Study originally published in the Journal for Public Relations Education. The full study is available here. 

A team led by Dr. Bruce Berger concluded that finding, developing and retaining top talent is a key issue for public relations executives. BPRI—a research-led consultancy, focusing on business-to-business (b2b) research—also found that 90 percent of senior communication managers felt that the industry needs improvement in minority representation at all levels, which shows that there is a need for the recruitment and retention of potential minority practitioners.

In order to promote and enhance diversity in the public relations profession, many agencies and departments have attempted to build a diverse pipeline of practitioners among millennials, the largest and most racially and ethnically diverse generation in the workplace today. This pipeline can be built effectively through the profession’s collaboration with universities that have students focusing on public relations, helping to recruit underrepresented racial and ethnic persons (UREPs) and more gender-balanced students into the curriculum, and then helping to retain those students through the curriculum and into entry-level positions.

Because of the importance of recruitment and retention of future practitioners at the college level, The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations approved a project conducted by a team led by me and Dr. Damion Waymer. The project was designed to examine the collegiate development of public relations students, from an educational and social perspective, to uncover any differences based on race and gender. The study helped identify areas of need, concern and opportunity that could help improve the development of underrepresented groups, which will lead to them potentially entering the profession and advancing to management positions. We conducted this research in two phases:

Phase I: Email interviews were conducted with a diverse sample of 24 young professionals (five years of experience or less) in order to examine and uncover themes related to their educational and social development, and the influence of race and gender towards their development.

Phase II: Using the themes that were uncovered in Phase I, a survey was conducted among 294 current public relations majors to examine racial and gender differences in their collegiate development.

Based on the findings from this study, we drew conclusions and provide academic and professional recommendations that can assist in the recruitment, mentoring and retention of potential underrepresented students, which will in turn hopefully lead to an increase in diversity among practitioners entering the field. Here are our five overarching conclusions:

  • Males and UREPs must be informed that public relations is not a “white girl” major.

Qualitative responses from professionals in Phase I continually stated that the perception of the major is that it was created for Caucasian females. Males and UREPs both stated instances when they felt alienated and isolated. These realizations were confirmed in Phase II results, with males and UREPs scoring lower in agreement with statements about educational and social satisfaction with their collegiate experiences. One reason that was repeated during Phase I for the perception of public relations is that the major is stereotypically presented as a “white girl” major. Creating programs and communication materials that show males and UREPs that the major is not just for Caucasian females could potential lead to attitude and behavior changes about the major.

  • Males and UREPs, once in the major, must be informed of the opportunities available to gain professional experience and guidance.

Male and UREP respondents in Phase I also continually stated that they felt uninformed about opportunities to gain professional experience and mentorship. In addition, many Caucasian female respondents admitted they felt they gained better opportunities because they “fit the mold.” Phase II results confirmed this disparity, with Caucasians and females agreeing that they have built a professional network and have received better opportunities for leadership positions and internships compared to their counterparts. Males and UREPs must be informed better of their opportunities.

  • Diversity must start at the classroom level in order to embrace diversity at the professional level.

Male and UREP respondents in Phase I discussed their feelings of alienation and “oppression” in the classroom and in extra-curricular groups, which had an influence on their willingness to pursue a career in public relations. Phase II confirmed these sentiments, with Caucasians and females agreeing that they have strong peer support groups, are comfortable interacting with other students, and feel that other students value their contributions more than their counterparts. Professors, instructors and advisors must work to increase diversity at the classroom level by recruiting male and UREP students in extra-curricular groups, as well as making groups for classroom projects more diverse.

  • Make diverse professionals more visible to all public relations majors, and urge them to proactively mentor and network with male and UREP students.

One reason that males and UREPs feel alienated in the major is because they are not presented with opportunities to network with a diverse pool of professionals in college – this claim was supported in both phases of the study. Participants in Phase I repeatedly stated that they wished they interacted with mentors that “looked like them.” This could explain why males and UREPs scored lower in agreement that they have built a network of professionals and seek career advice regularly from professionals compared to their counterparts. These differences illustrate a need for a more visible presence of UREP and male professionals, and a need for these professionals to be more willing to mentor and network with male and UREP students.

  • Proactively discuss racial and gender differences related to the public relations industry in the classroom.

There is a stigma of disrespect among males and UREPs when discussing their counterparts – several male and UREP participants in Phase I discussed how they felt alienated and separated from other female and/or Caucasian students in the classroom. This was confirmed in Phase II, with both UREP and male participants scoring less in agreement that their contributions in PR settings are valued compared to their counterparts. Part of this could stem from a lack of substantial focus in the classroom on the racial and gender disparities in the industry. Discussing these differences in major courses could help to balance classrooms and remove this stigma of disrespect.

For the full study, please visit here. 

Kenon A. Brown, Ph.D., is an associate professor and the graduate coordinator for the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at The University of Alabama. Follow him on Twitter @kenonabrown

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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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