MARKET FOCUS: A lesson in diversity

Educational establishments have a vital role in increasing diversity in the PR industry.

Educational establishments have a vital role in increasing diversity in the PR industry.

No one debates that the PR business needs to become more diverse. Survey after survey shows the industry make-up is predominately white and increasingly female. Agencies, PR trade associations, and PR educators all agree that attracting students of color to college and university PR programs is a good way to begin meeting the industry's need to reflect the diverse US population. But doing that successfully and consistently has proved an elusive goal. When speaking of PR education programs, Pat Tobin, president of the National Black Public Relations Society, says flatly, "They're not doing enough." Tobin and others concerned about diversity say schools must do more community outreach, showcasing successful PR role models for students to emulate. "Students aren't really aware where communications can take them," says Carole Wade, an account executive with Tobin's Beverly Hills firm Tobin & Associates. College PR programs also need to hire more diverse PR faculties to provide on-campus mentors for students as they receive their educations. They, and the profession as a whole, also need to offer more scholarships for students interested in PR without the financial wherewithal to pursue those interests. Agencies need to do more than just encourage their employees of color to reach out to students by guest lecturing, attending career fairs, and similar school events. They must also maintain internships and scholarships that will allow disadvantaged students to pay for their PR educations. Barbara Hines, a PR professor at Howard University, a traditionally black college in Washington, DC, says the recession has meant cutbacks in agency efforts to hire interns or in other ways encourage students of color to opt for PR as a career. "Trying to do something that is more sustained is increasingly difficult," she says. "It's always the bottom line. It's not a sustained effort." Perhaps most importantly, the PR business needs to do a better job selling itself as a viable career option for students from diverse backgrounds. PR often takes a back seat to such careers as law or medicine when it comes to attracting talented African-American, Hispanic, and other minority students. "Everybody wants the best students and everybody wants to diversify, so the competition is very tough," says Maria Russell, professor and chair of the PR program at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. "The industry has a problem in competing with law, medicine, or accounting. Often, we pay far less than law, medicine, or accounting. There's a lot of competition for the pool of talented young students." Battling misconceptions about PR Lingering misperceptions about PR also hurt efforts to diversify, says Ray Durazo, executive director of the Hispanic Public Relations Association. In his home market of LA, for example, Hispanic students too often think PR is nothing more than movie publicity, a misconception Durazo tries to dispel when he speaks to student groups. "One of the messages I deliver is that the PR profession is looking for people of diverse races," Durazo says. "There are opportunities and there will be very few barriers." A variety of industry groups and agencies are on the verge of doing more to bring diverse students into the PR education mix with some of those efforts reaching beyond colleges down to the high-school level (see sidebar). "We need to partner with colleges, we need to reach out, we need to do a better job of working with colleges in this area," says Karen Joyce, HR manager for the California offices of Hill & Knowlton. H&K plans to do just that in 2004 by getting each of its US offices to reach out to two local colleges to offer mentoring, speakers, and internship opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds. "What I envision is really a strategic partnership between the firm and colleges involved," Joyce explains. "It's not a one-day visit, it's a commitment to a college." H&K's HR staff will provide students with help in such areas as r?sum? writing and interviewing skills as part of this new program, she adds. "We want to get direct face time with students, to see them through their school years, and then hopefully they will think of Hill & Knowlton as a place to work," she says. "I think we're all trying, but we need to put our money where our mouth is to find new ways to reach out to students." The PRSA and the Council of PR Firms have been working together to create a new internship program for students beginning next summer, says Donna Renella, director of HR for Marina Maher Communications and a member of the Council's HR roundtable. "The council is putting full focus into putting together a program," she says. It plans to ask PRSA chapters, PR professors, and people in the profession to identify potential college PR interns. It's also putting together a speakers' bureau to address college students about PR. "There are going to be national efforts," Renella says. Focusing on minority colleges The student PR society, the PRSSA, has begun an effort to target historically black colleges for new chapters. It's also calling on existing chapters at schools with large Hispanic populations to reach out to that universe to diversify their chapter memberships, says Mary Beth West, the PRSA's national board liaison to the PRSSA. The PRSSA hopes to provide chapter development tools this year and in the future offer regional- and district- level activities. Ofield Dukes, chair of the PRSA diversity initiative, says, "What we have to do is make sure the doors of opportunity are open to Asian, Hispanic, and African-American students." He wants to see more communication between agencies and schools, noting that students are hungry for mentors. When he spoke to students at Florida A&M, a traditionally black college, 50 students asked him to mentor them, he recalls. He thinks the profession should do more to spotlight successful PR people of color in politics, government, and entertainment, to establish role models for students. "We're trying to lay the foundation to make sure minorities are welcomed into the mainstream of PR," he says. Welcoming minority students begins even with such routine decisions as which textbooks are used in PR courses, contends Jerry Engel, an assistant professor at Ithaca College's Roy H. Park School of Communications in Ithaca, NY. Engel has long used a PR text that includes discussion on diversity and community service. Clarke Caywood, associate professor and director of the public relations sequence at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, says he personally reviews applications to his graduate integrated marketing communications program to accept a diverse student body. He thinks PR can attract more African-American students by stressing the role they can play in community service should they become PR pros. "African-American students want to reach a lot of people, and they want to contribute to a greater sense of justice in the country," he says. Engel adds, "[In my teachings,] I try to sensitize my students that they should be aware of people of all backgrounds. It's important that we reach out in everything that we do." Reaching out is what the industry is trying to do. "It has nothing to do with political correctness or altruism," says Durazo. Rather, it's the business need to better reflect society as a whole if it hopes to serve the PR needs of corporate clients and agencies trying to reach an increasingly diverse US population. ----- PR recruitment: the high-school years While colleges and universities try to attract a diverse PR student body, some in the profession believe the best way to encourage diversity is to start earlier than college - namely by reaching out to high-school students deciding what they'll study in college. The PRSA Foundation has a pilot career-academy program underway with high schools in seven cities - Baltimore, Dallas, Newark, NJ, Oakland, CA, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Tampa, FL - to expose minority students to PR as a career option. Each pilot effort is reaching between 40 and 250 students, says William Doescher, president of the foundation. PRSA provides PR curriculum units for teachers in the pilot school and gives awards to top teachers at the pilot sites. Local PRSA and PRSSA chapters provide mentoring for teachers and speak to classes. They also arrange field trips for students to local newsrooms and crisis communications workshops. "It can't really work without the assistance of the local PRSA chapter," says Doescher of the program. Also needed are corporate sponsors to underwrite costs such as scholarships for students and internships. Companies such as American Airlines, AT&T, and Pepsi have already become involved, he says. The pilot effort is in its third academic year with the foundation hoping to expand it to Washington, DC, Chattanooga, TN, and New York. One Indiana high school has gone the career academy route and produced PR interns for an Indianapolis agency. The Academies of Pike High School have 2,700 students, 60% of whom are minorities, explains Jeanne Burroughs, academy leader for business and information technology. Students at Pike take a broad-based communications course in the business department. In their senior year, they have a mentoring experience that places them with a local firm for six hours a week. Hirons & Company Communications is working with its second intern from Pike and has been pleased with student abilities, says Kyle Niederpruem, a VP at the agency. "Unlike the college programs, counselors [at Pike] work with the kids and figure out what their interests are," Niederpruem says. School counselors also review student maturity level to determine if they are ready for a real-world work experience. The high school has provided a more diverse student base to select from than have the colleges with which the agency works, says Niederpruem.

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