Editor’s note: In August, PRSA will celebrate PR Diversity Month by focusing on the diverse communities, people and practices that comprise the public relations profession. We will also be providing advice and insight on how to build a better PR industry through diversity and inclusion. We’ve invited PR practitioners and thought leaders to offer their insights on various diversity and inclusion topics important to the PR profession. Follow the series and join the discussion by using the hashtag #PRDiversity. For more information on Diversity Month activities visit the Diversity Month section of the PRSA site.
One of my greatest satisfactions as an educator is helping my students, most of whom are multicultural, make the transition from classroom to communications professional. I have learned much from my students about their challenges and how they’ve overcome them, especially adapting and thriving in a mostly Caucasian workplace. While there are unique aspects to the multicultural experience, focusing on universal challenges can impact success, regardless of race. Here are a few of the key tips as you chart your path:
1. Don’t let the fear stop you.
Everyone is insecure when they apply for a job. Entering a primarily Caucasian workplace, while it may be intimidating, is no reason not to apply. If you bring competitive skills, professionalism and passion, go for it! I’ve had students psych themselves out of applying to internships and jobs because they thought, “How can I compete in such a tough market?” The answer is, if you are competitive, you have nothing to lose. And if you get rejected, try to learn from your experience and move on to the next opportunity. Show your prospective employer that you understand their needs AND that you bring an important perspective to the table. Do your homework, show your value. You may surprise yourself!
2. Understand the corporate culture and take steps to adapt
One of the most important elements to succeed in the workplace is understanding and adapting to the corporate culture. This is true for everyone, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or gender. When I worked at NBC News, this was certainly true for me, even as a Caucasian woman. It meant stepping out of my comfort zone to be more assertive and tougher. A former multicultural student, now at NBC, recently expressed feeling like an outsider, which she attributed to being African American. From my experience, I explained to her that her feelings most likely had little to do with her ethnicity and everything to do with the corporate culture. It was up to her to find ways to connect with her associates both in and out of work (where a lot of social bonding often occurs), to adapt to the dynamics of her coworkers and to show that she wanted to be there. Within weeks of rethinking how she integrated with her team, things improved dramatically. Her race was not the issue, as she first thought. Her sense of self and initiative made the difference.
3. Find a mentor, either inside or outside the company
Our 2014 CCNY study of young multicultural PR professionals (forthcoming the Fall, funded by PRSA Foundation) revealed that having a mentor on your team, or an internal supervisor who can help you navigate the corporate landscape and could be a sounding board, is an important key to success in the workplace. That individual does not need to be of the same ethnicity, as long as they are someone on whom you can rely for frank and honest discussions. Multicultural professionals also found mentors through professional affinity groups like HPRA, or BPRS or at ColorComm. Many found mentors on LinkedIn groups and even through Twitter. The key is finding someone with whom you can talk through workplace challenges and who can give you sound guidance to navigate the workplace landscape. And, having a mentor can even help you with your job search.
4. Be proactive. Show your initiative. Manage up.
Many young professionals, especially those who are just starting out, tend to be diligently dutiful. That’s not enough. While that’s a foundational pre-requisite for success, those who get ahead often show they are go-getters. They try to think like their boss or owner. Manage up. The means figuring out your supervisor’s work style and needs so you can contribute to his/her priorities, too.
5. It’s Not About You
Let’s face it. When we enter a job, we bring all of who we are with us: strengths and insecurities, values, behaviors, ethnic or racial perspectives, the whole kitchen sink. But once you enter the workplace, it’s not about you. Your success depends on what you bring to the job to help your team, business, or client succeed. That shouldn’t mean sacrificing your values and dignity. It does, however, require a shift to think about how you benefit your employer. Show that you put the needs of the job first.
6. Do Your Own Internal PR
Almost all young PR pros are faced with doing some menial tasks that they may be tedious. But if you feel as though you are being relegated more than your fair share of menial work compared to others, don’t be afraid to speak up. But, do so professionally and in a constructive way that may help solve a problem and won’t just be heard as a complaint. Likewise, when you have substantive successes, find ways to document and share them with your supervisor so there is a record of your good work.
Lynn Appelbaum has been a public relations professional and educator for more than 30 years working in both the public and private sectors in media relations, strategic planning and communications. Lynn joined the City College of New York faculty in 1993, where she is professor and director of the Advertising/PR program. Lynn is an active proponent of diversity in public relations through her PRSA national, Foundation and chapter service, and through her research on the experiences of multicultural practitioners in the workplace.