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Lack Of Diversity Is PR Industry's Dirty Little Secret

Lee Hayes 25 Feb 2013

Since President Barack Obama’s historic re-election, diversity and inclusion have once again become the popular buzzwords in the communications industry.

Yet, after more than two decades of watching my share of Republican presidential conventions that looked more like a throwback to pre-civil rights days, than modern day America, it is my hope that general market advertising, marketing and PR firms will finally begin to understand the importance, influence and power of multicultural markets. Especially considering the GOP’s resounding 2012 defeat can largely be attributed to their lack of inclusiveness in the midst of rapidly changing US demographics. 

In 1995, when I began my career in PR, trade organizations and professional associations, such as the Public Relations Society of America, International Association of Business Communicators, Council of Public Relations Firms and the Arthur W. Page Society were in the infancy stages of giving lip service to diversifying the communications workforce, including forming committees, task forces and rolling out multi-year action plans. Sadly, the communications industry has yet to achieve any type of real diversity during my almost two-decade career as a PR practitioner.

Yes, white women and members of the LGBT community have risen to senior-level positions at some of the biggest and most prestigious advertising, marketing and PR agencies in the business. But the lack of racial and ethnic diversity at all levels of the communications industry continues to be our profession’s dirty little secret.

As a seasoned communicator, not much surprises me on a daily basis. However, I am often rendered speechless each time I walk into a general market communications firm around the country or visit their respective websites and see no racial or ethnic diversity. Talk about taking a page out of the “Grand Ole Republican Party’s” playbook.

Today, I no longer have faith or confidence that my peers around the country will do the right thing where diversity and inclusion are concerned in the communications industry, given their dismal track records. One can only wait so long before becoming disillusioned or giving up hope. Today, I firmly believe that our profession will only achieve real diversity when brands begin to demand that their agency partners not only adopt, but adhere, to their very own corporate goals and policies where diversity and inclusion are concerned.

According to US Census Bureau, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans will make up 36.5 percent of the US population and have an estimated combined spending power of $3.6 trillion by 2020.  Therefore, it is inconceivable to me how an all-white advertising, marketing or PR firm can, in good faith, believe it is adequately staffed to service global brands whose consumers are increasingly diverse with their own distinct cultural nuances. 

In August, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which I believe is the perfect time for brands and their agency partners to recommit themselves to diversifying the communications industry.

After more than two decades of lip service and inaction, one of the best ways general market communications firms can show their sincerity about fostering a multicultural workforce is by making diversity and inclusion an integral part of their ever-changing business models, which tend to focus more on the bottom line than doing the right thing.

I firmly believe we will only see real change in our profession when brands refuse to do business with non-diverse general market communications firms, and when those very agencies tie senior management compensation to diversity and inclusion initiatives. There must be severe consequences for communications firms that choose not to promote a diverse workplace.

If brands and their general market agency partners continue to ignore or turn a blind eye to the growing influence and spending power of multicultural markets, both will undoubtedly find themselves in the current state of the Republican Party: archaic brands on the verge of bankruptcy. 

After all, the 2012 presidential election showed us first-hand that multicultural consumers today choose to spend their economic and political capital where they are celebrated, not tolerated.

Lee Hayes is SVP/chief client officer at Lagrant Communications. 

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