Monday, November 30, 2015

Discovering a Trajectory Toward a More Diverse PR Profession

In 2012, Prof. Lynn Appelbaum and I received one of several grants from the Public Relations Society of America Foundation to identify and explore the opportunities and obstacles to career advancement reported by young African-American and Hispanic PR practitioners. Related research had been periodically published, especially since 2005 when Lynn Appelbaum (City College of New York) and Rochelle Ford (Syracuse University, then at Howard University) published “Hispanic and Black Public Relations Practitioners’ Perceptions and Experiences within the Industry.” However, the increasing interest in this topic by academic research is widely perceived as not being matched by increasing actual diversity in the PR profession.

We directed our research project on a somewhat different and more restricted sample than most previous studies. We limited our focus to individuals working in PR (and closely allied integrated communications fields) who self-identified as African-American and/or Hispanic, and who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree sometime in the range of 2008 – 2014. Our intention was to capture distinctive insights from these young professionals who are members of the Millennial Generation and who had entered the profession at the time of the global economic downturn and recovery.

We also focused on public relations executives in organizations who are actively involved in the recruitment and retention of entry- and early-level PR practitioners.

We developed our survey instrument after extensive review of the published literature, in-person interviews with human resources and PR professionals who have active hiring responsibilities of young PR practitioners, and our own series of focus groups with you professionals who met our demographic profile.

Sampling was an expected challenge, but we enjoyed gracious and enthusiastic cooperation from a number of organizations that assisted in implementing our nonprobability (convenience), chain-referral method. The URL for the online questionnaire was widely distributed by email, by public announcement at industry conferences, and through personal referrals. We are happy to acknowledge and thank the Public Relations Society of America, the PRSA Foundation, the Black Public Relations Society, the Hispanic Public Relations Society, several PRSSA chapters associated with historically Black colleges and universities, and the Arthur W. Page Society.

Our online survey was accessible for participation from October 10, 2014 through January 22, 2015. We worked closely through the whole project with The Gilfeather Group and with Gazelle Global Research. The findings of the survey are reported at and at the PRSA Foundation website.

Our study finds that young African-American and Hispanic PR professionals are positive about their experiences in the profession (“the good news”), but they readily acknowledge regular race- and ethnic-based obstacles which temper their optimism for the future and their likelihood to recommend their career path to the next generation (“the bad news”).

Findings suggest that employer organizations have embraced diversity recruitment with, reportedly, success. However, once the young African-American and Hispanic PR employees are hired, diversity sensitivity and valuation falls short.

Providing improvements for insufficient mentoring and other ineffective retention strategies may be the key issue, in 2015 and going forward, for bringing the U.S. public relations profession to a position in which it can benefit from the input of multicultural professionals as well as become a leader (instead of a laggard) in cultivating a diverse, rich, and creative workforce.

We offer the following implications from the study for the PR industry:

  • Young Hispanic and African-American public relations professionals are mostly happy with their career choices – but have misgivings that may be sending negative messages out to the next, younger generation. How can the PR profession reduce these “misgivings”/doubts and reinforce the general inclination to support the profession?
  • Young professionals from diverse backgrounds – particularly African-Americans – strongly suspect that their career development has been held back because of racial/ethnic prejudice. While this current study has no way to determine whether this impression is accurate or not, the fact is that the PR profession needs to do better to 1) ensure there are no prejudicial patterns in career advancement, and 2) develop clear professional guidelines and recommendations to help employers be more effective in the recruitment and especially retention of young multicultural professionals.
  • Educating employees about micro-aggression in the workplace would appear to have benefits in creating a more cohesive workplace culture.
  • There appears to be a significant opportunity for HR professionals who work in the PR industry to become more engaged in helping to retain young professionals in the workplace by either playing a more active role in mentorship, or by helping to facilitate mentorship among account teams that engage and include multicultural professionals. At present, HR personnel appear to play a negligible role in retention
  • Mentoring, “modeling,” and HR programs designed to welcome and develop young professionals from diverse backgrounds are rare – and urgently needed. If not offered in-house, there is opportunity for organizations such as BPRS and HPRA to offer a more formal mentoring program and/or professional development programming. As these organizations and subsequent networking channels are viewed as highly valuable to the continued success of minority young professionals, organizational leadership may want to develop new initiatives in this area.
  • The workplace is not “color blind.” It probably never will be. Race and ethnicity should be valued as potential assets in a young professional’s profile – but certainly not exclusive criteria. Young professionals from diverse backgrounds should be encouraged to use their “identity” as an asset in their professional development, without being constrained (“pigeon-holed”) by that identity.
  • Diversity initiatives would appear to be more effective when employers invest less in formal “diversity programs” and more on supporting employees to build a genuine connection with other employees that makes them feel appreciated and welcome. The notion of “diversity programming” without an understanding of why it’s being created and how it supports recruitment and retention does not move the needle to sustain and enhance diversity.
  • Cultural appreciation and awareness must accompany equal opportunity.

The PRSA Foundation, the PR Council, and other industry organizations have increased research, advocacy, and student support programming in the past few years. Several new research projects, including our own, will be available in late 2015 and in 2016.

Consensus among industry advocates seems to be stronger than ever to invest in discovering and replicating optimal organizational policies to facilitate the development of a truly diverse and inclusive PR practice. If we, as public relations professionals (who are supposed to have distinctive expertise in relationships among publics) do not manage these issues in accordance with evidence and with our clients’ – and our audiences’ – expectations, our credibility will erode with the next generation of practitioners.

This post was published at the Institute for Public Relations website, "Research Conversations" blog on November 23, 2015.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Progressing toward Diversity Goals in the PR Industry

Faces of the PR industry of the future: Class of 2015 students,
Branding + Integrated Communications Master's Degree program at City College of New York

The year 2015 may turn out to be viewed as a watershed in the public relations industry for taking stock of its shortcomings of achieving a diverse, multicultural workforce.

Over the past few months, a number of formal studies conducted by academic researchers throughout the country and funded by the PRSA Foundation and the Arthur W. Page Society, are yielding new insights into the obstacles to and opportunities for achieving diversity in the PR profession.

Earlier this year, Professor Dean Mundy, Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, published his study, “From Principle to Policy to Practice? Diversity as a Driver of Multicultural, Stakeholder Engagement in Public Relations” in PR Journal (Vol. 9, No. 1). (The research was funded by the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University.)

In an August 31, 2015 blog post at the Institute for PR site, Professor Mundy commented on his study, asserting that PR organizations continue to assert the benefits of diversity in the workforce. But he also learned “despite this sentiment . . . PR has not taken a lead role in championing diversity. In fact, when asked how the PR function has addressed diversity, almost one third of the [study] respondents replied, ‘not applicable.’ Finally, I learned most practitioners feel their organizations do a solid job providing benefits for diverse groups, but few are able to indicate readily what those benefits actually are.”

Professor Mundy’s research set the stage for the panel discussion on Monday morning, November 9, 2015, at the PRSA International Conference in Atlanta, “Tiptoeing the Talk: Is PR as Inclusive as We Like to Think?” that presented early public discussion of three additional new studies, all funded by the PRSA Foundation.

One study, “Improving the Shades of Diversity in Public Relations: Engaging Under-represented Practitioners in the Workplace by Exploring their Concerns involving Career Satisfaction, Workplace Inclusion, and Work-Life Balance,” was conducted by Professor Richard D. Waters, Ph.D. at the University of San Francisco, looked at a wide variety of under-represented demographic categories, including African-Americans, Hispanics, Asia-American/Pacific Islanders, and LGBT PR practitioners.

A second study, conducted by Professor Hua Jiang, Ph.D. at Syracuse University explored the perceptions of elite corporate and agency PR practitioners through in-depth interviews and a survey of members of the Arthur W. Page Society (primarily CCOs of Fortune 500 corporations, CEOs of leading PR agencies, and senior academics from top-tier communications and business schools).

The third study is more narrowly focused. This study was jointly conducted by Professor Lynn Appelbaum at City College of New York and by myself, and investigated the specific PR career obstacles and opportunities faced by African-American and Hispanic young professionals, who graduated from college from 2008 – 2014, “An Examination of Factors Affecting the Success of Under-represented Groups in the Public Relations Profession.”

All three of these research projects will be available in published and PRSA Foundation-distribution formats. The full text of the Appelbaum-Walton study is currently online at

Since all the reports of these studies are just now being published and distributed, we look forward, over the next few months, to formulating insights and understanding implications as the various data sets are compared. However, a few immediate observations are worth preliminary attention:

Public “commitment” to diversity by corporate communications departments and PR agencies is solid, but vague. Diversity definition, even within individual organizations, is not well defined. Management accountability is not linked to diversity metrics. Intentions are perceived to be correct (by all samples and perspectives); implementation, not so much.

Efforts to recruit under-represented groups into PR departments and agencies are fairly well rated with a number of organizations having ramped up their outreach efforts to some success.

However, retention of under-represented groups in PR departments and agencies is clearly a major challenge for the immediate future. Once “in” the organization, the multicultural practitioner often reports being “outside” the normal patterns of work assignments, assigned roles, mentor relationships, preferment structures, and social-cultural dynamics.

Employees with specific “identities” (African-American, Hispanic, Asian, male, female, LGBT) report varying experiences, but cumulatively, they seem to report still experiencing that they are on the margins of the PR establishment.

More cross-study insights will emerge, but one is striking on just first review. The Jiang survey of Arthur W. Page Society members (CCOs of Fortune 500 corporations and CEOs of PR agencies) present some striking dissimilarities to the findings of the Appelbaum-Walton study (African-American and Hispanic PR practitioners who graduated college since 2008):

One area of discrepancy is the perception of workplace bias for advancement.
Only 12.7% of the Page Society members survey respondents believe that PR professionals from under-represented groups have to be “more qualified” than Caucasians for the same position.
This contrasts with the Appelbaum/Walton study that found 30.4% of the Hispanics and 56.3% of the African-American PR professionals who graduated since 2008 report that they have to be more qualified than a Caucasian professional for the same position.
A second area of discrepancy is in workplace relations.

93.5% of the Page Society members say that racial/ethnic minorities are treated with genuine respect by their colleagues in the PR profession. This presents a different perception compared with
69.6% of the Hispanics and 50% of the African-American PR professionals who graduated since 2008 and report feeling that they are treated with genuine respect in the workplace.

While acknowledging that these comparisons are drawn from different data sets, the scale of this kind of disagreement on core issues, at least, should raise a “red flag” for the PR industry. As more detailed and thoughtful review of all these studies is conducted, the PR industry associations and major players will find focus for additional action.

Here is the good news. On first review of all these studies – all samples of PR practitioners from the CCOs to the young professionals – reveals a strong support and commitment to the PR profession. Where perceptions of shortcomings emerge, those perceptions emerge in the context of “disappointment,” not of anger or rejection.

The good work of PRSA Foundation and other industry leaders in funding the research and insights from these studies presents the U.S. PR sector with an enormous opportunity to act with new knowledge and vigor – knowing that the young, under-represented professionals in the PR profession are eager and willing to assist the profession to adapt to the 21st century.

Having taken stock of the PR sector’s diversity challenge in 2015, we can look forward to a year of action and initiatives in 2016.

This post was published at on November 9, 2015.