Diversity Thought Leadership

Public Relations’ Diversity Problem

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The election of Barack Obama as the country’s first black president has put the issue of diversity under increased public scrutiny. That’s a good thing for industries—like public relations—that can benefit from attracting more African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and other minority professionals to its ranks.

Over the past few years, our industry has made a serious commitment to solving its diversity problem. But as the latest PRWeek Diversity Survey shows, much work remains to be done, especially in the areas of recruitment and retention.

More than 85 percent of the survey respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that the industry “has a problem recruiting ethnically diverse professionals,” while 69 percent similarly agreed that the industry “has a problem retaining ethnically diverse professionals.”

Respondents were nearly unanimous in feeling that public relations should “institute more robust programs to recruit and retain diverse talent.”

On the occasion of Black History Month, it seems appropriate to review PRSA’s own record in regard to the public relations industry’s diversity problem.

PRSA’s first diversity outreach happened more than 20 years ago, when a multicultural communications committee was formed. Under the leadership of Debra Miller, APR, Fellow PRSA, the first African American to Chair the PRSA Board of Directors, this committee was elevated to a Professional Interest section—Multicultural Communications—in 1997.

In 2000, PRSA asked industry legend Ofield Dukes, APR, Fellow PRSA, to lead its first official National Diversity Initiative. Mr. Dukes conducted a cross-country Diversity Tour to educate Chapters about diversity and multiculturalism. While the Diversity Tour has evolved somewhat over the years, it continues today in the spirit Mr. Dukes originally put forth.

Three years later, PRSA formed a national Diversity Committee, with the objective of developing a more-inclusive Society by reaching and involving members who represent diverse genders, ethnicities, races, and sexual-orientations, and by providing them with dedicated professional development opportunities and support to help them succeed in public relations.

Among the Diversity Committee’s notable achievements has been the creation of a Diversity Toolkit, to provide Chapters, Districts, and Sections with resources to manage their own diversity initiatives; and a podcast series, “PRSA Diversity Today,” that focuses not only on creating a more diverse industry, but also on multicultural communications, Chapter diversity programming, and corporate best practices in diversity.

With the help of its Diversity Committee, PRSA also instituted a Chapter Diversity Award. This program was created as a way to recognize PRSA Chapters that are embracing diversity and inclusion, raising the bar for other PRSA Chapters and the industry at large.

PRSA also is pleased to be represented by PRSSA chapters at 13 Historically Black Colleges, and at 27 schools that have been accredited by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. We also feature a column on diversity, “Diversity Dimensions,” in each issue of PRSA’s Public Relations Tactics.

PRSA is proud of its leadership in confronting the public relations industry’s diversity problem, but we clearly have a long way to go.

Our own member research shows that, last year, 87 percent of PRSA members were Caucasian. This represents only a six percent increase in minority membership since 2005.

We also pay particular attention to seeking candidates for our Board of Directors who are representative of the ethnic diversity of the profession. And, while our record has been good in this regard—our Board of Directors in recent years has included individuals of African American and Hispanic descent, and individuals of different sexual orientations—we admit falling short at times in identifying more minority candidates who are interested and willing to serve.

Now is the perfect time to remind ourselves that there is much work to be done, and of the need to step up and make a difference.

Toward that end, if you know of minority candidates who are interested in serving PRSA in a leadership capacity—on our Board of Directors, Task Forces or Committees, or at the Chapter, District, or Section level, please reach out on our behalf, offer your encouragement and support, and work with them, and us, to help make a difference.

Michael Cherenson is PRSA’s 2009 Chair and CEO.

About the author

Michael Cherenson, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • Michael: Thank you for tackling this challenging issue. PRSA’s national board needs to better reflect the population we represent and each chapter across the country must learn more about the perceptions that act as obstacles to attracting and retaining a more representative mix of members. It is a responsibility we all share. Thanks for your leadership.

  • Wow PRSA has come quite a long way in my lifetime! I say this only partially joking but I feel like diversity is one of those issues where the word “theorem” might be a better use than “problem” because like a math theorem, this issue of diversity will take years to solve and probably involve the collaborative work of a lot of people. There doesn’t seem to be a “right answer” yet but in my experience, doing little things leads to accomplishing big things! Hopefully more PR pros of diverse backgrounds step up into leadership roles, at least on the Chapter level if not also on the National level. Great post!

  • Michael,
    Thanks for stimulating conversation about this important issue. I have been involved in local and national diversity efforts for many years. I am frustrated by the slow progress in our industry and also in the advertising industry.
    Here’s what it will take to elevate diversity and inclusion to a business priority:
    1. PR professionals recognize the value diverse ideas and experiences add to their communication strategies. Changing demographics and increased spending power have not been enough to wake up many decision makers.
    2. Clients demand diversity and inclusion as a competitive advantage. This will separate the fence-sitters from those who are ready to deliver. If the 2008 presidential campaign and election hasn’t convinced the fence-sitters. Well, Humpty Dumpty comes to mind…

  • Good news from the Heartland — albeit anecdotal.

    In the past year at Kent State, more than 20% of PR majors have been from minority groups. That’s more than twice the number just 10 years ago. Young men, on the other hand, represent only about 10% of PR majors, and my colleagues at other schools tell me it’s similar on their campuses.

    Could it be we need to redefine “diversity” for PR to include men as an “endangered species”? Looks that way from here.

    • Bill,

      Thanks for joining the conversation; the jump in minority students studying public relations at Kent State is good news, for the Golden Flashes community and for our industry. I’d be interested to know if there’s anything PRSA can take away from your university’s efforts to recruit a more diverse student body.

      You also make an excellent point about the number of men in our field. PRSA takes a similarly broad view of diversity, which we believe includes African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and other ethnic groups, as well as the LGBT community. Ordinarily, I would include women in any discussion of diversity but, as you point out, ours is one of few industries in which women actually outnumber men. Within PRSA, for example, 70 percent of our members are female, and a large number of them have been outstanding leaders within our organization.

      Bottom line: too much of any single group is not ideal. Diversity of thought, experience, skills, and even age—in addition to racial and ethnic diversity— will make PRSA a stronger and more vibrant organization, just as it has made our nation stronger.

  • When I first started attending PRSA meetings some 30 years ago, the room always was filled with middle-aged, white guys. You could count the number of women present on one hand and any minority was probably a guest speaker from a foreign country. Look at that same event today: A majority of people at any PRSA function are women and a sizeable percentage are minority. That’s great! I’m glad for the progress we’ve made. But diversity is a 1970s issue. Let’s move on to issues such as training, accountability, prefessionalism and reputation (thanks, USA Today) for everyone — regardless of gender or origin.

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