PARIS—The greatest challenge we face as an industry is lack of diversity, Porter Novelli chief executive Karen van Bergen told the International Communications Consultancy Organisation Summit in Paris this morning, suggesting that women, ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBT community need to break through the “glass ceiling” to safeguard the future of the PR industry.

“To say we as an industry are in a period of change would be an understatement,” van Bergen told the audience of industry leaders from around the world. “This isn’t change with a beginning and an end, but a continuous acceleration. We have seen change in how information is conveyed and consumed…. It’s easier than ever for a brand to be truly global, which means it’s harder than ever: you have translate and maintain brand values across hundreds of markets.”

This is a challenge for women and minorities themselves, but also for the industry. “Personal responsibility is only one part of what controls their career trajectory,” van Bergen says. “They face other obstacles.” But increasingly this cuts both ways, she warns: lack of diversity is both a personal issue and an industry issue.

“The crisis of diversity is a problem for agencies and practice of communications itself.”

The reasons are many, including the fact that women (not to mention ethnic minorities and the LGBT communities) make the majority of purchasing decisions globally: the makeup of these markets should be reflected with communications agencies. In addition, studies show skills such as empathy—increasingly critical to relationship building and reputation management—are important to communications. And diverse teams come up with better solutions, solutions that resonate with diverse audiences.

“Agencies must increase flexibility to prevent women feeling pressured from raising a family or remaining in the workplace. Organizations that refuse to embrace flexibility limit their potential for diversity and put themselves at a competitive advantage.” Organizations that force women to make a choice in her 30s throw away 10 years of training and client relationship building—not to mention the woman’s future contributions.

Allowing women flexibility on the other hand, can lead to much greater loyalty and commitment in the future.

At the same time, “As long as white men continue to choose other white men for positions of power, women need to have each other’s backs. We also have to coach women to reach out for help when they face challenges and have doubts.”

In conclusion, “Agencies must embrace diversity as if their bottom line and their future depend on it, because more than ever they do.”