Opinion: PR needs to speed up progress in diversity

Colin Byrne, Weber Shandwick’s CEO for UK & EMEA, explains why the agency is backing a new diversity initiative and why the PR industry needs to recognise and overcome its unconscious bias

Colin Byrne

At Weber Shandwick, we were pleased to have recently launched a new diversity talent initiative with The Media Trust – the media’s own charity with a focus on helping young people from less privileged backgrounds into media jobs. It struck me when I first got involved with the Trust that the media and PR have a common diversity problem.

Just as 51% of national newspaper journalists are privately educated vs 7% of the population, the PR industry – arguably more meritocratic – does not look or often think anything like the Britain it claims to understand.

I think the PR industry has faced up the gender equality challenge, much more than the more macho advertising industry – and at Weber Shandwick we are proud to have been named the world’s most gender equal PR firm – but we are very white and very middle class.

I think we have to accept that our industry – many of whose leading lights over recent decades have been posh rich kids with a contacts book or Tory peers – is rife with unconscious bias when recruiting people from different backgrounds or who didn’t go to an elite university. Recognising unconscious bias has to be the first step to overcoming it.

I started talking and writing about racial and social diversity ten years ago, before it became a hot industry topic, when I would regularly leaf through PR Week and count up the number of white and non-white PR people featured. It was usually 97% white faces.

Since then a number of terrific schemes and organisations have taken action on diversity, including The Taylor Bennett Foundation, who we are pleased to now be actively involved in, The Media Trust (which more PR firms should be supporting) and our industry organisations, the PRCA and CIPR. But you only have to go to one of the many PR industry conferences or awards dinners and look round the room to see that progress is slow.

Given we need less people with little black books of political and media contacts and we need more creatives, social media specialists, designers, bloggers, pop culture film makers, business graduates and influencers, to constantly fish in the same pool of talent makes no business sense. It makes even less sense if we are not doing “the right thing” in opening up opportunities for new, non-traditional talent. PR leaders need to work harder to find and encourage creative talent in schools, non-Russell Group universities etc.

On the “business case” for diversity I also point to the body of evidence that diverse groups produce better creative ideas than simply a room full of Oxbridge graduates with broadly similar social backgrounds and experiences.

So diversity is both a big challenge and a big opportunity for the PR industry, but we need to speed up progress.

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