Extending the ‘Diversity in PR’ Discussion

Going beyond the "what" to address the "why" and the "how"

This is a guest post by Erica A. Hernandez, a public relations student at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

The saying “practice what you preach” may ring true, but it could not be more applicable to the current debate over diversity in the workplace — especially as applied to the practice of public relations and communications.

“The public relations field is uniquely positioned to be the moral compass for a client,” says Cheryl Procter-Rogers, president of A Step Ahead PR Consulting. Procter-Rogers was part of a panel on diversity in public relations on Jan. 22, hosted by the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications’ Public Relations Department and Alpha Productions, the state’s largest student-run PR firm.

The panel, titled “One Passion: Four Paths,” brought together four public relations practitioners from different parts of the nation who have worked with brands such as Coca-Cola, Sears, Walt Disney Imagineering, Godiva Chocolatier, HBO, The Hilton Worldwide, Wendy’s, and United Way of North Central Florida.

The panel represented a convergence of similar yet completely unique experiences best embodied by the event’s logo design:


White Men Need Seats at the Table, Too 

The panel emphasized that being “diverse” means more than having representatives from different ethnic and gender groups at the table. In fact, many would replace the term “diversity” with “inclusion.”

Procter-Rogers warned attendees to avoid generalizing, noting that “Just having someone in the room that looks like me is really not enough” and that she refuses to accept the assumption that she could or should speak for all African-Americans. Because there are so many unique and varying perspectives to every race and ethnicity, she emphasized the importance on not generalizing. Barbara Bermudez, an account coordinator at Ketchum, reiterated Procter-Rogers’ point:

“This is my opinion. I don’t represent the Hispanic community” — and she doesn’t appreciate being brought to an event solely to increase its diversity.

The presence of “the majority” is important to any discussion as well. Given the changing demographics of this country, the current majority will become the minority in the not-so-distant future.

“Taste the Street”

Bill Imada, IW Group chairman and chief collaboration officer, said that true diversity means “tasting the street,” or participating in the community and understanding the unique perspectives offered by various cultures. “When we don’t have diversity at the table, we turn into a group of PC people.”

Inclusion is only the first step; engagement is more crucial. Each panelist asked whether “diverse” participants in a given discussion were being heard by upper management — and whether that management team could be as diverse as the general employee population.

“Real diversity of thought includes unspoken words,” Imada said. “We spend a lot of time protecting what we say, which robs the communities of the ideas we bring. We need people who are not afraid to express themselves.”

Don’t Check Your Diversity at the Office Door

Diversity cannot simply be a workplace initiative.

“If you’re going to walk the walk, walk it in every aspect of your life,” said Deborah Bowie, president and CEO of the United Way of North Central Florida.

All panelists agreed that the act of surrounding oneself with people from different backgrounds, both at work and at home, has its own benefits. Bowie emphasized that turning the meetings of divergent cultures into “teachable moments” is the real goal — whether they occur in the office or at the supermarket.

Bowie said, “For me, it’s looking for the opportunity to do something people don’t expect.”

The panel also urged public relations professionals to think about diversity when crafting messages for clients. “It’s not about ‘multicultural marketing,'” said Bermudez, “it’s about marketing to a multi-cultural America.”

While discussions like these can bring diversity to the forefront of the discussion on modern communications, all panelists told attendees to remember that the matter of diversity — and a lack thereof — will not resolve itself in coming months, years, or even decades. Still, that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done or said to improve the situation now.

“The playing field will never be level,” Imada said. “But if you’re telling me you’re building a skateboard to navigate that, let’s talk.”

Here’s a video of the full hourlong event and a Storify version including additional quotes from the panelists.