MIAMI – Grappling with growing client demand, and lagging in diversity, agency leaders today delved into the complexities of what it’s going to take to make PR a next-gen industry — most notably fundamental changes in hiring.

In two panel discussions at #PRovoke17 — one on diversity and one on hiring next-gen talent — execs said that systemically widening the scope of hiring is critical if the industry is going to become truly inclusive, while also building a workforce equipped to provide clients the wider range of services they increasingly expect. 

In the diversity discussion, panelists said the PR industry will ultimately pay a hefty price for not being truly inclusive, which is going to require overhauling traditional practices to increase minority representation and close the pay gap that exists between men and women, as well between whites and people of color.

"People pat themselves on the back because we have one of the lowest pay gaps. We shouldn’t have one at all," said Zain Habboo, Fenton’s chief digital officer, referring to Holmes Report research on the issue

Habboo said closing that gap systematically is incumbent on the entire industry – from CEOs on down. "Gender pay gap can’t be an HR issue," she said. "It would cost companies a lot less if they dealt with it straightforwardly." 

Panelists agreed, saying achieving true equity among genders also includes efforts like allowing for more flexible parental leave; flexible work schedules; and looking at employees equally. "We have to get to a point where we continue to reward those who are performing better regardless of race, color or gender," said Boden founder & president Natalie Boden. 

Capstone Hill founder & president Jamie McLaughlin said equalizing pay – rather than simply "bumping up" candidates from current salaries – is critical to closing the pay gap.
And when it come to minority hiring, agencies have to expand their offerings such as training and mentoring programs, particularly among mid-level execs who don’t have role models in the C-suite, executives said. 

Agencies have other hiring challenges, too. In a panel focused on 'Talent for the New Age Agency,' agency leaders said hiring individuals who come from industries other than traditional PR, and have a range of expertise in particular disciplines (from art direction and production to data), will be critical, particularly as lines between PR, marketing and advertising continue to blur. 

"That’s a rare breed. But I believe that will be the person of the future," said Veritas Communications president & CEO Krista Webster. 

The industry’s viability also depends on agencies assessing their needs and internal roles, especially when it comes to hiring individuals like creative directors who don’t have the well-defined responsibilities in a PR firm like they do in advertising, she added. 

Yet, when it comes to diversifying talent, whether that’s based on gender, race or skill set, it’s key that agencies do so with clarity, as making rash personnel decisions can hurt firms’ reputations and finances, they said.

"As an agency owner, and for business in general, I am all for systematizing," Boden said. "But we have to be careful so we don’t systematize ourselves out of business as well."