Diversity is one of the hot topics in public relations right now. People all around the world are discussing why a profession, so dominated by women, has so few senior women at the top of the profession. Others are questioning why public relations consultants appear to be drawn from such a uniform, narrow cohort – one that is unrepresentative of the public at large.
Yet more are asking why there are so few people over 50 working in our profession. All of these are valid questions. But there’s another important aspect of diversity that, by its very nature, is invisible and therefore risks being overlooked: socio-economic diversity.
This is a creative business, where the most effective campaigns arise from a crucial insight into the audiences we wish to connect with and influence. The starting point for great work is audience empathy, and empathy is so much easier if you understand how your target group thinks, feels and acts. As the old saying goes, ‘if you want a good gamekeeper, hire a poacher.’
Socio-economic diversity is of special importance to me because of my own background. I am not a graduate and I grew up in a relatively poor, working class family. I had the wrong accent and no connections in public relations to call on to get my first break. But when I did, it was apparent that everyone around me was unlike me in terms of social class and education. As far as I know, such differences didn’t hold me back. But how easy would it be to get that first break today for someone with my background?
Most companies looking to recruit new talent still screen applicants based on their educational background. Increasingly, they are using technology to do this filtering, relying on keyword analyses of digital application forms or CVs. My first break came from getting in front of decision-makers. Today, someone like me would never get to that point: the computer would simply say “no” in the first sift.
With so many employers reporting talent challenges, why would any want to exclude bright, capable people in this way? They don’t, of course, but without radical change to existing hiring processes they’re destined to keep fishing from the same, increasingly shallow pond. And we all know that radical change is so often slow to arise and resisted.
This diversity problem isn’t exclusive to public relations – many more traditional professions such as accountancy, legal and management consultancy share the problem. The same applies to the public sector. A study by the UK’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found 71 per cent of senior judges were privately educated. In 2012, only 25 recruits out of more than 600 to the Civil Service graduate fast stream came from working-class backgrounds.
One of the key recommendations of The Commission is that employers interrogate current definitions of talent, including how potential is identified and assessed, to ensure that disadvantaged students are not ruled out for reasons of background rather than aptitude and skill. I couldn’t agree more. The employers that do this first will gain a distinct competitive advantage.
While technology is currently used to unwittingly screen out rare talent, new algorithms are beginning to appear that do precisely the opposite. Perhaps the computer may soon become the disadvantaged budding public relations professionals’ new best friend.