Having attended Black History Month events during February and listening to a variety of African-American leaders and friends in the PR industry, I came away feeling both inspired by them, and not at all satisfied with the state of Diversity and Inclusion in PR and in PRSA. I’m referring to D&I in all its facets: race, ethnicity, gender, religious beliefs, nationality, age, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, and more.
What was reinforced for me was that Diversity and Inclusion is a professional imperative for public relations, a profession that must strategically engage all stakeholders to achieve successful outcomes — or become irrelevant. To make progress we have to move past talking about D&I and acting intermittently, and commit to a multigenerational marathon with settled intention.
I’m positive that we can and must act, having seen PRWeek’s mini-documentary, “What It’s Like to Be Black in PR,” featuring such leaders as my Board colleague Andrew McCaskill, APR, a senior vice president at Nielsen. I was also moved by the Museum of PR’s third annual Black History Month event on Feb. 1 in New York City, where I learned more about Frederick Douglass’ pivotal place in American history from his great-great-great grandson Kenneth Morris Jr., who now continues his ancestor’s work as president of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives.
Mr. Morris was joined by a variety of African-American PR leaders, including Dr. Rochelle Ford, APR, and the Rev. Dr. Unnia Pettus, who edited and were signing copies of “Ofield: The Autobiography of Public Relations Man Ofield Dukes,” the legendary PRSA Gold Anvil recipient and driving force behind establishing the Martin Luther King national holiday, among other momentous achievements. It should be required reading for PR people so that we develop a broader and deeper understanding of why D&I isn’t optional for us in a rapidly advancing world.
I’m concerned that the PR profession and PRSA aren’t advancing fast enough. The U.S. Census estimates that 14.5 percent of the nation’s population is black. At our National Assembly in October, there was one black person in a room of perhaps 250 delegates — Andrew McCaskill — and far too few others representing racial and ethnic minorities. What can our profession and PRSA do about that?
We can employ the strategies of our own profession, to involve people in the decisions that affect them and to enable progress by inclusion. I’m encouraged by the work of our national Diversity and Inclusion Committee, led by Chair James Shackelford and Immediate Past Chair Ana Toro, APR, Fellow PRSA, which has established a network of 64 D&I chairs (so far) among our 110 Chapters to empower grassroots efforts while preparing for new national initiatives. One of these will be a State of Diversity panel discussion to be hosted in New York on June 22. The Committee is also considering new ways to spotlight D&I at our International Conference and through recognition programs.
Our PRSA Foundation, led by President Judith Harrison, senior vice president, diversity and inclusion, at Weber Shandwick, and President-Elect Joe Cohen, APR, chief communications officer for AXIS Capital, has made advancing D&I its core mission, funding scholarships to attract and promote candidates of diverse backgrounds in our field. Our PRSA Board has committed $500,000 over five years to support the Foundation’s work. Last year, the Foundation allocated $20,000 in travel grants for minority students to attend the PRSSA National Convention. Stay tuned for more developments.
Diversity and Inclusion is a priority within your Society’s three-year strategic plan, and our Board and staff leaders keep it always before us as a guide to our actions. This year, in addition to our leadership coordinating more closely with the work of the PRSA Foundation, Felicia Blow, APR, associate vice president of development at Hampton University, will serve as special counsel to our Board, with a focus on PRSA’s membership recruitment and retention. She will bring her considerable skills, insights and perspective to the National Membership Committee, chaired by Sonja Popp-Stahly, APR, Fellow PRSA.
Students are certainly among our most important constituencies, and Jeneen Garcia, executive director of PRSSA, has committed to outreach and growth targets in recruiting students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to PRSSA membership, and we are tracking progress systematically on a strategic dashboard for our staff and Board.
I’m also grateful to Dr. Denise Hill, APR, assistant professor of strategic communication at Elon University following a distinguished corporate career, who has agreed to serve as one of my appointees to the National Nominating Committee so that this critically important group benefits from the participation of a recognized thought leader on D&I.
Real work proceeds, and much remains. PR and PRSA must persevere in D&I to change as quickly as the world around us, or we’ll become the lesser for it. It’s often said that “diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” OK, PRSA: Let’s dance. Now.
Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the 2018 chair of PRSA.