PRSA aims at diverse talent development

I'm old enough to remember when PR people would get together and wrench their hands worrying about how to educate business executives on the power and importance of PR.

I'm old enough to remember when PR people would get together and wrench their hands worrying about how to educate business executives on the power and importance of PR.

Happily, those days are gone. This has become the “golden age” of public relations. We've got the vaunted “seat at the table,” as CCOs not only report to the CEO, but participate in the decision-making of their organizations. Firms are prospering, too, as the leaders grow past the half-billion dollar mark in fee income.

But public relations has a problem. We're just not as diverse as the audiences we serve, and we're not keeping up with the progress being made in corporate America and in other professions. In 2011, African-Americans made up less than 5% of the students in PRSSA, while the national census in 2010 counted nearly 15% of the US population as black.

Why do so few minority candidates choose to pursue careers in public relations? A lot of people say the reason is “money.” Starting jobs in PR just don't offer the kind of financial reward available to top students in other arenas.

But wait a minute – if young people made their career decisions based only on money, there'd be no teachers, no social workers, no journalists. Lots of young people seek a career that contributes to society, where they can make a difference.

Ironically, the answer may lie in a lack of communication. While some efforts have been made – by the industry and by individual companies and firms – to reach out to talented young minority candidates, we have to work harder to tell our story. 

And, we've got a great story to tell.

Public relations, according to the US Department of Labor, will be America's fastest-growing profession in the next 10 years – outgrowing lawyers, accountants, and advertising by wide margins. PR people do important work. The profession offers unmatched variety and global opportunities. PR people stay current, and that means they stay young. As one industry leader put it, “PR is the ideal career for smart, creative people with short attention spans.”

At the same time, some of the former “glamour” professions are losing their luster. The New York Times reports that Wall Street firms are struggling to recruit on college campuses, even facing protests. Law schools are getting sued for inflating their placement rates. In 2009 nearly 10,000 people passed the bar in New York, only to compete for about 2,000 jobs.

The PRSA Foundation has set out to take advantage of this window of opportunity to tell the public relations profession's story more broadly. The board has approved a new mission focusing its efforts on “a diverse range of ambitious and promising students.” With this new mission, we're dedicating ourselves to making a difference in the fight against racial and gender imbalance that exists in our profession. We not only want to attract talented individuals from all backgrounds and walks of life to this profession but also to ensure that they have the tools and support necessary for long-term success.

Our new mission is part of a comprehensive strategic plan aimed at broadening the foundation's impact, visibility, and support within the industry. The plan was developed by the foundation board with the input of more than 50 industry leaders.

In recent years, the foundation has built a number of successful programs that will continue to provide financial support for a wide range of scholarships and awards for students and research on best practices in public relations education. And, our Paladin Award and dinner, which this year honored Harold Burson, will continue to recognize champions of the public relations profession. Past recipients of the award include Jon Iwata, SVP of marketing and communications at IBM; Marcia Silverman, global chair of Ogilvy Public Relations; and John Graham, chairman of Fleishman-Hillard.

Thanks to the efforts of our board, we've built a great foundation. With their continued support, and the contributions of new board members like Kirk Stewart, Helen Ostrowski, and others, it's time to spread our wings and fly. We've got a great story to tell to promising young people. In the coming months, we'll be unveiling programs and partnerships that will do just that.”

Lou Capozzi is the retired chairman of MSLGroup and president-elect of the PRSA Foundation.  For more information on the foundation, visit www.prsafoundation.org

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