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A Disconnect in Authentic Human Connection

Published on February 20, 2020, at 6:52 p.m.
by Katie Poedtke.

courtesy of @wocintechchat on Unsplash

Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. These three words hold a weight that is felt now more than ever. The changing social climate and technological advances of today are connecting people from all kinds of backgrounds, and the PR industry is taking it very seriously.

Bringing people together is meaningless if there is no connection and acceptance of others. Agility PR Solutions explained the disconnect between what PR professionals want and what they really see in the workplace. Referencing a PRSA Foundation study, Agility PR Solutions revealed that most people believe a diverse workplace is beneficial and necessary. The problem is “only 27% believe they are currently working at an organization that is meaningfully or very diverse.” People see the need for diversity, but they either hesitate or don’t know what to do to fix the discrepancy.

Dr. Nilanjana Bardhan, a professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, observes the PR industry from her academic lens. The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations board member has come to the following conclusion:

“We have seen a lack of significant change.”

While many improvements have occurred in the public relations industry, there is still so much left to do. The following insights are stepping stones for everyone involved in the public relations industry and academia to reflect on.

Art of balance

Although there have been great advancements in recent years, there are still more areas that need help. Dr. Bardhan noted that even with more women and people of color in the industry, the disconnect continues; there are not enough women and people of color in leadership roles. The Plank Center’s 2019 Report Card discovered that the gender gap widened in the past couple of years. Women do not feel secure or valued in their positions. According to Harvard Business Review, women constitute 70% of the industry, but “they only make up 30% of agency C-suite executives.” The executives of the public relations industry do not reflect the employees within their very industry. That is not the only absence of demographic reflection.

Keith Burton, CEO of Grayson Emmett Partners and board member of The Plank Center, explained that if the PR industry does not reflect the diversity among its publics, there will always be a divide in the business. A great example of what to avoid: Barnes & Noble’s black history month campaign. The Hill described how the catastrophe was deemed “literary blackface” by critics. Inclusion could have prevented the failed campaign, especially when it comes to leadership positions. Different ethnicities, genders and lifestyles need to be represented in the workplace that is serving those communities. Burton illustrated the first step in making this change:

“Everyone has to have empathy. If you lack empathy, you have nothing.”

Retain, not recycle

As much as representation is needed, inclusivity is a key factor. It makes no difference how many people agencies and corporations recruit if they cannot retain their employees. If people do not feel included and valued, they will not stay. Forbes touched on this topic, stating that after bringing in all kinds of people, it is imperative to “invest in programs designed to enhance inclusion.”

Dr. Juan-Carlos Molleda, a tenured professor and dean at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, elaborated on the experiences his associates have encountered in the industry. The Plank Center board member explained that people will not thrive in an environment that is not welcoming. Support, guidance and coaching need to be accessible at every level to everyone, Molleda concluded. It’s good for business, and it’s even better for the employees’ experience.

Dr. Bardhan noted that “inclusivity is integral.” Without inclusivity, there is no chance for equity. The PR industry cannot treat people equally if they do not stick around. The foundation for retention is equity.

In our backyards

Actively contributing to our own regions will make all the difference, especially with younger generations. There are many differences in cities across the globe; understanding where people come from and what they’ve experienced will help foster diverse environments. It is equally as important to understand the region where an agency or company resides in.

Academia is the cornerstone for the industry. The process of recruiting and retaining diverse employees begins in the classroom. Regions that are predominantly white, such as SIUC and the University of Oregon, face more obstacles than those that are inherently more diverse. Dr. Molleda addressed the discrepancy by illustrating ways they can increase diversity. Scholarships bring in minority students, and then it is everybody’s job to make sure the students believe they are welcome and wanted. Dr. Molleda said, “We must all adapt to the context and characteristics” of the cultures, backgrounds, social economic statuses and more. The difference between rural communities and urban cities brings its own challenges as well. Professionals involved in public relations academia must account for possible differences like these.

Courtesy of @wocintechchat on Unsplash

Big cities such as New York and Chicago already have higher levels of diversity, and that helps immensely when working with publics who are just as diverse. Burton works in Chicago, and he notices the inclusive market. Although there are more resources for diversity in Chicago, Burton believes that is only a step forward — “We have to be a pacesetter.” There are always areas for growth; Burton said there is not enough black representation in the Chicago PR industry. Even in diverse regions, there is still work to do.

We determine the future

The future is inevitably moving toward a more diverse and accepting atmosphere. These changes are happening now, so the PR industry has two choices: idle or make a change.

In the past, people have stood silent as bystanders; that is no longer acceptable. According to The Chicago Reporter, white non-Hispanics will be in the minority of the United States within the next 30 years. Dr. Molleda observed this trend and declared, “Communities are changing — grow accordingly. Check your biases. Acknowledge your vulnerability. Take every topic into context. Be reflective.”

Dr. Bardhan’s final comments included a profound message: “Unless we can imagine the future, we can’t create the future.” PRSA’s statement on diversity and inclusion gives public relations professionals access to the necessary tools and guidelines to make improvements as an industry.

The choice lies before us. The PR industry cannot afford to idle. Great strides have already been taken toward a more diverse and inclusive industry; let’s continue the momentum.

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