With its fellows, secretaries, chapters, bylaws, assemblies, and terribly proper electoral procedures, the PRSA sometimes seems more co-op board than cutting-edge association. But appearances, and rotary club terminology, can be deceptive.
Having fought its way out of financial trouble with the kind of housekeeping that would have done Martha proud - and kept her stain free - the association has shown courage and understanding of the modern marketing environment in tackling one of today's most pressing industry issues, namely the under-representation of ethnic minorities.
There has long been noisy debate about the glass ceiling for women in the industry. This is understandable as it has only been in the last couple of years that women such as MaryLee Sachs, Susan Atteridge and Helen Ostrowski have risen to the top of their agencies or departments. But, with that glass ceiling shattered, or at least cracking, it would be nice to think that diversity, which has received considerably less attention, will take center stage.
It needs to. Minorities are embarrassingly under-represented in the communications business. For example, around 13% of the US population is Hispanic, but Hispanics constitute less than 3% of the PR industry's population. The story is similar for African Americans and Asian Americans. How can our industry claim to be experts in marketing to such groups, given such cringe-worthy statistics? In addition, as the PRWeek Salary Survey (March 25, 2002) showed, these minorities typically hold more junior positions in the industry than whites and, accordingly, have far lower average incomes.
The PRSA is tackling this at the level it needs to be tackled, reaching out to high schools through its Foundation's Communications Career Academies pilot program. The idea of such academies is to offer instruction in academic subjects around an occupational theme, with the aim of providing students in "at-risk communities with avenues of career opportunity.
There are almost 200 such academies operating in inner city areas, but up until last year only one had a program aimed at a PR career. Thanks to the work of PRSA Foundation president David Grossman, that figure is now seven. Not earth shattering, but a very important foundation.
In addition, this November the PRSA Assembly will consider an amendment to its rule which states that students wishing to join its student arm, the PRSSA, have to join through one of the association's chapters. Although this rule has allowed the PRSSA to monitor students within its membership carefully, ensuring they get a valuable and comprehensive PR education, it has also made it hard for students who couldn't access schools with chapters to get involved with the association. The change to the bylaw would, effectively, broaden access in a way likely to help minorities and poorer students.
Some will oppose this change because it would make it harder to oversee the students, and risks a reduction in the cachet of being a PRSSA member.
But, surely it is only by engaging all PR students, or would-be PR students, that we can hope to elevate standards and embrace a broader, more diverse potential workforce. Let's hope that those who vote on the issue think bigger picture and greater good when they punch their chads, and, therefore, support their association's new drive for diversity.