Arun Sudhaman & Aarti Shah 12 Jun 2020 // 1:00AM GMT
As the push for change sweeps across America and other countries, corporates and agencies have been quick to signal their concern and support. And that's helpful, because to stay silent as systemic racism meets its long-overdue moment of reckoning is to stay complicit.
But we all know that talk is not enough. Black people working in the public relations industry know this better than most. For several years now, our coverage has reflected the industry's woeful record on racial and cultural inclusion. Every study, every initiative, is supported by the usual well-meaning rhetoric from agency heads — but the rate of progress remains glacial, helping to explain why many from under-represented backgrounds see these promises as corporate platitudes rather than concrete action.
A comment from 2017 encapsulates the institutional nature of the challenge, following Angela Chitkara's compelling research study for the City College of New York's Branding and Integrated Communications Program.
"If something was geared towards your favor, would you want to let that go?" said Amber Micala Arnold, founder/lead of MWWPR's diversity & inclusion council. "If a whole system or structure was built with you in mind, would you want to dismantle it, even if it is the right thing to do? Not likely. Privilege is, and will continue to be, the greatest barrier to diversity and inclusion."
Arnold initially made this observation in 2017 on condition of anonymity, but contacted us this week to waive this. Today, at the very least, the hope is that comments like these can be made without fear of retribution.
As Kamiqua Pearce points out in her article: "We are present at many levels, but hardly ever in senior positions. These are organisations and agencies that have dabbled in diversity and inclusion schemes, talked inspirationally about equality and committed to change. However, despite this, my experience of being a Black professional remains largely unchanged."
It is encouraging to see systemic racism being openly acknowledged and addressed, to see people denied a voice finally able to speak up about the intolerable inequity they have faced. As senior Harvard Business School lecturer Mark Kramer puts it in the Harvard Business Review: "We cannot pretend that most major corporations in America — and their shareholders — have not benefited from the structural racism, intentional inequality, and indifference to suffering that is behind the current protests."
Neither can we pretend that real change will be easy. In 2018, the CEOs of Interpublic Group, Omnicom, MDC Partners, Publicis and WPP signed the Action for Diversity and Inclusion pledge, alongside 900 other companies and organizations. Yet, evidence of specific progress is rather more difficult to find — and the numbers remain scandalous. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 88% of the PR industry is white, an imbalance that only becomes more painfully pronounced as you rise up the corporate ladder.
Real change requires action and carries costs. Weber Shandwick has pledged $1m in resources to fight racial inequality, reflecting how tangible investment is required to redress centuries of oppression. Our Industry Resource Guide is a good place to start for firms that are seeking meaningful ways to address racial injustice and systemic racism, including organizations and campaigns to support.
As our reporting has revealed, the industry has made measurable progress in addressing its gender imbalance at senior levels. But, if the PR industry is truly serious about advancing racial equity, then there are a number of commitments they need to make right now regarding their own businesses. With a hat-tip to Kramer and the Call for Change, and based on our conversations over the years with a range of executives, here are 10.
Will the industry commit to publicly benchmarking its progress against these? These areas, and other equivalent programs, will be more overtly recognised in our Agency of Year decisions, as part of a series of measures that PRovoke Media is also taking to address its role in improving racial equity in the PR industry.
1. Set hiring & recruitment targets
Each agency (and corporate communications division) should commit to hiring a minimum of one senior executive of color, as per Reputation Doctor Mike Paul's long-running call, with senior in this case referring to VP-level or above. This may sound like a modest goal but it would be revolutionary, given the racial makeup of most PR firms' senior teams. But a single executive is too easily isolated, so they should aim for two. Also, diversity and inclusion roles don't count. Without these steps, it is hard to see how a top 10 PR firm will ever have a Black CEO.
Firms should also make a measurable commitment to improve Black representation at all levels, and publish workforce diversity data on an annual basis. To support this effort, the industry should also ensure that 50% of its candidate pool when hiring is from under-represented communities, which is viewed as a more effective measure than the NFL's Rooney Rule (whereby each senior vacancy requires ethnic-minority candidates to be interviewed).
There are several ways firms can hold themselves accountable to these targets. Among them, make the data public, and implement a compensation system that ties incentives to measurable progress.
2. Commit to pay equity
According to our research, the PR agency pay gap between whites and nonwhites is an average of $9,000 a year, which only widens once gender is factored in, because women of color make less than men of color. There was never any excuse for this. PR firms must conduct a wage equity audit and publicly disclose their progress to achieve fair and equitable pay.
3. Implement anti-racism policies
Ignorance blinds many of us to the insidious ways that racism is in-built across our systems, institutions and societies. But ignorance is a privilege, and it should be made clear that it is unacceptable in workplace cultures. There are numerous resources available to help educate people in this regard, but PR firms need to take a serious look at work cultures and implement a zero-tolerance policy towards racism.
That includes redefining professionalism, as described by scholars Tema Okun and Keith Jones, to address workplace bias towards white and Western standards in such areas as dress and hairstyle, speech, accent, word choice, food and communication.
4. Make racial equity training compulsory and incentivised
Research indicates that anti-racism policies alone are not enough — they must be supported by racial equity training by all employees. And that has to go beyond unconscious bias to help actively create environments in which people can show up and be themselves, rather than conforming to a homogenized standard of behaviour. Without this kind of training, real cultural inclusion will remain a pipedream.
Which means microaggressions must be addressed in order to ensure that employees of color are not only retained, but can thrive and be promoted. Train managers to recognize and address microaggressions, especially in situations when the aggressions result from a client interaction. Train white staff, specifically, to address white privilege and fragility. Train to understand intersectionality with white feminism. And make this training compulsory, and incentivised, for all levels.
5. Give employees a voice
In Germany, corporate boards are compelled by law to include employee representation. That's a good starting point for any firm, ensuring that Black people, women, people of color and other under-represented groups are involved in all policy decisions, not just conversations about diversity and inclusion.
Businesses can go further by ensuring that credit is given to those who deserve it. They should also make election days a paid holiday, ensuring that employees can effectively use their voice beyond their place of employment. And they must actively support and donate to organizations that fight racial inequality, such as the National Urban League and Campaign Zero.
6. Lobby for good
Donating your time and money is not enough. Kramer calls on corporates to "commit at least 50% of your lobbying expenditures to drafting and supporting bills that would improve conditions for communities of color by increasing access to quality education and training, rebuilding infrastructure, protecting consumers, ending racial oppression, rebuilding the safety net, achieving criminal justice reform, and making police more accountable." For PR firms, of course, this goes for their client lobbying activity, primarily. Money equals speech, and advocacy shapes laws. Let's not pretend otherwise.
7. Pay a living wage and support housing and healthcare costs
In major cities like New York and London, entry-level public relations salaries effectively serve as a form of discrimination against those groups that cannot afford to survive on low wages without recourse to support from, for example, family wealth. Black workers are affected disproportionately, which explains why some firms have made housing support a component in their graduate recruitment programs.
They should also commit to paying the living wage ($15 per hour in New York, £10.75 in London) as a baseline level of compensation. But firms also need to ensure that wages are not diverted towards healthcare costs, by providing full healthcare coverage and supporting national healthcare systems and coverage.
8. Expand paid parental and sick leave
Many firms and corporates have significantly improved their paid parental and sick leave policies, but this needs to be a non-negotiable commitment, given how the absence of these affects people of color. And it needs to be extended to cover, for example, caring for a family member — which is yet another situation that disproportionately impacts people of color living in extended family situations.
9. Invest in emergency relief and low-cost loans
People from under-represented backgrounds more often lack the savings to cover emergency expenses, an issue that has only been exacerbated by the relentless toll Covid-19 has taken on Black communities. Firms can help employees avoid payday lenders by establishing an emergency relief fund and also extending low-cost loans. If they aren't already, businesses should pay wages weekly while financial wellness platforms like PayActiv allow employees to access financial relief between paychecks.
10. Democratize employment applications
Blind recruitment is the first step to removing bias in the hiring process, removing any and all identification details from candidates’ resumes and applications. That includes their ethnic background, gender, names, education, age and personal interests. The next step would be more intentional 'colorful recruitment' vs color-blind processes.” Colorful recruiting appreciates differences and what that diversity brings to an organization, but can only really be attempted if a business is confident about its progress in terms of anti-racism policies and training.
Firms should also expand the list of colleges and universities they recruit from, and develop programs that hire, train and mentor Black youth without educational qualifications. And recruiters need to commit to expanding their networks, using the 50% rule from the first commitment on this list to ensure that candidate pools are not dominated by the usual suspects.
These areas, and other equivalent programs, will be more overtly recognised in our Agency of the Year decisions, as part of a series of measures that PRovoke Media is also taking to address its role in improving racial equity in the PR industry. We will publish details of this within the next few days.