PRSA Foundation book to inspire PR students of color

5 questions for PRSA Foundation president Judith Harrison on the initiative.

NEW YORK: The PRSA Foundation, along with the Museum of Public Relations, have released "Diverse Voices: Profiles in Leadership," a book featuring the experiences of 40 industry multicultural leaders.

The book is the first project of the Diverse Voices initiative, the foundation’s effort to "empower minorities in all stages of their careers, while also educating employers on ways to support their growth."

It’s also one of the rare efforts supported by most of PR’s professional groups including The Public Relations Society of America, Page, PR Council, Institute for Public Relations, The Lagrant Foundation, AMEC, National Black Public Relations Society, Hispanic Public Relations Association, and The Society for New Communications Research of The Conference Board.

PRWeek spoke with Judith Harrison, PRSA Foundation president and board member and SVP of diversity and inclusion for Weber Shandwick, about the project.

Where did this idea come from?
'Diverse Voices' is an outgrowth of a panel discussion I created for last year’s PRSSA conference. It was important to me to give those students an experience that was really special and authentic and spoke experientially to them and gave them the guidance they wouldn’t get elsewhere. So we did a panel that discussed some of how panelists faced the unique challenges people of color faced in an industry with homogenous cultures.

Joe Cohen, PRSA Foundation president-elect, and I met with Shelley Spector, founder of the PR Museum, and we were chatting and talking about how much the students got out of the panel and how much young people in the business needed to see and hear from role models who looked like them. We thought about how the way PR is taught in schools glosses over [people of color].

And that gives the young people the idea there are precious few role models like them that could be found in the industry. We knew there were more. Then [Spector] pointed out that the museum had a publishing arm and we thought, ‘What a perfect way to address the problem.’

Why a book?
We thought a book would give people an unlimited canvas on which to sort of portray themselves and their career paths. If you’re doing a panel discussion or an event you’ve got a finite amount of time and number of people who need to be heard and so the stories are necessarily condensed.

If you do a book, they can speak in their unique voices as long as wanted and say exactly what they want to say. We also want to make sure this is included in the PR curriculum of colleges and universities. Again, PR is being taught in a way that tends to exclude the perspectives of diverse individuals.

So the plan is to introduce the book and its stories into college PR courses?
Absolutely. That’s another thing that’s really important. What we want to do in 2019 is facilitate ‘Diverse Voices’ talks in colleges and universities and use, where we can, people who have been profiled in the book. We would like to hold panel discussions or more intimate talks and fireside chats. In my view if some of these events end up becoming mentoring relationships — and I’m sure they will — so much the better.

Where is the industry today in terms of diversity?
I think we’re a lot better of than we were when we started out, way better than when there were very few people of color in the business and bias was unconscious in some cases and sometimes not so unconscious.

In terms of numbers, we have a long way to go. The diversity efforts I see in agency and client-side are incredibly important to the business, when you look at how demographics of the U.S. is changing and how integrated the business world is going. Our industry will go the way of the dinosaur if we don’t change.

Non-Hispanic whites make up 62% of population and about 81% of PR employees. That is a huge disparity, and look at the rate things are changing; 43% of millennials are diverse and that’s highest percent of any adult population. In 2020, 50% of people under 18 will be people of color.

How can we tell stories that engage with people that are not in our ranks? And why would we want to deprive ourselves of the innovation, market share, and increased profitability we get from including people of color in our teams?

It seems everyone is in agreement with this. So why is it taking so long?
That is an excellent question, and there are many answers to that. The PR industry is sort of a microcosm of society. We’re not on a island by ourselves. The same issues and attitudes we see in the larger society are reflected in the PR industry.

I think there is a level of unconscious bias that affects way we hire and promote talent. I think we probably need to do better job of creating an inclusive environment where everyone is heard. We need to get better at hiring people who aren’t familiar to ourselves.

Given the current makeup of the industry, we really have to be intentional in stepping outside of those boundaries to bring in and nurture the diverse talent we need. It’s a skill that people need to learn and are learning. It’s just taking longer than anybody would want.

Another issue is accountability. You mentioned that everybody at the top is in agreement and all for it in a visceral way, but I think everyone in the industry needs to do a better job of making leaders and middle managers accountable. Until that accountability exists, things will not change as fast as we want.

On Oct. 4 the story was edited to remove ColorComm as a group supporting the book. The PRSA Foundation incorrectly listed the organzation as a supporter on its website.

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