Published on April 3, 2019, at 4:03 p.m.
by Cassidy Anderson.
The lack of diversity and inclusion in the world of public relations is a gargantuan issue in the field. The PR industry cannot succeed without encouraging heterogeneity among its professionals. The quest to diversify has intensified in recent years and has the support of members of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and other organizations.
The following quotes about diversity and inclusion came from The Plank Center Professionals Roundtable discussion that took place at The University of Alabama on February 9, 2019. This small discussion group was led by Plank Center board members Ron Culp, Maria Russell and Kevin Saghy.
PR’s biggest issue
Though it seems as if there should be a singular cause of the lack of diversity and inclusion in the PR industry, there is not. Ron Culp outright said, “There isn’t any [diversity and inclusion]. It’s essentially nonexistent” in response to what he believes as the biggest concern.
One solution, however, is education. But even then, there are issues with whom to educate about PR as a profession.
“How far back do you go into schools to educate students that PR is a career choice? I’ll give Ron a lot of credit because he partnered with [Midtown Education Foundation] in Chicago to do something about this … and created summer programs for high school students, inner-city kids, who got to come all summer and really learn what PR is,” said Kevin Saghy.
Culp shared that, when surveyed, students in the program reported starting with zero knowledge of public relations. After the program, 44 percent of the male students and 58 percent of the female students said they would consider PR as a major. Since this discovery, Culp said that PRSA is working to continue the initiative by creating a program template and sending it to other organizations to implement. “But this is just scratching the surface,” said Culp.
Maria Russell added, “A lack of identity for the profession itself, we realized is a real problem. … Everyone knows what a doctor is, everybody knows what a lawyer is, everybody knows what an accountant is, and everybody knows they make good money, in general, good salaries. So, this whole thing of PR, what is it?”
According to Women In PR, women make up two-thirds of the PR industry globally but are not represented this way in the C-suite.
“They [PRWeek] took screenshots of the major agencies and what they did was to look at the leadership team. And the leadership team was heavily male and very few females. Not anyone of color, but not even women, another type of diversity. And that, I think, caused a buzz in our profession, and people committed, or recommitted, to say, ‘We have to do something about this.’ But that was shocking. It was on the front page of PRWeek and, of course, agency leaders did not like that,” said Russell.
In an industry dominated by women, however, Russell went on to say that a lack of male representation is also not good when approaching a PR problem. She implicated that early on in the fields, marketing was seen more for men, and PR was more for women; women had to use PR to climb up the corporate ladder, and the image of PR being feminine may still exist.
“I’ll never forget one day at Ketchum,” recalled Culp. “There were very few guys in the firm, and three women were assigned a major product account for a razor company. So they were the account team. And they came to [their VP] and said, ‘We need a guy on the team because we are trying to sell this to men.’ The team then added a male member who did not shave, and the team was able to use his diverseness to create a ‘blockbuster PR program that won one of the top awards at PRWeek.’”
Importance of inclusion
Just because diversity exists, doesn’t mean inclusion does, too.
Even though the pipeline seems to be working to get more people of color into the PR industry, Russell thinks that is not enough.
“A lot of people in agencies didn’t feel comfortable, didn’t feel mentored. So they’re going out and becoming individual practitioners. So they didn’t leave the field of PR, which is good, but they didn’t feel comfortable in formal organizations,” said Russell.
The entirety of the PR industry needs to work to make others feel included in a business setting as well as at conferences. Saghy provided an example of inclusion at a PRSSA conference several years ago where they had been discussing the importance of diversity and inclusion all weekend. He entered breakfast one morning and noticed that the only two African-American male students were standing at a table alone.
“So I walked up to them and struck up a conversation, and I said, ‘What do you guys think of the conference and PR?’ and they said, ‘We’re not really sure if it’s for us.’ That was disheartening because you’re at this conference where most people are saying they’re having a great time. I think they were feeling isolated in that room, and it broke my heart. So, I said ‘Look, guys, you need to know, we’re at the hotel and we’re going to sessions to talk about how important you are. Our profession needs you.’ Sometimes there’s just value in having that direct conversation and saying, ‘Look, your viewpoint is important,’” said Saghy.
As a whole, PR needs to understand diversity and inclusion are essential for success. Though it may not always be easy, PR students, educators and practitioners must continue to grow and expand programs in order to have the viewpoints of all people represented in the industry.
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