unconscious or otherwise—within our country and its institutions. This includes the communications sector.

The good news is this: What we are willing to name we can examine, and what we are willing to examine we can change. The better news is that our industry is in a position to change ourselves and change others. As advisors to every sector, we can seize this moment to not only guide our clients in positioning themselves as diverse and inclusive but help them become truly equitable.

But before we start talking, we need to do a better job walking. We can’t give expert advice on things we as agencies are not doing. Otherwise, our counsel will be rooted in empty pledges and commitments, with no understanding of how to make them real. Too many businesses and organizations have made public pronouncements and promises—then moved on. When we are a party to this, we are part of the problem.

So, agencies, let’s heal ourselves:

Move past the numbers

Based on 2019 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees in the advertising, public relations and related services industries are 82.6% white. African Americans comprise 8.1% of the industry, while Hispanics make up 6.2%. Everyone agrees these numbers must change. Everyone is trying to get their percentages up.

But we can’t simply focus on improving the numbers. Real progress begins and ends with people—people who feel welcomed, not just included. Too often, our focus is on getting diversity in the door with little thought to helping these new employees—who often rightly feel like fish out of water—properly acclimate. It’s like inviting someone to a party who doesn’t speak our language, then doing nothing to help them understand the general chatter. They will eventually leave the party early.

Instead we must be more purposeful. Before focusing on hiring, let’s focus on our existing cultures. If our numbers aren’t good, we should consider what this might say about our environments. If we focus on this first, the numbers will follow. It’s a much longer process, but worthwhile.

Let’s tackle diversity, equity and inclusion as the ultimate internal communications program. We must strive to create workplaces that are mutually supportive, where people who are hired feel heard and where their perspectives are valued. Then, we can advise our clients to do the same.

Taking our own advice

While there’s certainly no one-size-fits-all approach, here’s some general guidance for making real progress—for our own agencies and for our clients:

1. Be honest.

On the heels of George Floyd’s murder in May—the most high-profile of many similar killings of unarmed Black Americans—agencies and their clients wanted to visibly and vocally decry systemic racism, and place greater emphasis on DE&I. This was laudable.

Many immediately launched into racial sensitivity training, lecture series, DE&I hiring initiatives and the like. These were great steps. But were they launched from strong, existing platforms or from flimsy scaffolding? We need to be honest about this. We must be willing to critically evaluate where we are and what we want to achieve.

Do we want to be perceived as making progress? Or do we really want to make progress? If the former, we’re going to be running in place. If the latter, we must build—and recommend building—DE&I foundations and frameworks under the advice of experts in the field. Look for consultancies that already have strong track records and whose diversity bench is deep.

Then, look at leadership. How many minorities are in senior management? We can’t expect diversity to be top of mind at our agencies if it’s not top of mind for the people in charge. The same goes for our teams. Look closely at staff.  Is there a “type?” There shouldn’t be; this is a red flag that unconscious bias is at work. The only “type” should be smart, creative, driven people, who come in all shapes, sizes and colors.

2. Fix it, proactively and purposefully.

Acknowledging we lack diversity is the first step. To change this, we must be intentional.

Too often, agencies claim they lack diversity because not enough diverse candidates apply. But truly developing a diverse team and diverse leadership means not waiting around for the right candidates to come to us. Consider posting job opportunities on minority career sites. Finn Partners, for example, currently posts positions on sites such as the Black Public Relations Society, Hispanic Public Relations Association and the 3% Movement, among others. We should also track leaders who are making an impact in DE&I and could be a good fit for us. Who knows when they might be looking for a change.

Yet intentionality in hiring isn’t just about being proactive. Sure, we can hire a large group of minority candidates and our diversity numbers will improve. But here’s the rub: We must also empower these team members to be vocal about the shortcomings they encounter, and we must not burden them with the responsibility for instituting, representing or enforcing a DE&I culture. This is exhausting and unfair, and a big reason many minority employees don’t stick around.

3. Build your culture—and maintain it.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of DE&I is not only integrating it within our workplaces but permanently embedding it.

This is particularly difficult during COVID-19. It’s hard to build or solidify culture remotely. But we can still instigate meaningful conversations online and commit to maintaining dialogue once we’re physically together again. After all, developing a diverse culture begins with genuine conversation, as we can’t know what our agencies’ issues are unless we talk about them.

At Finn, we initiated dialogue immediately after George Floyd’s death with a “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” conversation during which a group of Black and Brown team members shared searing personal experiences. The conversation was eye-opening for many white employees, who were not aware their non-white colleagues live daily with challenges they’d never even considered. Crucially, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” has become the starting point for the work of an anti-racism action committee focused on resolving inequities rather than just learning about them.

Maintaining a culture is also closely tied to intentional human resources practices. Consider making the commitment to DE&I part of everyone’s job description, so that non-minority employees know they bear personal responsibility for an inclusive culture, and minority employees understand from the get-go that the agency prioritizes DE&I.

Finally, we can make DE&I a part of all onboarding, orientations, and presentations that showcase our agencies – integrating a DE&I ethos into our business models. By working regularly on these steps toward integration, DE&I will gradually become intrinsic to our operations as well as our identities.

Why diversity matters

Hopefully, all DE&I initiatives comes from a place of empathy and a desire to improve our society. However, becoming a truly diverse organization also makes good business sense. In a 2019 McKinsey study of 1,000 companies encompassing 15 countries, the more diverse an organization was the more profitable it proved to be. In the communications realm, diversity of people translates to diversity of thought, experience and perspective, which gives us an edge. Diversity also improves employee morale, which increases productivity.

Diversity also broadens our appeal with clients. As America in particular becomes a majority-minority country, businesses that include minority populations among their audiences may be seeking PR agencies with similar representation. The more diverse the agency, the more opportunities for fulfilling client objectives.

Finally, it’s crucial to realize that the process of becoming truly diverse will be painful if it’s done right. It will take time, energy, honesty, and self-awareness. But it is very much worth pursuing. Once our agencies are on a path toward improvement, we can guide clients with experience and candor. And this is our industry’s highest and best purpose.


Ronald Roberts is a managing partner with Finn Partners.



One Response to “How PR agencies can initiate a culture of DE&I change”

    Tess Hensley says:

    As someone who has participated in both well-done and lackluster DEI training events, I appreciated this refreshing perspective. If done right, DEI conversations are supposed to be uncomfortable. And as PR professionals, I think it’s nice to look inward and in our own work environments to see how we can change our old mindsets. Sometimes it’s important to take our own advice. Thank you for the interesting read!
    – Tess Hensley, Writer/Editor for Platform Magazine

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