Comms industry must move beyond tokenistic diversity: Industry leaders weigh in on Think HQ’s FAIR report

Despite relevant considerations in the recruitment process, in-house communications professionals find inherent biases, lack of knowledge, and tokenistic approaches to diversity still persist, according to Think HQ’s 2022 Framework for Agency Inclusion and Representation (FAIR) survey.

The study includes in-depth interviews with nine senior communication leaders and a survey with 156 respondents, compiled by RMIT University Honorary Fellow Dr Marianne Sison.

Following on from the inaugural FAIR report in 2021, the pointed sample size makes for an exploratory study of diversity in the Australian communications industry and has been endorsed by the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) and International Association of Business Communications (IABC).

PRIA president, Shane Allison, told Mumbrella that it was critical that the industry get multicultural communication right, noting that the FAIR study is an important measure of the progress that is still needed.

“The hard work of our members, like Think HQ, is critical to helping our industry achieve greater capability as agents of culturally inclusive communication, bringing the influence we have to bear on getting this right.

“As the report highlights, one of the key issues that we face is increasing the diversity of our profession, and the PRIA is examining ways that we can bring more diverse cultural backgrounds in to our profession through helping promote communication as a career path to a broader audience, and more accessible to individuals with different technical backgrounds,” said Allison.

According to the research, most of the in-house practitioners responded were born in Australia with an Anglo-Celtic ancestry.

Another concern raised by the report was the “homogeneity” of leaders, as some respondents suggested that organisations led by white women were deemed “culturally unsafe” workplaces as were those led by “old white men.”

Sheba Nandkeolyar, president of IAA Australia, CEO MultiConnexions Group and advisory board member of Media Diversity Australia said that the communications industry is yet to reflect the diversity of Australia, which was declared by the 2021 Census to have become a migrant majority nation.

“Cultural Diversity is not reflected in our industry leadership profile, client and agency practitioner profiles; products are being created with no understanding of the changing audience profile or their lifestyles and interests.”

Nandkeolyar added: “I have to say the Think HQ FAIR report clearly outlines what I see and hear regularly – marketers telling me that multicultural audiences are not their marketing priorities, either in their annual planning or in their marketing budgets allocated this year. They say it will be reviewed next year and the story repeats itself year on year on year.”

While recognising the need for a genuinely diverse workforce, biases can be consciously or unconsciously manifested in recruitment through criteria such as citizenship status, local experience and mastery of the English language.

However, several of those interviewed for the study cautioned against “one-off, tokenistic” approaches to fix the cultural diversity gaps, and recommended “genuine” and “meaningful” inclusive practices, recognising the fine line between them.

Dr Sison said: “The overwhelming majority – 97% – of respondents believe organisations should prioritise cultural diversity and that cultural diversity in the industry is extremely or very important.”

“But, when asked to provide some best practice examples of cultural diversity and inclusion initiatives, almost 68% could not provide a single example.”

Weighing in on the implications of the report’s findings, Joanne Painter, group managing director of Icon Agency, said that communications agencies “ignore the need for increased cultural diversity at their peril”.

“With more than a quarter of us born overseas – and almost half with a parent born overseas – cultural and linguistic diversity defines modern Australia. Which makes embracing this diversity more than just the right thing to do; it’s imperative for business,” she said.

“Agencies must work harder to embed diverse cultural perspectives and experiences into their communications practice, and the best way to do this is by actively building a multicultural workforce.

“But the challenge isn’t limited to workplaces. To redress the apparent low levels of cultural diversity among communication teams we need to better engage young people and tertiary students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and open meaningful career pathways for them.”

The FAIR report recommends a number of actions to drive practical change, including investment in authentic community engagement, initiatives to empower staff and build more diverse workforces, and inclusion audits of organisations.


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