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60 Years Since the Events of Hidden Figures: Lessons for the PR Industry

(Photo credit: Twitter)

Through February, Black History Month, the annual celebration of the important people and events in the history of the African diaspora, I committed to sitting with my daughters every available weekend night to watch movies that would help them strengthen their consciousness. I could not help but return to Hidden Figures, the movie that helped me to understand that the United States would not have successfully sent man to the moon were it not for the doggedness and indispensable work of three female African-American mathematicians.

Watching the movie for a second time with my teenage girls brought me back to reassess the key issues that it surfaced: racial segregation, gender discrimination, stereotyping, the glass ceiling through which certain classes of people could never break, and the misinterpretation of diversity and suppression of inclusiveness that almost derailed a key pillar of the national security strategy of the United States. As a marketing and communications practitioner, and a recent migrant who is trying to integrate in a new country and a new professional community, I have tried to look at my new world through the spectacles of these three heroines.

It has been 60 years since the movie's events, but the progress we have made in addressing the systematic racism and sexism that characterized the workplace of that period is troubling. Even more shocking is the progress made — or lack thereof — in people-oriented professions like public relations and communications.

Going by available data, one cannot be wrong to conclude that change has been painfully slow and any improvement at all counters the reality of the ethnic composition of the population. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the ethnic makeup of the PR industry in the United States is 87.9% white, 8.3% African-American, 2.6% Asian-American, and 5.7% Hispanic-American. In Canada, the story is no different. While nearly one in five people identify as a visible minority, and populations of metropolitan locations like Toronto are over 50% visible minority, the lack of representation of this group in the industry is glaring.

Sharlyn Carrington, a communication strategist and diversity advocate, researched this and concluded that the Canadian PR industry is not diverse. Gender and racial barriers continue to exist. She traced the reason for the lack of representation of the PR industry's low attraction to people of colour to a general lack of mentors, the perception that the industry is not inclusive, a mostly white leadership and very few black-owned agencies. I have checked out a few agencies myself and can see how skewed racial representation is in the communications industry.

Yet, diversity and inclusion remain strong propellants for business success and growth as evidence abound that diverse teams, especially at the executive level, outperform non-diverse teams. According to the latest (2020) report in the McKinsey series investigating the business case for diversity since 2015, companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity on executive teams were 36 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile. What’s more, diverse and inclusive PR teams are better equipped to understand and develop communication that successfully addresses multicultural and multi-ethnic audiences.

What is the industry doing to address the challenge of diversity and inclusion? What can business leaders do to effect systematic change? And what is the role of team members in changing the narratives? I am aware that in July 2020, the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms (CCPRF) shared a commitment to six strategic actions that Canadian agencies can take to help eradicate racism, discrimination and inequity in the industry. The actions covered six key areas including: leadership commitment, diverse and inclusive recruitment, training for managers and employees, inclusive representation in client work, equitable corporate philanthropy and accountability. While this is commendable and should be adopted by other industry bodies such as the IABC and CPRS, only 19 agencies have endorsed this commitment as of February 2021.

Beyond creating awareness, implementing DEI training, introducing DEI roles, setting up DEI committees and task forces, leaders need to move past strategy and statements and take real steps to inculcate diversity and inclusion into overall corporate strategy while instituting mechanisms for measuring, benchmarking, reporting, and rewarding performance. We have seen this work with sustainability and corporate social responsibility.

As individual team members, we need to reach out to our professional and student communities to provide mentorship to young and aspiring professionals in underrepresented groups. When we have the opportunity to lead or work in diverse teams, we need to support, acknowledge, and celebrate their achievements. And if you are Black or a visible minority, you need to be visible, you need to consciously express the value of your contribution and be your own self-advocate. Without self-advocacy, as we saw in the movie, the trio of Katherine Coleman, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson would simply have resigned to fate and miss their moment of history.

This year's Black History Month witnessed an increase in participation, following a year during which agitations against racial injustice grabbed the attention of the world, with brands and agencies coming under pressure to take a stand. While the month-long commemoration may have come to an end, the conversation should not be confined to the month of February. It should not slow down. It should not stop.


About the author:

Before immigrating to Canada in 2018, Dan worked extensively in the marketing and communications industry, holding senior roles in global agencies with footprints across Africa. With an impressive capacity for turning data into insight for connecting brands and consumers in an increasingly digital world, he is passionate about supporting startups to develop and implement product development, branding, customer discovery, and go-to-market strategy.

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