The effectiveness of any communications exercise is largely dependent on the level of empathy those behind it have for their audience. With that and the overall makeup of society in mind, diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, nationality and age should be seen as a prerequisite for PR firms.

Is it? Well, close to 60% of respondents to this year’s Best Agencies to Work For research in Asia-Pacific fully believe their agency values ethnic and racial diversity; more than 60% think it does a good job of empowering female leaders; and around half feel their company values diversity of opinion.

Despite the industry’s stated commitment to equal opportunities, a sizeable chunk of people do not appear to buy into the narrative. Just under 60% are in full agreement that there is equal opportunity to rise to the highest levels of their company irrespective of race, gender or sexual orientation. Fewer still (49%) see real opportunity to grow in general terms.

The findings are based on the employee survey conducted by the Holmes Report, which polled almost 1,000 agency executives across more than 20 firms in the region. The first instalment of our Asia-Pacific analysis examined concerns about a lack of money, training and later-life career options, while the second explored agency cultures.

While not low, the figures aren’t as high as one might expect given the energy agency network leaders expend discussing the importance of diversity. In other contexts, the word usually refers to hiring more female staff, especially at senior levels. PR agencies have always been female-heavy, with women making up 75% of respondents to this survey. The industry’s challenge lies in ensuring more women make it to the senior ranks, where that proportion is effectively reversed in favour of men. 

Additionally, while around 66% say people are treated fairly at their firm regardless of race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation and so forth, ageism appears to be a problem, much as it is in the world of advertising. Less than 30% agree that their company offers opportunities to employees aged 50 and above.

While the communications industry is clearly trying to address diversity, there is room for it to improve, observers agree. “It isn’t just about being accepting of gender or race or age, it also comes down to if you really support diversity or are simply paying lip service to it,” says Kate O’Shea, co-founder and partner of AKA Asia.

O’Shea says clients must have the same objectives for there to be any progress. “As a first step, agencies have to acknowledge they have a problem as sadly most don’t think they do. Only then can they make steps to address it with the right senior management support, which is then embedded in their culture.”

For Caroline Hsu, Asia-Pacific managing director of The Hoffman Agency, diversity should not be seen as a policy, rather part of the culture. She says her company tries to hire people from a range of professional, academic, national, racial and gender backgrounds because it leads to work that aligns with client demands.

The prevailing wisdom is to prioritise expertise over gender. Nonetheless, both observers do agree that the industry would benefit from more of a balance between men and women. O’Shea says focus on this combined with humorous recruitment campaigning has helped diversify what was an all-female team, “but we’ve still some way to go”.

Hsu seems more resigned to fate. “Ideally, it would be better if both genders were more evenly represented,” she says. “However, if you look at graduates from related majors, the majority are women. It’s the nature of our business.”

The age issue is perhaps more directly addressable. Indeed, PR firms are probably doing themselves a disservice in their apparent obsession with youth. “Agencies should encourage more senior people to stay,” Hsu says, noting that her company does not set a retirement age. “Although the PR industry is very fast-paced, experience is still critical. Universities do not directly teach soft skills that are essential for the real world.”

‘Senior’ people should not have to reach top management positions in order to be useful, and success has many definitions based on individual aspirations. Older staff can increase their chances of maintaining a fulfilling career in an agency by remaining open-minded, being willing to learn and being prepared to be wrong, O’Shea says.

“Your role should evolve; you might not be leading the charge, but instead be the facilitator in the room, guiding the team or supporting the next leadership team to emerge.”

But she argues that burnout is at the heart of the problem. After a few decades of rushing around and not truly being in control of their own time, people inevitably tire. She thinks agency culture ultimately needs to change in order to “accommodate and embrace an ageing workforce without compromising on innovation”. As with increasing the level of diversity, that is likely to happen only in parallel with changing client demands and behaviour.