Diversity in PR: Is the Emphasis on Research a Stalling Game Slowing Down Real Change?

Diversity was all over the news last week. While the topic generally receives more media coverage around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it exploded online and in the traditional media in reaction to the Oscar nominations. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate a person of color for any of the acting awards. That resulted in several prominent black artists in film, including filmmaker Spike Lee and actor Jada Pinkett Smith, stating they will shun the awards this year. Later in the week Pinkett Smith’s husband, Will Smith, who she feels was overlooked for his work in the film Concussion, said he would join his wife in protest.

In PR, diversity often is a topic of relatively quiet discussion, although when people voice their criticisms they are similar to those of Lee and the Smiths. While there is agreement among the industry’s various associations about the need for more diversity, there seem to be differences in approach. The PRSA Foundation believes research and studies are necessary to inform its actions on diversity. Other groups, like the National Black Public Relations Society (NBPRS), feel the state of the industry’s diversity is self evident, i.e. one can see the lack of diversity simply by looking at senior ranks and C-suites of major PR firms. As a result, concrete steps are needed now, rather than studies, NBPRS’s new president Neil Foote said in an interview with PR News [see below].

In an item in last week’s PR News, timed to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a member of the PR community, Mike Paul, called for an end to research on diversity. Instead, Paul insisted, groups like the PRSA Foundation and the Arthur W. Page Society need to take immediate action. Studies are tantamount to stonewalling, Paul said.

In our piece, the PRSA board’s senior counselor on diversity and inclusion Rochelle Ford said, “The PRSA Foundation believes strongly that in order to proactively address…diversity challenges…we must be informed through research insights and build programs that specifically address those challenges.” She added, “For the last two years, our grant-funded diversity programs addressed strengthening the pipeline. Our research specifically addressed diversity best practices for CCOs and agency leadership…” Most important, Ford said, “This research is now being used to frame action agendas of the Arthur W. Page Society, the PR Council and PRSA.” Ford also is chair of the PRSA Foundation Program Committee and serves on the Page diversity committee.

But in an interview with us last week, Foote, the NBPRS president, said, “There’s not really much more to study. The numbers speak for themselves. The visual appearance also kind of speaks for itself. My hope is that with the effort of [NBPRS’s 400 members] we will be able to say, ‘Let’s shape this framework, let’s really roll up our sleeves and get to the heart of it. There are barriers; what are they? Let’s blow them out.’ There are more than enough financial and intellectual resources to come up with new solutions.”

We asked Foote about barriers to diversity. “From what I’ve seen so far, it’s very similar to when I was working on diversity issues in the newspaper industry back in the early ’90s,” he said. While he feels he has a learning curve to overcome, he feels so far “among the major issues” he’s seen are recruiting talent and retaining it. “People come [into PR] and they have false expectations of how long it will take to rise through the ranks. This points to the need for retention and development programs, so you can identify talent and develop it…so then when it comes to the C-suite you will have a greater potential of having a larger pool of talent.” Last, “there has to be a commitment…from the top that says this is how we to look at every individual…regardless of race.”

Foote, a former journalist and newspaper executive now teaching journalism in Texas and heading his own firm, promises to work with PR associations. “You’ll be seeing evidence of partnerships within the next 12 months.” He’d like to see a breakthrough “in terms of percentages” within two years.

Roger Bolton, the Page Society president, in an interview, touted his 600+ member organization’s commitment to diversity. “It’s a significant issue and the Page Society is dedicated to try to address it as personally and as thoroughly as possible.” The Page board recently adopted a resolution urging Page members to commit to diversity within their own companies. Page will be “providing resources to help them do that,” Bolton said. Those resources “will be made available over the coming months.”

“We are doing everything we possibly can to increase diversity within our membership,” Bolton stressed. Page members, however, are the most senior communication executives at large companies or CEOs at significant PR firms. This is a group unlikely to include many people of color. While Bolton acknowledged that point, “that’s one of the challenges,” he said, adding, “We do everything we can to recruit diverse candidates within those criteria.” As evidence, Bolton said there are “many qualified executives of color and many have become leaders at Page…when we hear of a qualified candidate we make a special effort to recruit” that person.

Page also has a new membership organization called Page Up. “This is basically an organization for very, very senior executives in those same kinds of companies,” Bolton said, adding “we do everything we can to get our members to nominate diverse members for Page Up.”

CONTACT: @rocford [email protected] @rogerbolton

This article originally appeared in the January 25, 2016 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.