Inclusivity and diversity in PR. It’s something we’re surely all aware of but is it something you’re doing something about?
The 2017/18 State of the Profession report from the CIPR showed that only 6% of practitioners consider themselves to have a physical disability or long-term physical health condition.
This is down from 7% in the 2017 report – although this report asked the question ‘do you consider yourself to suffer from a disability?’ so some mental illnesses may be included in this figure. The fact is, there aren’t many people with disabilities in PR. But why?
The 2018 report states that the top three perceived strongest attributes in senior PR managers are strategic thinking, problem-solving and writing skills. So, if a person is competent at those, why can’t they work in PR?
Back in 2015, PR Week listed ‘keeping your cool in a crisis’ and ‘formulating a digital strategy’ as the top required skills – so if someone is skilled in these areas, why can’t they work in PR?
The fact is, there is no reason why not. PR is an industry that can welcome people of all abilities, people with all different requirements and needs.
I spoke to founder and director of InFusion Comms, Sara Hawthorn, who is passionate about improving the diversity and accessibility of the communications industry, to find our her views as a hard of hearing PR professional.
Tell me a bit more about yourself – your background, your experience and your current role.
Originally, I trained as a journalist and over the years I’ve worked in a wide range of media-related jobs – from copywriter to columnist, to in-house PR for a start-up, to account manager within a full-service agency environment and press manager for a charity. I’ve always worked in niche and technical sectors such as agri-PR and construction PR and more recently I’ve been working in renewable energy and cleantech PR. I’m now the founder and director of my own small agency with an office in Leeds and Glasgow and we’ve just hit the five-year mark which is a real achievement and goes against the small-business odds.
What do you enjoy most about working in the PR industry?
I find people endlessly fascinating and I love telling stories, when I add that to learning about, and raising awareness of technology that could literally save the planet it becomes a perfect blend for me. Plus, I think the PR industry is an exciting place right now, there are so many people trying to improve what we do and how we do it, and the mood is one of change and positivity. I’ve worked in PR for almost 12 years and I think this is the most encouraged and hopeful I’ve felt about public relations.
You’re fairly vocal online about the lack of disability inclusivity in PR. I’ve done some research and it seems people are saying all the right things – that they have an inclusivity policy, they want to give equal opportunities – but action doesn’t necessarily seem to be being taken. Why do you think this is?
How long do you have? I think it’s a mix of several things. There is definitely a line of thinking which is prevalent and which leads to the ‘let’s do diversity, it’ll look good to have a (insert minority group here) on the team’, approach and I think this comes down to lack of real education on unconscious bias and its daily impact, particularly in large agencies. This approach also means leaders mistakenly believe they’ve done their bit so don’t take it any further. Similarly, I think inclusivity policies imply complexity. A 5-10 page document on how to be inclusive screams complicated, so it’ll be unread and ultimately pointless. It’s actions that make the difference; small, everyday things on an individual level or larger steps that have an organisation-wide benefit. For example, blind recruitment. We do that here and it’s so easy to do. There’s no excuse not to make this change.
I have to be realistic and recognize that there’s only so much people can care about. I’m aware being vocal about the lack of disability inclusion in PR is asking for people to give a shit about yet another thing and I think people have diversity fatigue. I get it, but given how long it’s taken to get anywhere with gender and the pay gap, which have dominated diversity discussions for the last few years…
“… bringing disability diversity to light now is the only way we might see some better figures than 4% over the next few years.”
There’s also a serious lack of honesty going on here. Most diversity articles I read state the same facts – census reports quoting statistics, the business case for diverse teams, but what we’ve really not got to is why. I want to know your real thoughts and opinions on diversity, not the Disney version you think I want to hear, the brutal hard truth. Only then can we understand and move forward.
What challenges do you face within the industry as a deaf PR pro? And how do you find out get over these?
Not many, and I think that’s the point. People expect me to have challenges, and this shows how big the gap between perception and reality is. The only things that I really have to manage are meeting people in noisy environments, so the local coffee shop is out but I know of many quieter, better places to meet and usually that works out for everyone anyway – no one likes to be drowned out by the preparation of a macchiato grande (I don’t drink coffee, is that hot milk one?), hearing impaired or not! Events and large meetings, and lack of awareness of loop systems is an ongoing challenge but this isn’t purely a PR issue. My brain works a little harder to piece together conversations so I get tired after busy days which are back to back meetings or at conferences, but that doesn’t affect my ability to do my job. In a day-to-day office setting, there is no difference.
“I’ve had 30 years of living with my hearing loss and I may be hard of hearing but I’m a damn good listener.”
You’re now the director of a successful PR agency. However, earlier on in your career, did you find that you faced barriers in finding employment?
No, but that’s because I didn’t tell anyone. I do wonder if it would have been a different story had I been as open about this 10 years ago. The one agency I did tell (but only after I’d been there a while), made me feel a little like I was being a nuisance – all I asked for was a phone that had a hearing aid setting.
Do you find that your disability hinders prospects with new clients?
The opposite. I had one client come to me specifically because of it and the openness with which I deal with it and manage it. Perhaps it’s that transparency and honesty which appeals to people; I’m not hiding this so I’m more likely to be honest in the rest of my actions? It is how we operate here so there is definitely truth to that. Then again, those that don’t hire us because of it are unlikely to tell me that’s the reason!
What advice would you give to PR agencies or in-house comms teams to ensure that they are inclusive and fair when hiring? What sort of measures can be put in place in the workplace to support people?
Implement blind recruitment processes. We used a Google form with some questions and an upload function for people to add a CV or other similar document that supported their application and clearly showed their experience and knowledge. Only contact information is a phone number. It is such a small step and so easy to do. If you do recruit anyone with a disability, have awareness days, start asking questions about your culture – if they feel like a tick box hire then it’s unlikely they’ll stay long. If that happens, then the agency don’t dare say, ‘well that didn’t work’. No.
“Implement blind recruitment processes … Make the effort – it’ll benefit everyone and you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.”
If you could ask all PR pros to do one thing to promote inclusivity, what would you ask them to do?
Be proactive about educating yourself. Don’t wait for a boss to suggest a training day, or a specific issue to arise before thinking about it. We know unconscious bias is an issue, take ownership of your own and take steps to fix it. If we all did that a little more we’d see a wave of change in our industry.
It seems to me that there is no reason why the PR industry can’t take steps to improve diversity and inclusivity. Simple yet hugely beneficial actions like blind recruitment can make a vast difference. And challenging your own unconscious bias and educating yourself on these issues will mean we start to take steps in the right direction.
We all need to be inclusive, supportive and stop being so judgemental.