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.