It has been exactly one decade since the PR Coalition—a coalition of professional organizations that represented more than 30,000 public relations professionals—called on public relations to become the champion for diversity. The Coalition argued that public relations, more than any other function, has a responsibility to lead diversity efforts and make valuing diversity part of everyday life.
Ten years later, have we answered that call? This question guided a project I recently completed thanks to a Page Legacy Scholar Grant from Penn State’s Arthur W. Page Center for integrity in public communication. With the help of PRSA, I submitted a survey to 5,000 public relations professionals to gauge their sentiment regarding the importance of diversity to organizations and PR’s role in conveying organizational diversity values to key stakeholders.
What I found:
I outline the detailed findings in a recent PR Journal article, but there are some broader takeaways worth discussing and questions worth asking. Heading into the project, I learned two important things. First, for the last ten years, public relations and organizational management research increasingly reinforced the benefit of diversity to organizations; diverse organizations are more creative, nimble, and responsive to stakeholder (and marketplace) expectations. Second, we’ve done a better job chronicling the experiences of diverse groups who work in public relations and how diversity-focused organizations used public relations strategies.
Coming out of this research, I learned three important things. First, public relations professionals still see diversity as somewhat or extremely important to organizations (85%) and believe that it is somewhat or extremely important to communicate diversity values to internal and external stakeholders (74%). Second, despite this sentiment, I learned that PR has not taken a lead role in championing diversity. In fact, when asked how the PR function has addressed diversity, almost one third of the respondents replied, “not applicable.” Finally, I learned most practitioners feel their organizations do a solid job providing benefits for diverse groups, but few are able to indicate readily what those benefits actually are.
The challenge going forward:
For me, all of this points to one overarching takeaway. A decade of research has proven that diversity is important, and sentiment among practitioners today remains supportive of PR’s guiding role. But there is a disconnect: How do we move beyond gauging sentiment and better explore how all of this research translates into practice? Is there really value in shouting from the rooftops, “Our organization values diversity! Public relations values diversity!” when we don’t holistically, substantively make it part of our business model and public relations planning process? Similarly, what does it mean when employees say an organization does a great job supporting diversity, but find it difficult to talk in much detail exactly how? In other words, practitioners and academics alike now need to ask different questions in order to build on the foundational research from the last ten years.
- How can organizations measure the true impact of diversity-focused communication beyond surveying sentiment, meeting mandated quotas or reporting demographic statistics?
- What is being done in terms of diversity-focused communication beyond employee recruitment? Is it limited to reporting organizational sentiment, demographics or similar baseline statistics?
- Does the public relations function actively partner with the administrative unit that manages diversity initiatives and programming, such as human resources? If so, is PR leveraging that partnership effectively during the PR planning process (again, beyond employee recruitment materials)?
- How can the public relations function think long term, holistically, and make diversity-focused communication part of the planning process specific to our industry and stakeholder network?
- What can we ask our external stakeholders regarding their perspective of our diversity values? We might be good at gauging sentiment among internal stakeholders. Is the same true of external stakeholders?
- How does the public relations function make diversity part of its environmental scanning process? What’s happening in the communities you serve specific to diversity? Are there opportunities or challenges you should address?
- Given the research, if your gut answer to any of the above questions is, “not applicable,” then ask yourself “why”? Are there different ways to think about how diversity can be a more substantive part of public relations?
Of course, different types of organizations must ask different types of questions. Regardless, as public relations practitioners and researchers, we must challenge ourselves to take diversity to the next level. Gauging sentiment will remain important. Understanding the perspectives of various groups within our organizations will remain crucial. We must add an important layer now, however, by asking new questions regarding how diversity can be more ingrained in the public relations process and by exploring the best ways to measure the true impact of diversity-focused communication.
Dean Mundy, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of public relations at the University of Oregon. Follow him on Twitter @demundy.