The Challenge of Diversity and Fit in the PR Industry (1)

“Do you think that there is a place for me in public relations?”

At least once a semester, I receive this question from students. The last person to ask this question was an African-American male student who had never met any black men in the profession and hadn’t seen any on the agency tours that I cobbled together during the semester.

I have a stock answer: Yes, and… Yes, there is a place for you, and you will be successful. According to the literature, that answer is sufficient. In reality, I am giving my students an exercise in truthiness. The real answer is more complicated than a 3 minute post-class conversation can handle.

The Future of PR Diversity Is in The Classroom

The port of entry for the profession–college classrooms– reflect the diversity and plurality of the United States. At one time, the lily whiteness of the field first commented on by Layton (1981) was an apropos description. The future of the profession and diversity is bound to the future of higher education, especially public relations education and the students engaged and graduating out of that arena.

Yet, the diversity witnessed in many college classrooms across the country is not in play in many settings where public relations and strategic communication are practiced. For many students, they will not see many people of color in leadership roles or even visible in associations. According to the 2015 National Black Public Relations Society State of the PR Industry report, “about 62 percent of the respondents do not have any black men in communication leadership roles in their organizations,” so my male student may never see a professional male of color in his agency career path. Sha and Hazelton (2012), when parsing out the membership data of PRSA with the U.S. Census data, found that Hispanics and Asian Americans were underrepresented in the membership. Without these mentoring relationships, students can and do wonder if there is room for them within the organizations. Do they fit within the industry and within certain organizations?

Beyond that, we hear HR discussions about “fit.”

  • “John is compatible with the team. He just fits into the rhythm of the team and the organization.”
  • “Jane is leaving our company. You know, she just wasn’t a good fit.”

In our informal conversations, fit is assumed to be a normative, quantitative, and objective criterion measured against the company culture and one’s intrinsic ability to mesh and play well within that company’s cultural sandbox.

It is not. A 2015 Knowledge@Wharton article shared the following insight: “It is an incredibly vague term, and it’s a vague term often based on gut instinct,” says Wharton management professor Katherine Klein, vice dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. “The biggest problem is that while we invoke cultural fit as a reason to hire someone, it is far more common to use it to not hire someone Twitter . People can’t tell you what aspect of the culture they are worried about.” Another business professor, Lauren A. Riveria, called out fit as a phenomenon gone elitist and rogue: “Although diversity in many industries has increased in recent decades, progress in the corporate realm has been slower than expected. Selection based on personal fit can keep demographic and cultural diversity low.”

Making fit a demographic and psychographic homophilic measure can privilege certain groups, can toss those who don’t replicate the ideas and hobbies of the hiring managers out of consideration, and can allow unchecked implicit and unconscious biases to thrive. Ashcraft (2013) noted that the intended and unintended branding of the organization (and the jobs contained within it) are laden with the characteristics, values, skills, and needs of particular social identities. Organizational fit is relative, subjective, and biased. Fit is demonstrated in the graphics, photos, language, and observed representations. Fit is about matching and mapping of socially invented and constructed realities. The perceptions held by potential applicants may be rooted in social context and can force some candidates out of the applicant pool before they even submit an application.

The real answer to “Do you think that there is a place for me in public relations?” is Yes, but… Yes, there is a place for you, and yes, you can make it in this career. Yet, you have to deal with roles that were not made for you and environments that do not reflect the society at large. You are the stepsisters in Cinderella. You’ll be invited to the dance, but you won’t be the chosen one.  As hard as you try to put on the glass slipper that Prince Charming has in his hand, you won’t fit with the explicit requirements and implicit qualifications. Karen Ashcraft wrote it best: “Cinderella’s tiny foot only hails her as the best candidate because, out of many possible definitions, the job was defined around a shoe that was made for her.”

What Can Be Done

From the diversity embarrassments and tribulations of Silicon Valley tech stars and startups to the frank answers of answers that Rosalind Brewer, the CEO of Sam’s Club, gave, diversity has been a popular, trending discussion. Within the public relations industry, talk of diversity has peaked and ebbed over the course of 20 years.

Diversity and inclusion have become mushy, predictable terms that have come to mean little to nothing. Diversity has been championed and pilloried. Research has shown that diverse, heterogenic teams outperform homogenous teams. However, discussions and initiatives corporate and industry diversity have grown stale and yielded limited results.  A sliver of a recent article in The Atlantic mentioned that: “Researchers from U.C. Santa Barbara recently wrote in Harvard Business Review that despite the fact that companies spend millions on diversity programs and policies, they rarely bring results. In fact, their data showed that diversity programs simply made white workers feel that their employer was now treating minorities fairly——whether that was true or not.”

For the next generation of leaders and practitioners, diversity is not an option. It is a mandate, and organizational leaders at every level of PR must shift, must adapt, and become nimble about plurality, diversity, career access, and career retention.  Here are some suggestions from the literature and from practitioners.

  1. Focus on the practice rather than the practitioners. Encourage blind screening of applications so managers do not give weight to certain things that they might consider mainstream activities
  2. It’s not enough to acknowledge our unconscious and implicit biases. Look at your surroundings for what Ashcraft (2013) calls glass slippers in the workplace. A glass slipper is “the alignment of occupational identity with embodied social identities as it yields systematic forms of advantage and disadvantage. For several reasons the glass slipper is an apt metaphor for the ways that occupations come to appear possessed of inherent characteristics that render them a natural fit for some and a stretch, if not an impossibility, for others” (p. 16). What are the institutional barriers and biases that block applicants and candidates? Question and betray your privilege. Rethink the “pipeline metaphor” and interrogating the culture and fit assumptions that form the basis for the organizational pipeline.
  3. Check the organization’s motivation for diversity. It’s not enough to say “diversity is good business practice.” Broaden the understanding of diversity and think with an intersectional lens. Consider the pools of talent. Going to three historically Black institutions or Hispanic-serving institutions is not enough to create a diverse pool of candidates. Establish and support affinity groups.

Is there a place for plurality, diversity, and inclusion in public relations? That requires examination of an organization’s motivations, behaviors, and beliefs that has to be genuine and reflexive and might be continuous, messy, and contentious. For the sake of our publics, there has to be. For the sake of those who are coming into the profession, there must be.


Natalie T. J. Tindall, Ph.D. APR is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University. Her research focuses on diversity in organizations, specifically the public relations function, and the situational theory of publics and intersectionality. Follow her on Twitter @dr_tindall.

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