Diversity Thought Leadership

Diversity Matters in Public Relations

In celebration of Black History Month, PRSA has invited prominent black leaders in the public relations profession to offer their views on race and public relations and their ideas for achieving greater racial and ethnic diversity in the industry. This is the second in that series.

I say it all the time: Diversity can be a significant “game changer” in the public relations field. Sure, the same could be said for many other professions; however, this statement’s relevance to public relations becomes more and more apparent each day I spend working in the industry.

As we celebrate the Black History Month, it’s apropos to acknowledge that race and ethnicity are two major factors in the diversity equation. But other dimensions, such as diversity of gender, thought and work and life experiences, are equally important. These characteristics collectively influence how we see the world and, ultimately, how we do our job.

Most of us like to stay within our comfort zones, which can lead us to gravitate toward individuals who think similarly or have comparable educational backgrounds and work experiences. This may result in new hires or team members who are in sync with us personally, but who may lack the creativity, perspective and innovation needed to help an organization succeed.

Think about this for a minute. A host of companies have perished over the past couple of years. You can no longer buy household goods from Linens ‘n Things. The cool gadgets that could be purchased at sleek Sharper Image stores are now available only online. Circuit City, once an electronics giant, closed the doors to its 500-plus storefronts.

So, what does the failure of such iconic American businesses have to do with diversity in the public relations field? To begin, I believe these organizations could have benefitted from greater diversity among their employees. It could have helped them understand the wants and needs of different customer segments, decipher cultural and geographic preferences, grasp differences in how consumers experience their products and services and navigate reputational threats. These are areas in which public relations practitioners can provide practical guidance to organizations.

Additionally, a diverse team of public relations professionals can help organizations engage customers in traditional and social media in ways that reflect positively on the enterprise. Well-rounded, diverse practitioners also have unique perspectives that aid them in serving as trusted advisers to the senior leaders of an organization.

Oftentimes, I look back at history to help me make a point. To support my notion of diversity, I’d like to take us back to our field’s infancy. Edward Louis Bernays, commonly referred to as the “father of public relations,” was one of the first to successfully influence public opinion and behavior – the ultimate goal of any meaningful public relations activity.

What you might not know, however, is that Bernays’ life experiences greatly influenced his thinking. As a Jewish practitioner, Bernays observed how mass media helped create anti-German sentiment in Britain prior to World War I and during the Nazi’s rise to power in Europe. He felt a similar strategy could work in public relations.

His best technique for influencing public behavior was the indirect use of third-party authorities to help advance client causes. Once, while working to promote bacon sales, Bernays surveyed physicians and reported their recommendation that people eat a hearty breakfast. He sent the survey results to 5,000 physicians, successfully touting bacon and eggs as a hearty breakfast and increasing sales for his client.

One could argue that Bernays may have arrived at similar strategy without coming from a diverse background. I submit that his diversity and life experiences gave him a distinctive point-of-view that mattered … and that made a difference not only to his clients, but to the field of public relations.

Lewis Pryor, APR, is public affairs assistant director with State Farm.

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