Surekha Ragavan
Jan 19, 2022

‘We can’t just copy-paste elements from the West’: Chair of PRCA’s DEI committee

Chair of the newly launched DEI committee Charu Srivastava discusses localising the DEI agenda, the importance of holistic change beyond policy, and why inclusive agencies can be a magnet for talent.

Charu Srivastava
Charu Srivastava

PRCA, arguably the largest PR association globally and in the region, recently launched an equality, diversity, and inclusivity committee in APAC. The committee will facilitate conversations around DEI and eventually formalise a mandate that member agencies can take part in. Charu Srivastava, deputy managing director at Redhill, is chair of this committee. She tells Campaign Asia-Pacific about the committee’s aim and why ‘change’ in the industry is not absolute.

What is the aim of this committee?

The focus is to get the conversation started and to look at DEI from an APEC lens. So far, a lot of these conversations have been driven by the West, which makes it a little inauthentic to this region. The issues might not be the same as someone sitting in the UK, for example. The main problem there might be [over-representation of] Oxbridge white men, but that’s not 100% what’s happening here.

And this region is also very diverse, we can’t have a broad-stroke approach in Southeast Asia, for example. There’s so much nuance and sensitivity. There’s a cultural aspect to not just the issue, but the discussion as well.

How do you mean?

Sometimes even speaking up can be seen as, ‘Why you just stirring the hornet’s nest?’ We’ve seen this in Singapore in the last year where racist incidences were coming up, and people were saying ‘Oh, it's only racism because you're talking about it’. That’s the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.

Similarly when women—especially in the workplace—speak up, they’re seen as ‘creating problems’. But the thing is, if there’s an issue and if you don't speak up, it's never going to work. So what we want to start off with [at PRCA] is really just to normalise the conversation, assure people that it's okay to talk about issues.

Instead of trying to figure out one magic pill that's going to solve so many different layers, we want to make sure people are comfortable and don’t have a fear of speaking up. We want to show them that there's a safe environment to have conversations and people are here to listen.

Our long-term aim is to come up with some sort of a charter or a very simple guide. Something that agencies and organisations can use to make simple changes. It's a very simple end goal because we want to make it actionable. We’re not going to be changing the industry overnight.

What are some issues the committee might tackle?

I think everyone agrees that PR is majority female to start with. But as we go up, [the number of women] starts whittling down. The top is very imbalanced from where you start off with. So why is that happening?

There are so many other issues that do not get enough prominence too. Unpaid internships, for instance. Straight away, you are killing off half the talent pool because they can't afford it. Or education, right? Again, you're killing of half the talent pool who might not be able to have a degree or diploma. So the way the committee sees it, discrimination is not just one thing, it has many shapes and forms. Once we do that, then we can start talking about which areas to focus on rather than always starting the conversation with the most obvious—gender.

Is there a connection between DEI and talent recruitment?

For the younger talent pool, if they have four offers at hand, how do they decide [which job to pick] if everyone's paying the same? They look at culture, they hold you accountable. And the younger generation is more savvy about these things. So if you say, ‘Hey, we're very diverse’, they might say ‘Okay, really? Show me how’. They don't just take your word for it. This also makes [DEI] a very compelling business case, as we know talent is difficult to come by. This will help a company in the long-term.

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Is there a disconnect between policy and action when it comes to DEI?

While you can have policies, so many other things need to change. This change needs to permeate culture a lot more. Recently, I had a chat with a client prospect. And they told me ‘We're interested to talk to you but it'd be good if I could speak to the CEO or someone more senior.’ I don't know if this would have happened if I was a man in my position. So it's a cycle, it’s a one-way thing. Change has to happen in the mindset of everybody around you, the people you’re leading, your clients or partners. If they still have [biased] notions, how do you even [justify] a policy change? Then it’s just an optical change, right?

In PR, we say to our clients all the time: ‘You can claim things you want, but where's the proof?’ It's time to apply that to ourselves. Are we really as diverse as we think? Are we just doing it because it looks good?

There’s also the question that we work in the PR industry which services many other industries. It’s driven by what people in those industries want, and we also have to work within those cultures and norms in those industries as well. Some of our clients might be from the manufacturing industry and they might feel uncomfortable with a female as the head of the team. But is that our problem to solve? It's so deep-rooted in many aspects, this is why it's difficult to say that we can change everything in one year.

What are the dangers of the PR industry in this region borrowing elements from the West?

A lot of things that have been included is like just copy-paste from [the West], but do we need to have everything implemented here? For instance, cultural holidays. If our talent is diverse, how do we choose which holidays to celebrate? We can't just take what you have in the West where Christmas is the biggest festival in every office.

A lot of the basis for policies in the West are around big issues there. But one of the good things we have now is organisations pushing to hear local sentiment. They are actually doing research and surveys with a local focus, and this means we have local data to look at and it helps create conversations.

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