Representation, recruitment, and retention of black and ethnic minorities in PR and communication

On Thursday 14th October 2021, Hanson Search hosted an insightful and eye opening event, on the representation, recruitment, and retention of black, Asian and ethnic minorities in PR and communications. 

The issue of lack of representation within the PR and communications industry isn’t new, as Alice Weighman CEO and founder of Hanson search, mentioned at the start of the event, the CIPR’s state of the profession report 2020 highlighted the that the PR and communications is a white industry, with nine out of ten (91%) identifying as white according to the report. 

The event chaired by Alice featured an awesome all women panel line up of experts that consisted of, Kamiqua Pearce, founder of  the UK Black Communications Network  with  a clear mission to increase the number of black professionals in senior roles with in the industry. Jo-ann Robertson, CEO of Ketchum winner of the PRWeek best place to work  and The Drum Diversity & inclusion company of the year and know advocate for diversity in PR and communications. And Charlene Brown, employment lawyer, diversity & inclusion specialist, CEO & co-founder of Howlett Brown, the people intelligence company that is the UK’s only firm that offers a holistic approach to people-related issues within organisations by looking at the root cause to ensure lasting solutions.

The expert panel, shared their honest insights and experience on tackling this ongoing issue within our industry.  The event brought to light some startling statistics from the UK Black Communications Network survey, including that 70% of their members opt to work in-house, and only 30% in an agency and this is by deliberate choice. As well as  shocking insights like, 55% of black professionals having to ignore workplace racism in order to progress.

Discussions ranged from the lived experiences and microaggressions to bias in recruitment, as well as systemic issues around retention, work culture and the important of structures being ready for change, as well as solutions and the road map to changing this.

Ketchum shared some of the changes they have made, and the importance of setting diversity and inclusion as a business priority with clear targets to support it. Ketchum reviewed and changed their recruitment process, and now insist on a diverse candidate shortlist for all roles. 25% of Ketchum UK’s workforce is non-white, and 30% of their senior team is non-white.

Of course, there isn’t a one size fits all, but one of the key learning points from the event, was the important of understanding where your organisation is, then to the create a road map that can then help you make that shift to bring about real meaningful change.

The event aimed at both employers and candidates was very revealing and thought provoking, you can read through the takeaways below.


Insights from the representation, recruitment, & retention of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities in PR and communications event.

The Expert panel  shared some great insights which our strategic advisor and organiser of the event, Ebony Gayle captured below. The learning points scratch the surface of the magnitude of the challenge the industry faces but also highlights solutions and examples of mapping out and making the necessary changes in order to create a fairer industry and culture.

A massive thank you to our panellist who were awesome speakers, and kindly shared their knowledge and expertise:

  • Kamiqua Pearce - CEO and founder of the UK Black Comms Network  and strategic consultancy Coldr.
  • Jo-ann Robertson - CEO  of Ketchum UK winner of the PRWeek best place to work  and The Drum Diversity & inclusion company of the year.
  • Charlene Brown - Employment Lawyer, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Specialist, CEO & Co-Founder of Howlett Brown, the people intelligence company and the UK’s only firm that offers a holistic approach to people-related issues within organisations by looking at the root cause to ensure lasting solutions.

Quantifying the problem – Agencies not seen as a great experience

With the discussion kicking off with the statistic that  the PR and communications is 91% white, Kamiqua Pearce made some really key and poignant points and spoke about quantifying the problem. Highlighting there has been many surveys and research that show, PR is a largely white middleclass industry, but the UK Black Comms Network which was founded last year, wanted  to explore this further and conducted a survey with their members, alongside Opinium Research to delve deeper into the experience of Black communications professionals. With a particular focus on experiences with pay and promotion, recognition and the lived experiences. The results of which some might find surprising.

One of the many interesting top line findings shared was of the 230 respondents of Black PR & communication professionals, there was a massive divide in terms of working environments and they found that only 30% worked in agencies while the significant larger majority of 70% chose to work in-house and cited that agencies are not seen as a great experience for Black communication professionals. Anecdotally the sentiment is agencies don’t walk their talk, they talk a lot about what they’re trying to but its not always matched by demonstrating this at key moments e.g. hiring, pay and promotion. With Agency life already having its work-life balance challenges, when you add in microaggression (see below) and the lived experiences of Black and minority talent, it isn’t appealing. 

Stuck in the middle and often overlooked for promotion

Another striking statistic that Kamiqua shared from there research was that 39% of respondents had more than a decade of experience but the majority were stuck in the middle, and not moving up the ranks. When looking at the seniority of Black professionals  in particular Kamiqua cited that most are mid-level or below, given their time within the industry, this wouldn’t be and isn’t the same for their white counterparts.

Kamiqua shared, that when the UK Black Comms Network launched in 2020 one of the key statistics they led with was around the lack of promotion for Black PR and comms professionals, a shocking  48% of respondents had never had an internal promotion and many had to move or end up leaving the industry due to this. This was despite two thirds receiving verbal praise, being told they were doing really well, but hadn’t resulted in a pay rise, promotion or bonus.

Lack of trust and recognition

The expert panel discussed Issue around recognition bias and trust, and Kamiqua again shared some insight from, the UK Black Comms Network survey on this. Revealing that the verbatim from the survey highlighted there was a real issue of industry leaders not trusting Black and ethnic minorities talent. With a respondent stating “There is a perception of Black talent not being seen as capable of operating at senior level and would not be seen as credible by senior internal stakeholders or clients.” Many Black respondents who worked in senior roles, found clients would direct strategic counsel questions to their colleagues not expecting the Black talent to be the senior person in the room. As well as not being allowed to work on the star/top clients which has a direct knock on effective in terms of career progression.

Microaggressions and discrimination

Kamiqua shared more insights, and explained that 19% of Black PR professionals had experienced microaggressions and discrimination, ranging from  being mistaken as the most junior in the room  to being mistaken for cleaners or toilet attendants! As well as the very sad fact that 55% ignored work place racism in order to progress. Kamiqua really highlighted the extent of challenge our industry is facing. And touched on the fact that there is still a lot of work to do around attitudes and the issue of Black talent being stuck in the middle, even those who have been in the industry for 10years or more are not moving up.

Is change happening? It starts with commitment and determination

Have things changed? The panel highlighted that there has been a focus on recruitment, and appointments, which is a good thing, however there had been little progress  of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities at levels of seniority.

Jo-ann Robertson recognises there’s been a lot of talk in the industry and shared that when she was appointed as CEO of Ketchum UK she wanted to change the talk into action. Stating that, change has to be led from the top and commitment must be shown from the senior team. Jo-ann went on to explain, when she wrote her five year plan she had three business priorities,  one of which was driving change, diversity and inclusion, and highlighted she did  get a lot of push back on this, from others that didn’t see it as a business priority or strategy but thought of it as an initiative.

Jo-ann didn’t believe that so held firm and pushed ahead. Believing and understanding, that transforming the diversity of Ketchum UK’s workforce while building an inclusive culture would transform the business and its economic value. Jo-Ann cited that starting with that commitment and determination is key. Sharing that Ketchum dedicated time and money, and begun with a root and branch review with an external partner that did a full audit of their policies, systems and attitudes.

Discovery and the road map

Jo-ann shared as part of their audit, an anonymous employee survey was conducted which the results were positive, but they found the audit of their processes and systems were poor. The audit helped them to discover areas that needed to be address, so, they knew what their road map had to be to change. Jo-ann shared 5 key points to help drive diversity, equity and inclusion.

  • Set targets for diversity and inclusion - Ketchum UK set themselves some hard targets, there’s lots of discussions around this, and Jo-ann acknowledged that there has been lots of discussion around this, but believes if you’re not setting targets you’re not taking it seriously. Businesses set commercial, and people engagement targets so why not diversity and inclusion?
  • Review and changed recruitment – Jo-ann stated that Ketchum started to make changes to their recruitment drive, following the audit, ensuring that roles were more inclusive as well as sharing that she insists on a diverse candidate shortlist for all roles. Highlighting that, while insisting on diverse candidate list might make it a bit harder  for HR, it was a necessary and important part of helping to make progress and create change.
  • Set Diversity objectives – Ketchum ensures that diversity is built into everyone’s objectives, just like they have commercial and client objectives, a part of it is how well are they diversifying their teams and working on an inclusive culture.
  • Be accountable – The responsibility to build an inclusive culture is everyone’s responsibility, far too often organisations turn to the Black, Asian, and ethnic minority person in their team to lead and drive change. Change has to be demanded from leadership team and imbedded through the organisations.
  • Listen - It’s Important to recognise and prioritise the voices of our Black, Asian and ethnic minority colleagues but we should not expect them to drive the change when they already have enough to deal with and didn’t create the problem.

Importance of undertaking a review and being ready for change

Expert panellist, Charlene Brown, employment lawyer, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion specialist and CEO and co-founder of Howlett brown suggests companies undertake an audit/review much like Jo-Ann did at Ketchum. Stating that it’s the principle basis all companies should start with an audit, which would include taking a serious look at recruitment. Charlene shared that Howlett Brown do this often for clients, and cited that behaviours can and often do translate into recruitment. She explained, when undertaking an audit, it’s about unearthing and understanding the company’s people intelligence aspect, and what is happening structurally,  procedurally and how they’re experiencing that. Recruitment is a key area to review, there is no point fixing or changing recruitment processes if the root behaviours or attitudes aren’t ready for change.

Charlene shared that Howlett Brown take a three pronged approach reviewing, structural, procedural, experiential aspects, which she believes all impact each other, so one can’t be done without the other. Charlene, shared from her experience in DEI that organisations can’t change processes and procedures without ensuring the structure is at an optimal position to be able to imbed the changes required. Adding that organisations can’t change hearts, minds and behaviours or experiences of people in the workplace without looking at the backdrop of what those procedures and structures look like too.

How inclusive are your recruitment efforts?

Charlene shared her insights and stressed the importance of looking at a company’s entire recruitment process, clinically and transparently from end to end. Everything from how the job advertisements and job descriptions are drafted. What language do you use, does it translate to your company values, and shared that she had worked with many clients that think they’re inclusive but use language that doesn’t translate or marry up with their values.

Where do you promote these roles and engage with people? How do you visually represent yourself, this can also reflect on the company. How do you attract and bring people into the process, where can you remove bias? What efforts are you making to promote workplace inclusion? Employers that start to address these questions and make change will start to see a shift.

Picking back up on the point about use of language, Charlene suggested reviewing job descriptions, assessing what language  organisations can use to be more attractive to a diverse pool of talent, as well as being aware of how messaging may translate. For example, you think you have an inclusive culture where everyone can speak up, but then say in job description client is king, we over deliver for our clients –potential  candidates might read that as talent is a priority. Another example, is something that alludes to late working, which is common in PR and Comms industry, again for some who might have children or not so keen on socialising at night as they work so hard during the day, it can put you off.

Charlene, advised that organisations start by digging deep into what your organisation stands for, assessing the language they use and whether it resonates, to approach it in an intersectional way. 

Recruitment decision making

Charlene cited it was important to consider the decision process – who gets the job and why, and to question those traditional assumptions around what talent is and who should get a chance. Sharing from her experience, that unfortunately, many organisations are operating in an old school and archaic way which needs to be refreshed. Adding that, what we define as talent shouldn’t be automatically aligned to traditional constructs, instead we should be  looking at where individuals can add value and assess based on the current climate and direction of future focus. 

Jo-ann shared a fact she learned from neurodiversity training that  within 7mins we make 11 assumptions and it comes from our own personal experiences and biases. When recruiting consider, why have you decided that this person isn’t right, its crucial to have a self-reflective attitude to build an inclusive workforce and culture.

Is promoting based on ‘Merit’ really fair and inclusive?

Kamiqua raised the question around understanding the basis of merit, suggesting that  senior leaders need  to interrogate the concept of merit further, citing  that a number of UK Black Comms Network member had glowing 360 reviews, did everything required, delivered in their roles consistently but remained in the same position for 4-5 years.

Kamiqua added that the merit argument is questionable, particularly when you have Black, Asian and ethnic minority professionals that are not given the top client picks, it has an impact on their career progression. If they’re not working on accounts that the organisation value highly, that get the most exposure, it’s harder to be recognised.

Charlene asked the question, how absolutely sure are organisations that they do in fact promote on merit? Stating to establish merit, organisations have to have KPI’s and measurements to define what merit is. Where did these guidelines come from, how are they designed, is there bias in the merit categorisation, who makes decisions, how inclusive or collaborative are those making the decisions,, how does it funnel through to the promotion process and how is it fair. There’s often bias to weed out of these processes. It’s really important to look at what you  define as merit and whether its applied fairly. 

Equity and honest reflections

Charlene also made a fundamental point about the importance of making sure there are structures that allow for equity and not equality. Equality is  ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talent, whereas equity is making things fair. She stressed that ensuring real fairness is key, and that people are appropriately positioned to where they should be, which doesn’t always happen and that taking a hard and honest look at your organisation is a must. Without doing so and making the necessary changes all the hard work to bring about change will fail as you’re trying to bring about change in an organisation where problems already exist and haven’t been addressed.

Kamiqua, went on to explain If you’re not afforded the opportunity to work on the star clients,  which are the gateways to building a successful career the merit part is void. Organisation should be looking at where talent is in their organisations and ask themselves if there is someone they’re overlooking.  As well as the question, what would be fair in terms of giving them opportunities?

Implementing change

Charlene shared she’s a great believer in training and education, and understands that DEI is new for many and wasn’t a fundamental part of  our education growing up unless you chose it as a career or had a personal interest. The landscape is changing and so many may find themselves not knowing how to manage or understand DEI from a technical stand point. Training which must be followed through by taking action.

Sharing that the training she provides is all based on knowledge, empathy, action and review and the importance of equipping staff with the skills and knowledge to help shift and create change.  If a company has great policies, language and terminology but not able to turn that into action, then nothing changes. For example, if employees understand microaggression, but don’t understand how to diffuse it, then nothing changes on retention side of recruitment.  Companies should be mandating that their service providers for example those recruiting internally and externally are fully equipped and onboard with DEI. Not just on board but following through, which will result in change.

Taking a hard look & Uncovering the truth

Jo-ann shared, that its disappointing hearing all of the statistics that UK Black Comms Network shared but sadly wasn’t surprised having  heard first hand stories from Black, Asian and ethnic minority talent about racism, discrimination and microaggressions in agencies. Jo-ann shared, during the audit although at she considered Ketchum to be progressive, when reading some of the verbatim, she learned of some horrible experiences and it confirmed that Black, Asian and ethnic minority talent were progressing slower than their white counter parts. She said it’s important to be brave and look in all the corners to unpick the issues, be open and honest so you have a chance to fix it.

Charlene shared that not everyone is ready to do a real in-house reflection and sadly, not all efforts are genuine and authentic.  Some companies will opt to  get someone that will make them feel good, rather than taking the leap and pulling back the curtain to really get down to what is going on. Charlene highlights there is still resistance to take proper action by some companies, taking half measures rather than really committing to change, but commitment and action is need for change.  Charlene also made a key point about most companies working to the base of law, but law never paid attention to culture.

Is there really a lack of talent? Or are people exercising their choice?

The discussion of whether there’s a lack of talent came up, Alice cited that in her 20years she hadn’t seen a market like this, and asked Jo-ann about how she manages sticking to her diverse candidate shortlist.

During high pressure times, Jo-ann said that Ketchum stick to their diverse candidate shortlist. Citing that to be true to what you want to achieve you have to stay solid during good and bad times. Sharing that there’s no point undermining the diversity targets and efforts, it’s about adding to what they have at Ketchum. The team are onboard so can understand dealing with Short term pain, and can see the benefits of staying true. She also shared that Ketchum hadn’t struggled to find talent as they’ve built a reputation internally and externally that is on the right path and now have diverse talent applying proactively to join them. Something they never ever have in their entire history.

Talent is out there, Jo-ann shared that 25% of Ketchum UK’s workforce is non-white, 30% of senior team is non-white, they’re proud of the progress but still pushing for more. The idea that there isn’t any talent out there is utter nonsense, there are lots of talented and ambitions individuals but they might not be attracted your organisations and what they see from the outside. Stating there’s lots of talent out there for progressive companies.

Kamiqua agreed that there is a lot of talent but that the industry needs to do more, citing that Black talent exist, they’re not choosing agencies, and that its more likely a lack of people wanting to work in certain places. And posed the question are companies doing enough to truly attract talent from different backgrounds.  

Charlene suggested companies that are ready to engage and attract talent need to pay attention to generational differences, what drives incoming talent, and be aware that people are more empowered to make decisions on where they choose to work. It’s important to understand, what the disconnect is, what the intelligence is showing and telling you and what you need to change internally to make this happen. Adding there are lots of initiatives to help even if you can’t hire in tradition method to make this work


Understanding your own bias

Start by understanding your own bias where you are on that spectrum, how does it impact the suppliers you chose and the team you’re building. Put in the effort, being inclusive is by design. What can I build in to make sure it’s a more inclusive hiring or client work.

Mandate training

Consider mandating training, some leaders lack confidence and DEI isn’t a typical skill set of many leaders. It’s a legal risk, so mandatory training is important to create change, and  the training needs to be practical. Ketchum have mandatory training for their employees.

Push harder on recruitment

Jo-ann shared that when recruiting for a creative director, which as an industry we know is pretty male dominant, the first 40 CV’s were all white men. She challenged and pushed back on the selection. Another search was done that resulted in a diverse Shortlist, that included three women, two Black and one gay, demonstrating that sometimes we have to push harder to ensure equity in recruitment.

Be Accountable

The panel agreed it is important to keep holding the line and hold yourself accountable and to check you are making decisions for the right reasons. Employers need to get on board with the journey or you’ll get left behind which means ensuring that they have structures in place to support.

Be open to feedback

The panel noted that since the murder of George Floyd and the BLM movement, agencies are putting in an effort to do more, but that there is a nervousness around giving feedback. Employer should be asking themselves what are they doing to enable Black, Asian and ethnic minority talent to grow? Feedback is important, if your employees are nervous about giving feedback then there’s an issue there. There isn’t a one size fits all approach to this, so it’s important to understand what is going on in your company.

Don’t be quick to judge CV’s when you see movement

Jo-ann-made a great point of judging people’s CV’s – we tend to view short term roles on CV’s as flaky, when in fact there is usually a very valid reason for this. For example, people may have moved on due to racial discrimination, and/or harassment, and therefore are actually removing themselves from toxic work cultures. Kamiqua added to this by sharing that the UK Black Comms Network survey found that a shocking 55% of respondents  said they ignore racism in order to progress.

Open up entry routes to PR and Communications

Both Kamiqua and Jo-ann touched on entry routes, and how there are barriers to entry, such as requiring a minimum of one year’s experience for an entry level role. And that ambitious people don’t need 1year experience, and the importance of on the job training and changing these attitudes within the industry to help facilitate change. Both stating that the industry need to do more to go out and encourage students to come into the industry and consider how we can learn from other industries. Ketchum mentioned they have a partnership where whey spend 6 weeks working with children from inner city schools.

Kamiqua Pearce -  Leading the UKBCN strategy and team, Kamiqua Pearce established the UK Black Comms Network (UK BCN) in July 2020. Kamiqua is a senior PR consultant who has led communications for a number of brands. She is the CEO of Coldr, a strategic comms and inclusive business consultancy, a founding member of the PRCA Race and Ethnicity Board (REEB), a Board Director of the PRCA and a fellow of the RSA. Kamiqua is a visiting lecturer at the University of The Arts London (UAL), a qualified coach, a seasoned mentor and is passionate about helping others to reach their potential.

Join and support the UK Black Comms Network - https://blackcommsnetwork.co.uk/

Charlene Brown - Charlene Brown is a lawyer, entrepreneur, diversity & inclusion specialist and Co-Active coach. As an employment lawyer, Charlene founded Howlett Brown, the UK’s only firm that offers a holistic approach to people-related issues within organisations by looking at the root cause to ensure lasting solutions. As a diversity & inclusion specialist, Charlene delivers D&I training to some of EMEA’s most known organisations. In 2020 Charlene was named in the top 20 Diversity Professionals in Industry, in the Global Diversity List which celebrates excellence in D&I. Charlene is Chair of the Ivors Academy Ethics Committee, and on the advisory board of TNON, an organisation that trains network leaders to effectively engage with key stakeholders in organisations to improve the representation and advancement of ethnic minority talent into senior executive roles. Charlene is a multi-award winning professional and named as a Future Leader by EMPower & the Financial Times (#2 out of 30).

Get in Touch with Howlett Brown for your DEI training needs - https://howlettbrown.com/

Jo-ann Robertson -  Partner & CEO of Ketchum, London. Jo-ann is a big personality in the communications industry with 20 years of experience. She has worked for some of the leading global agencies, is the Chair of the Young Women's Trust, and is a champion of diversity within the industry. Her passion for diversity has resulted in Ketchum winning the PR Week best place to work award and  The Drum Diversity & Inclusion company of the year award. 

Ketchum – best place to work and D&I company of the year - https://www.ketchum.com/

Posted on 04.11.2021

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