Discussing diversity

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Image by rawpixel from Pixabay
Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

Who do you think of when you picture a PR practitioner?

I can’t know what you’re thinking, but I’d guess it’s not an old(er) white man. I’d imagine it’s as likely to be a woman, and it would be impolite to speculate on her age.

Yet historical accounts of public relations – from Edward Bernays onwards – have been written by old white men. Among them, Bob Leaf and Harold Burson have also lived long lives and are still here to tell their stories.

It’s taken a generation, but we’re now in a position where there’s no lack of female role models in public relations. Global consultancy Ketchum is led by women in the US and UK. The past, current and next president of the CIPR are all women, the first such three-year sequence in its more than 70 year history. 

That’s not to say that the battle for gender equality has been won. There are still issues around the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling, and that’s why an organisation such as Women in PR has an important role to play.

Yet an industry that’s two thirds female, and where students and juniors are predominantly female, can certainly no longer be seen as a gentlemen’s club. It’s taken a generation or two, but we’re making progress.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase diversity and inclusion?

Again, I can’t know your response, but I suspect that ethnicity is the first thing that comes to mind. Perhaps I seeded this idea by commenting earlier on old(er) white men.

The question of race is a pressing one in public relations. Put simply, the industry does not represent the country, and this matters for a business that calls itself public relations and which seeks to connect organisations with publics around issues of mutual interest.

Race is a problem in public relations, but at least we’re aware of the problem thanks to such powerful advocates as Elizabeth Bananuka with her BME PR pros campaign, the Taylor Bennett  Foundation, and from Lee Edwards’s academic publications.

This leads to a paradox. If the reputation of public relations is a problem for aspirational ethnic minority families (who may encourage their sons and daughters to train to be a doctor or a lawyer – but never a public relations manager) – then the answer would appear to be to drive forward in headlong pursuit of full professional status. So, no one without a qualification and without a commitment to continuing professional development would be licensed to practise. Just as the distinction is clear between doctors and quacks, so it  would have to be clear between professionals and flacks. 

And yet this poses a problem. As Lee Edwards has argued, the professions are in part an exercise in exclusivity and elitism. By making entry requirements tough, they have been able to exert market control and extract money and status. (At least, that’s the theory. In practice barristers have been pleading poverty since the removal of much Legal Aid).

If we think that public relations looks unrepresentative of the population, consider the state of the upper echelons of the legal profession. The judiciary is scarcely representative of the population it passes judgement on.

The way to avoid this danger is to widen access to the industry. Rather than requiring long and expensive qualifications designed to exclude the many, and rather than there being an expectation that success depends on working on low or no pay to gain experience and build a network, then we need to support more people from diverse backgrounds to take their first steps in public relations.

This may involve paid internships, blind recruitment processes and the removal of recruiter bias on interview panels. It may mean lowering barriers to entry rather than raising them. It may involve a shift from public relations degree courses to public relations apprenticeships.

And yet I’ve only mentioned two strands to the issue of diversity and inclusion: gender and ethnicity. That’s only part of the picture.

What about age? Ours is a young industry. There are plenty of opportunities for twenty-somethings to gain experience – yet what becomes of the over-thirties in the consultancy sector? They’re much less visible beyond the ranks of partners and owners.

Doesn’t the complex and fast-shifting landscape of reputational risk demand people with plenty of experience and calm heads? Yet our industry has an age profile that suggests a retention and opportunity problem for those with substantial experience. That’s the opposite to the full professions where age and experience are celebrated.

What about LGBTQ+ inclusion? Here public relations has a strong story to tell. It’s a field that, like the clergy, could scarcely exist without gay men. Yet, unlike the Church, there’s no hypocrisy over this (co-habitation is tolerated, but sex is prohibited. Who’s policing that?) 

What about political affiliation? It’s helpful for your career in public affairs to be committed and connected, yet teams should avoid only hiring those sharing the same political allegiances.

The division revealed by the 2016 referendum suggests two nations. A metropolitan crowd that tends to know like-minded, remain supporting, friends. And a rural and small town crowd that is adamantly opposed to the European Union and wants to leave whatever the consequences. Or, looked at another way, an English nationalism supported by many in Wales and Cornwall, but opposed by most in Scotland and Northern Ireland. If we can leave one union, then what becomes of this other one?

It’s the public relations challenge of a lifetime. How to heal a divided nation in which binary choices leave no room for discussion and compromise? Whatever happens next, it will be the start of a process rather than a destination – and it will have to involve listening, negotiation and inclusion.

What are you doing to listen to voices and opinions outside your own tribal position?

Then there are questions of disability, often presented as questions of accessibility. Much emphasis has been placed on physical accessibility so that wheelchair users are not excluded from buildings. But what about other disabilities? Websites also need to be accessible to help people with visual impairments.

Then there are the non-physical disabilities. We were once buttoned-up about emotions and unwilling to discuss mental health. The stigma may be disappearing – but is the support in place?

As Joanna Randall argues this week, we all know what the problem is. Isn’t it time we started doing something about it?