Addressing the Lack of Diversity in Communications: Highlighting Recruitment Best Practices

A Hanson Search Roundtable Diversity Debate

Introduction by Alice Weightman, Managing Director, Hanson Search ‘The communications industry’s attitude to class and ethnicity must change if it wants to attract talent that can reach out to diverse audiences’, so says the 2013 PR Census, published in PR Week in March 2014. Communications - and in particular PR - has long been tarred with the brush of being a profession that attracts the white middle-classes, who are predominantly female. Indeed, the latest PR Census proves that only a poor six per cent of people working in the industry are ‘non-white’. Of those who declared an ethnicity, one per cent is black, two per cent are Asian and three per cent described themselves as ‘other ethnicity’. Given that the UK’s communications hub is based in London – one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world – something has to change and fast. The CIPR and PRCA are trying to change how the industry is perceived on all fronts. However, they are facing an uphill struggle. Many people within the Asian community for example see PR as nothing more than glorified socialising – and thus, a less respectable career choice than say a doctor or an accountant. Furthermore, PR and communications is just not on the radar as a career choice for a whole swath of our society. This combined with the fact that the industry is still dominated by the white middle-classes, means that there are very few networking opportunities and role models for younger generations from diverse backgrounds. It is vital for the industry’s development and progression to become more inclusive, because agencies need to resonate with clients and all members of society.


In order to explore the diversity issue that is so prevalent within the communications industry, Hanson Search invited several senior HR and PR professionals from organisations such as Mindshare, ITN and Transport for London (TFL) to take part in a roundtable debate. The aim was to discuss how best to cultivate and nurture more diversity in the communications industry as well as setting out some recruitment best practices. The debate was chaired by Colin Byrne, CEO UK & EMEA of Weber Shandwick - with speakers including Jennifer Thomas from Direct Line, Mark MacKenzie from Transport for London and Robert Elias from ITN. The event explored diversity recruitment in its broadest terms. Alice Weightman, Managing Director at Hanson Search, explained the difficulties faced by recruiters when they attempt to draw up a diverse candidate list for clients because the talent pool is seriously limited. She said “We select people who are most suited to the job. The trouble is there is such a lack of diversity amongst our applicants. We need to address the issue at the grassroots level”. Colin Byrne illustrated the gravity of the problem from the business standpoint; “we claim to our clients that we represent Britain and how we as a nation think – the trouble is, we look nothing like Britain”.

Recruitment Best Practices

Promoting PR as a career choice - tackling the issue at grassroots level The participants felt that the PR industry should give more time to people from diverse backgrounds, by inviting them to come into the office and inspiring them to spend a day there to give them a taste of what it is like to work in the industry. It was also highlighted that PR needs to be promoted as a career choice in schools, colleges and universities. They sighted apprenticeship schemes run by the IPA and PRCA – backed by the Metro newspaper – that are designed to attract creative young people, who haven’t been to university, into the advertising and media industries. Hill & Knowlton’s Czarina Charles said that PR is not really recognised as a career option in schools and universities: “Parents just don’t know about PR. In order to increase awareness we need to go into schools and educate pupils and teachers about our industries and the real career prospects that exist within them”. Charles went on to highlight another problem – candidates are often discounted from opportunities because, due to their backgrounds or education, they are not equipped with the manner of speaking or behaviour needed to ace an interview. Jennifer Thomas suggested that some candidates might need a little extra time to realise their full potential and shouldn’t be automatically written off at the interview stage because of their accent or writing ability. Some organisations are beginning to address these issues. Colin Byrne talked about his apprenticeship scheme that gives creative young people a stepping stone into the worlds of media and advertising, irrespective of their background or education. Furthermore, The Taylor Bennett foundation runs an Apprentice Challenge designed specifically for young people without a university education. Says Byrne “One of the problems I think we have in our industry is that we clearly replicate ourselves – our people want to hire people who look like them”. Make a greater effort during the hiring process but ensuring recruitment is based on merit The discussion highlighted that the PR industry needs to think of innovative new ways of screening candidates – suggestions included YouTube clips instead of CVs. Weber Shandwick is already embracing this new approach for applicants to their apprenticeship scheme. Candidates are asked to produce a five-minute YouTube clip instead of submitting a CV. This immediately demonstrates personality and creativity as well as a proven ability to use social and digital media. There is a real need to level the playing field, which includes changing the way interviews are conducted – whereby less emphasis is placed on classic interview techniques – and more on what the individual could bring to the business. The participants felt it would make good business sense to give more time to those candidates that might otherwise not have the opportunity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they automatically get the job because they are the ‘under-dog’, but more about recognising that certain applicants might need extra nurturing to bring out their best. However, Bell Pottinger’s Elly Williamson raised an interesting counter- concern regarding positive discrimination – not only in terms of race but also education. She stressed the importance of recruiting people based on merit – otherwise there is a risk that applicants that are ‘ivy league’ graduates will be overlooked because they are seen as ‘advantaged’. This notion was supported by Charles – she said “as a black woman, I don’t want to be positively discriminated against – I want to get the job on merit”. Creating the right culture – educating middle management Robin Elias believes it is vital to ‘create a culture where everyone has a voice’. By educating the workforce at all levels including enabling an open dialogue, will keep diversity on the agenda. It was also felt that educating middle managers about the benefits and importance of hiring a diverse workforce was essential. Ketchum’s Aisha Warburton said her company was putting compulsory attendance of diversity sessions in place. Jennifer Thomas highlighted Direct Line’s diversity network, which encourages open dialogue and celebrates differences. They also use the calendar to plan diversity-centred events. Mark MacKenzie says Transport for London conducts extensive surveys, training and reports on employee welfare and wellbeing in the working environment. Women returning from maternity leave were also discussed. Employers need to recognise that on returning to work, new mothers may need a degree of flexibility in terms of working part-time or keeping slightly different hours. Marketing materials should have a diverse feel to them – promoting the diversity of individuals within the business According to Colin Byrne ‘diversity = creativity = better business’. A diverse workforce offers more creativity, allowing tasks to be approached from a range of different angles. Says Robin Elias; “One of the tangible benefits is that a diverse workforce is more creative – thus if you have a truly mixed workforce and everybody feels they can speak up, it makes for a better product and a nicer atmosphere”.


The communications industry takes place on a global stage and as a result the audiences reached are increasingly diverse. In order for the industry to keep up with its client base, it must constantly evolve and to do so, they must make the first changes internally. Proactively hiring a diverse workforce should be much more than just a box-ticking exercise. Colin Byrne suggested that one of the greatest problems within the industry is that it clearly wants to replicate itself. If the industry continues with this out-dated mindset, then they will no longer be able to meet the demands of an increasingly diverse client base, meaning that eventually businesses will fail– which is damaging for the individual and for the industry at large.

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