What it takes to be a champion

There are certain people whose success stories demonstrate how to build understanding and buy-in of the critical need to hire, retain, and develop a diverse workforce of PR pros.

The PR industry's current efforts around diversity and inclusion are significantly more robust than they were five years ago, not to mention when I started in the sector. However, while I have seen a real-time industry evolution from a virtually nonexistent diversity strategy to an increasing recognition of its business value, those efforts are still fairly new. They don't fully speak to the long-term endeavors undertaken by a select few practitioners who are dedicated to championing this cause.

When we talk about “best practices,” there are certain people whose success stories demonstrate how to build understanding and buy-in of the critical need to hire, retain, and develop a diverse workforce of PR pros. They have been – and remain – on the front lines and have not only survived, but have thrived.

Judith Harrison is a shining example. She epitomizes the success story of gender and ethnic diversity in the very industry she challenges to be better every day. Harrison, the newly minted president of the New York Women in Communications Foundation and SVP of staffing and diversity & inclusion for Constituency Management Group, has a résumé that includes stints ranging from practitioner to HR head to corporate comms leader. From CBS to Burson-Marsteller, Random House to the Italian Trade Commission, Harrison has done it all in the industry – and has the insights to prove it.

There is tremendous power in having role models who can display what one can do and what one can be. I didn't have many examples of "people like me" in senior roles when I started my PR career. Fortunately, that number has increased over time, but there is still much work for the industry to do.

My hope remains that with an industry-sustained focus on diversity and with the continued examples provided by professionals such as Harrison, who is serving as a judge for this year's PRWeek/Council of PR Firms Diversity Distinction in PR Awards, the progress in our future will outpace that of our past.

Harrison is very willing to share her insights on best practices for diversity and inclusion in the PR industry. Below are some thoughts she shared during a recent conversation I had with her:

•Advancements in diversity in PR during her career:
“When I started, people of color, who were few and far between in the professional ranks, were sometimes told they couldn't work on certain accounts because the client wasn't ‘ready.' Later, the case for diversity was framed as a compliance conversation in which the value proposition was simply not running afoul of the law. The next stage of the industry's evolution was hiring diverse staff to work on multicultural accounts while providing few opportunities for crossover into general market business.  

Thankfully, we're at the point where globalization and rapid demographic changes have redefined the mainstream so much that smart companies are starting to embrace diversity as a market force critical to current profits and future growth. There is still, however, much room for improvement.”

•Where diversity and inclusion in PR is headed:
“I see an increased understanding that diversity benefits the entire organization. Diversity without inclusion is meaningless. Inclusion enables us to put our differences to work, leveraging them to create new products and services, align with stakeholders, and ensure that we are tapping into the best range of talent available.

As an industry, we have gone after important but low-hanging fruit to build a talent pipeline – students and entry-level candidates. Efforts must intensify to bring more mid- and senior-level pros into the fold. PR's expansion into content creation and other marketing areas should create more recruiting opportunities.”

•Improving organization-wide support of diversity and inclusion:
“There is an intrinsic challenge in developing eye-opening, engaging diversity and inclusion training programs, partially because the most effective ones inspire reflection, enthusiasm, and a commitment to behavioral change.

Many people are conditioned to view diversity and inclusion training as compliance and affirmative action. Organizations can overcome this by designing highly participatory programs that use innovative technology to gauge employees' cultural knowledge and perceptions. Such efforts will encourage employees to get better acquainted and learn the impact of inclusive versus exclusive behavior.”

Latraviette Smith, former VP, global diversity and inclusion for American Express, has spent 15 years in communications in agency, corporate, consumer, and multicultural PR, as well as senior marketing roles. Her column will focus on the PR industry's ongoing efforts to advance diversity among its ranks at all levels. Connect with her via LinkedIn or at latraviette@gmail.com. 

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