Public Relations Tactics

Moving the Diversity Needle

November 1, 2017


As the nation’s population becomes more diverse, it is creating sobering ripples across the business landscape. It’s not a tidal wave yet, but it’s enough reverberation to lead forward-thinking companies to become intentional, creative and strategic about incorporating diversity and inclusion (D&I) into the business model. That’s the good news.

However, those of us who have worked in public relations for many years and volunteered in PRSA Chapters have seen the ebb and flow, often balancing a hopeful glass-half-full mentality with frustrating periods of feeling like we were howling in the wilderness, wondering if anyone genuinely cared about diversity in public relations.

It’s tempting to believe that the profession may now be nearing an inflection point where a clear road to accelerated progress is in sight. There are an increasing number of CEOs and other leaders who “get it,” who understand and who accept the morally justified and advantageous business implications inherent in making sure that D&I are ingrained in the business.

But maybe not so fast, because for all those who do “get it,” there are many more who don’t or who are lackadaisical about embracing diversity. So where are we?

Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2016 show that among “public relations and fundraising managers” — a subset under the “management, professional, and related occupations” category — 10.3 percent are Black or African-American, 5.4 percent are Asian and 3.3 percent are Hispanic or Latino. Under the “public relations specialists” subset, 8.2 percent are Black or African-American, 1.7 percent are Asian and 7.3 percent are Hispanic or Latino. Representation among minority male and female practitioners also lags significantly.

These numbers make a compelling case for improvement. How do we gain ground? By building on current approaches like keeping and sharing metrics, recruiting for diversity, elevating D&I to the board/executive levels, onboarding, etc. Setting measurable and achievable goals seems like a particularly valuable — but generally omitted — starting point in order to drive results.

Having candid conversations

Concurrent with those critical action steps, let’s not lose sight of the power of something very basic: talking. One huge missing piece of the diversity puzzle tends to be candid conversations. It can be daunting to take the time for earnest discussions about representation, race and gender because doing so can force us to confront our own latent implicit or unconscious biases. To move the needle in a sustained and methodical way, we can’t be afraid to speak honestly.

Frank, nonsuperficial discussions about diversity are valuable at all levels of PRSA. We’ve figured out that hollow proclamations about the importance of D&I can fizzle into inaction. It’s essential to tackle the underlying, often uncomfortable realities that help open dialogue and, hopefully, seed progress.

Intentionality is crucial to diversity implementation. At the Chapter level, try to avoid covering diversity in a five-minute board report and leave it there until the next monthly meeting. Try regularly setting aside meaningful time in a facilitated board retreat, special meeting or other forum where the subject can be explored without distraction. This may be particularly useful in the initial phase of establishing a diversity program.

Be sure to conduct peer reviews by canvassing other PRSA Chapters around the country to see multiple approaches, and make use of rich resources like PRSA’s Diversity Tool Kit. D&I are achieved most effectively with the mindset that they are more than boxes to be checked off, but areas where chapters are committed to lead, if not innovate.

Here’s a rule of thumb I’ll suggest: If there’s not an element of unease in your deep-dive discussions about diversity and inclusion, then you likely aren’t giving it the deliberation that it deserves. It should get easier as self-awareness emerges, barriers dissolve and various viewpoints are reconciled. Endeavor to accept any awkwardness as an investment in progress that will be measured and celebrated as PRSA Chapters and society are strengthened in the process.

Anthony Hicks, APR

Anthony Hicks, APR, is director of public relations, Shelby Residential & Vocational Services (SRVS), Memphis, Tenn. Twitter: @anthony28991503.


David W. Brown says:

Thank you for this perspective, Anthony. I do agree that there are tools that are out there to help, but we do often overlook the power of simply talking about these often uncomfortable realities. Or worse, we only talk about them when an incident has occurred that treats diversity and inclusion more as a "problem to be solved" rather than a reality to be embraced.

Nov. 3, 2017

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