Advocacy Diversity Inside the Profession Thought Leadership

Going Beyond Race, Ethnicity And Gender To Define Diversity

Editor’s note: In celebration of Black History Month in February, PRSA invited prominent public relations professionals to offer their views and ideas for achieving greater racial and ethnic diversity in the profession as well as what Black History Month means to them.  A compilation of previous PRSA Black History Month blog posts can be found here.

When we talk about diversity in public relations, we focus on the Big Three: race, ethnicity, and gender, the high-level and discernible demographic categories.

As Natalie Tindall said in PR Tactics in 2012,

“Visible identities are the social identities that others can see — the things that can be observed such as race, gender expression, age — and invisible are the more subtle identities that are not always visible — the things that are under the surface. These can include being LGBT or having veteran status, work roles, socioeconomic status or learning disabilities. Reclassifying how we look at diversity shifts the discussion toward inclusion and moves us from what [diversity thought leader] Dr. Roosevelt Thomas called “affirmative action to affirming diversity.”

The things that make us who we are and how we perceive the world are our visible and invisible identities. Andrew Solomon  called them horizontal and vertical identities. Bey-Ling Sha, in the public relations literature, was the first to call them avowed and ascribed identities. Whatever they are called, they are ever present in each interaction we have. When those horizontal and vertical identities collide, we call that an intersectional experience. Many of us have them every day when various, layered identities bubble to the surface in a new interaction, experience or message.

Yet, most often the nuances and other identities of publics and audiences are sublimated under one universalizing label. Historically, this has been done for many groups; even one of the industry’s pioneering leaders did this when discussing marketing to the urban market– “the Negro market.” A recent example of this is in the Ogilvy and Mather cross cultural report, which categorizes based on race and sexual orientation. Not that the author is the only one for painting groups in large brush strokes that ignore certain–yet pivotal-points of identity. The lack of understanding that these identities can overlap — a gay Black man or an Asian woman from a predominantly black Caribbean country–is a valid critique, yet I am most interested in how SES is subsumed by other identities.

One of the most common identities that we experience is the one tied to our socioeconomic status. The American Psychological Association (2007) conceptualized SES  “an intersecting measurement of education, occupation, and income, which determines the social standing or class of an individual or group,” which has bearings on physical and mental health, development, access, and well-being. Yet of all the identities mentioned above, it is the one identity that is often neglected is any prolonged discussion of socioeconomic status and how that influences how people perceive messages.

Class matters, as bell hooks pointed out. Conflating race and ethnicity with socioeconomic status definitely matters. The intersection of socioeconomic status and public relations is a serious matter that all public relations professionals must and should consider.

As Diana Sanchez and Julia Garcia wrote,

“Our work, and others, demonstrates that class and racial identification remain inextricably linked, such that class informs perceptions of race. In other words, SES plays a pivotal role in both racial self-categorization and categorization by others… a person is more likely to categorize another as Black if he or she perceives that person as lower in SES. Also, someone who has a higher SES is more likely to self-categorize herself as White than Black.”

Too often practitioners conflate race and ethnicity with SES. One example of this is the dreaded “urban” label attached to consumer groups, which often is a dog whistle for black and brown people (but not always). As Doug Melville mentioned in 2008, “From my experience, when the term ‘urban’ or ’urban marketing’ comes up in meetings or conversations, the first thing that pops into most people’s heads around the table is ’We must be talking about Black or Hispanic.’ This thinking is slowing eeking out of the industry, but there is a belief that one thing equates to the other.”

This is why intersectional approaches to segmenting audiences is imperative.

“So, how do I do that?”

When Tindall spoke to a group of Dutch interns two summers ago, she received this question from several earnest students.

To be honest she was stumped. Theoretically, the idea was easy to discuss. However, the practical implementation was the barrier for many practitioners.

Here are some things to consider when practitioners go forward to create campaigns and messages that rely upon multiple identities:

  • Acknowledge that groups separated by certain visible identities may have more in common due to SES. Do not resort to standard myths and stereotypes about marginalized groups.
  • Ask the targeted public for their opinions on how the message should be crafted. Do not rely on your own preconceived ideas about who should be reached.
  • Dig deeper into the primary and secondary data that you have gathered. Run crosstabulations to “provide clues to map out different characteristics (public profiles) of the segmented publics and furthermore give ‘where to go’ type information before planning communication” (Kim, 2011). Use the summation method to determine the appropriate publics within a particular issue or particular outreach. Kim (2011) outlined this approach in the following paper, where he urged that practitioners drill into cross-situational demographic data to better understand message construction.


Natalie Tindall, Ph.D., is the former chair of PRSA’s Diversity Committee and is an associate professor of communication at Georgia State University. She specializes in diversity and identity in public relations and teaches Public Relations Writing, PR Research and Campaigns.

Kristen Everett is a second year MA communications student at Georgia State University. Upon completion of her degree she aspires to a career as a communications professional in nonprofits or the public sector. She recently worked as part of the Georgia Department of Transportation’s communication team and currently works as a communications assistant with GSU’s School of Public Health. Kristen received her BA of English from Georgia State in 2011 and is beginning to consider herself something of a GSU veteran.

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Natalie Tindall & Kristen Everett

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