Diversity is about more than gender or ethnicity

This week is a symbolic moment for diversity and inclusion in public relations (PR) with the arrival of the UK’s first BAME PR professionals’ conference. It’s a reflection of a wider movement in business, with PR employers increasingly encouraged to show leadership.

People are asking valid questions, such as why a sector so dominated by women has so few at the top? Where are all the older people? And why do PR professionals appear as such a uniform group; one that doesn’t truly reflect the public at large?

All these are legitimate questions. But there’s another critical aspect of this issue that, by its very nature, is invisible and so risks being overshadowed: socio-economic diversity. In less formal language, it’s what ex-CIPR president Sarah Waddington calls PR’s posh problem.

PR is a creative occupation driven by ideas. Breakthrough ideas arise from diversity of thought, experience and perspective. But fresh ideas only take us so far. Our most effective campaigns stem from deep knowledge of those we wish to engage and influence.

The starting point is stakeholder insight, empathy and planning. We are setting out to fail without getting under the skin and understanding how our target groups think, feel and act — what their hopes, fears and drivers are. Diverse teams are the best way to do this.

There’s a personal dimension here. I’m the youngest of six siblings and money was tight when I was growing up. Nobody I knew went to University and it was never a realistic prospect. Earning money to support myself was the priority.

My first PR role happened by chance rather than design; there were no family connections to call on. When I later switched from a regional in-house role to London agency life, almost everyone was different to me in terms of social class and education. How easy would it be today to get those early career breaks for someone with my background?

Most organisations looking to recruit new PR talent still screen applicants based on their educational achievements. There is zero allowance for background context. The larger ones, and some recruitment agencies, routinely use technology known as Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). This does the filtering, relying on keyword analyses of online applications.

My first agency break came from making an impression after getting in front of decision-makers. Today, someone like me would not get that opportunity: the ATS would automatically exclude them, unseen by hiring managers.

With so many PR employers reporting talent attraction as a top challenge, why would anyone want to exclude bright, high-potential people in this way? Most don’t, at least not intentionally. But without radical change to existing hiring processes, they’re destined to keep fishing in the same, shallow pond.

I’m wary of the recruitment term ‘cultural fit’, which can often lead to the opposite of inclusivity. This is especially so when what it means is ambiguous, or worse: code for ‘people like us.’ Working effectively as a team, being open and welcoming to all should take precedence in culture-building.

Improving socio-economic diversity among practitioners isn’t exclusive to PR. More established employment sectors such as accountancy, banking and government are similarly homogeneous. A 2015 study by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found 71 per cent of senior judges were privately educated. It also found that some of the best-known professional services firms systematically excluded bright working-class job applicants.

One of The Commission’s key recommendations is that employers critically review current definitions of talent. This includes how potential is identified and assessed. The aim is to ensure disadvantaged students are fairly assessed on ability, skills and potential, not social background.

I couldn’t agree more. Employers that do this first will gain a distinct competitive advantage.

As machine learning, big data and artificial intelligence converge and develop, what technologies employers use, and how, will also need careful thought. As we know, technology can be a force for both good and bad.

Today, employers are using it in ways that disadvantage people from certain backgrounds. It doesn’t have to be this way. New tools to contextualise recruitment have arrived that do precisely the opposite. PR employers could make rapid progress in this aspect of diversity by following trailblazing users of these in other sectors, notably legal.

By doing so, instead of being their adversary, the computer could become an aspiring but disadvantaged PR practitioner’s new best friend.

Read more at https://www.sixsigma-pr.co.uk/

Photo by Jordan McDonald on Unsplash

Andy M Turner is an independent consultant, PRCA apprentice assessor/mentor and former agency founder.

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