Let's start with Fact No. 1: Increasing diversity in public relations is essential. However, despite the efforts and histories of both our organizations, we still have work to do. Boston University is where Martin Luther King Jr. earned his doctorate and developed his abiding philosophy of confronting racial bias through non-violent protest. BU actively educates students about opportunities in communications through an exchange program with our "sibling" school, Claflin University, one of the top-ranked HBCUs in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Ketchum relentlessly seeks to diversify its workforce through initiatives such as Mind Your Bias, an unconscious bias training program, and LaunchPad, which last year increased the ethnic diversity of our recent internship class to 42%.
Yet, both BU and Ketchum recognize that we have a long way to go before our student population or our workforce mirrors the diverse U.S. population. For us, we need to do better. We have a responsibility to do more.
Which brings us to Fact No. 2: Neither of us will improve unless both of us improve together. That is, BU’s College of Communication likely won’t attract more students of color into our PR program unless these students see jobs in PR for people who look like them after graduation. At the same time, Ketchum (and agencies like it) likely can’t recruit more practitioners of color until there is a bigger pool of qualified candidates graduating from universities such as BU.
This calls to mind that paralyzing Alphonse and Gaston routine: "After you," "No, after you," and on and on, so nobody gets a foot in the door. The numbers are sobering: Although African Americans make up about 14% of the U.S. population, they comprise just 8% of the PR profession and only 6% of the graduates of top-tier universities.
Understanding this inter-relationship is important. The PR profession draws members from the ranks of college graduates, typically those who have studied some aspect of communication, if not PR itself. Yet fewer than one in 10 African-American university students majors in a communications field.
You can do the math: Given that about one in 18 university graduates is African American, and just one in 10 of those students majors in communications, there are barely enough qualified candidates to create a pool from which agencies such as Ketchum can recruit. And yet, unless PR agencies have workforces that welcome and reflect diversity, students of color are unlikely to pursue PR-related degrees.
Which brings us back to a potential solution, with full credit going to Ray Kotcher, a professor of the practice in Boston University’s College of Communication. Ray spent more than 30 years at Ketchum, 15 as chairman and CEO. He believes in service to the industry and has led or been a trustee of most every professional organization. Ray is a recipient of the PRSA’s Gold Anvil and the Institute for Public Relations’ Hamilton Medal. In 2016, he was inducted into the Arthur W. Page Society Hall of Fame and is a distinguished alum of BU and COM.
Ray has created an endowed scholarship for a BU student of color that includes not only financial aid, but also a paid summer internship at Ketchum. The word "endowed" is key, because it means this scholarship will be available as long as there is a BU and as long as there are minority students pursuing PR studies. Ketchum also has pledged to provide the paid internship as long as the agency exists.
The effect would be as if Alphonse and Gaston could walk through the door together.
We readily admit that this is a small step, just one graduate per year joining the PR profession. But Ray’s hope, and ours, is that it will encourage others to pursue similar solutions – we welcome copycats! – and these small steps will become a stampede. All of us will be winners.
Rob Flaherty is chairman and CEO of Ketchum, one of the world’s top communication firms, with offices and affiliates in 130 markets in more than 70 countries. Rob leads Ketchum’s Global Leadership Council to guide the strategy, client service and performance of the agency. During Rob’s tenure as CEO, Ketchum has significantly expanded the firm’s social, digital, and content capabilities, including opening real-time content marketing hubs called StoryWorks, in dozens of markets.
Thomas Fiedler became dean of Boston University's College of Communication in 2008 after a 36-year career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, columnist, and – ultimately – executive editor of The Miami Herald. His many assignments included covering the White House, the Persian Gulf War, and numerous presidential campaigns.
For previous content from Boston University.....
Click here to uncover some key lessons from the 2017 PRSSA National Conference, hosted by Boston University students. A special podcast accompanies the column.
Click here to learn what every individual in the communications industry can do to ensure diversity is woven into the fabric of the profession.
Click here to read Dean Thomas Fielder's thoughts on why Boston University decided to offer the world’s first degrees in PR 70 years ago.
Click here to see how the school's cutting-edge research is advancing the practice of public relations.
Click here to see the legendary Harold Burson offer counsel to tomorrow’s industry leaders.
Click here to read about the ultimate synergy between data and creativity.
Click here to learn about first-of-its-kind research from Boston University College of Communication that delves deep into consumer sentiments about workplace gender discrimination.
Click here for an inside look at the PRLab at Boston University, the nation’s longest-operating student-run public relations agency.