A Conversation About Diversity in the Communications Industry

Diversity in the marketing and PR industry, or a lack thereof, has become front of mind for employees and employers alike. “Diversity” is no longer a buzzword; instead, companies are being held accountable for being inclusive. We spoke with a few members on what their experiences have been with diversity in the PR and marketing industry. Plus, they shared their advice for powering an industry-wide shift toward greater accountability and awareness.

“Diversity is a broadly-used term with many meanings and whether we are talking about gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, age or beyond, it’s critical for PR experts to be aware, informed, sensitive and intentional about how this impacts their clients and brands,” says Chanel Cathey, founder and CEO of PR agency CJC Insights, LLC. “This era of growing inclusivity means that businesses and nonprofits alike need to have a clear diversity strategy, prioritize diverse representation on teams and have a mission to connect with diverse audiences and/or consumers.”

via CJC Insights

Despite the clear importance of diversity, it remains somewhat illusive throughout the industry. “Working in travel PR, I would say that this is likely one of the least diverse sectors, along with perhaps luxury consumer goods, which tends to be female-dominated, and financial PR, where the vast majority of the workforce is typically male,” says Terri McCollin, Executive Director, Public Relations for Preferred Hotels & Resorts. “From my perspective, there is a general lack of diversity when it comes to ethnicity, gender and even age in these sectors.”

The conversation around inclusivity is becoming louder, and there's been a definite shift towards diversity, but some still feel like it's just for show. “I think the industry is presenting towards the trend of inclusivity and diversity to make the masses feel like change is happening, however behind the scenes remains slow moving," says PR pro Briana Elzey. “The idea of inclusion is beautiful for everyone, but I’ve witnessed the discomfort of having to face the ideals of someone that doesn’t see the world the same way has proven to be very hard to accept for many. I see minorities having to create their own agencies to gain a place at the table. It is extremely apparent when you look at the profiles of the staff in top agencies.”

Of her experience with diversity in the industry, Kilee Hughes, founder of Six One Agency, says that, “It’s a challenge in some ways and also an opportunity for agencies and brands. The landscape and cultural relevance of inclusive marketing is at the zeitgeist of everyone’s strategy. ‘Did we miss anyone?’ is the question brands have to ask themselves. As communications executives, we help create the brand narrative to ensure our clients are positioned for success. and relevance. Every brand should be desirable and relevant to their target audience, which hopefully is diverse.”

NOTE Cosmetics, Six One Agency

So, why is it beneficial for businesses to recruit a diverse team? “For the same reason that it is beneficial not to limit your customer base.” says McCollin. “Operating across multiple markets develops perspectives, inspires fresh ideas and produces new business opportunities. It’s the same when there is diversity in people.”

This goes far beyond optics. “Diverse teams perform better,” says Cathey. “We live in a diverse, multicultural world and you need a team that reflects that. It’s my ability to see and explore the differences around me that makes me a better communicator and in return, I bring better ideas, greater creativity, and perspective to my team and clients.”

To promote diversity and inclusion, employers would be smart to look at their recruitment processes. McCollin stresses that, while peer-to-peer recommendations can be a reliable source for new hires, democratizing the process can be rewarding for everyone involved. “If an applicant from a different background can get in front of the hiring manager and it turns out that they are not the right fit for the role, then that is one thing, but not having the opportunity to demonstrate their suitability in the first place is often where the problem lies,” she says.

Cathey echoes her insights, explaining that, “It's the nature of our industry to rely on referrals but we have become overly dependent on tapping our own networks for hiring. Intentionally or not, we aren't recruiting from a broad enough pool and we often don't have the patience in our results-driven business to train.”

“There are a lot of women in our space but we struggle to recruit, retain, and promote women (and men) from diverse backgrounds,” she continues. “I think there is a huge opportunity to diversify the c-suite in PR organizations and on in-house communication teams. Our jobs are challenging and high-pressure enough, without layering on the isolating experience of working with teams that aren’t diverse.”

Employers can make the effort at every level. “Whether it’s the intern, assistant or accounts payable team, having the diversity within the business helps everyone make the most culturally relevant decisions,” says Hughes. “Having an internal audience that reflects the cultural landscape is key. It’s essential and should be thought of as a brand’s or agency’s cultural focus group.”


Beyond recruitment, Elzey points out the company culture itself has to evolve. A few of her suggestions includes repeated certified diversity and cultural sensitivity and unconscious bias training (“one session is never enough!”), creating truly anonymous comment opportunities to help people ease into sharing their grievances and empowering HR departments to advocate for and protect employees when they bring up issues of discrimination. After all, it’s not just about having a diverse team--it’s about fostering a team where members feel like they can actually speak up.

Teams themselves can help make a change, too. “As an employee, my advice would be do not take no for an answer, for every employer operating in bad faith there is another who will recognize your value,” says McCollin. “If an opportunity doesn’t exist, create a new one for yourself, and most importantly, drill down on what sets you apart, hone in and nurture that skill or ability to help build your brand.”

While there are many areas requiring much improvement, there have been some positive shifts in the right direction. Cathey highlights a recent experience. “At Cannes Lions, everyone was buzzing about women, gender, diversity, equality and that’s a tribute to this shift. Whether it’s the stage at a Female Quotient Lounge or a ColorComm panel or The Creative Collective’s CultureCon event - we are also seeing women leaders take control of the conversation and creating platforms for us to be heard and our industry contributions to be highlighted,” she shares.

Hughes notes that the fashion and beauty industries have made real efforts to be inclusive in various ways. “When I began my career, I could count the other publicists of color on one hand,” she says. “The industry has done a commendable job of diversifying talent in front of the camera, but still has its work cut out for it when it comes to the people behind the scenes who should have a seat at the table.

The push towards inclusivity and diversity is stronger than ever, and it’s up to industry leaders to forge bigger changes. “Forward-thinking, ambitious companies like the company I work for are leading the way in this regard,” says McCollin. “And they are doing so organically, not through tokenism, for the simple fact that diverse, broadly skilled teams just make good business sense. Another example? This discussion. We probably wouldn’t be having it in such an open forum as little as five years ago.”

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