Driving Diversity in the Communications Industry: Notes from PRSA-NY’s DE&I Summit

By Terry Preston

As the communications industry continues its focus on growing diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts, PRSA-NY held its inaugural DE&I summit, bringing together individuals from the industry to reflect on and learn how to improve their own diversity initiatives. During the event’s Diversity Town Hall session, a variety of mid-level PR practitioners from various industries shared their personal experiences with — and the challenges of — being a POC and/or LGBTQ individual within the communications industry, and shared advice around how the broader industry can fuel its diversity and inclusion efforts as a whole. While there’s been traction around these efforts in the last year, there’s still significant room for growth – so where do we go from here?

Mentorship Matters:  Building Foundations for the Future

The session kicked off with panelists sharing personal experiences from their careers, in which each detailed how his or her identity created challenges and uncertainties for them. “When I started out in public relations, I was always the only person of color,” said Miriam Brito, a healthcare communications executive. “As I slowly started to move up in my career and specialize in the healthcare space, it remained the same. It felt isolating.”

A 2018 analysis of labor statistics conducted by the Harvard Business Review found that the public relations industry is 87.9% white. When asked about why they chose to remain in the industry despite these challenges, the panelists unanimously agreed:  having mentors and coworkers as support systems. However, the discussion unveiled that many organizations lack any type of formalized mentorship or leadership training, and that many feel like it’s difficult to form these relationships on their own.

“For me, building a personal network was crucial,” said Rima Masubuchi, Account Supervisor at PAN Communications. “When you’re going through those tough moments when you’re not sure that you see a path forward in the long-term, you seek out mentors – but it’s not always easy when you don’t see managers or executive level people who share similar backgrounds or characteristics to you.”

This presents a key opportunity for organizations to instill formalized mentorship programs with an emphasis on demonstrating diverse leadership. Programs designed to inspire young professionals, especially those from historically marginalized groups, can help guarantee individuals of all backgrounds and levels have a dedicated resource to ensure their voices are heard at work. In turn, organizations benefit by establishing more welcoming environments and encouraging greater diversity of thought. By pairing employees from various levels or departments with one another, organizations are better positioned to bridge gaps in corporate silos and build a stronger sense of comradery and acceptance as a whole. 

Planting the Seed for DE&I

The discussion also revealed another motivating factor for staying in the industry:  wanting to be an inspiration to other diverse individuals entering the workforce. “I’m lucky to have found colleagues along the way who validated me and convinced me to stay,” said Brito. “There’s a hunger in me now that wants to see my face on an agency’s leadership page because I want people who look like me to know there’s a place for them in this industry.”

So how do organizations create these opportunities? They take action. Luckily, in the era of remote work and learning, it is easier than ever before for organizations to directly connect with and recruit talent of all levels from a variety of backgrounds and locations, from interns to executives. This approach can fuel an agency’s ability to create dedicated opportunities for internships, employment and networking, as executives can drop into college classrooms, employment interviews and other industry events from the comfort of their own homes. 

That said, many organizations are not yet as diverse as they hope to be and see this as a significant challenge for recruitment. To get ahead of this issue, the panelists agreed that honesty is the best policy. 

“The top advice I’d give is to be authentic to your organization and honest about where you are in your journey,” said Denvol Haye Jr., AVP at Prosek Partners. “When you’re implementing DE&I initiatives, it’s important to know where you stand. That can include surveys to understand what your diversity metrics are, understanding how people feel about bias and belonging, and more so you can structure your organization in a way that actively addresses those things.” 

DE&I Initiatives Require Your Whole Team – Not Just an Officer

So how can the communications industry attract and retain diverse candidates? It takes more than one dedicated staff member. The panel shared that this responsibility shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of just one person, because there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a diversity initiative. Instead, organizations need to go beyond filling this role and ensure they are recruiting individuals at all levels who value a culture of acceptance. This environment features those who are willing to speak up on behalf as others, serve as allies and educate their own organizations. These ideals should be instilled and upheld at all levels and departments, because fostering a safe workplace is the responsibility of all members of a team.

Creating Change

Radical change requires radical action – and it’s vital that organizations continue to build off the recent momentum around DE&I initiatives in the communications industry to help establish a more welcoming and diverse industry with equal opportunities for all. That said, by actively pursuing various DE&I initiatives, organizations will not only be better positioned to offer a welcoming and safe workplace. Rather, organizations that recruit from various backgrounds and walks of life will benefit from significantly greater diversity of thought – and when we open ourselves up to new ideas and ways of seeing the world, our work will become more impactful than ever before.