Published on November 12, 2018, at 4:23 p.m.
by Trenton Brasfield.
Diversity and inclusion are currently topics of high focus in society. This trend is seen extensively in the corporate and public relations (PR) fields. PR is a predominantly Caucasian, female-populated and male-dominated industry, and much work remains to be done to diversify the profession. In addition, racial/ethnic background is only one dimension of diversity and inclusion.
Dr. Kenon Brown, an assistant professor of public relations at The University of Alabama, has a number of articles published in communication industry journals about public relations, sports media and business. He serves as an advisor on the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations’ Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Brown defines diversity as bringing people of different backgrounds into a university, profession or agency.
Dr. Nilanjana R. Bardhan is a professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication Studies at Southern Illinois University. Her teaching interests include public relations, intercultural and international communications, critical media and cultural studies. She is a co-author of multiple communications books, book chapters and journal articles.
Bardhan mentioned that the terms “diversity” and “inclusion” should be defined separately, although they are highly related. She feels that without inclusion, there can be no diversity, and it cannot be assumed that inclusion occurs automatically with diversity.
Most individuals typically focus on one aspect of diversity. “The shallow view of diversity is race,” Brown said. “You also need to look at it from a gender, sexual orientation, disability and regional standpoint to get a holistic view of diversity.”
Brown defines inclusion as taking individuals of diverse backgrounds and making them feel they are on an equal playing field socially and professionally. Brown said that an organization can have diverse numbers by acquiring a set amount of underrepresented individuals, but if they are not satisfied by the organization or feel that they do not belong to the workplace culture, then the company has diversity but not inclusion.
Brown noted that there is a stigma around the term. “Diversity and inclusion has become the sexy term in all industries. Everyone is saying they are striving for it. As a result, the term has become watered-down,” Brown stated. This has led to the policies and procedures to produce diversity and inclusion becoming less effective as well. Without a proactive plan, diversity and inclusion will not continue to grow.
Bardhan noted that there is a long history to the stigma around the term diversity. She explained the history of affirmative action and equal employment opportunity and the struggles, controversies and compliance-minded approach to diversity that accompanied them.
“It is very important to make sure historically marginalized groups are included and recruited in the workplace,” Bardhan explained, “… but if we are unable to talk about differences [while] inviting everyone to the table — that’s going to create problems.” Diversity initiatives have made some people, especially the majority-dominated group, uncomfortable. Some of this discomfort arises from the “shame and blame approach to diversity” many advocates have taken, along with the resistance to giving up privileges by dominant groups, Bardhan said. It is necessary to find ways to surmount these challenges, she added.
In regard to making the PR industry more diverse, Brown said that it starts at the collegiate level. “If you don’t have diversity at the collegiate level … then you can’t build a diverse workplace,” Brown said.
Universities and professors need to be more proactive in recruiting diverse students — get them to better understand what PR is and how they have a place in it. “Having students mentor with professors of various backgrounds, disciplines, races and gender will let students see that the profession is becoming more diverse,” Brown explained.
Brown said that making individuals feel that they are a part of a welcoming environment will bring inclusion. “Include people of various backgrounds on various accounts inside of an agency when dealing with clients,” Brown advised. Examples of welcoming practices would be to have individuals involved in company, social and professional events and development. “Making sure there is equal opportunity to participate in the workplace culture is what is going to make it more inclusive,” Brown stressed.
Brown emphasized that a CEO often talks in dollars and cents. By showing how diversity contributes to the bottom line, companies will possibly have more success integrating these efforts.
“We all know that having diversity is the ethical thing to do. We need to show CEOs the studies, that having a diverse workplace helps the bottom line,” Brown said. To have representation, an individual from that culture needs to be present. By having diversity present, a company will be able to more effectively communicate with a target audience.
Brown pointed out NASCAR as a company that is taking a proactive stance to create a more diverse and inclusive industry. It has added a minority internship program.
“They have done a lot of communication initiatives to reach out to not only African-American and Latinos, but also younger people, individuals from out West, and women,” Brown explained. “I feel like they are going about attacking diversity and inclusion the right way.”
“A climate of inclusion in any professional setting is a must for diversity to be successful,” Bardhan said. She explained that companies will go out and recruit diverse individuals; those individuals then find a climate that is not welcoming or open to different behaviors and cultures. This results in turnover and people leaving.
“Diversity and inclusion need to work together for either of them to be successful,” Bardhan stated.
When addressing ways to bring diversity to the industry, Bardhan separated diversity into visible (e.g., race, gender and some disabilities) and invisible (e.g., other disabilities and perhaps sexuality and religion). “A diverse workforce is one that has a balance of visible and invisible [characteristics] represented, and a climate where everyone is invited to the table to talk about how to make the workplace a fair environment,” Bardhan said.
An attitude change is needed to bring more inclusion. This adjustment has to come from leadership. A company must have that support to make a change.
“Culture change starts at the top,” Bardhan said. When leadership is able to articulate and explain why inclusion is important, employees will begin to be less resistant. It must be made clear that prejudice and discriminatory behavior will not be condoned. When people work together despite their differences to accomplish team projects, a company is more successful in reputation and finance. “This is the message that needs to get out to persuade people to see the value of inclusion,” Bardhan stated.
In regard to companies being sure to not use diversity and inclusion solely for window-dressing purposes, Bardhan advises organizations to set clear goals and measure outcomes. “Diversity has to be woven into the entire strategy and culture of the company,” Bardhan added. The leader has to be held accountable for this process.
When asked to give examples of companies that have done well with diversity and inclusion efforts, Bardhan said companies that have diverse stakeholders do well. “We have to be able to connect with people in a way that is culturally appropriate,” Bardhan said. “PepsiCo has done a good job of doing this. Former CEO Steve Reinemund was visibly engaged in this area. They realized early on that diversity is a must; it’s not even an option, you just do that,” Bardhan emphasized.
Bardhan ended with the sentiment that individuals need to work hard, and gain allies in the dominant group. “There are plenty of people who want to see change — not everybody in the group is unwilling to address the question,” Bardhan said. “Look for those allies so they can educate members of their own group about the importance of change.”