New scholarships promote diversity in PR; new research demonstrates their need

Humber College has launched The Impression Campaign, new scholarships intended to attract and retain racialized students to the school’s public relations program .

Developed in partnership with Code Black Communicator Network, the campaign’s goal is to increase diversity in the Canadian public relations industry by drawing more racialized high school students to the PR program, and ensuring they stay there once they get in.

According to Humber, 52% of Toronto area residents identify as a visible minority, but that diversity is not reflected in the sector. Racialized students also face greater financial barriers and often struggle to balance school and a heavy work schedule.

“Students who are balancing schoolwork, a job or multiple jobs and personal commitments, have limited time to spend on their studies,” said Anne Marie Males, program coordinator, Humber College, in a release announcing The Impression Campaign.

“Providing ongoing financial support in the form of scholarships to these students allows them to stay in school, focus on their education, and removes the concerns about how they will pay for their tuition and other related educational expenses.”

“For many racialized students, communications as a career path is not a part of their worldview,” Maxine McDonald, co-founder and co-chair of Code Black Communicator Network and a senior director at Media Profile, told The Message. “Often, it’s not promoted in schools and not represented within their families or communities. Creating an industry that reflects the country we live in requires building awareness among racialized young people before they enter post secondary [education], and supporting their journey from student to professional. It’s hard to be what you don’t see, or much less know exists.”

The Impression Campaign was launched with a founding investment by PR agency Agnostic. Agnostic will support four students in the PR program for the upcoming school year, with entrance scholarships for racialized high school students introduced at the start of the 2022 school year. After Agnostic got things started, other agencies were approached to contribute to the program with a minimum contribution of $2,500, which equates to tuition for one semester. So far other contributors include Edelman, Argyle, North Strategic, MSLGroup, Proof Strategies, Weber Shandwick, and Rogers Communications.

“The Impression Campaign is a way to actively recruit more potential communicators from racialized backgrounds into the industry and will help elevate the work that the industry can do over the next number of years and beyond,” said Agnostic president Sarah Crabbe in the release. “We need to create the space and support for racialized persons at the onset of their career, and most importantly at the education level. It’s why we’re calling on all agencies to take action and contribute to Impression.”

The announcement about The Impression Campaign comes just days after a comprehensive new study was released with data about BIPOC representation in Canadian PR, and experiences of discrimination and bias based on both race and gender.

The study was commissioned by the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms, the Canadian Public Relations Society and the International Association of Business Communicators. It was conducted by Leger, and surveyed 1,231 Canadian communications professionals early this year—24% of respondents identified as BIPOC, with 48% of respondents working in PR agencies, and the other 52% in corporate, government or non-profit organizations.

Based on the survey, Leger concluded that while the industry is relatively diverse at the junior levels, diversity sharply declines with seniority: while 65% of junior respondents are white and 34% identify as BIPOC (1% didn’t answer), 84% of executive positions are filled by white professionals, and just 15% identify as BIPOC (see how diversity decreases with seniority in the accompanying chart.)

Nearly half (48%) of BIPOC respondents believe they have missed out on promotion because of bias or discrimination, though 23% of white respondents also said they’ve lost out because of bias or discrimination. In terms of gender-based discrimination, 32% of female respondents said they have suffered because of bias or discrimination, compared to 22% of men.

Other data shows a gap between BIPOC and white feelings on issues of equality and representation in the industry:

  • In total, 35% agreed with the statement: “I believe that professionals of colour are treated equally within the PR industry,” but that number drops to 27% among BIPOC respondents (63% disagree) compared to 37% of white respondents (34% disagree).
  • 34% agree with the statement: “I feel that PR professionals of all ethnicities, genders and backgrounds are treated equally on all respects within the PR industry.” However, just 27% of BIPOC respondents agreed (66% disagreed) compared to 36% of white respondents (40% disagreed).
  • 30% agree with the statement: ”I feel that Black professionals are treated equally within the PR industry,” dropping to 24% of BIPOC respondents (55% disagree) and 33% of white respondents (33% disagree).

(Both BIPOC and white respondents agree the situation is poor for Indigenous people working in PR. Just 19% of both respondent cohorts agreed with the statement: “I feel that Indigenous professionals are treated equally within the PR industry.”)

However, a significant majority of all respondents (85%), including BIPOC (77%), agree that their employer has “has created an inclusive, positive environment where one is valued regardless of identity, including race, gender, physical ability or sexual orientation.” Those numbers are even higher at PR agencies: 93% of all respondents, and 91% of BIPoC professionals.

“It was a surprise to learn that even after many hard career experiences and continuing inequities, employees of all backgrounds believe their current employers are working hard to create more inclusive environments,” said Daniel Tisch, president and CEO of Argyle, and chair of the CCPRF’s diversity, equity and inclusion task force. “The survey won’t give employers comfort, but it should give them hope that with humility, strategic action and hard work, they can improve both diversity and inclusion.”

The survey also asked about experiences of unconscious bias and microaggressions. Fully 58% of BIPOC professional have faced some unconscious bias (26% frequently), 54% reported some microaggressions (20% frequently) and 35% say they have experienced discrimination. Here, too, the numbers appear better at PR agencies, with 37% reporting unconscious bias, 36% reporting microaggressions and 13% reporting discrimination.

“The survey findings in general weren’t a surprise—and probably aren’t to most people. The importance of this report is that it offers us a baseline against which we can build and measure progress,” said Cam McAlpine, vice-president of CPRS. “Working with our EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) Task Force, we’re beginning to engage with our members as part of the work we’re doing to develop and implement an EDI strategy that is will make us a better representative of our profession.”


David Brown