The growing commitment to diversity within the public relations profession—in both education and the practice—is a reflection of the change and progress in society since the Commission’s 1999 report.

Successful managers in all types of organizations now recognize that a diverse employee workforce—recruited, trained and retained— can deliver valuable insights and performance not only in terms of human resources and marketing but also in such C-suite functions as strategic planning and issues management.

The higher education establishment also has recognized the importance of this “culture of inclusion” and has encouraged it—one might say, mandated it—with new standards for accreditation of schools of journalism/mass communication and certification of public relations programs. And public relations professional societies, trade associations and research foundations are emphasizing diversity via many offerings to their members.

The Commission decided that although diversity is addressed in other sections of this report, the subject is worthy of a focused, in-depth treatment here. So this section will define diversity, identify its major elements essential to public relations education and suggest how, in practice, public relations can advance diversity in society.

Critical Definitions and Outcomes

All public relations practitioners, educators and students should be aware of the following terms related to diversity and their application to modern public relations practice.

Diversity-Essentially, diversity is defined as all differences that exist between and among people. Typically, diversity is divided into primary and secondary dimensions, primary being characteristics that are innate and can’t be changed (such as gender, age, nationality, sexual/affectional orientation, ethnicity and race) and secondary being characteristics that can be altered (such as religion, geographics, marital status and military service). Understanding the role these dimensions play in how people communicate is as essential as ensuring that organizations demonstrate inclusiveness toward the diversity of their employees, volunteers and other key publics.

Culture-Often diversity is confused with culture, because some dimensions of diversity, especially race, ethnicity, regionality and nationality, have cultures of their own. Culture is typically defined as the sum total of ways of living, including behavioral norms, linguistic expression, styles of communication, patterns of thinking and beliefs and values of a group large enough to be self-sustaining and transmitted over the course of generations. Frequently, culture plays a greater role in determining communication behavior than race, ethnicity or other diversity factors and is what creates conflicts because of differences in communication styles associated with those cultures.

Segmentation-Regardless of the different groups to which individuals may belong, public relations practitioners must learn how to identify what elements of diversity are salient in various situations and must acknowledge that saliency often is based on whether individuals identify with the culture or characteristics associated with that dimension of diversity. Often, people ascribe identities to people in particular demographic groups or cultures based on what a person looks or sounds like or on where an individual resides or was born. Such an ascription can lead to stereotyping and other problems that make communication difficult and problematic.

Stereotypes-Stereotypes are judgments about an individual based on that person’s membership in a particular classification. Even though stereotypes can be positive as well as negative, they often are harmful because most are typically incorrect, apply general beliefs unfairly to individuals, can lead to negative self-fulfilling prophesies and lead to prejudice. Use of stereotypes often reinforces misinformation and causes problems even if stereotyping is done unwittingly. Stereotyping can be just as dangerous as prejudice, which is an irrational dislike, suspicion or hatred of a certain demographic group. Prejudice is often manifested as racism, sexism and homophobia, creating negative actions, policies, words and beliefs based on race, gender or sexual orientation. Public relations practitioners also need to recognize the dangers of being ethnocentric in their thoughts and approaches to managing public relations projects and teams. Ethnocentrism is the negative judgment of other cultures based on the belief that a particular cultural perspective is better than others.

PR’s Strategic Role in Diversity

Diversity in public relations often takes two forms: intercultural/multicultural communication and diversity management. The intercultural/multicultural communication aspect of diversity relates to the practice of public relations particularly when the organization is communicating with one (intercultural) or more (multicultural) cultural groups different from its own. Learning how culture and diversity play a role in each aspect of a public relations project (research, planning, communicating and evaluation) is therefore critical for intercultural/multicultural communication.

The diversity management aspect of public relations involves human resource, staffing, team, vendor and personnel functions. Managing diversity well will improve the retention of diverse teams, which is considered beneficial to developing innovative solutions and campaigns. Public relations practitioners and scholars must become familiar with, be able to apply and be willing to research the best practices in both aspects of diversity within public relations.

Contemporary organizations increasingly have had to deal with diversity issues and needs, and public relations practitioners should be at the forefront in helping organizations respond to these matters. Therefore, public relations practitioners should be involved in an organization’s efforts to:

  • communicate the benefits of diversity initiatives to the workforce and external publics.
  • keep pace with the changing demographics of the organization’s external environment.
  • understand how different people work and communicate.
  • advance the organization through relationship- building with diverse internal and external constituent groups.
  • respond better to social change by interpreting, explaining and translating how organizations must adapt to events that occur in a rapidly developing and evolving world.
  • understand that in a global environment, organizations have to think differently about diversity— no longer competing for local dollars, but for dollars in the greater marketplace.
  • understand how immigration can enrich a culture and how governments, businesses and other organizations must adjust to handle possible pressure on economic, social, political and educational systems.
  • remain sensitive to matters of diversity and respond to a more diverse workplace and cultural environment generally and particularly as laws have increasingly protected the civil rights of women and minority groups and equal opportunities have become a greater reality.
  • address the challenges of political correctness, especially as it focuses on how groups of people are labeled.
  • use technological developments to advance global discourse and business.
  • recognize, as national economics become more global in reach, why having a broader cultural perspective is essential.
  • demonstrate how public relations is making full use of the diverse backgrounds, skills and perspectives of all people, thus making working relationships stronger and more effective.
  • ensure a diverse mix of talent is used on campaigns and projects to bring about innovation and creativity, thereby increasing productivity and efficiency.
  • apply diversity awareness as a means to reduce the confusion of practices and policies concerning issues of affirmative action and discrimination and to move beyond the focus on ethnicity and gender to a focus on performance— a quality of the work environment where employee skills are used more equitably and effectively.
  • recognize power imbalances that may exist between the organization and its publics and develop measures to ensure the organization is listening to and proactively engaging disenfranchised and other possibly marginalized groups.

To attain the ability to address these and other issues, practitioners, educators and students must develop an introspective awareness of their own individual cultures, socialization and privileges as well as keen research skills to ensure their communication and other public relations techniques are sensitive, appropriate and effective.