There’s no denying that the PR industry has an inclusivity problem. Our latest accessmatter session focused on sociality mobility, with Sarah Atkinson from The Social Mobility Foundation explaining her work and how we can all do more to better our own industry when it comes to class.
Whether you’re someone who has come from the London-born, university-educated, middle-class-and-up background that makes up the biggest portion of the PR workforce and leadership level, or you’re from, well, anywhere else, here is some of Sarah’s advice for making a long-term career in PR a possibility for everyone.
1) Learn the terms and start asking questions
Low-income, disadvantaged, underrepresented, working class – if this isn’t your background, you might not be sure of the right words to use when having conversations around social, economic and class difference. If you’re from this background, you might not feel comfortable using these words as descriptors for yourself in a work environment.
But finding the words are important: ‘Use the right phrasing. ‘Low income’ is good, but it doesn’t cover everything,’ says Sarah. ‘Ask questions – in your family and in your network, did people go to university? Can people help you into industries?
‘We are working with very disadvantaged young people as part of our programmes at The Social Mobility Foundation. I do talk about ‘disadvantage’, and they’re comfortable with that. When I’m talking more broadly, I talk about class – I talk about “ordinary” people, actually. I’m talking about the general population with that; most of us.
‘Don’t worry about the language if it’s silencing you, though. Acknowledge social and cultural issues. Approach it with honesty and people will notice the intent and have faith in it.’
2) Ask if the recruitment process at your organisation is fair
Whatever level of the hierarchy you’re at, looking at or remembering your own recruitment process can help others coming through.
‘When it comes to recruitment, we ask employers at the start to analysis their recruitment process,’ says Sarah. ‘That’s critical in every organisation – if you’re automatically asking for degrees for jobs they’re not needed for, or if your process is one where people from low social economic backgrounds are being filtered out, that’s undermining any other efforts to be inclusive.’
3) Recognise that not everyone will be comfortable with working from home
Is the ‘new normal’ of working from home with no commute comfortable for you? It might not be the same for everyone you’re working with.
‘If we’re all in our home environment, and some are in nicer, or more comfortable situations, the levelling can be very false. Remembering that a virtual set up means everyone is more reliant on their domestic circumstances is really important,’ advises Sarah.
‘If we assume there’s equity in that, we’ll build in that inequity we’ve inherited. We need to assess any plan for the future and ensure that we’re understanding everyone’s set up and their needs. Make sure the plan is mindful and offer support.’
4) Be an advocate
Whether you’re working from a position of privilege and want to help others who don’t, or you want to help others from your similar backgrounds and circumstances to yours into the industry with you, you may be asking yourself, ‘What can I do as an individual to make a difference?’ Sarah says: advocate for others and yourself.
‘Look out for job descriptions that have ‘graduate preferred’ when it’s nonsense. Stand up and say it’s not acceptable when someone’s accent is mocked. Spot those things where not having enough money, or understanding of the culture, can make a difference – be an advocate.
‘Everyone, at every level, can be a mentor. It can be light-touch – taking someone under your wing, helping them with how to dress right for an interview. Or it can be something more structured like a mentoring scheme.
‘You don’t just need a mentor to get into a business. Making sure that networks are there for people from a low income background, that they’re supported and brought into a room – this is the thing that makes a difference.’
5) Be an ally
Is ‘banter’ regarding class/accent/pools of reference acceptable? Not always, not often.
‘In lots of environments, mild mockery may be intended as harmless ‘banter’, but the first thing to do is to stand up, to say “That’s not cool, that’s not what we do here”,’ says Sarah.
‘This is about a broader culture that the senior sets and reflects. The culture is rarely bound to one behaviour. I would assume that there is good intent and bad execution until you know different. Speak separately to the person taking the wrong approach, and also say to the person it happened to: “I don’t think that was okay”. You do two things with that; you may get a change… you may not, but you give the opportunity for people to get it right. And you’re being an ally to the person on the receiving end – it’s really important to show ppl that there is some recognition.
‘If the senior person wants to engage or learn, that’s a great opportunity to talk about social mobility… if they say ‘you’re a humourless fun sponge’ then it’s a signal of what you’re up against.’
Wherever you came from and wherever your ambition will take you in your career and in your life, being aware of what’s not fair will help to shape the PR industry for the better:
‘Once you start actively noticing issues around social mobility, you’ll notice how the world is shaped to benefit people who are more privileged. You’ll clock it,’ says Sarah.
‘When you’re alert, then you can start to have the conversations that help others to notice, too.’
Read the round-up of our accessmatters session with Sarah Atkinson from The Social Mobility Foundation here.