View from the Street: Boosting ethnic diversity in the communications industry

@heathermcg_ebs

View from the Street: Boosting ethnic diversity in the communications industry

The issues experienced by the Windrush generation have in recent weeks inspired many thousands of column inches exploring the UK’s relationship with race, ethnicity and diversity.

Observing it all from the offices of the Taylor Bennett Foundation, we reflected on the fact that this has been the focus of our work for a lot longer than a few weeks. The foundation has spent more than a decade trying to address some of the structural imbalances in this area of society.

Established to train, mentor and encourage black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) graduates to pursue a career in communications – and one day hopefully contribute to the column inches exposing injustices such as Windrush, or to help deal with its fallout – the foundation seeks to address the need for greater diversity in the public relations industry.

It’s disappointing, but unsurprising, that a recent report for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations found that PR stubbornly remains dominated by white, predominantly middle-class professionals, accounting for 90% of respondents.

Black, African, Caribbean and Black British professionals accounted for just two per cent of responses, with Asian respondents accounting for the same tiny proportion. The PRCA – the industry’s trade association in the UK – reported similar findings, with an overwhelming 91% of respondents to their survey identifying as ‘white’ or ‘white other’.

We have a duty to look behind the statistics and ask ourselves what can be done to attract many more BAME professionals into the industry. After all, if we’re communicating with an ever-increasingly diverse population, shouldn’t the communications workforce be equally as diverse as its audience? This is a perpetual problem and one that became increasingly obvious to me in the 17 years that I spent working in the executive search firm Taylor Bennett.

The hard truth is that most minority ethnic graduates leaving university these days are from first- or second-generation immigrant families. In many cases they are the first in their families to go to university. Their parents often encourage them to pursue traditional professional careers, to become doctors, lawyers, or accountants. The idea that they might aspire instead to be the group corporate affairs director of a FTSE 100 company is unlikely to take root, despite it being a senior executive role that would likely be rewarded with a considerably higher salary than most doctors.

In practical terms, this meant that my clients in those days requested ethnically diverse shortlists of candidates, a demand that was impossible for us to satisfy due to the lack of diversity in the industry. I would explain time and again that because there were very few such candidates going into the industry at entry level, it was nigh on impossible to find them at a senior level.

Eventually, one late night as I was writing yet another explanation to a client (a government department, no less) for the lack of more diverse candidates, I decided that we should try and do something about it. That night the Taylor Bennett Foundation was born.

We spent a year testing the ingredients of what was launched in 2008 as a ten-week programme – paying above the minimum wage – designed to help participants develop the technical skills (from how to write a news release, to how to run a social media campaign) and most importantly the ability to secure a job at the end of it all.

I tracked down my ‘dream team’ of trainers, including Chris Cooke, who I had seen train hordes of student journalists to do reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe, and Sarah Stimson, a former colleague who I knew had the temperament and the tenacity to make it a success. These two and many others came on board and are still around today.

Ten years and 200 graduates later, 80% of whom work in the industry, the pipeline of minority ethic communications talent is now well established. Taylor Bennett Foundation alumni can be found in some of the most prominent PR agencies and in-house communications teams in the UK.

After this success south of the border, and now that I have moved to run Edinburgh Business School, the graduate school of business of Heriot-Watt University, I am delighted that the programme is coming to Scotland, thanks to the generous support of Standard Life Aberdeen and Charlotte Street Partners.

We are launching a shorter, five-week programme, as we test the waters to see if we can develop a talent pipeline in Scotland. Applications are open now and anyone who has graduated (or is about to) within the last two years is eligible, with the deadline set for 17th May.

Four successful candidates will be selected at an assessment day on 30th May. The programme begins on 4th June, lasting until early July, with trainees paid the real living wage throughout.

I hope that this will be the first of many Scottish-based programmes, and that those in London will also continue to ensure a healthy pipeline of BAME talent. We will only consider our job done when at least 15% of the communications industry is minority ethnic, so we have plenty of work to do yet.

Until then, we look forward to welcoming BAME professionals to Charlotte Street Partners, Standard Life Aberdeen and the wider Taylor Bennett Foundation family for the programme next month.

If you or someone you know would like to be among the first people to benefit from this opportunity, and help us address the imbalance in the communications industry, we want to hear from you now.

Professor Heather McGregor is Executive Dean of Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University

Anyone interested in applying can find out more at the Taylor Bennett Foundation's website: http://www.taylorbennettfoundation.org/becomeatrainee/