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MELISSA LAWRENCE CEO of the Taylor Bennett Foundation



Good intentions must evolve into a determined programme for achieving change in the PR industry, says Melissa Lawrence, CEO of the Taylor Bennett Foundation. 


Firms must also gather better data to put in place strategies that target issues with retention, progression and inclusion.

When we look at racial diversity within the PR industry, progress has been really slow. Some progress has been made, but the issue lies with the pace of change. 


When the foundation was set up the BAME population within PR was 6.3% (CIPR census), in 2015 this figure went up to about 10%. From the most recent report we know that the industry is sitting at around 9% – which means the industry is worse than it was 5 years and that the PR industry is 91% white. The industry has a very long way to go. The issues around racial equality for black people is very prevalent – the industry is realising that this is a crisis and that more has to be done in order for things to get better.


When looking at employers, some do have good intentions and want to change things. I think it’s important to help educate them around how they do that, which involves talking to people a lot more about diversity and inclusion, with an emphasis on inclusion and belonging. Retention is a big part of cultivating talent that is on the ground, employers have to ask themselves ‘how can we ensure they feel supported enough to stay’. Structural issues can only be addressed if employers genuinely commit to the need for change. Granted some employers are showcasing their commitment to making things better, however, real change must be intentional.


My background is not in Public Relations or Communications, it lies within talent management. My passion is supporting young people into job roles where they will thrive, and this part of the reason for my position at the Taylor Bennett Foundation. As Chief Executive, part of my role involves working with employers to work out what their diversity talent needs are and how to address them, as well as working with young people to find out what the barriers are and seeing if we can develop programmes that will bring down the barriers and level the playing field for them. 


Growing up I’ve always been a creative at heart, I studied dance (jazz, tap, contemporary and ballet) because I really wanted to become a choreographer. I vividly remember my brother telling me it may be difficult to get into the field, especially as a minority. He encouraged me to do a business qualification as a backup. I did just that and enrolled in a business school, which naturally meant I fell out of choreography – and never went back. I think if I was given the opportunity to go back, I would have gone down the creative route, although to some degree there are elements of working creatively in my current role. The work we do at TBF aims to address the very barriers that limit individuals from an ethnic minority background.


Drawing from the conversations I’ve had with TBF Alumni, it’s fair to say that there is a structural issue when it comes to retention and progression, not everyone feels supported enough to progress professionally. It’s these barriers that have led Black and other minority practitioners to set up their own organisations or just move out of the industry completely. 


Frankly speaking, a lot of things mentioned are not unique to PR and despite the hurdles there are a significant number of alumni who are doing extremely well and have risen to positions of seniority – so that for me if an indication that rising to the top is possible for people from an ethnic minority background entering the industry. 


There are also Black practitioners who are happy in the industry and it really shows – perhaps showcasing this more would encourage more people from BAME backgrounds to enter the industry. It sometimes comes down to ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, so showcasing our successes will inspire others to find out if a career in Comms is for them.


I would also like to emphasise the importance of collecting data when measuring what more needs to be done. Organisations often mention the barriers to collecting data, but we know that data can be collected in the right way by bringing people along with what your intentions are around a said survey or questionnaire. 


I’d like to see more organisations gathering data on the issues affecting their employees and interrogating it so they can come up with suitable D&I strategies that target specific issues, such as retention, progression and inclusion to name a few.


I’m optimistic that the future for Black and people from minority backgrounds in PR is far from bleak. The appetite for change is high, I can testify to having good discussions with people who are open and willing to have conversations around how they can do better. 


2021 (and beyond) will be a telling one – we just have to wait and see.