Diversity is central to council communications teams’ success - here’s how we can drive change

​​​​​​​The PR and communications industry is becoming less diverse, in terms of both ethnicity and sexuality. The LGA’s most recent Head of Communications survey revealed that just three per cent of council Head of Communications were from non-white ethnic minority backgrounds. But for council communications teams to be able to really reflect their communities and speak to them, there needs to be a variety of backgrounds and life experience, Melissa Lawrence, Chief Executive of diversity charity The Taylor Bennett Foundation, explains.

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Key points

  • A diverse workforce should be central to local councils at all levels – to be effective communicators we should reflect the communities we serve and speak to.
  • There are many practical steps we can take to ensure that our teams are diverse and capture a range of experiences – from advocating for our industry to engaging in blind recruitment practices.
  • Creating an inclusive workplace is also important. We owe it to ourselves and others to create an environment that will allow us to attract, retain and progress the best talent.

We need to lead the change in the communications industry

The latest Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) census put ethnic diversity in the communications industry at just 8 per cent – the lowest rate in five years. Women make up over 65 per cent of the workforce, yet only 16 per cent of women are in Director-level roles compared to 27 per cent of men. 89 per cent of people identify as heterosexual, with just six per cent identifying as LGBTQ. That makes us one of the lowest ranking sectors when it comes to diversity.

Every sector has a diversity issue. But it’s clear that the communications industry has some major issues when it comes to representation and equality. At The Taylor Bennett Foundation, we’ve spent the last 11 years working with young people from ethnic minority backgrounds to address the need for greater diversity in the communications industry.

There are only a handful of people from ethnic minority backgrounds in senior level communications roles. That’s why we’re focused on how we can help younger, entry level people in the hopes that in a few years’ time there will be people in the pipeline to fill these roles and close the gap.

Diversity is keys to council communications teams’ success

The lack of diversity in the wider sector is echoed in council communications teams. The LGA’s most recent Head of Communications survey revealed that just 3 per cent of council Head of Communications were from non-white ethnic minority backgrounds.

A diverse workforce should be central to local councils at all levels – to be effective we should reflect the communities we serve. Diversity brings so much to the table; whether that’s through thoughts, experience, ideas, or insights. If you have a diverse community, you need that reflected in your teams. If you don’t have an understanding or insight of a variety of experiences and cultures, it won’t translate into the services your council delivers or the products you produce.

Especially in terms of communications. How can you expect to speak to your communities and residents if there’s no variety of experience, background and skills? I always think of Hackney Council as a great example. The work they do for the community and the way they communicate with their residents, whether that’s through their production of the Hackney Carnival or their support for the Windrush generation, feels authentic and genuine. The Hackney Carnival in particular feels that way to me – I have a Caribbean background. It speaks to so many people in that borough and it speaks to real lived experience. That’s the power of effective communications.

We’ve gotten really good at talking about diversity, but we’re not acting to level the playing field. There are many things that we can do as communicators in local government to change this, so that people from minority backgrounds can get and keep the jobs they want, and equally so council communication teams can reap the benefits of a variety of cultures and experiences:

1: Put communications on the agenda

There’s no one central reason why the diversity gap has persisted; it’s a multifaceted problem. But there are some issues that are more apparent in this industry than others. I hear from many of my candidates that they just didn’t know of communications as a career path during their education. It’s a lesser known industry which means many people have no exposure to it – and we can all play a role in promoting it to a wider audience. This can be through many means, whether it’s by expanding the reach of your job advertisements or presenting at careers fairs.

Career fairs and open days can also play a role in putting communications on the agenda of those who have a far bigger role than you may think – parents. In ethnic minority families, there can often be a lot of pressure from parents. There is a bias to careers that they deem ‘professional’, children are encouraged to pursue careers as a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant or an engineer. They need to be open-minded, but we also need to advocate for the importance of communications as a very real and suitable career path.

2: Be proactive and cast your hiring net wide  

Our candidates have mentioned that before they joined the Foundation, they were unclear about where to look for jobs in communications. We know that there are the jobs there, but if they weren’t part of our programmes, then these young people wouldn’t know where to look. Our sector is losing out on an abundance of talent. Put your job advertisements out far and wide. There are many specialist organisations that councils can use to advertise their jobs to ensure that their applicants are as diverse as possible – whether that’s The Taylor Bennett Foundation, Stonewall, Whizz-Kidz; the list goes on. We must be proactive when it comes to diversity and equality.

3: Can you improve your recruitment methods

Take it one step further in the recruitment process. Many of the young people we work with are the perfect candidates – they have strong academic results; they’ve attended great universities and have relevant work experience. But they’re not even getting interviews. We need to think – to avoid this happening to talented young people, can we change how we recruit? The banking sector, for one, has put more effort into this with blind recruitment. This means removing the candidate’s name and other identifying factors – such as age, address or location, years of experience, and school or university names – from their application. This can stop any potential discrimination when it comes to candidates securing a job; whether that’s because of their name, education, class or gender.

4: Your workplace culture matters

There’s also changes we need to make in terms of workplace culture within our communications teams and wider organisations. Inclusivity is the most important thing – that feeling of belonging. When this doesn’t exist in a workplace, that’s one of the main reasons for people of minority backgrounds to move on quickly.

The industry is well known for being un-diverse – it’s overwhelmingly white and middle class. Our candidates look at other industries that are diverse, for example the health service, and think well maybe that’s the place for me – I’ll fit in. We hear that more and more as time goes on. Our young people have gone to communications agencies and they’ve been the only minority people. They only see themselves in the reception or security staff, and not in prominent positions. Not having that inclusive feeling, not being treated fairly in terms of career progression or investment is an issue that the industry has a responsibility to address.

Additional links

The Taylor Bennett Foundation is a charity that exists to encourage black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) graduates to pursue a career in communications. They run an award-winning training programme, and internship and mentoring programme to help them achieve this.