Why we need diversity in communications

Earlier this month, the Government released its white paper on the future of the BBC. The need for the organisation to reflect the diversity of its audience within its programming was a key issue raised in the paper.

While the salaries of its stars, the distinctiveness of its programmes and issues like the way it’s funded and governed are important, the need for creative content producers and commissioners to keep the diversity of its audience at the forefront of their minds is paramount.

The taxpayers who fund the BBC are from all backgrounds. It’s not unreasonable to expect programming to reflect that. However, the issue of diversity isn’t just one for the BBC. Brands service the same ‘audience’. Shouldn’t branded content – whether advertising, marketing, PR or social, reflect that diversity? Do you need diverse content creators to come up with a diversity of ideas?

Diversity in PR

First, it’s important to realise that diversity doesn’t just mean “more women in the boardroom” or having a team that has a diverse ethnic make-up. Supporting diversity means developing a workplace that’s amenable to people with a wide range of physical or mental health issues, people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, are different ages, are LGBT QIA, have different political views and personalities, and have different life experiences.

It means supporting religious requirements and having an understanding of employees’ needs on an individual level – things like having policies that offer flexibility to not only parents, but carers as well.

But many PR professionals find themselves working in environments where the demands of the industry require things that support a certain lifestyle and often hinder the progress of those that come from a different background to the majority.

You may not be able to stay in the office until 8pm if you have to get home for the kids. Those with chronic illnesses may have days where they can’t leave the house, but still be able to work from home. Unpaid internships allow those from wealthy backgrounds to get experience in PR, while those without the financial support of their families or well-connected parents, often find themselves scrabbling to find a way in.

A self-perpetuating image problem

Certain professions have become synonymous with attracting or recruiting people from specific backgrounds, which, over time, creates a shared history and culture within that profession and creates an external perception of the profession – which can make it more intimidating for ‘outsiders’ to break into. For example, when I think of the senior civil service, I picture a Yes Minister-esque environment, when in fact the British civil service has the highest proportion of women in the senior civil service in Europe.

But, why is diversity important?

Understanding – a diverse team is more likely to understand the preferences of a diverse market. As reported in the Financial Times:

“When teams had one or more members who represented a target end-user, the entire team was as much as 158 per cent more likely to understand that target end-user and innovate accordingly.” Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) 2013

Creativity – is one of the core competencies of any decent PR person or content creator, but even the most creative and empathetic among us have our limits. You see this when some brands try to talk to teenagers as if they were one of the gang, rather than by working with the teenagers themselves, or the influencers they respect. Empathy and allegiance doesn’t compensate for inexperience.

Market share – The CTI also found that a more diverse organisation lead to improved market share.

“It found that publicly traded companies with two-dimensional diversity [inherent diversity – such as race/gender and acquired diversity such as experience and language skills] were 45 per cent more likely than those without to have expanded market share in the past year and 70 per cent more likely to have captured a new market.” Financial Times

Reflecting the experience of those you are trying to do business with is vital. Especially when you consider that, in general, people feel more comfortable doing business with those to whom they can relate. Would Reebok’s recent Ripley boots drama have happened if the marketing team had understood that yes, women would want to buy this item and that by marketing it to men, they would be alienating a significant chunk of potential buyers?

We want to work for diverse companies – the best places to work are often heralded for their stance on diversity. These companies don’t just whack a section on “diversity and inclusion” in their handbook and have done with it. They actively try to make the workplace more diverse and welcoming to people from a range of backgrounds.

“W. L. Gore & Associates … are developing a network of more than 150 “diversity champions” who will sustain the diversity dialogue at a plant level. After extensive training, each champion commits to driving a diversity project ranging from from large-scale events to lunch-and-learn sessions and plant “diversity councils” that prompt discussions of differences in the facility.” Fast Company

Diversity makes teams smarter – when a team lacks diversity, it limits the scope of its ideas – its perspective. Diverse teams expose team members to new ideas and fresh perspectives.

“Diversity improves the way people think. By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions. Our findings show that such diversity actually benefits everyone, minorities and majority alike.” Sheen S. Levine and David Stark, The New York Times

Diversity in content creators is important, whether they are creating content for the BBC or a major brand. Without diversity, it’s easy to ignore the experiences and perspectives of other people. It’s difficult to find understanding. If you surround yourself with people who share your life experiences, how will you talk to those with experiences that contrast your own?

The issue of diverse content is one of the most important challenges to come out of the BBC white paper, and it remains a challenge that the PR industry faces itself.

For insight on how the PR industry is handling mental health issues, see Paul Sutton’s excellent post on the recent CIPR event:  “Are workplace mental health initiatives good PR?

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