combined headshotsIn 2012, we received one of several grants from the Public Relations Society of America Foundation to identify and explore the opportunities and obstacles to career advancement reported by young African-American and Hispanic PR practitioners. Related research had been periodically published, especially since 2005 when Lynn Appelbaum (City College of New York) and Rochelle Ford (Syracuse University, then at Howard University) published “Hispanic and Black Public Relations Practitioners’ Perceptions and Experiences within the Industry.” However, the increasing interest in this topic by academic research is widely perceived as not being matched by increasing actual diversity in the PR profession.

We directed our research project on a somewhat different and more restricted sample than most previous studies. We limited our focus to individuals working in PR (and closely allied integrated communications fields) who self-identified as African-American and/or Hispanic, and who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree sometime in the range of 2008 – 2014. Our intention was to capture distinctive insights from these young professionals who are members of the Millennial Generation and who had entered the profession at the time of the global economic downturn and recovery.

We also focused on public relations executives in organizations who are actively involved in the recruitment and retention of entry- and early-level PR practitioners.

We developed our survey instrument after extensive review of the published literature, in-person interviews with human resources and PR professionals who have active hiring responsibilities of young PR practitioners, and our own series of focus groups with you professionals who met our demographic profile.

Sampling was an expected challenge, but we enjoyed gracious and enthusiastic cooperation from a number of organizations that assisted in implementing our nonprobability (convenience), chain-referral method. The URL for the online questionnaire was widely distributed by email, by public announcement at industry conferences, and through personal referrals. We are happy to acknowledge and thank the Public Relations Society of America, the PRSA Foundation, the Black Public Relations Society, the Hispanic Public Relations Society, several PRSSA chapters associated with historically Black colleges and universities, and the Arthur W. Page Society.

Our online survey was accessible for participation from October 10, 2014 through January 22, 2015. We worked closely through the whole project with The Gilfeather Group and with Gazelle Global Research. The findings of the survey are reported at and at the PRSA Foundation website.

Our study finds that young African-American and Hispanic PR professionals are positive about their experiences in the profession (“the good news”), but they readily acknowledge regular race- and ethnic-based obstacles which temper their optimism for the future and their likelihood to recommend their career path to the next generation (“the bad news”).

Findings suggest that employer organizations have embraced diversity recruitment with, reportedly, success. However, once the young African-American and Hispanic PR employees are hired, diversity sensitivity and valuation falls short.

Providing improvements for insufficient mentoring and other ineffective retention strategies may be the key issue, in 2015 and going forward, for bringing the U.S. public relations profession to a position in which it can benefit from the input of multicultural professionals as well as become a leader (instead of a laggard) in cultivating a diverse, rich, and creative workforce.

We offer the following implications from the study for the PR industry:

  • Young Hispanic and African-American public relations professionals are mostly happy with their career choices – but have misgivings that may be sending negative messages out to the next, younger generation. How can the PR profession reduce these “misgivings”/doubts and reinforce the general inclination to support the profession?
  • Young professionals from diverse backgrounds – particularly African-Americans – strongly suspect that their career development has been held back because of racial/ethnic prejudice. While this current study has no way to determine whether this impression is accurate or not, the fact is that the PR profession needs to do better to 1) ensure there are no prejudicial patterns in career advancement, and 2) develop clear professional guidelines and recommendations to help employers be more effective in the recruitment and especially retention of young multicultural professionals.
  • Educating employees about micro-aggression in the workplace would appear to have benefits in creating a more cohesive workplace culture.
  • There appears to be a significant opportunity for HR professionals who work in the PR industry to become more engaged in helping to retain young professionals in the workplace by either playing a more active role in mentorship, or by helping to facilitate mentorship among account teams that engage and include multicultural professionals. At present, HR personnel appear to play a negligible role in retention.
  • Mentoring, “modeling,” and HR programs designed to welcome and develop young professionals from diverse backgrounds are rare – and urgently needed. If not offered in-house, there is opportunity for organizations such as BPRS and HPRA to offer a more formal mentoring program and/or professional development programming. As these organizations and subsequent networking channels are viewed as highly valuable to the continued success of minority young professionals, organizational leadership may want to develop new initiatives in this area.
  • The workplace is not “color blind.” It probably never will be. Race and ethnicity should be valued as potential assets in a young professional’s profile – but certainly not exclusive criteria. Young professionals from diverse backgrounds should be encouraged to use their “identity” as an asset in their professional development, without being constrained (“pigeon-holed”) by that identity.
  • Diversity initiatives would appear to be more effective when employers invest less in formal “diversity programs” and more on supporting employees to build a genuine connection with other employees that makes them feel appreciated and welcome. The notion of “diversity programming” without an understanding of why it’s being created and how it supports recruitment and retention does not move the needle to sustain and enhance diversity.
  • Cultural appreciation and awareness must accompany equal opportunity.

The PRSA Foundation, the PR Council, and other industry organizations have increased research, advocacy, and student support programming in the past few years. Several new research projects, including our own, will be available in late 2015 and in 2016.

Consensus among industry advocates seems to be stronger than ever to invest in discovering and replicating optimal organizational policies to facilitate the development of a truly diverse and inclusive PR practice. If we, as public relations professionals (who are supposed to have distinctive expertise in relationships among publics) do not manage these issues in accordance with evidence and with our clients’ – and our audiences’ – expectations, our credibility will erode with the next generation of practitioners.

Lynn D. Appelbaum, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a professor and director in the Advertising/PR Program at City College of New York. She serves on the boards of the PRSA Foundation and PRSA New York, and served on the PRSA Board of Directors as Chapter Diversity liaison.

Franklin Walton, Ph.D., is a communications research and strategy consultant at Franklin Walton LLC. He is a member of the Measurement Commission at the Institute for PR. Follow him on Twitter @franklinwalton.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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