Diversity in PR: A must for avoiding gaffes and reaching audiences

New research shows staffing in marketing and public relations lags that of the overall populace, and that can come at a cost. CEOs have the greatest clout—and opportunity—to make changes.


A lack of diversity can lead to image-damaging blunders and hurt the bottom line.

PR agency executives agree that more diversity satisfies client expectations, boosts creativity and reflects the changing demographics of multi-cultural markets. Such are the findings in new research from the City College of New York’s Branding and Integrated Communications Program, conducted in conjunction with the Holmes Report.

Those same conclusions apply to marketing and advertising agencies.

The Dove soap example

A recent Dove video clip appeared to show a black woman turning into a white woman after using its soap. The three-second video posted on its Facebook page showed three women of different ethnicities, each removing a T-shirt to reveal the next woman.

Commentators called the video clip racist. They compared it to old-time advertisements that boasted soap could turn black skin white. Dove apologized and removed the clip, saying it had “missed the mark.” The clip was meant to be “a celebration of diversity,” it stated.

“As the only woman of color in the marketing department of a $2 billion company, I have to tell you from my personal eyewitness account of working several years in corporate, urban projects, these Dove ads do not surprise me,” Sonya Blade wrote for the BK Reader.

Offensive creative ideas

Blake says she has frequently encountered ad ideas that were highly offensive. The creative team had no idea of their offensive nature until she told them. Most of the marketing staff had little or no exposure to other cultures.

“Corporations have to make more of an effort to be diverse in their recruitment, or they not only lose respect from our community publicly, but financially. They will feel the effects later in their profit margins,” Blade said.

The onus is on PR agency CEOs

According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ethnic composition of the PR industry is 10.3 percent African-American, compared with 13.3 percent of the U.S. population; 5.4 percent of PR practitioners are Asian-American, compared with 5.6 percent of the total U.S. population; and 3.3 percent are Hispanic-American compared with 17.8 percent of the population that is Hispanic or Latino.

Though women have the majority of PR jobs overall, they hold only 30 percent of top-tier positions in agencies.

PR agency CEOs must press for greater diversity, said speakers on a panel at City College in New York, according to the Holmes Report. Only CEOs have the power to spur changes in the organization’s philosophy.

“Make sure you’re listening to the diverse people, not just bringing them in the door,” advised Judith Harrison, SVP of diversity and inclusion at Weber Shandwick, a panel speaker.

The City College research reveals that CEOs define diversity and inclusion differently. Some stress racial diversity; others emphasize greater gender equality at upper levels, said City College associate professor Angela Chitkara.

Despite widespread agreement on the need for diversity, most CEOs do not consider the goal a top priority. That ought to change. Professional sports have shown how to start in hiring office staff: The hiring process for all open positions must include at least one minority.

Ethnic diversity has become a business necessity. All-white PR and marketing agencies cannot legitimately assert they’re adequately staffed to service global brands whose consumers are increasingly diverse.

A version of this post first appeared on Glean.info.

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