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.”

Taking the Leap Into Entrepreneurship

From the worlds of fashion and design, editorial and events, PR and communications, we bring you eight women who have transitioned from in-house jobs to start their own businesses. Some put in years of work in the same industry, not being able to scratch the right itch; others looked up the corporate ladder and simply didn’t see a suitable spot for themselves. Whichever the case, these female entrepreneurs took a leap of faith. Here they share their business highs and lows, passing along much wisdom to empower those considering entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship is very much that Instagram visual of tangled lines going every which way until finally, there’s an upward arrow. Erin Lindquist made the move from agency life to entrepreneurship, partnering with a friend to launch Arrive Well, an online retail boutique for sustainable, local and luxury travel-sized goods, beauty products and accessories. But it’s actually the web design and consulting company she created to supplement her income at the time, EM Workshop, that has become her focus.

“The whole experience of ideating, creating, planning and launching two businesses at once was an education in and of itself. I had to make a decision because, despite my earlier belief, the fact is: if you want to do something well, one thing at a time is the best approach,” she says.

It’s true, your a-ha moment might not feel the way you expect it to. For Ashley Gill, founder of women's RTW brand RORA Clothing, it just clicked. “It wasn't a burst of confidence, it was more a sudden burst of peace and everything made sense,” she shares. “I spent my fashion career in an airplane and have been really lucky to see the world outside of work as well. My clothing is a way for me to do that and transform what I see into what you wear.”

RORA Clothing 

Mallory Molinski, founder of Beverly Bond PR, left ten years of in-house PR to help new and emerging brands gain awareness. “I think all companies have their differences, even if the strategy and categories are similar. For me it is a focus on emerging brands. I like to see the immediate impact of my efforts, try innovative approaches, and see the growth of my clients from start to finish. My fashion brands are all female founded, and a lot of them have sustainable production practices or charitable efforts tied into them, which is important to me.”

Aligning oneself with a cause or theme they’re passionate about goes beyond just the clients on your roster. Sarah A. Abdallah, founder of Functional Creative Design, worked with world-renowned hospitality designer Tony Chi and Associates before making the move to entrepreneurship. With notable hospitality brands including Lincoln Center, The Ritz-Carlton, Soho Grand and The Park Hyatt in her portfolio, she calls to mind what her work represents in the grand scheme of things.

“After arriving in our third year, I have realized something unexpected and beautiful: I am paving the grounds for the other women of color that fall into the ‘other’ category in the USA,” she shares. “The discussion around diversity is still black and white and, in the greater sense of things, we are just seeing a more of a global shift in true definition of women of color who represent different shades in between. I am excited to help pioneer this further into existence being both biracial and first-generation Americans of immigrant parents.”

Functional Creative Design, VNYL, Photographed by Claire Esparros

Prior to launching TUKE Consulting, Elizabeth Tuke worked on both sides of the PR spectrum, both agency and in-house. “The impetus of my own business was simply an effort to create self-growth and leverage my skills to the many emerging talents and businesses that sought out an 'in-house' approach to PR.” With experience across the PR board, it was the admin side that she found most trying. “My initial challenge was comprehending the less interesting but important aspects of a business – accounting, taxes, IT, payroll, insurance. I have a serious appreciation for the people who helped me navigate these not-fun topics.”

These challenges take a different shape for all. Kira Heuer’s business is truly a labor of love, having launched Bib and Sola - contemporary and stylish glassware that offers a conscious alternative to plastic - out of a need to engage with the consumer and the power of how we buy and the consequences of each purchase. Regardless of her deep knowledge of the subject she was working with, she notes how launching a brand can bring out personal obstacles you might not have known were there.

“For me, [the challenge] was sharing that I had challenges,” she says. “It took me a while before I could be candid. Often you are on this voyage alone and tend to take it all on obsessing over every detail. Then, you begin to get clear on what is best for the company and what you need to lighten up on. I guess sense of humor and a hint of self awareness - the whole experience is so raw and you are filled with so much passion yet also in a constant state of ‘learning curve’.”

Entrepreneurship may be a solo journey, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier. “I think the biggest shock for me was going from a large, loving and close-knit team, to doing everything independently,” says Molinski. “It's ​hard not having a team to motivate you, bounce ideas off, vent to and just be around. I learned quickly that I needed help, and that it was ok to ask for it. I had to learn that being vulnerable was ok, that asking friends in the industry for advice and just connecting was absolutely necessary.”

Bib and Sola 

For Jennifer Alfano, the move was in line with her career: having spent over 20 years in the magazine industry writing for likes of Vogue, Lucky and Harper’s Bazaar, launching The Flair Index made sense. But it was a sense of community that really inspired her. “I had learned that as a woman entrepreneur, and I found this to be very common, I could count on other women entrepreneurs for help and advice, and that listening to their stories—their highs and their lows, inspired and encouraged me. I wanted to share this with others, because I feel like there aren’t enough platforms out there doing it.”

As it turns out, all of these women share a similar sentiment: having the right support system, and allowing yourself to really use it, is a game changer. “There are so many talented and creative people in my industry – some of whom I call for advice. I believe it is simply a relationship system,” says Tuke.

“I truly feel like am earning my MBA on the job – I have had such a great group of entrepreneurs to lean on for advice – what I have learned is the basics of running and operating a business is a similar formula no matter what type of business you're operating,” says Abdallah.

The Flair Index

Once you’re past the initial obstacles (not that there won’t be more to come...), being an entrepreneur is about finding flexibility and being able to spend your valuable time on projects you’re passionate about.

Before starting her own consultancy, TL Projects, Tara Levy had a full plate as Head of Communications and Marketing Programming at Swarovski, leading marketing, business development, advertising and communications in the areas of fashion, jewelry, art, design, philanthropy, corporate communications and entertainment. “[The role] led me to think about how I could apply my skills to advise brands in a new capacity. For example, with my own business, I could help a smaller brand conceptualize and implement their marketing strategy but still work with a larger company on a specific project at the same time.”

“As a marketing and PR professional, I am constantly promoting brands and executives but I learned quickly that I also need to do that for myself and my own business,” Levy says. “That was not something I was used to coming from in-house and agency roles. The easiest part is actually doing the work – I am excited every day to work with my clients and help them achieve their goals.”

So, you’ve launched your business. Now what? Keeping a unique profile (remember the aforementioned niches?) is crucial to survival. Each entrepreneur must decide what that differentiating factor will be for their business. To stand out in the editorial world, for example, Alfano’s focus is to keep it real. “Few entrepreneurs have meteoric rises, few women wear a new outfit everyday (nor should they) and have perfect complexions. It’s the grit, struggles and imperfections that interest me, maybe even more than the fun, pretty stuff,” she says.

Another way to differentiate yourself is to give back to the community. To stand out among trends and fast-fashion, Gill takes inspiration from her travels and also gives back to them. “We partner with a different charity every season from the place that inspires that particular collection,” she explains. “We are giving back for all the experiences and imaginative that place gave us.”

TUKE Consulting, LBV Members Cocktail & Dinner

Considering launching your own business? Bookmark these eight pieces of advice from our contributors.

Be fluid and realize everything can be an opportunity. Not that you should say yes to everything thrown your way, but having talked with over 100 women entrepreneurs at this point, one of the biggest takeaways I have learned is how un-linear their career paths tend to be. Also, you need an unending reservoir of drive. All successful women have it. Many see their failures as positive learning experiences. A lot of women I’ve interviewed, including myself, are eternal optimists.” -Jennifer Alfano

Try to work for a start-up before launching your own brand. Even with my years of experience in the corporate world, I made a lot of mistakes; I would have made fewer if I had more start-up experience just to understand the struggle of launching a brand.” -Ashley Gill

Don’t pay attention to what your competitor is doing. Instead, find a customer of yours and take them out to lunch. Listen to what they are asking for, what do they like about your way of doing things, what do they need, how can you help? Whatever you want to build, it's worth pursuing purely because it will be original, like you. If you are coming from a true place of authenticity, whatever you create will have a unique heart and soul and people will connect with that. Today more than ever, the world needs you to bring to the table your most full, brave and authentic heart.” -Erin Lindquist

Starting a business is a leap of faith – don’t overthink it. Get an office – make it official. Most importantly, if you are going to be a Founder or CEO, act like it! Own it, nurture it and build it – the business will come!” -Elizabeth Tuke

Ask for help when you need it. The most wonderful thing I found in the entrepreneurial process is the number of other entrepreneurs who are excited to lend support. Don’t be afraid to reach out to old connections or those whom you think are doing something interesting even if you don’t know them; you never know where it might lead.” -Tara Levy

“I would tell someone starting out to take it slow, it isn't a race, and to not compare themselves to others in the industry but focus on their own growth and their own success. Celebrate every win, no matter how small, and don't get stuck on the losses. I would also tell them to set up a strategy that works for their schedule, build a strong team, and ask for help when they need it.” -Mallory Molinski

Trust in your process – be authentic with your approach because people can see through nonsense. Read "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost; it may be lonely and fearful at times, but the greatest reward comes from walking on the path less traveled.” -Sarah A. Abdallah

Get ready to chase, and have a sense of humor! Be very intimate with your dreams. Stay candid and recognize that push back from people is a good thing. You are setting out to do something that might not have been done before, so people will look at you like you're crazy. That's usually when you are onto something big.” -Kira Heuer

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