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.
Black History Month is a cultural heritage period that can be approached in many ways. For some groups, it is a time for reflection. For others, it is a time for a carefully crafted campaign or intranet posting to encourage discussion.
This year, I am challenging myself to start with the man in the mirror and engage in the one activity that may ultimately help us achieve the industry we all seek – mentoring.
The debate about the best ways to recruit and retain multicultural candidates continues to go on and many point to topics like talent development, starting salaries and career trajectories as the areas needing the most attention.
These are all worth a real look, but when I think back to the challenges I faced early on (even in the intern days), I can confidently say that mentoring has made all the difference.
Since I first stepped through agency doors in 2005, the discussion about the importance of mentorship has certainly grown; now you would be hard pressed to find a serious professional who was not on the hunt for a mentor, sponsor and a coach. But where will they look?
The number of multicultural professionals in the industry has always been pegged low. In this case, the supply will not meet the demand, but maybe this will force us to expand the discussion to be more inclusive when it comes about discussing the solution.
In my last post for PRSay, I spoke of guides and how they could be used to build cultural awareness. One of the key points there was that we all need to reach out beyond our comfort zones to understand a new culture.
I think we need to reach out beyond our comfort zone yet again, but this time, the stretch we need to make will involve having candid conversations about what it takes to truly be successful both in our industry and at our respective places of work.
If we include my first experiences in the field, I have spent just over nine years in the industry and eight of them were primarily in an agency environment. I have been able to work on both the traditional and digital side of things, and my international experience has afforded me with the joy of being able to call on friends and colleagues in London, Beijing, São Paulo, Shanghai, Melbourne, Hong Kong, and Ulaanbaatar.
During that time, 10 people have served as mentors, sponsors or coaches. A few, I sought out; others revealed themselves to me through their actions. A quick look at the demographics shows the varied perspectives that I have had the great luck to call on throughout my career journey:
- 1 professor and journalist
- 9 practitioners
- 2 Asian Females
- 1 Black Female
- 1 Black Male
- 6 White Males
- 5 with over 20 years experience
- 5 with over 10 years experience
Do you see any gaps here? I do, but the fact that there were fewer multicultural professionals with similar experiences in the industry did not limit my options for excellent professional guidance.
It is important to add here that none of these supporters crossed paths with me as a result of a company mentoring program. In the most sincere way possible, I dare to say that these were “organic” connections. They were (and are) open to helping me advance in my journey, and I would like to think that our interactions are mutually beneficial.
Now that I have shared various parts of my personal experience, it is time for the challenge. I’m challenging everyone to be a mentor (or a sponsor or a coach) to at least two industry professionals – one from your culture and one from outside of your culture – because it is what we need to move the industry forward.
And just so we are all on the same page, let’s go with the broadest definition of culture because it goes beyond race. Gender, location, nationality, sexual orientation, age, religion and so many other factors shape our thinking, how we operate and how we connect.
When we speak of diversity in the industry, we seek to create workplace environments that better reflect society’s composition, but it is not just for percentage sake. We are also going after a diversity of thought and experience that will lead to great work that will resonate in the most authentic way.
We are not there yet, but we could be. Take up the charge to identify and help develop talent across cultures. We will be better for it and so will our profession.
James S. Walker serves as Global Digital Manager at The Nature Conservancy. When he is not tightrope walking the lines of PR, Marketing and Social Media, he serves as editor-in-chief of the media site Culture Swarm.