Skip links


DEI & PR: The Acronyms That Matter

Published on May 1, 2024, 2:35 p.m.
by Malia Elliott and Jackson Olmstead.

Across the United States and more so in the Southeast, bills have been proposed and/or passed through state legislatures in places like Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas, targeting diversity, equity and inclusion at state colleges and universities. While these instances of lawmakers introducing bills relating to this subject and what may or may not be available to students at institutions of higher learning may cause some alarm, students, educators and practitioners alike should first understand how integral DEI is to the public relations profession.

DEI in education is not a new practice, with the first kinds of DEI programs being implemented in the 1960s with the formation of Upward Bound. Programs like these continued to grow in size and number and are now a component of many parts of PR education and professional practice. A prime example is the DEI statement on the Public Relations Society of America website, saying that it commends firms and organizations who have made strides toward creating a more diverse profession while highlighting its DEI committee.

Photo via Adobe Stock by Get Stock

PRSA is not the only organization that recognizes the importance of DEI in the PR industry. The Diversity Action Alliance is a nonprofit PR and communications coalition with the goal of “combatting the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the field as measured by recruitment, retention, and representation.”

DEI is certainly a good move for business overall, especially for PR organizations. DEI programming and initiatives that are well incorporated into the business and are not done as an afterthought can improve the work environment of PR practitioners and promote a more diverse team, in demographics and in thought.

With the PR industry focusing heavily on DEI, what will it mean for PR students who attend public universities and colleges in these states implementing bills that have the potential to modify DEI-focused curricula?

“The students coming out of our program are going to have an education that’s as good or better than what you will get anywhere else,” Brian Butler, dean of the College of Communication & Information Sciences at The University of Alabama, said. “It will include discussions of diversity issues. It will include discussions and understanding how you recruit different people, and how you engage different audiences. We believe all of those topics are acceptable for classroom discussion under the law.”

It appears that colleges and universities in the state of Alabama do not expect curriculum and student activity changes to be as drastic as in other states, although a lot of the potentials are quite unclear at the moment. Despite the bill in Alabama not being as extreme as other states, the universities and colleges classified as public are facing harsh backlash.

Some of the harshest backlash is coming from Alabamians, with Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin writing on Facebook, “Although I’m the biggest Bama fan, I have no problem organizing Black parents and athletes to attend other institutions outside of the state where diversity and inclusion are prioritized.”

Photo via Adobe Stock by Viktor

One major concern for public universities and colleges is how their respective states’ DEI bills will affect enrollment and student life. Kristan Poirot, associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, expressed her concern over the ability for Texas A&M (and other universities) to attract faculty to hire.

Butler said, “Now, it is important to note that there’s a huge number of things that people believe that this affects and that’s actually where the harder public relations and marketing challenge comes in.”

Despite schools like UA having some PR brainstorming to do to help manage the schools’ reputations and prestige, there is a unique learning opportunity for PR students in these states. There is no way around the fact that people will have varying opinions when it comes to anything with some level of political context. However, professors have an opportunity to turn this situation into a very teachable subject.

A large part of what takes place in a PR classroom is closely reviewing case studies to gain a deeper understanding of what an organization did correctly or incorrectly in a given situation. By utilizing this same method, professors can allow students to effectively learn DEI concepts while understanding the PR strategies behind reputation management. Unfortunately, some public institutions in other states passing DEI ban bills do not feel as if they have as much academic freedom.

“There’s a big fear right now,” said Poirot. “There is this concern that we are being policed, and that we have to limit what we can say in the classroom. Although the Texas laws exclude research and teaching … the climate doesn’t feel like we can.”

When discussing minority students’ mental health in the months after the bill and with the current media attention, Poirot said, “I can’t think that that helps those students, who feel already pretty vulnerable, feel any safer.”

Overall, the student experiences that are offered at public universities in the states where the laws have been passed could be affected, but to varying degrees based on restrictions. PR educators and practitioners have been and should continue to be proactive, much like with statements made by Texas A&M University System and The University of Alabama System institutions.

Photo via The Courier-Journal

DEI does have an effect on hiring of new graduates as well, which is something not just limited to the field of PR. Job candidates from Generation Z not only think that DEI is a good thing to have in their workplace, but it is a necessity to retain quality talent. Additionally, a staggering three quarters of young people heavily consider commitment to DEI when searching for a new company.

Transparency and honesty to the publics and stakeholders involved in a particular situation are always best practices. Exhibiting these values builds rapport and trust by providing accurate information and a plan to pave a path through the changes, easing tension and clarifying the situation.

Return to top of page