PRSA needs to diversify its view of diversity

I’m the new guy here, so let’s this out of the way: Hi, my name is Mike (“Hi, Mike!”), and I’m addicted to MSNBC.

I have a short bio here. OK, so let’s get on with it…

As a student, I served on the national committee for the Public Relations Student Society of America, the kiddie version of the Public Relations Society of America. I was lucky enough to almost literally stumble into this outstanding experience. I met some amazingly fun and talented people, and we worked with leaders from PRSA to make both organizations more meaningful to the industry they serve.

And I once stood next to James Grunig.

I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, but that’s not to say it was perfect. Even on the kiddie committee, we wrestled with some fairly heavy issues – one of which still nags me today, despite my total lack of involvement with the organization since my national committee stint.

PRSA and PRSSA shared the noble goal of improving diversity within the groups and the industry at large, particularly in terms of organizational membership and leadership but also in the educational sense, helping all members better understand the less familiar corners of world’s population. The nobility of the goal was complemented by the practicality of the idea that if a PR professional better understands, say, the Hispanic communities in the southwestern United States, he or she could better pitch stories to that community’s media outlets.

In many respects, PRSA has done well in educating its membership about a variety of specific communities who identify themselves with a common language, race, orientation, nationality, profession, political preference or mix thereof. For example, the July issue of Tactics, the association’s newspaper (the last one I received before my membership expired) featured an article titled “LGBTinos: a unique niche market effectively reached online,” which informs readers on the ins and outs of conducting media outreach directed toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Latinos. The next page has a similar article aiming to give readers a basic understanding of the disabled community.

These types of stories are helpful and interesting, often (thankfully) written by members of the very communities being discussed. I could complain about how most of these articles are the same and rarely go beyond generic, “PR 101” advice like read the publication before pitching the editor, know what they cover, know the audience, etc. – but I won’t. I have something else to complain about.

Another part of PRSA’s diversity initiative, arguably the more significant part, is improving the diversity of the organization’s membership and leadership while helping agencies and communications departments improve the diversity within. As the thinking goes, how can you communicate to diverse audiences without truly knowing, understanding, relating? Again, a noble goal, but it’s in this regard that I think PRSA’s efforts fall short.

In that same issue of Tactics, I read an article that sums up my experiences with PRSA’s diversity efforts: “Where are all the diverse PR practitioners?” laments the lack of diversity the author sees in his visits to PR classes “at several Midwestern universities,” making the not-unreasonable claim that this problem is reflected in the population of practicing PR professionals.

What’s the author’s evidence of the diversity problem? Too many Caucasians, apparently.

“Generally, only a handful of African-American students are in these classes, and even fewer Hispanics and Asians.”

I don’t disagree, speaking from my almost exclusively Midwestern perspective. But why the focus solely on race? I use this article as an example, but it’s representative of much of my experience with PRSA’s approach to diversity. We’re loaded with ideas for how to pitch stories to “diverse” media outlets, but when it comes to being more diverse, the solution is to be more epidermally colorful.

PRSSA wanted to improve membership diversity, so our committee discussed a plan that involved targeting HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities, a phrase I’m glad PRSSA didn’t invent). Discussions of diversity did often include mention of matters beyond race, but actions taken stayed squarely in the realm of skin tone.

Our committee itself was truly diverse. We were European and African and Asian and Mormon and Buddhist and Catholic and male and female and large and small and come from families of divorce and families of, well, not divorce and – you get the point. You’d think protestations of an incorrect focus with regard to diversity would have been acted upon. Nay.

I know many people have devoted much blood, sweat and tears to PRSA broadly and its diversity initiative specifically, and I know many of those people, and I love a few of them. I hope some of these people will tell me I’m wrong, that I’m not seeing a lot of other, better informed work going on. Or maybe that things have gotten better since I’ve faded away from the PRSSA/PRSA circle.

But I don’t hold out too much hope. After all, these are PR people. If they were doing something even remotely well, I’m pretty damn sure we’d have heard about it.

20 thoughts on “PRSA needs to diversify its view of diversity

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    Hi Mike–Great! As an frequent peruser (is that a word?) of the “Crowd” I’ve found the staff particularly spirited and insightful the last five weeks or so. Looking forward to another bright contributer!

  2. jloveland says:

    Great post, MK. Thrilled to have you.

    I wish there was other kinds of diversity in the field too. More college majors other than journalism, English, public relations, and communications, such as philosophy, business finance, nursing, foreign affairs, music, child development, etc. More people over 55. More handicapped people. More people who know what it’s like to be a client. More PR-as-a-third-career. More who have served their nation overseas in the military, Peace Corps or diplomatic corps.

    We’re a mighty homogenous industry in more ways than skin color and ethnicity, and that makes us insular.

  3. Dennis Lang says:

    Really? Might P/R be a possible second career consideration for someone with an academic background that included philosophy, literature, psychology, history and art history, with grad work in cinema, then followed it with about thirty years of varying achievement (and occasionally lack of) in the wholesale manufacturing business? Hmm….

  4. Kelly Groehler says:

    Sure. Just do us a favor, and subscribe to some form of an ethical code for your practice. (Which, incidentially, is why I’m a card-carrying PRSA member.)

  5. Dennis Lang says:

    Thanks for the reply Kelly. I’m a long way from remotely contemplating a practice–wouldn’t even know where to begin. Making it an ethical one is however a noble suggestion. Thank you.

  6. Jeremy Bridgman says:

    Spot on, Mike. You’ll remember that we as a PRSSA National Committee had to take on this issue after PRSA started their initiative. I was proud that when our group debated the topic, we expanded the definition of diversity to go beyond a veiled way of saying, “we need more white people.” But pretty language in a diversity statement means nothing if the leaders of our field and our society don’t create action that diversifies our future colleagues in the myriad ways mentioned here and in the comments.

  7. Archie Bunker says:

    I am so damn tired of “diversity,” as if it were some kind of higher state of consciousness. Under-representation is a mathematical reality.

    I wish there were more Japanese players in the NBA.

    I wish there were more gentiles in the diamond trade.

    I wish there were black sea captains.

    But guess what, I don’t think we need to form a committee of bleeding hearts to examine why these injustices exist.

    PR people are as bad as journalists when to comes to this rubbish.

  8. There’s some truth to your statements, Archie. I’m pretty sure not much value would be derived from the Where are Our Japanese NBA Players Investigative Committee.

    Still, the public relations business is different from the examples you’re talking about. We’re supposed to be able to help clients communicate with a wide range of audiences. If one of those happens to be, oh, I don’t know – Japanese kids who might be interested in playing basketball – Mike Keliher is only going to be of limited use. I don’t know the first thing about what a Japanese kid might be interested in, so how can I help him see that NBA basketball might be worth his time?

    At least, that how that part of the thinking goes.

    There’s also this little thing called bigotry and striving to pull people’s heads out of their asses and make sure some people don’t get “overlooked” in the hiring process because they have more melanin in their skin or like to sleep with someone who uses the same public restroom.

  9. Archie Bunker says:

    Striving to pull bigots’ heads out will never be achieved through programmatic, formulaic or regulatory remedies.

    Good people of any background will prevail on their merits. You all need to believe that. This is America – not Europe.

  10. I agree. But we’re not talking about formulas, mandates or regulations here, Archie. We’re talking about the goals and efforts of a private enterprise, goals and efforts that are coming from a good place but just falling a little short.

    As such, unless you think there’s some *harm* that can come from these educational, attempting-to-open-some-eyes efforts, I don’t think you have a leg to stand on.

    I’ll be the first to say that things like formulaic, quota-based affirmative action programs are, for the most part, complete bullshit. I’m also in the front of the line of people who’ll say that it’s better to encourage people to pull their heads out of their asses by their own free will before some form of government thinks mandates, regulations or quotas are a good idea.

  11. Max says:

    As far as diversity of experience prior to entering a PR career, you have to fight HR departments for that. Coming from a department of 14 with only 3 PR degrees in the crowd, we got there by networking and going around HR. They can screen out some REALLY qualified candidates just because they don’t check the right box.

  12. Being an African American female, I get it twice: People who think you are NOT good enough because you’re a woman and black.

    It’s a reality in all fields but in PR where relationships are critical, we are often left out of important conversations, meetings and quite frankly – ignored. So a lot just leave the field.

    That hurts us all. Some of the best and the brightest never get to shine because someone too prejudice to afford them real opportunities. I wonder if “Archie Bunker” knows what that feels like.

    I guess that’s why we still need an organization like the NAACP.

  13. Archie Bunker says:

    Pam – if you are good at what you do, you will prevail. Don’t let anyone discourage or stop you.

    I don’t buy at least half of your premise (women actually dominate the PR business). I would, however, take a cue from Asians and Jews, who have been heavily discriminated against but who circumvented discrimination by establishing their own businesses and who are the envy of everyone.

    The worst thing you can do is attribute every occupational obstacle to your pigmentation and chromosomal makeup.

    And thank God for Moorfield Storey, a white man, and the president of the NAACP from its founding to 1915.

  14. RockstarPoet says:


    From the quill of one man.
    Is Beauty only skin deep?
    Take a Chance on a blazon trail ?
    Oh infatuated nation;
    The change chatter Proclamation

    All MEN are created Equal
    Men are inspired by Words
    But Emotion over Reason
    Or Inspiration over perspiration?

    Clearly Obama’s WRIGHT is wrong
    Compassion must trump color allegiance
    Tears of poverty constant
    Media Bias clear as Ice

    Hype is the culprit
    The focus the chains
    Remember the power of nature
    The recitation of sacrifice

    Endurance the foundation
    The tolerance of woman
    Again-All Men are created equal
    All knowledge comes from pain

    And what of our children
    No Child born is punishment
    Time does not alter the blessing
    Faith demands Parity Allegiance

    Not by Blind faith-leap
    Time, tested, and true
    Behind every successful man…
    The tribulation of the Womb-man

    Men, the tides have changed
    Espouse the inevitable parity
    Hang loose you say?
    Beware of the rip I say!

    Pierce the words & dilatory dissolutions
    Time tested and true blue
    All men are created equal…
    Suspect is the female

    Laudable, subvert sexism
    The verdict—a Village

  15. Longfellow says:

    oping to catch your eye
    Circling around you, oh my
    Butterfly, butterfly, come into the light
    Oh, what a beautiful sight
    Flying so gracefully
    Into the sky, the butterfly
    Trying to catch a butterfly
    Fly, fly, fly, butterfly
    There he sets upon the mums
    I’m having so much fun
    Here’s another on the sill
    Your standing so still
    You go to touch him
    There he goes, the butterfly
    I hear a tapping on the window
    It’s the butterfly, fly, fly, fly
    There he goes into the sky
    Flying so high, the butterfly
    I’ll see you another day
    Butterfly, butterfly, away

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