Beyond face value: Ask the hard questions about why there isn't more diversity in PR

Young black professionals entering PR often feel like they're on the outside looking in. The rest of the industry should be asking why.

I’ve already met this year with more than a dozen of my former and current graduate and undergraduate students who have sought career advice on how they could get a foothold in the industry. I do my best to be available to and genuinely supportive of each and every student, but I noticed recently a certain chord that is struck with students of color, specifically black students.

I am naturally an encourager and motivator. But just this week alone, I spoke with a few black students who were sharing with me their challenges finding a PR job, even at the internship level. Each in their own way explained how they feel they are on the outside of a secret society looking diligently for ways to break in.

On the surface, one might ask if there is something about these individuals that makes them undesirable candidates? Are they unpolished? Do they lack the ability to represent themselves well? Can they write? These folks themselves have questions: Is it my hair? How I speak? Where I’m from? Something else?

As I sat there doing my best in each instance to find tangible advice to help lead them down a productive path, my stomach knotted in acknowledgement of a plain truth: whatever it is, it’s simply harder for them.

Anyone who has known me for any amount of time knows I’m not a "whoa it’s me" spokesperson. I’m not nearly qualified to be a candidate for that club. So this isn’t about being less privileged. And this certainly isn’t about being entitled. This is about being present enough to poke the bear and ask the question of why. What is it that makes people so uncomfortable? And how can we change it?

After several years teaching, it never fails that the first night of class, at least a handful of students sit stiff shouldered and blankly stare as they confirm that I am, in fact, leading the class. While some may be curious, others have a degree of shock that there is a graduate-level instructor who looks like me. And even in Chicago – one of the most diverse and metropolitan cities in the world – in 2018, this still isn’t something they expect to see. I am proud, however, to be shifting that. And, I’m even more proud to say that if any of my classes was a company, we would be nailing it as one of the most conscious, creative, and globally reflective organizations around.  

Let’s be clear though. This also isn’t about diversity and inclusion. It isn’t about some people winning and others losing, either. Consider it something like a "self help for companies" tip sheet. Tip number one being: Getting credit for things we should be doing anyway is anything but creative, progressive, award-winning, smart, forward-thinking, or savvy. In my humble opinion, it should be the expectation of all of us to walk into any place of business – private and public sector – and see a well represented ensemble of individuals, at every level, that reflect the world around us. Period.

There are a number of pressing topics facing us – society as a whole, and in parts. Many sectors of the population are speaking up for equality, opportunity, and simply to provide more perspective and context to broader narratives. Similar to tech, PR is an industry where this conversation has been percolating for quite some time.

Tip number two: Let’s not just talk about it, let’s be about it. We can make a difference by making the commitment to open doors and build mindful cultures that are just as much about standing for something as they are being known for something.  And this goes for the small amount of people of color in the industry. Have the courage to share insights and nuances that make us all more informed to build bridges that others may cross.

Tip number three: Recognize good business sense and don’t let it pass you by. If for nothing else, having different types of people brings different perspectives. And having different perspectives makes us smarter, better, bigger, faster, more curious, provocative, and well-rounded partners, ultimately avoiding culturally deaf mishaps like those that have become all too familiar.

I almost didn’t write this column for a number of reasons. But saying nothing doesn’t make it go away and doing nothing is passively saying to all my students, "I don’t really care what happens when you walk out of here."

Not just my students, but countless professional colleagues at every level will tell you I am actively engaged in candid conversations that aren’t always easy. And while I know most of the students and young professionals in my network are open and doing their part, I hope that we all will go beyond face value and be more diligent about doing ours.

Rashada Whitehead is a professor, writer, and the president and chief transformation officer of KGBerry, an organization that helps conscious companies navigate big changes. Connect with her here on Twitter.

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