A Cultural Code: Will the PR Profession Ever Reflect the Society It Serves?

December 1, 2014

[illustration works/corbis]
[illustration works/corbis]

A few years ago, PR Week (U.K.) interviewed me for an article titled: “Diversity: 5 ways to break the barriers.” As a twentysomething, black female working in financial public relations at Deloitte U.K., a member firm of the professional services network Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited (DTTL), people saw me as unique. The article focused on ways to increase the number of ethnicities working in the PR profession.

Cultural diversity in public relations has long been regarded as the proverbial elephant in the room. And therein lies the question: What needs to happen for the PR profession to reflect today’s multicultural society?

In 2012, I transferred from Deloitte U.K.’s London office to the DTTL PR team, headquartered in New York. Surprisingly, as much as New York is heralded as the melting pot of the world, similar to London, cultural diversity has not seeped into New York’s PR profession. 

Looking at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2013, the gender split in PR remains female-dominated (63 percent). However, the split turns in favor of males at the board level, with a 2:1 ratio of men to women in those positions. Add cultural diversity to the equation, and that’s when you really begin to see a disparity in numbers. Individuals from multicultural backgrounds make up only 16 percent of the U.S. PR profession.

The diversity challenges are far greater for women of color, as openly acknowledged by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. I often look around the room at PR events that I attend and see firsthand that there is still work to be done to address the issue. 

Based on the experiences gained throughout my career, the following recommendations can help improve cultural diversity in the PR profession:

• Accept that we don’t all look the same.

To improve diversity, business leaders must challenge the influence of unconscious bias — the inherent inclination to generalize, and often exclude, certain groups. With a limited number of senior PR professionals from diverse backgrounds, the younger generation will have few role models to identify with.

Ten years ago, I was an ambitious student who was curious about public relations. The Sunday Times (U.K.) featured a Q-and-A with a young black female who was carving out a successful PR career. “That could be me one day,” I thought as I read the interview. I immediately got in touch with the woman and, within two weeks, I was working at her company as an intern. Seeing from an early age that minority women were visible in the profession gave me the self-confidence to believe that I could pursue a successful PR career.

• Recognize the value in diversity.

Diverse PR teams will increase creativity and innovation, and subsequently an organization’s performance. I am thankful to have a mix of friends from a range of ethnicities. When we get together, our rich, varied backgrounds create a synergy that isn’t found in more homogeneous groups. Only when business leaders appreciate how a diverse workforce will help boost the bottom line will cultural diversity get the attention that it deserves at a senior level. Brands that can speak directly to their multicultural audiences in a tone that resonates will hold a competitive advantage. 

• Your network is your net worth.

New York has multiple networks aimed at minority groups working in communications. How great would it be for these networks to exist in other metropolitan cities across the U.S. and beyond? Such organizations are a great way to learn new skills and access a strong network of professional women.

I recently attended the inaugural ColorComm conference, a network that provides a platform for mid- to executive-level women working in communications. More than 200 women of color from across the U.S. attended the event to hear keynote speeches, from veteran journalist Soledad O’Brien and Desiree Rogers, former White House social secretary and current CEO of Johnson Publishing.  I keep in regular contact with many of the women I met at the conference. It is invaluable for us to be able to share our experiences to help motivate, inspire and encourage each other.

While there isn’t a quick-fix solution to improving diversity in the profession, we can all play a part in ensuring that the dialogue, particularly at a senior level, remains open. After all, communications professionals are influencers at their core and must have the ability to be able to influence the diverse society that they serve. When we recognize that people need to embrace differences, then real change will begin to take shape.

Marielle Legair
Marielle Legair is a global PR manager at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited and a communications director at ColorComm New York.


Shondel says:

You hit the nail on the head! Diversity is enriching for individuals and great for business.

Dec. 1, 2014

Roberto says:

Thanks for shedding light on thins topic, your words and thoughts are relevant and insightful.

Dec. 5, 2014

Marielle Legair says:

Thank you, Shondel and Roberto for your feedback. Much appreciated.

Dec. 13, 2014

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