Meryl Streep is a much loved, revered, respected, award-winning actor. How could she come under any adverse scrutiny? Yet indeed she has. Streep stars in the film ‘Suffragette’ and part of the film’s publicity has come under severe criticism over a clothing campaign. Appearing in a Time Out magazine feature: ‘Meryl Streep and the stars of ‘Suffragette’ on feminism, family and fame’, Streep, the film’s other stars Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff and Romola Garai are pictured in T-shirts with the slogan: ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’. The slogan is said to have been attributed to the iconic Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Suffragettes, in 1913. The photographic shoot has been pilloried across the media for its crass and insensitive connotations.
For Public Relations purposes, as important as they are, we’ll not get mired in the issues of ‘race’, gender (ironically!), class and other contextual implications held within this story and its current media woes. Behind the scenes, what this story yet again reveals is the lack of diversity and cultural representation in the PR, Marketing and their associated industries.
It’s still notoriously difficult to enter the industry. Many entrants to PR come through pathways such as journalism, marketing and advertising with their own thorny mantle of lack of representation. So these pathways too are fraught with difficulties for persons of colour. There are financial setbacks too. Many of the qualifications needed to gain kudos are very expensive reaching into thousands of pounds per course. Other old chestnuts prevail: a continued operation of an old-boy’s network/nepotism, unpaid internships and the lack of access to middle-class mobility. There is also the curious anathema of mirror imagery, where persons in positions of power recruit based on their own reflection of self. A very difficult area to measure, but the results are clear to see.
“Ethnic diversity in the PR industry is still at an all-time low in the UK, with little more than 8% currently working in the discipline.” (the guardian Feb 2013)
It can be strongly argued that had the publicity cohorts in the Streep T-shirt pitch and other boardroom/decision-making personnel contained some persons of colour, there may have been questions raised about the appropriateness of such a campaign in 21stC knowledge, hindsight and foibles. They might have chosen something equally powerful, but less insensitive given the nature of the film’s themes. Then again, many in the industry say, ‘there’s no such thing as bad news’ and that the publicity (ergo, bums-on-seats) around ‘Suffragette’ is merely heightened. A success in many circles!
There has been some headway as recommended by a prca report. Progressive action includes mentoring, diversity-specific internship programmes, ‘ignite’, a networking group specifically created to promote the benefits of diversity and the Taylor Bennett Foundation, an organisation set up to operate ten-week schemes of intense PR training and work-based experience for a younger ‘BAME’ demographic.
“…the industry is overwhelmingly white, with 84% of people identifying as White British…” ( Dr Lee Edwards/Manchester Business School/ESRC 2011)
On the grapevine, there is an upsurge in the number of self-employed (freelance) business in the PR industry and these are often headed by black women who’ve seen their efforts thwarted if they gain entry and succeeding in the mainstream profession. They’ve also seen that the creative arts, manufacturing, social enterprise and other business spheres in ‘BAME’ communities lack awareness of the importance of PR, marketing, social media their peripheral spheres. These women are slowly carving out a place for themselves in this market – ands ever, the use of the Internet adds fuel to changing, updating and improving the PR playing field aesthetics.
There is still some way to progress but until then, it’s advised that we don’t hold our collective breaths over campaigns which display – even if subliminally, a lack of observation of its environment.
‘Suffragette’ opens the 59th BFI London Film Festival on 7th October