A keynote speaking opportunity at Brazil’s diversity-themed Abrapcorp conference led to crafting a 10-point Social Responsibility Bill of Rights with practical advice and inspired completion of the Internal Public Relations model (Pompper, 2012) that rests on two pillars – social capital and diversity.

Because microaggressions make real diversity and appreciation for it impossible, many advocate for organizations to break down bias barriers and I argue that public relations practitioners make the best champions for this work. To make diversity authentic, practitioners should serve as insider activists and inspire positive microresistance and microaffirmations.

It’s been 55 years since U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin at work, in schools, at the voting booth, an in public accommodations. Employment discrimination lawsuits have risen rapidly in recent years, perhaps due to greater awareness (including media coverage), social media, and employer panic in the form of retaliating against employees punished for formally complaining (Lucas, 2019).

Those of us who aspire to witness the end of workplace discrimination and bias based on a person’s social identity dimensions refuse to relinquish hope that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Pub.L. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241) becomes a true reality. Globally, macroaggressions and hate crimes persist, as violence against immigrants, girls, women, Afri­can Americans, Muslims, Jews, and LGBTQ community members have risen significantly in the U.S. in recent months (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2017). Googling “how bad are microaggressions in organizations,” the search engine reveals articles in Forbes, Fortune, and The Atlantic among the 361,000 hits of popular press articles and academic research. Clearly, we’re not there yet.

Despite laws and workplace policies that prohibit organizational violence in the form of microaggressions, workers continue to be marginalized and disrespected for their social identity dimensions (and intersectionalities) such as age, culture, ethnicity/race, faith/religion, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, weight, and more.

Reflecting on shaping of a social justice commitment grounded in early reading of PR Journal, especially Marilyn Kern-Foxworth’s (1989) important predictions about ethnic diversity as the future of the field, and the introduction of critical race theory to our body of knowledge (Pompper, 2004), I’ve discovered much over the years from research participants about how painful organizational microaggressions can be and how powerful microaffirmations are in helping to dismantle centuries of organizational hardwiring.

Some have argued that the public relations practitioner’s role in organizations is to serve as a change catalyst and “conscience of the organization” (Holtzhausen & Voto, 2002, p. 60; Holtzhausen, Petersen, & Tindall, 2003), for organizational change may occur only when the basic assumptions that underlie work practices and organizational cultures are challenged (Kolb & Merrill-Sands, 1999; McKie & Munshi, 2007). What our research has addressed less is the power that public relations practitioners have on the inside of organizations as internal public relations (IPR) specialists with access to organizational leadership and relationship-building know-how to also organize and empower employees to support microresistance efforts and to promote microaffirmations.

Microaffirmations are messages of excellence, openness, and opportunity rather than messages about deficit and marginalization (Powell, Demetriou, & Fisher, 2013), or, a series of specific actions when involved in a challenging experience or presented with an opportunity. Microaffirmations are positive small works that employees may perform to show one another respect, provide encouragement, foster healthy relationships, and help marginalized people succeed and feel welcome (Rowe, 2008). These tiny acts also include leading rather than pushing, building a sense of community, listening attentively, giving credit where it is due, providing comfort/support in times of distress, and building on strengths/successes rather than focusing on faults/weaknesses (Scully & Rowe, 2009).

As diversity advocates, public relations practitioners and others who see microaggressions also could consider microresistance measures. Microresistance is incremental daily efforts to challenge privilege based on dominant social identity dimensions, especially Caucasian/ Whiteness, that help people targeted by microaggressions (Ganote, Cheung, & Souza, 2016).

Donnalyn Pompper (Ph.D., Media & Communication, Temple University) is the Endowed Chair in Public Relations at the University of Oregon. She teaches courses in and researches public relations, corporate social responsibility, and social identity. Earlier, she practiced agency and corporate public relations for global companies. Pompper holds the Accredited Public Relations credential from Public Relations Society of America. Follow Donnalyn on social: @dpompper


Ganote, C., Cheung, F., & Souza, T. (2016, April 7). Micro-aggressions, micro-resistance, and ally development in the academy. Invited workshop presented at the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, Detroit, MI. http://www.facultydiversity.org/page/MicroAggressions/?src=IHEArticle

Holtzhausen, D. R., Peterson, B. K., & Tindall, N. T. J. (2003). Exploding the myth of the symmetrical/asymmetrical dichotomy: Public relations models in the new South Africa.       Journal of Public Relations Research, 15(4), 305-341.

Holtzhausen, D., & Voto, R. (2002). Resistance from the margins: The postmodern public relations practitioner as organizational activist. Journal of Public Relations Research, 14, 57-84.

Kern-Foxworth, M. (1989, August). Minorities 2000: The shape of things to come. Public Relations Journal, 14-22.

Kolb, D. M. & Merrill-Sands, M. (1999). Waiting for outcomes: Anchoring a dual agenda for change to cultural assumptions. Women in Management Review, 14(5), 194-202.

Lucas, S. (2019). Why are employment discrimination lawsuits rising so rapidly. Downloaded July 20, 2019 from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/why-employment-discrimination-cases-are-rising-fast-4156883.

McKie, D., & Munshi, D. (2007). Reconfiguring public relations: Ecology, equity, and             enterprise. New York: Routledge.

Pompper, D. (2004). Linking ethnic diversity and two-way symmetry: Modeling female African American practitioners’ roles. Journal of Public Relations Research, 16(30), 295-325.

Pompper, D. (2012). On social capital and diversity in a feminized industry: Further developing a theory of internal public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 24(1), 86-103.

Powell, C., Demetriou, C., & Fisher, A. (2013). Micro-affirmations in academic advising: Small acts, big impact. The mentor: An academic advising journal. Downloaded August 3, 2019 from https://dus.psu.edu/mentor/2013/10/839/

Rowe, M. (2008). Micro-affirmations and micro-inequities. Journal of Inter­national Ombudsman Association, 1(1), 45–48.

Scully, M., & Rowe, M. (2009). Bystander training within organizations. Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, 2(1), 89–95.

Southern Poverty Law Center. (2017, March 5). Update: Hatewatch. SPLC Hatewatch. Retrieved on March 5, 2017, from https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch

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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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