How PR pros should consider race

As communicators take a closer look at conversations about inclusion, diversity and race, some organizations have used Black History Month to have important conversations.

Diverse employees talking

Each February, Americans are reminded to reexamine the fabric of our society and the complicated structures that underpin it.

When we talk about Black History, we are talking about a history of oppression, inequality and pain. At the same time, we are talking about a history of love and compassion, bravery and righteousness. Perhaps most meaningful, we are talking about the work that is still left to do.

Diversity and inclusion remains a hot topic in the PR industry. Even as gains have been made with respect to raw numbers, there is still a drastic lack of equality, and talk about creating inclusive work environments has yet to yield the diverse and dynamic workforce we should expect.

As the Harvard Business Review wrote:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ethnic makeup of the PR industry in the U.S. is 87.9% white, 8.3% African American, 2.6% Asian American, and 5.7% Hispanic American. The Holmes Report published in 2015 found that while women make up 70% of those employed in the U.S. public relations industry, they make up only 30% of agency C-suite executives.

So which conversations in 2020 around race, diversity and inclusion are meaningful for PR pros?

Sabrina Browne, account director with BCW Global, says one powerful trend has been the creation of resource groups for employees that identify with minority groups.

“I see more agencies empower their employees to drive the narrative, in particular Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) dedicated to black and African Americans,” she says. “These ERGs spotlight their authentic experience of working in the PR industry, acknowledging evolving agency culture and raising awareness of ongoing industry challenges.”

She argues that the industry still has a long way to go to achieve the correct representation figures. “Representation of racial and ethnic talent is not representing the consumer populations,” she says.

Talking about race

For organizations that want to talk about race, the conversations have taken a different approach from past years.

For Browne, it is important to consider intersectionality and bring in as many diverse viewpoints as possible to avoid blind spots in messaging.

“While clients know inclusive marketing is the right thing to do for their business, many fall victim to inclusion and diversity pitfalls due to blind spots in their PR strategy,” Browne says. “When tactics are developed without cultural insight, we see creative go-to-market that does not resonate with black and brown consumers; it offends them”.

That makes it crucial to include diverse viewpoints in the creative process, a trend that will only increase as future generations become more diverse and cosmopolitan.

“This year, more than half of the nation’s children and those turning 18 are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau,” Browne says.

What has an impact

For organizations looking to be a part of the necessary change around diversity and inclusion, Browne says, it is important that the right mindset is embodied at all levels.

To become more involved, organizations must first determine who they are, what they stand for and the culture that maps, shapes and drives their workforce. You cannot successfully implement inclusion and diversity programming if your culture is not living and breathing inclusion across the organization.

“From the C-Suite to junior employees, inclusion must be embodied at each level and throughout the processes,” she says.

“Today, many clients seek PR agencies that have a thriving workplace culture with diverse employees to move the needle for their business,” she says. “In fact, many requests for proposals (RFPs) now ask PR agencies to disclose their inclusion and diversity metrics, along with concise examples of how they integrate I&D across their agency. For example, HP conducted a one-year media audit of its agency partners on I&D, and we should expect to see more of this throughout 2020.”

Browne also cautions against thinking about race, diversity and inclusion for just four weeks per calendar year.

“Celebrating Black History Month in February, but not championing black employees year-round, can hinder the experience they have within an agency and the perception they have of the PR industry,” she says. “For the black employee, every month is Black History Month—not just February.”

Bold leadership

One important way to address diversity and inclusion in the industry is at the leadership level, where parity drops as each successive management level is a little more male and white.

It means something then that one of the biggest PR agencies in the world named a black woman to be its chief operations officer for North America. Lisa Ross, who retains her title as president of the Washington D.C., branch, says the new leadership role has been meaningful for her colleagues.

She says she has been overwhelmed by the response to her appointment. “A number of people, brown and otherwise, came up to me when the announcement was made and said, ‘You have no idea what this means for us that you are at this level and that you are representing us.’”

In her new role, Ross plans to continue her advocacy for inclusion. For her, the industry has identified the problem, but there is still a gap in making meaningful change.

She applauds the “recognition that an inclusive environment produces the best counsel,” she says. “The challenge again has been the execution—are we bringing diverse voices to the table?”

For organizations that want to create programming around Black History Month, what kinds of events resonate best?

For Browne, those are events that embody authentic storytelling from leaders that walk the walk.

“Each year, I am honored to attend various Black History Month events within and outside of the PR industry,” she says. “The most meaningful events are driven by authentic storytelling from agency leaders, employees and external speakers. These events deep-dive into the cultural nuances of what it means to be black in PR, while integrating the external challenges black and brown practitioners and consumers are navigating in America.”

How is your organization talking about Black History Month, PR Daily readers?

Learn more about D&I from FedEx and the U.N. Foundation in our upcoming panel presentation “How Corporate Social Responsibility and Diversity and Inclusion Can Serve as Better Culture Drivers” at our Best Practices in Internal Communications & Culture Conference.


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