Dorothy Crenshaw January 26, 2016 | 07:34:03

Why Are PR Agencies So White?

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 drawing diverse candidates into the agency environment and supporting their success once hired. When agencies find suitable 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 groups 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.

7 thoughts on “Why Are PR Agencies So White?

  1. I disagree with the pipeline section. Many minorities know about the career resource centers at their colleges and if they are a minority majoring in Public Relations then they are familiar with the job opportunities available. They will also take non-paid internships if that means getting ahead, but who doesn’t want to be paid.
    The problem is with diversity and inclusion. Not having minorities at the agencies to champion, mentor and encourage the hire of minorities in roles plays a major part.. Many of those junior roles are given based off of nepotism. Many mid-level management roles are given in the same token. I’ve had many colleagues get in the door, but never got the promotion even when the work out shined their peers. Many minorities might not have the right contacts to get in the door at these firms. Like you mentioned first generation minorities and those who may be the first generation to have degrees or even a professional career may not have the luxury of calling a neighbor, brother or aunt in for a favor. That’s why merit and work ethnic need to be considered more favorable than cultural fit, because in a dominate white environment it’s pretty obvious that there wouldn’t be a fit in that sense.

    1. I see. I think the college focus varies by school (of course there are several schools, esp in the Northeast, that are known for their Communications programs, so I take your point) but maybe these things are interconnected. Inclusion is new to many agencies, and I think pressure from client companies will also help.

  2. Dorothy, your blog makes valid points. As one of a handful of African-American communications professionals in SoFla, I’m constantly approached by representatives of companies, large and small, who seek my perspective, or “understanding,” on a PR issue involving other cultures. Coupled with my background in old-fashioned journalism and years in CorpComm, my mix has made me very busy. However, I’m always disheartened at my inability to refer potential clients to other professionals with my experience and background. I end up turning a lot of good work down. (Most recently, I turned down an opportunity to write articles representing an ethnic segment of a City for a city magazine.) I’m attempting to mentor a young, black woman to help solve the problem. She represents the future of having more than one communications perspective in the room, and I must nurture that. I, by the way, was the product of a dedicated recruitment effort at the University of Florida for more minorities in the newsrooms and the beneficiary of a push by The Palm Beach Post to diversify its workplace in 1990, as well as scholarships to that end. Great timing! And my internship at The Bradenton Herald and The Gainesville Sun were both paid. It made a huge difference!

    1. Thanks, Michelle. Your experience is powerful evidence that a commitment to diversity can bear fruit. I’ve heard some other stories since posting and they’re encouraging…yet also discouraging, since it feels like baby steps.

  3. As a black male with two master’s degrees in mass communications fields and more than 20 years of professional experience in the field, I rarely can get an interview — much less a job offer — for a public relations position. Whenever I have met people in the field, it is almost always a white female who generally has less education and experience than me. Moreover, I have seen some of the people who have filled the position for which I applied, and it is the same thing: young, white female with little to no experience or lesser experience.
    LIke many mass communications fields, public relations positions are overwhelmingly white (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 87.9 percent of public relations managers are white). Public relations is a white women-dominated field because a lot of employers hire positions based on their profile. Like it or not, many employers choose only women for public relations positions, no matter how qualified a male candidate may be. Moreover, many employers are not comfortable with the concept of a minority being the face of the company in some respect, hence the lack of diversity.
    Public relations positions, like many mass communications fields, also suffer from the stigma that “anyone can do the job.” This stigma definitely applies to the general public which doesn’t have an understanding of the field, but it also applies to some people who try to enter the field.
    Even today, public relations is still regarded as a realm for fast-talking, vapid, former TV news personalities, rather than scholars. Interview after interview, I get blank looks when I mention measurement and ROI. With many of the people I have met in the field (again, mostly white women), their idea of public relations was basically event planning with an occasional dabble in “fun things” such as creating campaigns (even though they had no experience in fields such as copywriting, strategic communications, graphic design and advertising).

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