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How Can We Address Accent Bias in PR?

Ben Levine

Ben Levine, Senior Partner at TRUE Global Intelligence and head of the socio-economic employee resource group at FleishmanHillard UK

The issue of social mobility in public relations is a well-documented problem. Earlier this month the CIPR issued a report outlining that the profession must do more to ‘level-up,’ and detailed that the industry is suffering a shortfall of around 13,500 people from wider socio-economic groups (over 10% of the entire workforce). The PRCA 2020 Census identified a fifth of the 97,300 PR practitioners that work in the industry attended a fee-paying school versus just 7% of the population.

With social mobility remaining an acute issue, addressing the roots of this inequality must be a priority for agency leaders. One way that this can be headed off at the source is by looking at the issue of accent bias. We have been examining this topic with Creative Access, a leading social enterprise specialising in diversity and inclusion across creative industries and have launched the findings in our Language of Discrimination Report.

The report draws on a survey of 301 members of the Creative Access community, and a nationally representative survey of 2,000 UK adults, and details how those affected are feeling under pressure to change their accents to advance in their careers and appease management and clients.

For an industry with language as its main product, the research found that accents continue to be seen as a marker of class, education and background – impeding talented individuals’ access to, and progression within, the industry. Over three quarters (77%) of respondents working in the creative industries have felt they had to change their accents in the workplace – specifically when dealing with clients.

When you home in on PR, the findings are even more alarming. 97% believe others have made sub-conscious judgements about them based on their accent or how they speak. 90% admit to ‘code switching’ (changing their accents) to be taken more seriously. 81% have said that they have had to change their accent/voice at work to be taken more seriously.

Our research supports the findings of The Sutton Trust’s recent Speaking Up report, which outlined that public attitudes to different accents have remained unchanged over time. Its findings revealed that Received Pronunciation remains the dominant accent in positions of authority across the media, despite less than 10% of the population estimated to have this accent, exclusively from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

So, what steps can we take to address the issue of accent bias in our industry? Our partner, Creative Access, has detailed some great initial steps that are well worth review – in summary, they are:

·       Looking at your organisational culture: Creating an environment where everyone is welcome, not just those who speak a certain way. This means re-examining the concept of what it means to be ‘pitch perfect’ or ‘client friendly’.

·       Inclusive recruitment: Investigating your HR and talent development decisions and processes to ensure they are fair, and that we consider the language and imagery used in hiring and interviews.

·       Be aware of the language you use: Consideringwhetheryour current staff feel as though they can be their authentic selves at work. This can include everything from not mocking the way people pronounce things, or where they’re from, to being mindful of the language you use when describing someone’s accent.

·       Seek and listen to feedback – act where necessary: Instilling an inclusive culture at work means being open to having honest conversations, empowering staff to feel that their feelings will be heard, and crucially implementing the feedback.

Unfortunately accent bias won’t go away on its own. There’s always more we can do as individuals, and as an industry, by fostering inclusivity among our ranks. Be it by adapting blind recruitment processes further, checking our own internalised biases or by calling out remarks about our colleagues’ accents, we can create a more welcoming workplace. By being aware of our conscious and unconscious biases, we can have those honest conversations and reflections, and take them in our stead to bring in, keep and nurture the diverse voices our industry needs.

You can read and download our full report,here.