Diversity in Public Relations: It’s 2015, and we’re still talking about this?

A draft of this blog post sat in my box for months. I didn’t want to write this, but conversations at the PRSA International Conference made me feel like it was necessary to write this post.

I feel like I have talked about diversity in public relations for eons. That’s not true. It’s only been since I started graduate school at the University of Maryland that I began noticing and talking about the lack of diversity in the industry. That was 10+ years ago. Yet here we are in 2015 (almost 2016) still talking about this issue.

Example 1: This PRWeek cover of mostly white practitioners who are the top leaders of PR agencies frustrated me and others. As Shonali Burke points out:

A strong example of this can be seen on PRWeek’s 2014 Agency Business Report. While the publication’s effort to celebrate PR leadership and their innovation year after year is notable, it’s hard to ignore the lack of diversity on the front cover, which featured the most senior leaders at the top 13 agencies by revenue and the top two agencies by revenue growth in 2013.

While the decision to publish Caucasian-only faces as “PR leaders” may have been unintentional, the message conveyed is clear: “PR leaders” do not include people of color, minorities or of different ethnicity. At least not in 2014; and 2014 wasn’t light years away. It was just one year ago.

Scary. And sad.

Example 2: The release of the State of the PR Industry report from the National Black Public Relations Society. One of the claims that ran a chill down my spine was the fact that professional desire to have a sustained interest in career growth and advancement, yet do not have access to sponsors or see others like them in larger key roles. Breaking through is an obstacle course made up of glass ceilings, sticky floors, and porcelain/ceramic vaults because practitioners are contained in limited roles, have not moved beyond mentorship into sponsorship relationships, and are not exposed to new clients or new business opportunities. Dr. Rochelle Ford and Dr. Clarke Caywood bounced these findings off the work of Applebaum, Walton and Southerland (2015) and Hewlett and Green (2015).

Although the players have changed and the outlets where this matter is discussed have morphed, the conversation is still the same. The industry isn’t diverse. The industry has a retention problem. The industry has a recruitment problem. The industry has a problem. The industry should do something about it. The industry should start something to reverse these trends.

It’s the same verse of the same hymnal, sung by the same members of the choir to other members of the choir. We just change the riff and add a new falsetto every few times. I just hope that people from the congregation (our PR peers across all sectors and organizations) hear the choir, feel something swell up in their souls, and start to do something meaningful. As someone from Texas once told me, “they align the tongues in their shoes with the tongues in their mouths.”

I doubt that will happen until there is a sudden shift or movement. There must be something that jostles the industry out of its soporific stupor about diversity. A stringent call to action against the cognitive biases that frame and shape who gets into the door and who get asked to climb up the corporate trellis. A gauntlet tossed down. A final notice that the days of talk are limited. A strident challenge that calls out that the pipeline the industry leaders continually say is leaky has a flawed framework.

Maybe 2016 is the year for the movement to launch and to initiate a real call to action.

Maybe 2016 is the year when we stop talking about diversity within the same circles but push the dialogue to other.

Maybe something will pop off in 2016.

Until that time, I am going to pick up my hymn book to continue to sing while thinking of a master plan.