This blog post summarizes research published in the latest issue of the PR Journal.

The field of public relation has been criticized for failing to address diversity in education and practice. Traditionally, White women dominate the profession at lower organizational levels, and White men hold most upper-level positions. Although today, more women are in leadership roles and more people of color are entering the field, problems persist, such as lack of racial and ethnic diversity and inequity in pay. Lack of representation of some groups is a problem because if agencies’ employees do not reflect the larger society, messages created might not be correctly targeted.

As the foremost professional PR organization, the Public Relations Society of America [PRSA] has worked to address diversity and inclusion [D&I] since the late 1990s. This organization has devoted resources to diversity issues, and recently, they formed a standing D&I committee. In 2016, this committee updated its diversity toolkit with a formal definition of diversity as well as a list of chapter activities to address diversity. The committee’s definition encompasses traditional descriptors of diversity, such as race and gender, but also includes criteria such as work experience and areas of expertise. This expanded definition is meant to promote inclusiveness and reduce resistance.

Given the past criticism the profession has received, it is crucial to determine if the leading firms are following the PRSA’s guidance and communicating about diversity. It is important to define complex terms such as diversity because they form the basis for organizational initiatives and, if properly implemented, can become embedded in the culture. The field as a whole has also not clearly defined the term. The goal of this research was to assess if and how the top global PR firms (a) are adopting a similar definition to the PRSA, (b) have been communicating these definitions to the public, and (c) are engaging with initiatives related to these definitions. The top 50 firms were chosen, as identified in the 2019 Holmes Report, and their websites were examined using content analysis. Websites were chosen because they are the primary channel organizations use to communicate with the public. The three research questions for this study were 1) Does the website mention diversity in any of the major sections? 2) If given, what is the definition? Which definition does it fit: traditional, broad without mentioning the traditional descriptors or a combination of both? 3) Does the website mention any diversity-related activities? If given, do the activities match the criteria outlined in the definition? For this study, a traditional definition was operationalized that only includes demographic descriptors such as race and gender.  A broader conceptual definition was operationalized that did not include the descriptors in the traditional definition, and a third combined definition was operationalized that includes both traditional and broad descriptors as in the PRSA’s definition.

Over half of the websites that were examined contained definitions, but the majority reflected the combined definition and most did not mention demographic characteristics specifically. Of the nine firms that outlined specific activities, the initiatives addressed the demographic descriptors of diversity. Most of these nine firms defined diversity broadly causing misalignment between initiatives and the definition. These findings produced 3 recommendations. First, firms should adopt a definition of diversity with specific criteria that includes both traditional and broad characteristics of diversity. Second, firms should show their commitment to diversity by communicating their definition and associated activities to clients, employees and the public across organizational communication. Finally, if the field is moving towards broad definitions of diversity, initiatives need to be expanded to address career-related differences and aligned to the criteria identified in the definition, which will allow assessment to determine effectiveness.

Visit the latest issue of the PR Journal to read Dr. Wills’ full article. 

Caitlin M. Wills, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of North Georgia. Her research interests include public communication and rhetoric.

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