Home Archive January 2009 Diversity matters
Diversity matters
Wednesday, 21 January 2009 16:17

A new internship scheme is setting out to change the face of the PR profession. Sarah Finch reports:

For a sector that’s all about understanding and reflecting society, the PR and communication industry has a glaring problem. And you don’t have to look hard to see what’s wrong. The sector simply fails to refl ect society’s ethnic diversity. While almost 8% of Britons – and 30% of Londoners – are from ethnic minorities, only 6.5% of PR practitioners are, according to a CIPR survey. That’s not just a loss for the individuals missing on careers in communication – it’s also a problem for the profession. PR is losing out on the wealth of talent of a significant section of society, and the richness and perspective that a diverse workforce brings, says Dr Lee Edwards, senior lecturer in PR at Leeds Metropolitan University. “The more diverse our communication teams are, the more effective they will be,” says Edwards. “That’s not to say that only black people can speak to black people. But PR needs to be relevant to the people to whom communications are addressed.”

Ethnic communications
Generally coming from a very homogenous background, there is a real danger that UK companies and agencies fail to recognise how diverse Britain is – and lack expertise in
taking corporate and marketing messages to minority groups. This means there’s a niche for communicators who know how to reach out to these audiences – including people
with disabilities, lesbians and gay men, older people and ethnic minorities.

Mavis Amankwah founded specialist agency Rich Visions after realising the potential for ethnic communications. She says, “The PR industry is a white middle class industry. When they do campaigns to reach out to wider audiences, they go for ‘one size fi ts all’ approach.” Rich Visions assists clients in tailoring their messages to appeal to the cultural norms, traditions, values and beliefs of the ethnic groups they want to reach. A recent commission was to encourage young black and ethnic minority to see construction as a positive career choice. As well as placing features in ethnic media, Rich Visions worked with opinion formers such as community leaders, teachers and careers advisers. Focus groups gave them an insight into attitudes and barriers – as well as relevant news hooks. Outreach workers speaking target languages visited over 150 organisations, including schools and colleges, community groups and faith buildings.


Recruitment headache

The overwhelmingly white face of PR poses a problem for recruiters too. Heather McGregor, MD of Taylor Bennett, an executive search firm specialising in corporate communications, says she’s under pressure to off er a diverse candidate pool. “Big companies these days have to be accountable and want to stress diversity in their shortlists,” says McGregor. “There has never been a problem with women – 50% people we have placed have been women – or with diversity in sexual orientation. But where there is a real problem is diversity in colour. We can’t produce a shortlist with these candidates for positions paying £50,000 a year if no-one’s employing them in £20,000-a-year roles.” “There are black and minority ethnic people working in the industry, but very few. We asked ourselves: Do we leave it to chance that the number will increase or could we do something about it?” Not one to sit around waiting, Bennett joined up with Alan Parker of city PR fi rm Brunswick to set up a training scheme to give talented black and ethnic minority graduates a taste of working in fi nancial PR. The result was the Brunswick Internship programme, which launched last autumn. A key project partner was the University of East London, which has a large percentage of students from ethnic minorities. The university already runs work placement schemes for students, but this was the first time it had been approached by an industry sector.

Head of Employability Femi Bola recognised the opportunities it off ered and helped tailor the scheme to the needs of ethnic minority graduates, and encourage high-calibre graduates to apply. Recognising that the target graduates would not be able to work for free as in conventional internship schemes, Brunswick undertook to pay a training allowance and cover the interns’ travel expenses. The fi rst six interns were selected from 200 applicants through a rigorous process that included two full days of presentations, group exercises and interviews. With degrees in media, law, film studies, and two with MBAs, they were new to the worlds of finance and PR. And while the six were chosen for their creativity and flair for communication, none had previously been planning a career in PR. Avani Patel, 21, says, “A lot of our cultures don’t understand what PR is. It’s not seen as a profession like being a doctor or a lawyer.” Th e lack of black role models was cited as another reason why they had not seen communication as a natural career path.

The Brunswick Six

From October to December 2008, the six have had a whirlwind time – packing into ten weeks as least as much learning as the average fi rst jobber would get in six months as an account executive. The package included intensive training and hands-on experience, hosted by Taylor Bennett’s sister agency Unicorn Jobs, and Brunswick. Offi ce skills and media training from Unicorn and PR masterclasses at Brunswick were complemented with visits to places such as the Bank of England, FT, The Telegraph’s online operation, a City law fi rm and Cass Business School to learn about Bloomberg and Reuters. Meeting PR professionals in agencies and inhouse communications departments introduced the interns to a host of new role models, including black people in senior roles, such as Gene Cleckley, head of communications at Fremantle Media, and Patrick Edwards, head of comms at the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation. The interns were also invited to Glyndebourne opera house, where they were consulted about reaching new audiences, and the Stephen Lawrence Centre, in south-east London, which wanted PR help in reaching young Londoners. Th eir advice was valuable enough for the Centre to retain their services now the internship scheme has ended. Was it a success? In the eyes of the interns, undoubtedly. With CVs honed under the expert staff at Taylor Bennett, address books bristling with contacts, and confidence presenting, their chances of getting good jobs in fi nancial PR are now sky high.

Zubair Ahmed, 25, says, “We have all improved so much. One of the biggest things they have given us is confi dence. We are no longer just a group of kids from diverse backgrounds that might not make it.” Olayinka Olagunju, 22, adds, “Experiences like going to Glyndebourne open your eyes – you can look at yourself outside your usual situation. The only barrier to accessibility is in our minds.” The project partners agree. There’s justifi able pride in their protégés – who Brunswick’s Group Finance Director Andrew Fenwick describes as “a talented and energetic group of individuals” – but the project has led to benefi ts in their own organisations too. Heather McGregor says, “Every single member of staff at Taylor Bennett has been involved in giving them employability training. It has been a real team effort and any endeavour where everyone is involved is good for any organisation. Perhaps in 10 years we will start to see the results in the candidate stream.” Femi Bola at UEL has invited her alumni back to present at recruitment events. She says, “Th is is a model for other industry sectors. I gave a presentation at the Association of Graduate Recruiters and they asked if I was going to take on other sectors that need to tackle their diversity. I’d love to do that.” No one is under any illusion that a scheme limited to a handful of people will change the face of the profession overnight (though there are plans to double the number next year). Yet it’s a modest step in the right direction – one others in the industry are watching with interest.

Read more on www.unicornjobs.com/diversity