Anti-Racism in Public Relations,
An Imperative for Canada’s Communicators

By: Sharlyn Carrington

Systemic racism, muted diversity and representation, unconscious bias; these are tremendously complex issues that impact the communications and public relations industry. We have been called to act for decades, yet as more communicators become aware of the challenges and barriers impacting BIPOC practitioners and our publics, we must act now to advance equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging inside and out of our organizations.

Over 500 communicators came together on March 22 and 23 at theNational Summit on Anti-Racism in Public Relations and Communications Management to discuss just that; how do we change our industry and our organizations so that they are more inclusive and confront systemic racism?

The summit made Canadian history. It was the largest known national gathering (virtual) of communicators in decades. In addition to pointedly tackling systemic racism as it intersects with the role of executives, data collection, inclusive language, organizational culture change and more, the summit exposed the reality of experience for many BIPOC communicators and reinforced the imperative of communicators to act.

Communicators have both the power and responsibility to act

We’re seeing an increasing number of new studies reinforcing the realities of the BIPOC experience, particularly as more non-racialized communicators are becoming motivated to address these issues.

In 2018, I studied the barriers facing Black women in public relations. Most participants described feeling pigeonholed into only dealing with accounts where the public or audience were minorities, instances of stereotyping, and limited opportunities to advance compared to their white counterparts.

Recommendations from 107 UN member states also released in 2018, described a clear imperative about the need to immediately address discrimination against Black and Indigenous communities in Canada, beyond public relations. 

Additionally, organizations like Boston Consulting Group have also highlighted the four areas where anti-Black racism is acutely felt: 1) Educational outcomes, 2) hiring and recruitment, 3) inferior access to healthcare, and 4) policing.  

As communicators, the nature of our jobs encourages collaboration with everything and everyone in every industry, including education, human resources, healthcare, and policing. That connection gives us both a power and responsibility to do more.

Tangible steps for change

The research I conducted and mentioned earlier, led me to provide recommendations to change our industry for the better. I’ve since added a few considerations specific to communicators committed to tangible action, for those who perhaps don’t know where to start.

PR & Communications Schools: have a profound responsibility to reshape and rebuild the reputation of PR. They should be looking for opportunities to employ more diverse faculty and to actively pursue practitioners of colour, making the benefits and the value of entering the industry clear for students of colour.

BIPOC practitioners: already face a heightened burden to lead entire organizations out of the trouble they’re now seeing they are in. I don’t presume to add additional burden, but I believe it’s important for practitioners of colour, particularly Black and Indigenous communicators to find opportunities to be visible in this industry. Many, myself included, lived in a state of trying to manipulate ourselves to fit to a mold of whiteness because that’s how typically one has been able to succeed in a white-dominant environment. I’m proposing that we’re at a place where we go against what we’ve learned to do. We instead find opportunities to set ourselves apart, we try and stand out so that we can be seen, and we can be seen as ourselves authentically. The next generation of diverse professionals entering the field, coming from schools need to see themselves and their true selves succeeding.

Organizations should not assume that their entire team knows or understands the problem. They don’t. Each time I attend yet another unconscious bias workshop, I still hear new people say, “well I don’t see colour,” “I would’ve never known people have these experiences,” or “I think of everyone the same.” Equity cannot begin with the belief that we are the same, with the same experiences. It begins with the understanding and acceptance that we are different, those differences can create both opportunities and barriers, and action is needed to support fairness for all. 

This means organizations should still be enforcing cultural sensitivity and unconscious bias training and more.  Everyone should be learning about the true history of racism in this country, they should be learning about cultural cues within racialized communities to better create open environments where people can talk about inclusion, racism, and their experiences without fear.

Creating an inclusive environment should be step one, prior to arbitrarily hiring a bunch of diverse practitioners. If your organization has not yet done the groundwork to create a welcoming and inclusive environment, BIPOC practitioners cannot be expected to succeed and excel when they arrive.

Allies need to remember that anti-racism is a verb. I did not coin this distinction, but it’s relevant because it reinforces that action is required to be truly anti-racist. Use your platform to speak out when you see power imbalances that only further create division and magnify a feeling of exclusion and non-belonging. Call out your organizations’ HR practices – ask them where they advertised for their positions. Ask them what steps they are taking to amplify the qualifications of candidates and remove barriers for those that have diverse sounding names, or those that are racialized and have to pass a hiring managers’ internal perception test.  


Communicators at every level should:

  1. Encourage their organizations to plan inclusively, by considering all the intersections within their audiences and finding opportunities to include these individuals into the creation and implementation of communications programs, strategies and narratives.  
  1. Continue independent learning. Don’t wait, for example, for a Black colleague to unearth where there are problems. Delve into the vast body of knowledge and educate yourselves. Summit organizers put together a list of resources which is continually being updated as new recommendations are brought forward.  
  1.  Amplify BIPOC voices and enable racialized individuals to tell their own stories. If you’ve been doing this work for a while, you have no doubt questioned the best ways to tell diverse stories without exploitation. I recommend considering partnerships with diverse organizations, champions, individuals as appropriate and empower them to tell their own stories.


Lifelong learning is our bottom line

Many communicators are looking for or expecting a checklist, toolkit, a script — something that will make them an agent of change overnight. It’s important to remember: culture change requires more than a box-ticking exercise while writing a press release or planning a communications campaign. Organizational change requires internal reflection, not just a list of specifically crafted questions to ask your CEO. And although many should be proud that they attended the Anti-racism in PR Summit and feel motivated to take action, we must remember that creating inclusive workplaces, communities and societies will require a lifelong commitment to do better.

As you all continue your own journey, I’d like to leave you with the idea that we all have biases. Yet, as communicators we are uniquely positioned to shape understanding and shape conversation. We craft narratives. We protect reputations. And we can move culture forward.