Increasing ethnic diversity in PR
About the author
Martin Flegg Chart.PR FCIPR is a PR professional specialising in internal communication. He is also a guest tutor and assessor for PR Academy on CIPR qualification courses.
This case study was prepared by Stacey Cockram for a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy. It has been edited for publication by Martin Flegg.
The PR industry has a diversity issue. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) 2021 State of the Profession Survey report revealed that little progress was being made to address the lack of ethnic diversity within the profession, with more than 9 in 10 PR professionals classifying themselves as white.
Aspectus Group is a global integrated communications agency facing a similar problem, but with ambitions to increase the diversity of candidates in recruitment and, in turn, employ more PR professionals from ethnically diverse backgrounds. This would enable the company to better reflect the ethnic diversity in society, foster an environment of inclusivity, and ultimately create a business where ideas and employees could thrive.
At the time of the research, the company did have a number of employees from Zimbabwe, South Africa and Australia, but was lacking employees from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority backgrounds. The senior management board did not include anyone from an ethnic minority and, much like the rest of the industry, there was an overall lack of representation in the senior team and the company more broadly.
With this in mind, Aspectus had already actively taken positive steps to become more inclusive. A Diversity Forum was formed to hold executives to account and The Aspectus Academy, an apprenticeship scheme aimed at school leavers who would otherwise face barriers to a career in communications and PR, was launched. The two-year, hands-on scheme was designed to equip the next generation of PR professionals with the necessary skills to prosper in the industry, and inspire candidates who will become the future of PR. The ethos was based on the idea that small changes make a big difference.
During this time, Aspectus was growing at speed, with new business wins and the company building its HR function from the ground up whilst trying to make quality new hires quickly. However, the vast majority of candidates applying to fill these roles fitted the CIPR report findings, they were all white and middle class.
Strategic PR and communication were recognised as having a role to play in increasing the number of applicants and employees from ethnically diverse backgrounds and creating an inclusive workplace at Aspectus.
This case study includes a situational analysis of Aspectus’ communications regarding the topic of diversity and the position of its stakeholders on the issue. It focuses specifically on the issue of ethnic diversity, but recognises that socio economic, religious, gender identity, disability and many other factors affect whether or not Aspectus, and indeed the wider PR industry, reflects the makeup of society.
The situational analysis within the research, and a review of the external operating environment, informed objectives for future PR activity to achieve the overall strategic business objective of increasing diversity at the company.
Research and situational analysis
The research methods included:
- A SWOT and PESTLE analysis to identifying the operating environment and potential threats and risks to Aspectus’ goal to increase the diversity of candidates and employees.
- An audit of internal communication, reviewing sources such as the Employee handbook and Aspectus’ values.
- An external communication audit across the full PESO model.
- Identifying and mapping stakeholders.
- Desktop research of innovative campaigns within the PR and media industry concerning ethnic diversity.
Key findings from the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis
The SWOT analysis identified Aspectus as being a desirable place to work with a strong company culture. Its key strengths were an inclusive benefits programme, established internal and external communications (including a Diversity Forum with oversight of The Aspectus Academy), a variety of initiatives to keep employees connected and engaged, career opportunities and high staff retention rates.
Internally, the biggest weakness was engaging applicants from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Some contributing factors to this were likely related to unclear mission and diversity & inclusion (D&I) statements. The HR department was also rebuilding itself and there was no formal recruitment policy which could help guide activities to attract ethnically diverse candidates. Externally, the biggest weakness was media presence in comparison to other bigger agencies, despite Aspectus being named the 2nd top B2B agency by PR Week in 2020. Major external threats also included larger agencies also competing for the same ethnically diverse talent and media coverage.
The biggest hurdle to increasing the diversity of employees at Aspectus was found to be an increasing demand on resources. With the company in a major period of growth, with new business wins, there was pressure on both existing employees and an intensifying need to hire more people quickly. Many employees in the Diversity Forum were also at maximum capacity and unable to dedicate sufficient time to apprenticeships within The Aspectus Academy.
There was also the reputational risk related to the sensitive topic of ethnic diversity. The company was not in the business of PR for PRs sake around the issue, as this would negate the good work to increase diversity which was underway.
A number of exciting opportunities were identified including building a best-in-class HR department, becoming a thought leader in D&I, crafting new vision, mission and D&I statements, developing an industry leading apprenticeship programme and ultimately engaging and employing increased applicants from ethnically diverse backgrounds.
Key findings from the PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legislative, Environmental) analysis
A PESTLE analysis was undertaken to summarise the external environment which Aspectus was operating within. The pandemic, coupled with a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following events in the summer of 2020, were significant influencers for the political, social and environmental aspects, creating heightened awareness of certain issues, such as racism in the UK. This had the potential to draw unwelcome attention to industries such as public relations, which had a clearly identified deficiency in ethnic diversity.
Economic factors were also considerable, with the impact of Covid-19 putting many businesses at risk. For Aspectus, and all PR professionals, convincing clients to invest in PR could consequently become more difficult.
The technological impact of increasing digital communication exposed some exciting possibilities for the short and the long term, including increasing social media use to promote diversity, and using artificial intelligence (AI) for recruitment.
To identify stakeholders, a Venn diagram was chosen because of its simplicity and the ability to map relationships. Stakeholders are mapped against three key attributes: power, legitimacy and urgency. This analysis typically results in seven different types of stakeholders, from ‘non-stakeholders’ to ‘definitive’ stakeholders.
During the analysis, it was clear some stakeholders could not be grouped together, for example, ‘clients’ which would be too broad. As a result, eighteen granular types of stakeholders were identified.
Notes: Shareholders can have differing priorities and are labelled as distinct categories (1) and (2). For example, the Managing Director (People) is also a shareholder and arguably could have more urgency than others when it comes to ethnic diversity, such as the Managing Director (Commercials).
Candidates (1) and (2) refers to candidates likely to prioritise looking for a company with CSR and D&I initiatives in their job search versus those less likely to prioritise that.
Definitive Stakeholders – These stakeholders were identified as having all three attributes of power, legitimacy and urgency. They were the groups doing the most, either directly or indirectly, to accelerate ethnic diversity at Aspectus.
For example, the Diversity Forum was a large body of employees dedicated to that cause and could hold executives to account (similar to shareholders (2)). The Managing Director had oversight of this function, in addition to the People and HR functions – their title and level of involvement meant they were also a ‘definitive’ stakeholder.
In was noted that the importance of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) had increased in recent years. Therefore, ‘purpose driven’ clients were also important stakeholders. If Aspectus was not seen to be doing enough on CSR, clients could terminate their relationship damaging revenue and reputation.
Competitors were the biggest threat to attracting talent. This was driving Aspectus to be better in the area of diverse talent recruitment.
Power/Legitimacy Stakeholders – This category included the majority of the identified stakeholder groups.
For internal stakeholders this did not mean they were indifferent about ethnic diversity at work, but it was a lower priority for them. For example, both the Managing Director (Commercials) and CEO were more focused on profitability and preparing for challenges to the bottom-line. Similarly, for shareholders (1) and employees not in the Diversity Forum. These employees were likely to be more focused on delivering outstanding client work or building a new function for the company.
Non ‘purpose driven’ clients had power in keeping the company afloat, but the ethnic diversity of Aspectus was not a priority for them.
National media and the UK government were powerful and legitimate stakeholders but had minimal interest in one SME, such as Aspectus. Instead, their focus would likely be on the entire PR industry, targeting multiple agencies if carrying out specific research, for example.
Legitimacy/Urgency Stakeholders – This category included candidates (1) and ‘purpose driven’ prospects. Whilst caring about the issue of diversity, without a relationship with Aspectus they had little power.
Power/Urgency Stakeholders – PR and Marketing media fell into this category as both had been vocal on accelerating ethnic diversity in the PR industry in recent years, showing urgency. These publications also had well-respected awards and could be influential for Aspectus and its reputation.
All other stakeholders – These included groups such as freelancers, suppliers, candidates (2) and local charities. They had little involvement in the day-to-day operations of Aspectus or interest in its culture, leaving them with minimal influence.
Communicating with stakeholders
Internal communication analysis
As Aspectus had a thriving company culture and focus on employees, Welch’s CUBA framework for internal corporate communication was a suitable lens through which to analyse the company’s internal communication. The four dimensions of the framework are:
C – Commitment to the organisation
U – Understanding of its evolving aims
B – Belonging – a sense of belonging to the organisation
A – Awareness of its changing environment
CUBA is an employee-centric framework which emphasises the employee’s need for commitment and belonging, and incorporates cognitive needs for information. Important, when handling a sensitive issue such as ethnic diversity.
Aspectus had strong internal communications aligned to each dimension of the CUBA framework, with three clear channels closely related to addressing the issue of ethnic diversity
- A People function lead by one Managing director (out of two) committed to employee engagement, performance and wellbeing.
- The Diversity Forum, dedicated to rolling out The Aspectus Academy (apprenticeship scheme), which was also a space to share ideas for other initiatives.
- A HR function at a crucial stage it its development. During the company’s rapid growth, it had re-structured and re-launched completely.
External communication analysis
Aspectus had adopted a digital first policy with its external communication channels, choosing to focus primarily on its website and social media, with occasional coverage in the PR and marketing press.
Whilst Aspectus had a variety of identified channels, an audit of them revealed that messaging about ethnic diversity in the company was sparse. All external communications around ethnic diversity were linked to The Aspectus Academy which had its own landing page, a blog, webinar and regular posts on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Further analysis demonstrated that Aspectus’ external communications strategy touched on each dimension of the of the PESO PR model, with paid, shared and owned being the most frequently used.
Earned media – between July 2020-July 2021 Aspectus achieved twelve pieces of coverage, with total readership of 2.53 million with 23,300 estimated coverage views, according to CoverageBook.
Overall, Aspectus’ approach to media coverage was ‘light touch’ with just one article issued in the twelve-month period analysed, addressing the issue of ethnic diversity within the industry.
Inspiration from the industry
Analysing diversity communication best practice from organisations across the PR and the wider media landscape provided some inspiration for Aspectus to draw on. Not all the case studies identified were from PR agencies, but they all sought to proactively communicate and increase diversity by creating unique and engaging content, encouraging conversation and sharing.
For example, Red Ventures was found to have a dedicated page about diversity on its website which was clearly signposted. With messaging that was clear and striking, it acknowledged that there was an issue and then set out how it was going to make changes by giving short and snappy details of each initiative, with a strong supporting social media presence.
Other tactics by PR agencies and media companies included:
- Employing a dedicated Diversity & Belonging Lead and issuing a traditional press release, amplified by social media (Hearst).
- Hiring from The Taylor Bennet Foundation – a charity that exists to encourage black, Asian and minority ethnic graduates to pursue a career in communications – and highlighting this clearly on the company website (Pembroke and Rye).
- Publicising its apprenticeship scheme through employees on Twitter with a large following (the i newspaper).
Recommendations and PR objectives
To develop an effective public relations strategy to increase the number of candidates and therefore employees from ethnically diverse backgrounds, the research informed a number of high-level objectives for Aspectus.
- Invest in The Aspectus Academy to create an industry-leading training scheme.
- Review the media strategy to increase coverage in PR & marketing publications, bearing in mind the sensitivity of the issue and that Aspectus is currently lacking in ethnic diversity.
- Conduct primary research to establish the number of ethnically diverse employees at the company as a benchmark for tracking progress.
- Create new vision, mission and D&I statements, and communicate these clearly across both internal and external communications channels.
- Maintain the strength of internal communications to keep employees informed on the issues that matter, including any new recruitment policies to ease workloads and the issue of ethnic diversity itself.
- Utilise the organisations in the industry already dedicated to increasing diversity in PR such as the Taylor Bennet foundation and PR professional bodies.
Three SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) communication and business objectives were also defined from the outcomes of the research to increase ethnic diversity at Aspectus.
- Increase media coverage for Aspectus in PR and marketing publications by at least 25% by January 2023, including at least two pieces of coverage on diversity.
- Increase applications to The Aspectus Academy by at least 10% in spring/summer 2022, when applications next open.
- Increase the number of diverse employees (specifically those from Black, Asian other ethnic minority backgrounds) entering the workforce at Account Executive level and above by at least 20% by January 2023.
It was also noted that further research was needed to inform a more detailed communications strategy.
Following the completion of the research, Aspectus Group took action to raise the profile of The Aspectus Academy and the apprenticeship programme within it, internally and externally.
By joining forces with Inside Success, a charity based in Stratford (London) with a strong focus on helping 16 to 24 year olds to get into work, the company has been working with the local community to generate interest in PR and communications as a potential career option.
Representatives from The Aspectus Diversity Forum hosted a workshop on behalf of the charity, covering what PR and communication is, and how it impacts on many aspects of day-to-day life.
Drawing on Aspectus’ work as an integrated agency, the workshop was presented in a practical and accessible way exploring celebrity PR, as well as the differences between marketing and PR as an influencer, focusing on brands such as Nike and Adidas. Practical exercises enabled the attendees to analyse the content of newspaper stories to identify PR led stories and think about the impact of PR on their own choices and attitudes.
The hope is, that this kind of community-based approach will attract a more diverse range of applicants to take up a PR apprenticeship with The Aspectus Academy, to create a pipeline of future talent for recruitment into permanent roles in the company and others in the PR industry.
As well as promoting the work of the Academy, Aspectus also took steps to start work on creating a D&I mission statement for the company, with this recommendation from the research being taken forward by the Diversity Forum.
Stacey Cockram – What I learnt from completing my assignment
“Completing my assignment enabled me to take a step back from my day-to-day involvement with The Aspectus Academy as a manager and a doer and think about the bigger picture of increasing diversity in my own company and the wider PR profession.
We needed to take a more strategic approach, which went beyond just increasing quotas of more diverse applicants in the recruitment process. My assignment research helped to expose our strengths and weaknesses as a company to identify what we really needed to focus on as a solution for increasing diversity in our workforce.
That focus has been on The Aspectus Academy as a longer-term model and solution to address the diversity issue for us and the PR industry as a whole. Through the Academy we are giving the next generation of PR practitioners an opportunity to get into the profession, by removing barriers to entry.
We see this as being crucial, not only for the development of our company but also the wider PR profession. After all, The Aspectus Academy apprentices will be the future of PR, at our company and far beyond. From their start in The Aspectus Academy they could soar to managing director at a leading agency or become the next head of comms at Google! What’s more, if all agencies did what we are doing and started creating the same sorts of entry schemes to help address the diversity issue in PR, then that’s when the real shift to a more representative profession will start to happen.
Our Diversity Forum is sponsored by one of our managing directors and a lot more energy has been injected into the work of the forum since I shared my assignment research. The Inside Success workshop was a really strong activity delivered by some of the forum members and we had great feedback from the attendees. We don’t know if any of them will join The Aspectus Academy in the future, but what we do know is that we helped them understand what communication and PR is, what it is for in society and that it is a possible career option for a wider range of people. That’s a good start to encouraging a more diverse range of people to join our profession. Change won’t happen overnight, but it’s all about taking positive steps.
Completing my assignment has also enabled me to think about my work in a much more strategic way. PR is such a busy industry and it can be hard to take the time to take a moment and look at the bigger picture of what we are really trying to achieve. The methods of research, analysis and evaluation I’ve studied on the course have been really valuable in helping me to do that. If you want to prove to someone why PR is important, having that sort of evidence as back up is really important.
The PR theory I’ve encountered on the course has been very different to the theory I studied at university. It’s an interesting middle ground between the academic and the practical. By applying theory to practice I am taking a more strategic approach to my work.
I’m at a point in my career where I’m now taking on greater management responsibilities, and having a more strategic perspective will definitely help me with this. Planning and doing research to identify workable strategic solutions for clients is such a crucial part of pitching for, and winning, new business.”
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Welch, M. 2015. Dimensions of Internal Communication and Implications for Employee Engagement. In: Ruck, K. (Ed.) Exploring Internal Communication. 3rd edition. Harlow: Gower