Similarity Kills Innovation

Anita Paradzayi writes about the critical role of diversity and inclusion in Public Affairs

Public Affairs is a blend of functions, largely drawing its talent from Westminster’s political sphere. So with the Public Affairs census sharing that the industry is ‘Westminster-centric, male-dominated, white and right-leaning’ it’s no surprise that there is a lack of diversity in the industry as it mirrors what we see in today’s political representation. As an outsider looking in, Public Affairs should better reflect today’s society. This is a crucial point as the industry heavily impacts policy as it operates at “the nexus of business, media, and politics” and without a diverse culture “organisations have a limited viewpoint. This “ultimately negatively impacting policy and legislation” Laura Sainsbury says speaking to Prospects. It is obvious that marginalized groups- namely women and BAME- are severely underrepresented and if we are lucky enough to see them in certain positions within PA they are at times discredited in the face of racism, microaggressions, discrimination, and harassment.

While in conversation with Michael Murphy (SP at Michael Murphy and former Global CEO at Grayling) he stated that

“Agency and consultancy leaders need to wake up to the new reality, this can no longer be an afterthought. This should be a continuous way to run business and the right thing for society. It is impossible to represent clients and reach out to key stakeholders and understand their sentiment unless you have a representative workforce of the companies you are doing business with”

and he is right! 

The facts are: 


  • In both PA and PR found that the vast majority (92%) of practitioners classify themselves as white, leaving BAME practitioners representing only 8% which fell from 11% (2015) (The CIPR State of the Profession 2019 census


    • 1 in 4 (27%) women in the sector say they have experienced sexual harassment at work. With 1 in 3 women stating that PA is poor at protecting women and helping deal with harassment.  (Women in Public Affairs (WiPA) and Opinium)


  • With Elizabeth Bananuka recent Blueprint initiative coinciding with the CIRP in the ‘ Race in the PR Workplace report they revealed that racism taken in the form of micro-aggression is a significant factor that is having an impact on the working lives of BAME professionals – often making them leave the profession or branching out as independent practitioners. 
  • 60% of women feel their company is not transparent about progression and pay, and nearly half (44%) believe their pay differs from their male counterparts in their company.


  • BAME are deprived of opportunities for certain tasks and projects as well as prestigious accounts. This affects the progression of BAME people at all levels. 

The list goes on …

But, why is it like this? 

1. The glass ceiling effect: Underrepresentation

Ornella Nsio (Stakeholder Engagement Manager, R&E Confederation) “Entering the industry is hard, and once you’re inside as a black or female professional it’s even harder to stay let alone progress. You have to compete with white male peers who may not have better interpersonal skills than you, but because they share cultural similarities with the MPs you are trying to engage, they automatically have a head start.”

As previously mentioned, the industry operates through a monoculture of male, white, middle/upper class- an ill representation of our wider society. Consequently, this discourages young women, BAME and people from lower class backgrounds from entering the field. They do not see people ‘like themselves’ and so, are aware of the barriers (unconscious bias, racism, discrimination, etc) that prevent them from having a successful career. In-house and agencies need to create initiatives that reach out to those unable to gain access or do not have the same opportunities that the majority in the industry have had. 

Nevertheless, underrepresentation leaves BAME individuals with ‘imposter syndrome’. A phenomenon, a feeling of not belonging that encourages the altering of one’s self; from the way a person speaks or acts. It leaves an individual with the inability to own or internalize their success which results in feeling as if they acquired their position through luck or as a token employee (an exception to the system). To disband this a diverse workforce is needed. 

“For in-house public affairs professionals, navigating the rest of the business requires many of the same skills those of us in consultancy rely on.  We all rely on our ability and our credibility.  And to be credible we must reflect the world and the organisations we seek to support – through our advice, as advocates and as role models for those coming into the profession.” 

Lisa Townsend - Director, WA Communications

2. Racism

Racism manifests itself through microaggression which is subtle and indirect. It is defined as daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental actions, whether intentional or unintentional, that are hostile, derogatory, or show negative prejudice. For example, inappropriate comments on hair or being “mistaken for catering staff at stakeholder events”. Some may say ‘how is that racist?’ but that is where the conversation is needed to be heard, to educate and create a much more understanding and accepting environment in PA. 

To be blunt, people need to be taught not to be racist, which is an absurd statement to say in 2020 but it is true. They need to understand the rights and wrongs in some of their actions, jokes, and comments they make towards black, Asian, or minority ethnic. This also applies to the discrimination women face in the workplace. These are conversations that need to take place as part of training both in-house and in an agency. 


  • Discrimination: unconscious bias and lack of equal opportunities go hand in hand.       


In research published by Women in Public Affairs (WiPA) and Opinium respondents were asked about barriers and the changes that are needed in the industry, many women described a “laddish” culture or a persisting “old boy’s network”. It was also said that “it's still a very 'macho' industry, which seems to require out of hours networking and ego”. There were calls for “more profile to female leaders as role models” and “women to be taken as seriously as men”. With most of the Public Affairs workforce carrying similarities in background and culture it is easy for them to discriminate against those who do not come from the ‘same cloth’. Therefore BAME, women, etc sometimes miss out on opportunities that further their career. A respondent from CIPR state of professions report stated that they experienced “unconscious bias” they “became more senior, with senior management recruiting in their own image and me feeling my face didn’t fit.”

Co-Founder and Director of Communication Services, Fran O'Leary commented on the report stating: 

“I think they got right to the heart of the issue and uncovered important findings. Their research showed that the industry needs to do more to modernise and be more transparent about career progression.”

Discrimination affects both women and BAME as stereotypes linked to unconscious bias often affects them in interviews and positions.  Unconscious bias often happens during the hiring process where the interviewer prefers one individual who fits ‘the mould’ of the company rather than another who has capabilities and better experience of undertaking the role. 

Research also confirms that:

  • ‘Adam’ is likely to get three times more job interviews than ‘Mohammed’
  • 80% of employers are influenced by regional accents in the interview process 
  • A man is four times more likely to be a CEO
  • With 10% of the respondents of WiPA stating that they have faced discrimination based on race, sexuality, or disability and further 10% based on their perceived class or socio-economic background 

Lisa Townsend (Director, WA Communications) point out that:

Neurodiversity is also crucial - ideas are our currency, and we can’t expect to be different from our competitors, and to come up with the best ideas of all our people look the same, sound the same and have the same background. The danger is that because PA does largely look and sound male and white, we don’t attract the people we should”

These facts are not to say that women, BAME, or people with disabilities cannot progress or be successful in the industry, they can! But it takes resilience to overcome adversity and for industry leads to not only champion but impose a much more inclusive and diverse industry. 

Why is diversity and inclusion important? 

“Our industry will benefit and improve from having more diverse teams and a greater diversity of views, life experiences and skills in the room when planning and activating public affairs campaigns”

Fran O’Leary - Co-Founder and Director of Communication Services

Having a diverse team largely aids the success of a company:

  1. Teams are more likely to perform better – According to research published in Harvard Business Review (2017) Cognitively, diverse teams solve problems faster than teams of cognitively similar people. 
  2. There will be greater innovation and creativity – Exposure to a variety of different perspectives and views leads to higher creativity. It gives organisations the best ways to approach stakeholder engagement, legislative tracking, and grassroots advocacy.
  3. Higher employee engagement and reduced turnover when companies have strong policies based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or religion employees feel more accepted and valued which in turn increases high-quality work and productivity within a company. In 2018, 57% of organisations from different industries were surveyed for LinkedIn’s Global Recruiting Trends; they went beyond D&I and adapted the concept of ‘Belonging’. The report said that “psychological safety that allows employees to be their best selves at work. Even at the most diverse of companies, employees will disengage and leave if they don’t feel included and accepted.”
  4. Builds a company’s brand and reputation – A report by PWC back in 2017 found that a large majority of people searched up company policies before they applied. This means that not being diverse and inclusive can be barrier in attracting high-quality employees but also impact the image of a company’s brand. 

There are changes being made that are helping change the industry.

To name a few: 

  • The Taylor Bennett foundation: Charity that exists to encourage black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) graduates to pursue a career in communications.
  • Women In Public Affairs: forum for women at all stages of their careers in public affairs. They challenge discrimination within the industry- quite recently calling for the public affairs industry to raise standards and support the progression of women working within the public affairs industry.
  • Elizabeth Bananuka’s - The "Blueprint" scheme where an agency signs up to 23 commitments - on topics from recruitment to working culture - aimed at promoting ethnic diversity from work experience to board level.
  • PRCA announcing a series of measures designed to increase the representation and accelerate the progression of BAME professionals in the industry:
    • Creation of BAME Advisory Board 
    • Cementing diversity in the Communications Management Standard

Anita Paradzayi is an international relations and diplomacy with law graduate, currently on a gap year before starting her Masters in Public Policy at Kings College. 

She tweets at @anitaparadzayi


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