The public relations industry has done a good job speaking out about the lack of ethnic and demographic diversity in our business – particularly at PR agencies, where middle-class whites predominate, and where C-level management is mostly Caucasian men. For the unpersuaded, there’s some excellent content on why ethnic diversity is critical to the future of our business. I think the PR community already knows this, though we’re sometimes vague about our commitment.
Yet with so much talk, why is public relations still so… well, white? Despite good intentions and plenty of seminars, most agencies are stubbornly homogeneous. Why can’t we solve this problem? I decided to look further than the typical reason that “there’s no pipeline.”
The pipeline starts in college. Students of color may not be counseled toward communications careers, for one thing. More importantly, when they browse the websites of major agencies, they’re not likely to see many executives who look like them. Many feel that this will only change when clients – who outstrip agencies on the diversity front – insist on agency teams that reflect the population.
Cultural and familial values may also be at work. Some point out that first-generation Americans are influenced by immigrant parents to focus on “traditional” careers or high-status occupations that are perceived as reliable, like law or accounting, rather than so-called creative professions. As PR agency professionals joke, our business is poorly understood anyway; how many people outside of the industry really know what we do?
It will take “boots on the ground” on college campuses to make our industry more colorful, as practitioner Tyrus Sturgis points out, including more than action by the students themselves. Some of the larger agencies have instituted innovative internships for underserved students; Edelman even has an apprenticeship for high school students in the UK, which is the kind of program that should be more commonplace in our business.
Diversity and inclusion are distinct. Recent studies, including one commissioned by the PRSA Foundation, point to the role of inclusion strategies in keeping minorities in the agency environment and supporting their success once hired. When agencies find suitable minority candidates, they may think their job is done when in fact it is only beginning. Inclusion doesn’t always come easily, and what begins as a well-meaning commitment to diversity can devolve into tokenism.
Unpaid internships are the elephant in the room. More than anything else, PR’s long history of unpaid internships may account for the narrow pipeline of underrepresented minorities at agencies. Like other so-called “glamour” industries, the agency business has relied on a stream of college students or new university graduates who work for no pay (or for a transportation stipend) as a way to gain experience and break into the business. The willing candidates so greatly outnumber the available positions that there’s been little incentive to offer salaries. The unpaid internships naturally favor the more privileged, and for years, the pipeline has been filled with students who are predominantly white and from the upper middle class.
The move toward paid internships may bring limitations, mainly the prospect of fewer internship opportunities overall. Or there may be more positions that lack a high level of managerial oversight and mentorship. But I have to believe that, if we are to walk the walk, this is the single biggest step forward that nearly any agency can take.
If we are to make public relations more “colorful,” it will take a far greater commitment from the agencies themselves, with the larger multinational firms in the lead, as well as a real and ongoing collaboration between schools, clients, and the agencies that support them. The PR Council has laid some excellent groundwork for building a more diverse agency workplace and community. But each agency, regardless of size, needs to step up.