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New Research on Diversity in PR: Results and Challenges

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Lynn Appelbaum and Frank Walton recently published their new research, “Factors Affecting the Success of Under-represented Groups in the Public Relations Profession.”  Here is their summary of the work, as well as a behind-the-scenes report on some of the difficulties they encountered.

By Lynn Appelbaum and Frank WaltonThis was an important year for research about diversity in public relations. CommPRO.biz posted a round-up of several recent studies on November 9, 2015, “Progressing toward Diversity Goals in the Public Relations Industry” which highlighted the findings. Since then at least two more studies were released: the National Black Public Relations Society’s “2015 State of the PR Industry: Defining & Delivering on the Promise of Diversity” and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ “From Diversity to Inclusion: The Progression of Equality in Public Relations and Challenges for the Future.”

Our study, “Factors Affecting the Success of Under-represented Groups in the Public Relations Profession,” focused on young African-American and Hispanic PR professionals’ experiences in career advancement. We were privileged to receive generous financial support from the Public Relations Society of America Foundation as well as gracious assistance from PRSA, PRSSA, the National Black Public Relations Society, the Hispanic Public Relations Association, City College of New York, Howard University, and the Arthur W. Page Society.

Results: Diversity in recruitment, but challenges thereafter

We found that young African-American and Hispanic PR professionals are positive about the profession, but they acknowledge regular race- and ethnic-based obstacles that temper their optimism and their likelihood to recommend their career to the next generation.

Findings show that employers have embraced diversity recruitment with success. But once young African-American and Hispanic PR professionals are hired, diversity sensitivity falls short. Improvements in mentoring and other retention strategies may be the key for enabling the PR profession to benefit from multicultural professionals.

Our findings are compatible with the other studies cited above, despite varying methodologies. This brings us to the challenges of research standards, the primary interest of readers of The Measurement Standard.

Challenges:  Definitions, sampling, predispositions, context, and publication

Our project needed to:

  • Conform to methodological expectations as defined by university institutional research board (IRB) standards, as well as to the scrutiny of academic, media, and activist readers.
  • Balance between research and policy advocacy to support both goals.
  • Undergo public scrutiny in timely and effective channels, consistent with methodological responsibility, policy guidance, and media appetite.

Definitions

The challenges were common to most behavior researchers. First was the definition of terms. What is “diversity” in PR (as seen by sociologists and/or the media)? Various researchers apply significantly different criteria that can embrace race and ethnicity, sex and gender, social class, and age.

Second was defining exactly what we wanted to learn. Our research question needed to conform to the “FINER criteria:” Feasible; Interesting (to the professional community); Novel; Ethical by university Institutional Review Board standards; and Relevant (to policy, future research, and good research practice).

We defined “diversity” as PR professionals who self-identify as African-American and/or Hispanic, who work in PR (or a closely-related field), and who graduated with a college degree since 2008. Our research question was “What are the factors that affect the success of under-represented groups in the public relations profession?”

Sampling

No single “list” of our target sample exists. Working with The Gilfeather Group and Gazelle Global Research, we developed a sampling methodology that enlisted cooperation from the several PR associations noted above.

We used a nonprobability (convenience), chain-referral sampling method, recruiting respondents for an online survey via emails, postcards, blog-posts, and in-person appeals at Fall 2014 professional PR conferences. While we recognize some lack of apparent representativeness in the respondent demographic profile, we know of no other method that would yield a better profile (at a reasonable cost).

Predispositions

None of these issues are unique to our study. More acute was the potential for conflict of interest in our roles as advocates for a more diverse PR workforce. Our careers have focused on initiatives intended to change the demographic profile of the PR field through research, teaching, mentoring, professional development programs, and advocacy. Our research funder (PRSA Foundation) is also an advocate for increased diversity in the profession.

We came to our project with predispositions. Throughout the initial stages of our secondary and qualitative research and in writing our questionnaire, we challenged ourselves to sustain objectivity.

Context

Our research was conducted within a timeframe that was both charged with news about racial discrimination against young African-Americans (and the Black Lives Matter movement, etc.), as well as increasingly inflected with the higher media profiles that brought Larry Wilmore to The Nightly Show, Trevor Noah to The Daily Show, and attention to an increasing number of sports, entertainment, and celebrity personalities from traditionally under-represented groups.

Despite the polarized public contexts, our research subjects provided nuanced and balanced input. As readers will note, our research respondents are often disappointed by the shortcomings of the PR industry to support diversity, but they and our methodology seem to have avoided the most polarizing representations of opinion and attitude that were the backdrop in the media and public discussion.

Publication

Finally, since our findings straddle research and advocacy, the inevitable question arose as to how our research would be made public. Had we followed the most conventional route of academic publishing, our findings would undoubtedly have been delayed by months, given the time constraints of academic publishing.

Fortunately, we had no compelling need for the project to be initially published by a peer-reviewed journal, even as we recognize its importance. Our priority was to reach industry leaders and HR professionals in the hopes of triggering discussion and possible action. As a result, we benefited by having the PRSA Foundation release and distribute our report to industry leaders and the media, supported by the press office of The City College of New York, and by self-publishing and distribution initiatives through our own website and social media.

Conclusion

Our experience with this project proves that PR research is intellectually stimulating – methodologically and ethically – as well as personally rewarding. More importantly, our positive experience with this research along with others’ shows that the PR profession can do more to help young, earnest, and committed professionals of all backgrounds succeed. Our work helps ensure that public relations remains an authentic and credible practice for creating productive relationships among all Americans.

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Thanks to Carver Associates for the image.

Lynn Appelbaum and Frank Walton

Lynn Appelbaum and Frank Walton

Lynn D. Appelbaum, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a professor and director of the Advertising/PR Program at City College of New York. She serves on the boards of the PRSA Foundation and PRSA New York, and served on the PRSA Board of Directors as Chapter Diversity Liaison. She is the recipient of the PRSA-NY Dorf Mentoring Award, one of the highest awards bestowed by the chapter.

Franklin Walton, Ph.D., is a communications research and strategy consultant at Franklin Walton LLC. His previous positions include president/chief performance officer at RF|Binder and chief knowledge officer/executive vice president at Ruder Finn. He is a member of the Measurement Commission at the Institute for PR. Follow him at @franklinwalton.
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