If PR’s a people industry, do we need different people?

Posted on 08/11/2011

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People are vital to communications. Not only do they make up the audiences marketeers try to reach, but they are often the sole ‘asset’ a communications team or agency has.

Given this fact – and that the number one concern to big agency owners is recruiting the right people (according to Hill & Knowlton‘s Sally Costerton) – it was disappointing that not more employers joined the hundred or so students at the ‘Education in Public Relations’ debate at the University of Westminster.

Plenty of arguments were made in favour of PR degrees as a route to provide practical experience and theoretical knowledge of the industry. And while there is still a job to do to sell these degrees to employers, it seems that the PRCA-approved PR degrees will provide a return on student’s investment.

Which is all well and good. But if the majority of your PR degree students come from a background where they can afford tuition fees and want to spend three years at university, this is going to make for very small pickings in the diversity stakes.

As Richard Ellis from the PRCA pointed out at the debate, 94% of PRs are white. And 89% are graduates. You don’t need a degree in anything to tell you that an industry which is so selective will struggle to understand the very audiences it tries to communicate with.

Take me for instance. I can tell you how to appeal to Coventry City fans. Or what 34 year olds may be concerned about.  I have a pretty decent understanding of what appeals to gay men (well, not all gay men). And what concerns Kentish Town residents and homeowners. Why – because I belong to each of these ‘tribes’.

As I am a communications professional, I can also tell you what appeals to readers, viewers and listeners of the media (well, what journalists think appeals to their audiences). I can extend this to some creative digital and broadcast channels and through career experience add an understanding of older people, younger people and some other socio-demographic groups. I can also work with partner organisations who know more than me to reach audiences – or conduct research to help me understand groups I don’t know enough about.

But in an age where we are seeing the ‘democratisation of everything‘ and where immediate, social, interaction is becoming increasingly important in communications, there is nothing which can compare to belonging to a ‘tribe’ to intuitively understand how to communicate with the audience.

Chart showing entry-level recruitment into PR

The PR Paths to Success - email simon@simonfrancis.org if you'd like a higher-resolution version

This is even more important for junior recruits who do not yet have the career experience to rely on. Yet in belt-tightening and social times, these juniors are increasingly used to come up with creative tactics, brainstorm ways to reach people and actually stand on the virtual front line – having to communicate directly with members of the public.

Therefore, diversity in recruitment is vital. And it was disappointing that, while the PRCA pledged at the Westminster debate to start developing an Apprenticeship in PR, more is not being done to encourage a diverse workforce.

So, rather than just talk about it, here is my chart setting out how a PR agency or communications team could re-structure its entry level training and recruitment to broaden its diversity and ensure there are many ways to enter the profession.

Please debate it, use it or contact me to discuss it with you!