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.
The latest Census data tell us that 37 percent of America’s population is non-white. At the same time, minority representation across American news rooms and within the public relations profession is said to be around 13 percent.
If accurate, these numbers are telling us that in the face of the so-called browning of America, large swaths of the population are not being represented in the news delivery processes.
The numbers are also telling us that to remain culturally relevant, a dynamic shift must not only occur within the news gathering and dissemination channels but also in the agencies and corporations that recruit, train and retain public relations influencers.
As a non-journalist, I can only speak to the public relations profession which has grappled with this dissonance for as long as I can remember.
I spent the lions’ share of my career in an industry that was not particularly known for its diversity. Starting at a agency in the white male dominated high technology sector, it was a Chinese American professional who shepherded my early career and was the single defining factor in my remaining in the profession.
She provided sure footings along the steep learning curve, took the sting out of the first work-related experiences that I would define as racist and helped me to have a voice in an otherwise monolithic environment.
I embrace diversity because without it my career would have ended soon after it started.
In many ways, practicing in an in-demand sector with more jobs than practitioners lowered the threshold for race-based exclusion. However the rules of supply and demand did not isolate me from the sad demographic realities of the public relations profession as a whole and her attempts to reconcile the inherent inequities.
What I’ve learned over the years is that for all of the diversity committees formed and all of the conversations commenced, the problem still isn’t resolved. The industry still has not hired nor retained professional of color in significant or impactful numbers.
So long as we can still tick off one or more major PR agencies in major metropolitan centers from the top of our heads with one or fewer practitioners of color on staff, we as a profession have not done our job.
If the conversation begins with any semblance of the phrase ‘we can’t find qualified candidates of color,’ then we know we have truly reached an impasse.
And if problem is framed as minority issue and not as the responsibility of the profession, then we have missed the mark.
Pat responses are signals that we have not yet begun to resolve the fundamental underlying issues that plague our profession. We have not wrestled with our collective conscience to the point of breakthrough.
As the old adage goes, we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge.
The numbers are telling us that status quo won’t do.
It’s time to hit the refresh button.
The dialog must begin anew.
It has to be about inclusion.
It has to be about identifying and undertaking best practices to solve this age old lack of diversity in communications.
We live in a WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) society. So, there has to be a benefit for change.
According to Calvert Investments, Companies such as Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo., and American Express, continue to raise standards for inclusion because they recognize that diversity is a critical component of good corporate governance and a competitive advantage.
There has to be active participation in recruitment, training and retention of top candidates.
The National Football League has the ‘Rooney Rule’ to ensure that minority candidates are interviewed for all open head coaching, top coordinator and operations positions.
The PR industry must create its own accelerative process to ensure that minority candidates are in the pipeline for every position from intern to CEO.
There also has to be a defined path to key leadership positions with equal opportunities for ownership stakes in big and small agencies and startups.
We need cross-cultural mentoring programs and counseling for candidates at every step of their careers.
There must be minority representation on the boards of the associations that govern the professions, and not just populating the diversity committees – but as an earnest attempt to incorporate the interests, talents and work experiences of the membership.
There has to be better awareness built within colleges and universities of the viability of PR as a rewarding career to attract new pools of candidates.
Most importantly, we need commitment to the outcomes and accountability in the process.
For the PR profession to grow and continue to innovate, it must be willing to integrate diverse points of view.
Regina R. Lewis, APR, is a communications strategist and award-winning writer with deep roots in global business-to-business communications. She currently serves as Chief Communications Officer for Bishop T.D. Jakes where she is responsible for global public relations and communications strategies across multiple organizations.