SOCIAL MOBILITY IN PR - A CAREER OPEN TO ALL Sarah Stimson
The PR industry needs to represent the public it serves, however diversity is increasingly lacking. Issues of practicality are holding PR firms back from addressing the problem but there are workarounds and solutions to be adopted.
• How having a diverse workforce stimulates innovation and creativity
• Why unpaid internships prevent social mobility and should be avoided
• How a shift in your approach to recruitment, induction and training can pay dividends for all
For an industry that reaches every possible audience it’s perhaps surprising that diversity among the PR workforce is lacking.
In 2016 the PRWeek/PRCA Census  revealed that only 9% of the UK PR workforce is from a BME background. Several organisations and groups are working towards addressing this lack of ethnic diversity including the Taylor Bennett Foundation , Creative Access  and BAME20/20  and to some extent the work they do has an impact on social mobility too because of the socio-economic backgrounds of the young BAME people they work with.
Social mobility itself isn’t measured by the industry census, but taking a look at a range of typical job adverts for entry-level PR roles, and the 150 PR internships list  I publish each year reveals that the vast majority of PR agencies insist on a degree as a basic requirement. The team pages of agency websites confirm that the industry is predominately white and middle class and this history of recruiting people from the same backgrounds could mean that industry innovation and a breadth of thinking is stifled.
Widening the talent pool is imperative if the industry wants to continue to innovate and hire the best quality candidates. Changing the criteria for ‘best quality’ is essential if that is going to happen.
Stifling social mobility
The PR industry wants the brightest, most creative and most innovative people. I don’t believe that the industry isn’t interested in social mobility and the talent it’s missing out on, but I do think that there are issues of practicality that are holding PR firms back from addressing it.
An average entry-level PR vacancy will receive around 100+ applications that take an enormous amount of time and administration to sift through. For many firms, hiring criteria is set to filter out applications just to reduce the numbers and make them more manageable.
Typically, those criteria have been a degree, a particular grade (a 2:1 or above) and, in some cases, the type of university – some firms favour applicants from Russell Group universities for example. If those requirements prevent dozens more applicants from applying, it reduces the administrative burden considerably and so, perhaps understandably, this easy filter is often adopted. This means however that ‘best quality’ candidates are defined purely on their academic background.
In my experience, the best PR people are not always those from traditionally strong academic universities.
In addition, increasingly, entry-level PRs are expected to have a certain amount of PR experience on their CV before they get their first permanent job. Unpaid internships are often cited as a barrier to the industry for many young people.
Unless you have parents who can afford to support you, and contribute to your travel costs while you work for free, then unpaid internships are completely out of the question which results in only young people from wealthier backgrounds being able to get the experience they need to enter the industry.
I have spoken to firms which have strayed from the traditional graduate requirement at entry-level and who have since reinstated it as criteria. The gap between being a university student and a worker is large and preparing junior staff to be work-ready can sometimes be a painful experience for the hiring company.
Hiring young people who haven’t gone to university widens that student-worker gap and companies find that it’s too much of a burden on their existing workforce to train someone with little experience of a professional environment.
If a firm recruits from the same pool of people each time, it will continue to get the same candidates. Organisations that are serious about improving access to the industry need to first look at raising awareness of the industry among groups of young people who may never have previously considered a career in communications and, secondly, be more creative with their recruitment processes.
As an industry there has been a move away from unpaid internships as a way to gain industry experience but they are still out there. A recent quick internet search turned up more than a dozen unpaid internships in under five minutes. Increasing the pressure for firms to follow the law  and wipe out the practice of unpaid workers is important if access to the industry for young people from less well off backgrounds is to be improved.
If the biggest barrier to social mobility is the requirement to have a certain degree grade from a particular university then changing the hiring criteria and the definition of ‘best quality’ could dramatically change the demographics of applicants and rather than reduce the quality of the candidates, can unlock talent that other firms aren’t reaching. The most obvious way to do that is to remove all requirements for a degree at entry level and hire either into apprenticeships, or into schemes that move away from ‘graduate schemes’ to ‘training contracts’.
There are other creative ways to approach it too. Making sure that all jobs are hired against a well formed competency framework will ensure that applicants are measured on skills and potential rather than their degree or the number of months they’ve sat in an internship role where they may not have actually learned an enormous amount.
To take it a step further, removing CVs completely from the application process and using application forms with structured questioning around skills, experience and ambitions can give a greater insight into a candidate’s potential and for firms where removing the degree requirement completely is a step too far, then university blind recruitment could provide the answer.
It’s generally thought that subconscious bias plays a large part in the recruitment process – people hire people not too dissimilar to themselves. If the industry is going to crack that problem then it needs to change interviewing styles to ensure bias is challenged – typically by two or more people interviewing together.
Retaining diverse talent
Beyond recruiting from a wider pool of talent if there is to be any lasting impact on social mobility in the industry, then appropriate training and inclusion as part of the business culture are vital. An effective induction programme with a company buddy system – partnering junior employees with a more senior practitioner – can reduce the burden of training younger employers, helping them transition into working life smoothly.
Uniqueness and individuality should be encouraged and a company inclusion policy which then filters through every area of the firm’s working practices will help to keep talent from more diverse backgrounds.
If the PR industry is serious about addressing social mobility there are easy, cost-effective ways to go about it. Engaging with under-represented groups, some creative recruitment processes, improved induction and training, and inclusion as an integral part of company culture are simple to implement and can have an impact on the demographics of entry-level hires.
As with all entry-level initiatives, seeing the result in more senior roles takes some patience but in the long-run will improve the diversity of a company and ensure the brightest people have access to the industry, no matter what their socio-economic background.
Sarah Stimson is the Programme Director at Taylor Bennett Foundation, a charity dedicated to addressing the lack of diversity in PR with traineeships for BAME graduates, the editor of the careers advice website PRcareers.co.uk, and the author of How to get a job in PR.