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Weber Shandwick, CPRF Vets Discuss Diversity in PR

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Earlier this month, PR veteran Mike Paul earned a bit of attention when he announced his plans to stage a hunger strike to protest a lack of diversity in the public relations world.

Since that story ran, we reached out to several contacts within the industry to get their takes on how we arrived at this point in the conversation—and where we should go from here.

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Kathy Cripps currently serves as President of the Council of Public Relations Firms. Her career includes senior positions at Burson-Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton as well as in-house work with Nestle and other major companies.

She says:

“The importance of adding more ethnic diversity to all ranks of the public relations industry is undeniable. This is a key issue for the Council and its membership, and it continues to be a significant focus of our organization.

In that spirit, the Council created an awards program with PRWeek four years ago – The Diversity Distinction in PR Awards – that celebrates the best practices taking place in the public relations industry. (We are co-hosting a webinar on March 27th, called Making Diversity the Norm).

Many firms have made strides in staff diversity by creating special internship and mentoring programs; on a regional level, the Council will soon launch a pilot summer internship program with our Boston area members for multicultural college students. If this proves successful, we will roll this program out in more markets next year.

PR firms continue to compete with client organizations for the best diverse candidates, as well as seasoned veterans who choose to start and run their own firms.”

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Gail Heimann, President and chief strategy officer at Weber Shandwick, expands on Cripps’ point in saying that a more diverse group of professionals would help better serve both our clients and the public at large:

“We’re in the thinking business, and it’s incumbent upon us as an industry to put a diversity of thinkers in the room.

This doesn’t just mean demographic diversity. It means diversity in background and ways of approaching challenges…we’re looking for people with specific expertise, be it in healthcare, food, etc., which in turn engenders a more diverse pool of people.”

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Our own Tonya Garcia, currently business editor at Madame Noire, tells us more about why diversity matters so much:

“Diversity benefits everyone. That has to be the mindset going in. It’s good for the firm and the clients because diversity of culture and even diversity of personality and experience breeds fresh ideas.

And keep in mind, diverse staff members aren’t only equipped to do multicultural programs, so their contribution doesn’t have to be circumscribed. Minorities live and work in mass culture in addition holding on to their cultural differences and traditions. (We all do.) So it’s wrongheaded to seek counsel from the diverse staff members only when you’re trying to reach diverse audiences.”

The veterans we spoke to told us that the issue stems from a lack of awareness among key demographics—and Heimann tied it back to PR’s ongoing efforts to promote itself.

“If you’re a hugely talented kid, no matter what your background, PR is probably not in your first rung when it comes to career choices. The people lining up to work at Google or start-ups aren’t necessarily lining up outside firms that do what we do.

I don’t think we have enough strut about who we are and what we can deliver to those who join the industry.”

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Senior HR manager Nicole Blake of Weber Shandwick Minneapolis elaborates on those challenges:

“Most students aren’t exposed to communications classes until college…Here in Minneapolis, there’s always been a struggle to get diverse candidates in for interviews and hires.”

So what’s the best way to address the issue moving forward? While Weber Shandwick does have internal programs (this year, 20% of its VP-SVP hires were diverse), all four veterans mention outreach initiatives. Heimann says:

“There are lots of scholarships and foundations; we’re involved with 8-10 different kinds of programs on a national basis, and you can’t neglect the local market either.”

Garcia advises PR to start at the college level and work with trade groups:

“Go to the cultural clubs and activity groups on college campuses and post a job, for instance. There are groups like ColorComm, the Black PR Society, and Hispanicize that specialize in bringing together professionals of color.”

Blake also emphasizes the importance of working with local high schools. On that point, Weber Shandwick and many other firms in the Minneapolis area (and beyond) have partnered with a group called The BrandLab. Blake says:

“They work with different agencies in town to identify students at certain high schools who might be interested; those who’ve taken courses in marketing, etc.”

Ultimately, the program matches students with summer internship programs in which they “work alongside different people in the agencies to better understand account management, media, creative jobs, etc. and hopefully trigger some interest” in entering the field.

In the next part of this story, we’ll go into greater depth on The BrandLab with executive director Ellen Walthour.

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