Exploring Diversity and Client Work in Public Relations Education

Exploring Diversity and Client Work in Public Relations Education

  • Katie R. Place, Quinnipiac University
  • Antoaneta M. Vanc, Quinnipiac University

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This exploratory qualitative study examines public relations students’ notions of diversity and client work within the public relations curriculum. Drawing upon the literature regarding teaching diversity, client work, and public relations, two research questions guided the study asking, How do students make meaning of “diversity” in the context of public relations client work? and How does client work prepare students to address diversity as future public relations professionals? Findings indicate that students engaged with the concept of diversity introspectively through self-reflection of personal biases and through assumptions regarding technology. Students’ perceptions of client work as a bridge to an increasingly diverse public relations profession centered on notions of exposure, awareness, personal growth, and preparedness. Ultimately, this study fulfilled the need for more research regarding the understudied topic of diversity and public relations education. It confirmed that public relations students may struggle with notions of diversity, but they can benefit greatly from the preparedness and personal growth that client work with diverse publics can offer.

Keywords: Diversity, client work, public relations education, self-reflection, student perceptions

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The increasingly competitive and diverse job market of the twenty-first century demands practitioners who can demonstrate both “cultural competence and multicultural knowledge” (Biswas & Izard, 2009, p. 391) as well as understand and facilitate diversity in the public relations industry (Galloway, 2004). Despite these demands, public relations professionals rarely receive diversity education prior to entering the public relations field (Toth, 2011) as public relations courses may fail to engage with diversity or feature diverse faculty members (Pompper, 2005a, p. 306). Increased emphasis on diversity and cultural competency in public relations education is necessary, as students will ultimately become the next generation of public relations professionals to counsel clients, make strategic decisions (Pompper, 2005a), and communicate with diverse stakeholders on behalf of their organizations (Tsetsura, 2011, p. 531).

The benefits of fostering diversity in public relations are plentiful. Diversity helps position an organization as a welcoming environment, implement more effective customer relations, recruit and retain a more talented and diverse workforce (Hon & Brunner, 2000, pp. 328-330; Clemons, 2013; Hon & Brunner, 2000) and balance organizational and publics’ interests (Hon & Brunner, 2000, p. 336). However, viewing diversity as a tool to promote “organizational success” (Aldoory, 2005, p. 676) or a “means to an organizational end” (Grunig & Toth, 2006, p. 43) offer narrow understandings of the complexities of diversity for public relations. Diversity in public relations must instead be understood as socially constructed and tied to relations of power (Grunig & Toth, 2006). Moreover, hidden forms of diversity, such as “whiteness,” must be more critically explored, especially in terms of how they establish and maintain relationships (Aldoory, 2005, p. 676).

The relationship of diversity, curriculum and pedagogy as a means of preparing professionals to enter the public relations industry has been under-researched (Pompper, 2005a). Whereas much scholarship has focused on understanding public relations practitioners’ experiences regarding diversity in the profession, little research has explored public relations students’ meaning-making of diversity and public relations curriculum. Thus, this exploratory study of public relations students’ notions of diversity and client work within the public relations curriculum helps to resolve the dearth of research in this subject area, ultimately offering insights for improving public relations and diversity pedagogy and research.


“Diversity is a social construction that reflects the intersections among specific characteristics of individuals and groups and the resultant power differences” (L.A. Grunig, 2006, p. 27). It encompasses facets of identity involving race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, education, geographic location, religion, citizenship status, political viewpoint, and culture, among many others. In regard to public relations, practitioners often view diversity as involving and providing opportunities for individuals of all races and cultures (Public Relations Coalition, 2005) and incorporating diverse ways of thinking through problems, ideas, products or markets (Brown, White, & Waymer, 2011). The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) advocates for a broad definition of diversity that reaches far beyond simple notions of gender or racial difference. The PRSA National Diversity Committee, for example, defined its role in regard to diversity:

To advance the objectives of and develop an inclusive Society by reaching and involving members who represent a broad spectrum of ethnic, racial and sexual-orientation groups, and by providing professional development, knowledge and support to professionals of diverse race, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity to help them succeed in public relations.

Diversity can be further understood as a complex negotiation of individual characteristics based on personal identity, cultural membership, attitudes or past experiences. Citing Tracy (2002), Tsetsura (2011, p. 532) recommended considering diversity from two separate approaches. “Master identities” encompass elements of one’s race, ethnicity, gender, age or dominant culture, whereas “interactional identities” encompass more nuanced forms of identity such as family traditions, social status, where an individual grew up and how they were educated. Similarly, Sha (2006) recommended a dual approach to understanding diversity and cultural identity via “avowed” and “ascribed” identities (p. 52). Avowed cultural identities represent characteristics or group memberships that an individual actively declares or subscribes to whereas ascribed cultural identities are those assigned to an individual by another person or group – and may differ significantly from one’s avowed identities (Sha, p. 52). Ultimately, understandings of diversity are quite individual, perceptual and behavioral. Citing Bramlett-Solomon and Liebler (1999), Lasorsa (2002) explained that individuals selectively perceive messages based on personal attitudes or past experiences, which in turn, affect how individuals make assumptions about future experiences.

Diversity in Public Relations Education

The public relations classroom is important for its role as a “starting point” for career choices and for its impact on the diversity of the public relations industry (PR Coalition, 2005, p. 7). As such, communication programs are increasingly prioritizing diversity and integrating diversity issues into curriculum (Biswas & Izard, 2009; Brooks & Ward, 2007). Diversity and multiculturalism in public relations coursework is important for students as they learn how to identify, research, segment and communicate with publics (Sha, 2006). Additionally, diversity in the public relations curriculum prepares students to be sensitive to diversity, propose solutions to diversity-related issues, work in increasingly multicultural contexts (Biswas & Izard, 2009) and understand their roles as strategic communicators (Tsetsura, 2011).

Despite the benefits of integrating diversity into the public relations curriculum, the challenge for public relations educators is helping students understand key concepts associated with diversity and apply them to personal and professional contexts. Overcoming narrow conceptualizations of diversity is a primary challenge. Brooks and Ward (2007), for example, found that students perceived diversity to be a function of biological difference, rather than a social construction. White students had particular difficulty understanding their own colorblindness or examining their privileges associated with “whiteness” or masculinity (p. 249). Similarly, Valenzuela (1999) found that students viewed diversity narrowly as racial and ethnic difference, rather than more broadly encompassing factors such as income, sexual orientation, religion or class. On the other hand, an additional challenge occurs when programs lack faculty diversity and cannot effectively mentor or serve as role models for an increasingly diverse public relations student body. Minority public relations students have reported wanting to see educators and professionals who look like them (Brown, White, & Waymer, 2011; PR Coalition, 2005).

Public relations curriculum, therefore, may be lagging in its understanding of multiculturalism and still perpetuating Anglo or Eurocentric perspectives, which could marginalize or stereotype minorities (Pompper, 2005a). Tsetsura (2011) has advocated for increased multicultural and multidimensional approaches to diversity, arguing that such approaches can help students engage more thoughtfully in dialogue about diversity and help educators relate more effectively to students. Pompper (2005a) recommended that universities improve curriculum by hiring more faculty of color, holding workshops and training opportunities to help faculty better understand the concepts of diversity, brainstorming diversity solutions among faculty, and creating diverse advisory boards of public relations professionals and alumni.

Teaching Diversity in Public Relations

Integrating diversity into communications coursework is increasingly necessary – and is “as essential as technology” to teaching at the university level (Biswas & Izard, 2009, p. 391). Public relations courses, whether theory-based, writing-based, or campaign-based should include multiculturalism and diversity (Pompper, 2005a). Gallicano (2013), citing Munshi and Edwards (2011), recommended that educators must not treat diversity superficially, disconnect it from historical or social contexts, or frame it as a business advantage. Gallicano urged for substantive consideration of diversity in public relations courses that draws upon documented inequities experienced by multiple diverse publics, explanations of these inequities couched in historical context or statistics, and specific strategies for improving diversity. Several teaching tools, formats and guidelines have been proposed by scholars to facilitate such an integration of diversity that does not dislocate it from historical or social context. Brooks and Ward (2007), for example, recommended using a variety of pedagogies and teaching formats, such as videos and class discussions, to assist students in engaging with the concepts of diversity. In courses regarding gender, race and media, students gained a greater awareness of how mass media represent or reinforce particular social constructions of gender and race. In contrast, Tsetsura (2011) recommended guiding student discussions of diversity using a series of questions, such as “Think back to your first encounter with a person who was different from you in some way but who has made an impact in your life. What do you remember most about this person? In what ways has this person’s worldview affected yours?” (p. 534). Brown, White, and Waymer (2011) recommended addressing the culture not only within the classroom by engaging minority speakers and adjuncts, but within public relations student organizations such as Public Relations Student Society of America. They urge student organizations to consider diversity as a key attribute and work to actively recruit minority individuals into the organizations.

Service Learning and Client Work in Public Relations

One method through which public relations students can receive hands-on exposure to and interaction with diversity is through service learning and client work. Service learning is a method of teaching and learning that connects classroom lessons with meaningful service to the community (“What is service learning?”, p. 1). It can also be defined as “a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities designed to promote student learning and development” (Jacoby, 1996, p. 5).

In the public relations curriculum, service-learning often involves students performing communications-related work for a client or organization, such as producing a strategic plan or communication plans book (Texter & Smith, 1999). Students engaged in service learning often understand it as a professional development activity that facilitates the application of public relations skills to professional contexts and clients, often involving civic engagement or volunteering (Muturi, An, & Mwangi, 2013). Public relations campaigns classes offer a typical environment for integrating client work. Such work often involves a client in class meetings through presentations, sharing of information, and inclusion in the grading process. Client meetings and overviews with students in class further motivate students (Benigni, Cheng, & Cameron, 2004). Students engaging with clients in the public relations curriculum are urged to keep in contact with the client, communicate politely and professionally, and confirm selection of strategies, audiences, and budget with the client early in the process (Aldoory & Wrigley, 2000). They may also benefit from reflection assignments that help students critically examine the learning experience and respond to questions that challenge their thinking (Lundy, 2008).

The benefits of service learning and client work in public relations are extensive. Public relations client work benefits students by supplementing coursework and offering career preparedness (Bush, 2009), helping students explore and apply the strategic planning process (Texter & Smith, 1999), and bridging public relations theory to professional contexts while encouraging students to work professionally with clients and classmates (Witmer, Silverman, & Gaschen, 2009). Similarly, Aldoory and Wrigley’s (2000) study of client work in public relations found that client work helped students learn how to work as a team, put together a written campaign plan, deal with unavailable or inaccessible clients, and improve interpersonal communication skills. The authors found integrating client work into the public relations curriculum helped students connect theory to practice, stay motivated and think creatively, learn and apply time management skills, and grow both personally and professionally as empathetic, flexible and polished communicators.

Client work benefits students with tangible and practical skills (Benigni, Cheng, & Cameron, 2004; Werder & Strand, 2011) that can be placed within real-world professional contexts of the public relations industry (Aldoory & Wrigley, 2000). Texter and Smith (1999), for example, found that service learning projects helped students learn the roles of strategist and technician. Participants in a study by Muturi, An and Mwangi (2013) explained that service learning helped students develop better client and personal interaction skills and develop useful public relations tactics.

Drawing upon the literature regarding diversity, client work and public relations, two research questions guide this study:

RQ1: How do students make meaning of “diversity” in the context of public relations client work?
RQ2: How does client work prepare students to address diversity as future public relations professionals?


Given the exploratory nature of this study regarding students’ meaning-making of public relations client work and diversity, a qualitative method was chosen. Qualitative research best enables scholars to examine, using a “naturalistic, interpretive approach . . . how social experience is created and given meaning” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2003, p. 13). Qualitative research is most appropriate for understanding a particular phenomenon, developing insights regarding it, and reporting those insights (Potter, 1996).


Twenty-two public relations students at three mid-sized universities—one private university from New England, one private university from the Midwest, and one public university from the West Coast—who had completed a public relations campaigns course, were interviewed for the study. A purposive sampling method was incorporated to recruit these students. They were recruited via an individualized email recruitment letter sent specifically to students at these three universities who had completed one of five public relations campaigns classes involving client work during the 2014 spring or fall semesters. Students in the classes had specifically worked within diverse communities or with clients on diversity-related public relations campaigns addressing target publics that ranged drastically in terms of race and ethnicity, as well as income, education, housing and employment status.

The resulting sample included six male students and sixteen female students, 18 of whom were Caucasian American, two of whom were African American, one of whom was Asian American, and one of whom was Hispanic American. The majority of the students were undergraduate students and between 21 to 23 years of age. Additionally, four graduate students who had taken the campaigns course at the New England university also participated and ranged in age from late twenties to early fifties. All participants have been assigned a pseudonym.


The researchers conducted semi-structured, in-depth interviews using an interview protocol featuring rapport-building, open-ended, and specific questions in a pre-determined order (Rubin & Rubin, 2005). Interviews were conducted with students after their campaigns class had been completed for the semester, via face-to-face and telephone, and ranged from 30 to 90 minutes. Students were eased into the interview process via rapport-building questions, such as “What did you like best about the public relations client work you did?” Then, other open-ended questions, such as “Tell me about working for a client with such diverse target publics,” “How did your own notion of diversity factor into the client work you did?” and “How has this client work prepared you to enter the public relations industry?” were used to explore students’ meaning-making of public relations client work and diversity. Probes and follow-up questions, such as “Why?” “Can you expand on that?” or “Can you please give me an example of…” were often utilized to gather more description or context from students’ initial answers to questions.

Data Analysis

A thematic analysis method was used to analyze each fully transcribed interview for patterns and themes (Boyatzis, 1998). Transcripts were read line by line several times to create a list of themes that emerged organically and inductively during the review process. Themes were then assigned corresponding codes applying to each research question. To be consistent, the researchers used the same interview guide, created themes and coding schemes together, and shared coded transcripts. Additionally, the researchers wrote and shared observer comments during the transcript typing and coding process, and engaged in reflexive dialogue to critically explore their personal biases and interpretations of the data.


Students’ meaning-making of diversity in the context of client work was varied and introspective, often invoking personal experiences or assumptions. Students’ perceptions of client work as a bridge to an increasingly diverse public relations profession centered on notions of exposure, awareness, personal growth and preparedness. Findings regarding each of the research questions are explored in depth below.

The first research question asked, “How do students make meaning of ‘diversity’ in the context of public relations client work?” Students engaged with the concept of diversity a) introspectively through self-reflection, b) as “different from me,” c) as an issue or problem, and d) through assumptions regarding technology or social media.


As participants engaged in focused questioning regarding their meaning-making of diversity, many of them turned to personal anecdotes regarding their own diverse experiences and avowed identities (Sha, 2006) invoking elements of ethnicity, religion, race, and age. For example, Alexis, a Caucasian-American student, defined diversity by reflecting upon her multiple identities in the context of how they differed from other individuals in her university community: “I kind of come from a diverse background. My mom is half and half and my dad’s family came off the boat from Italy, so I feel like I am diverse. But I am diverse in a different way. I feel like I can really apply that diversity—especially being Jewish—in this kind of place.” Similarly, Annie, an Asian-American student, explained diversity from a deeply personal standpoint as a racial minority member of her community: “To me it’s race, because I’m a minority [laughs]. Minority is everything. It’s differences in people. Race, language, male, female, different lifestyles, rich, poor.”

For some participants, meaning-making of diversity through self-reflection meant “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” in order to address their own and others’ understandings of diversity. Emma, for example, explained how she engaged in self-reflection in order to consider the identities of her client’s older target publics:

I felt like I was drawing influence from people that I know personally who are similar in their life routine at their time and age. You have to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and see where they’re coming from and their day-to-day routine, which is obviously much different from ours at college.

Ron, an African-American student, shared how he reflected upon his standpoint as a member of his client’s minority target public to dispel a Caucasian-American classmate’s assumptions about African-American individuals:

The minority group we worked with was African-American males, so I definitely knew a lot about it. . . . There was one girl who for the first half of the semester, whenever we would talk about African-American males, she would talk about poor or dejected people. I knew subconsciously she would lump one group—race—with another. I had to inform her that that wasn’t the case. She would say, well they are African American, how can they afford that? I had to tell her that it wasn’t true.

“Different from Me”

As students engaged more fully with their personal definitions of diversity in the context of public relations client work, they drew heavily upon the assumption that diversity meant “different from me.” Students shared examples of feeling keenly aware of diversity when they encountered clients or publics who differed from them in terms of race, geography, class, income, housing status, or education. Most often, these realizations occurred when Caucasian-American students assumed that “different from me” actually meant “different from ‘white.’” For example, Kristen, a Caucasian-American student working on a campaign initiative involving an Asian-American target market noted, “You definitely have to angle . . . not angle, but go at communicating in a different direction than you would for your family . . . in my case, my white family . . . than the Asian community we were targeting.” Similarly, James, a Caucasian student shared:

I grew up in New York City, and I had friends that were very poor, and I was not. I got along with these folks like I would with my middle class friends that went to private school. I live in [Town] now, but there are very few diverse individuals here. The challenge is knowing that there are other people out here besides us white people and living that.

Whereas Kristen and James understood “different from me” quite matter-of-factly as racial difference, other students associated “different from me” with a sense of fearfulness regarding preconceived notions of class or geographic location. This fearfulness of diversity was especially pronounced among the upper- to middle-class Caucasian students who were assigned campaign clients and target publics in low-income or inner-city locations. Alexis, explained how that fearfulness kept her from driving into the city to meet with her client, and as a result, it prevented her from addressing her own assumptions regarding her client and their diverse target publics. Alexis said, “I am from [Town]. You know the area. It is nothing like that. Umm. I really don’t want to go into the bad part of [City] and drive through and get a first-hand experience. It kind of made it difficult because I couldn’t get out of my head about what I was thinking.” Similarly, Catherine was quick to recognize the benefits of diversity (low-income housing in this context) in some locales, but at the same time expressed a fearfulness of how low-income housing might disrupt the predominantly white, upper-middle class makeup of her hometown. She explained:

You do get a lot of things handed to you when your community is so diverse, like a lot of people will jump on board to build other things or you might get grants. I don’t know if you need it in my town. That is what people fight. But in a town like [City], it is an opportunity to bring in a lot of cultures into one spot. In terms of diversity, I was constantly being reminded of its benefits, because it was really hard for me to understand and get out of my bubble.

Diversity as an Issue

Students’ meaning-making of diversity as “different from me” often translated diversity as an “issue” or “problem” especially when faced with the task of segmenting diverse campaign publics. Sarah, for example, expressed frustration with the (perceived) lack of diversity among her target public (women) by saying, “It definitely was a challenge.” She explained how it would have been easier if the client had allowed her team to target students—a public with whom she was more familiar and could more easily segment. Similarly, Michelle explained how her team ignored her client’s diverse target publics in order to simplify creation of their campaign’s communication tactics. Her team focused solely on university students in order to maximize their personal knowledge of this particular target public. Michelle explained, “we just realized it was easiest to explain our ideas if we didn’t have to do different tactics for each group or demographic of individuals. We thought about it, but we just didn’t think it would be realistic to come up with all the ideas.” Other students invoked similar frustrations, but they ultimately recognized the inherent value of diversity and the need to segment audiences in a thorough and respectful manner. Emma said, for example, “I feel that a lot of people think of [diversity] as having a negative connotation, ‘we need more diversity.’ But just recognizing differences I think is our job as public relations professionals. So, if there is a more diverse segment, we want to recognize what makes each target segment different and then be able to cater that campaign to [them].”

In contrast to students’ issues with diversity when segmenting publics, other students identified personal prejudices they had with minority clients or called out classmates’ prejudices regarding diversity—even pointing out that some students had considered working on a different campaign due to the racial and political identities of certain clients. Catherine, was quick to separate herself from those students, but still invoked language such as “blockage” and “issue” to describe students’ meaning-making of diversity:

I never felt like there was a cultural blockage between me and my client or anything like that or like intimidation or any sort of issue there, but yeah. There were no racial blockage . . . As much as you don’t want to say it, there are definitely students here . . . where it might be an issue for them and it might cause them to do a different campaign.

More explicitly, Alexis confessed her frustration with the differences in education level of her client (many of whom did not have a high school education) and herself. She framed diversity through the lens of an “issue,” explaining:

The issue I had most was probably with education level, because it was really difficult to understand some of the visitors that we had come. [Client], she was trying to tell a story sitting down and she couldn’t do it. . . . I think that had a lot to do with her education versus my education. . . . You have to know how to express yourself and express yourself well enough to be able to sit down and tell a story . . . that is something that I really struggled with. It annoyed me.

Assumptions Regarding Social Media

Nearly all interview participants also associated diversity with social media, exposing a variety of assumptions and misconceptions regarding this technology. Among the most blatant misconceptions regarding diversity were students’ assumptions that social media offered a means for public relations professionals to reach everyone. Catherine shared, for example, “The one great thing about social media is that it can reach everyone. . . . I guess if things are about to become really diverse and people are going to be multiple cultures around the country . . . then I guess I would say [the client] should focus on reaching the masses. . . . I would think of doing that now through social media.” Other students were quick to identify their assumptions regarding social media and address them in the context of diversity. For example, Elizabeth shared how she questioned her assumptions regarding a client’s knowledge of social media and realized that more traditional media and face-to-face methods of communication might be a better fit:

‘Why don’t they use social media?’ But you go there and you learn they can’t! You assume that these things just happen these days, but . . . these people don’t have computers, or phones, or Internet access. Working with a diverse client, it helps you understand that maybe what you are doing in your everyday life isn’t what you should recommend to the client.

In addition to students’ misconceptions regarding social media as a tool to best reach a diverse audience, students also exposed certain assumptions regarding social media and diversity in terms of age. Most often, students perceived that non-Millennial generation publics would have a lack of understanding of social media. Sarah, for example, illustrated this generational assumption with a comment regarding her client’s website, which was targeted at middle-aged women:

Targeting students would be a little simpler for our generation because we use social media, and we use different things that can interact that way. But with older generations, they may not know how to use the online webinar or the website and the videos. Because [Client] website needed to be completely redone, so it would be hard for them to navigate it.

The second research question explored the question, “How does client work prepare students to address diversity as future public relations professionals?” Students felt that client work prepared them by a) exposing them to and rendering them aware of diversity, b) promoting personal growth or understanding of diversity, c) enabling them to address diversity issues in a low-risk environment, and d) ultimately gaining diverse workplace preparedness.

“Exposure to” Versus “Awareness of” Diversity

As participants engaged in vivid descriptions of their work during the campaign course, they became more aware of the lack of diversity surrounding them. Working with clients brought a sense of diversity to students who never considered it. For example, Layla shared,

We are at a school where I am in classes with all the same kids and I have to say I’ve never really thought about differences. Now, I know—everyone is different! It doesn’t matter whether it is income, race, or education, you have to accept that and not assume everyone has lived the life you have.

While reflecting on the homogeneity among students at their school, participants described how working with a “real” client gave students exposure to the diversity of the professional world. For example, Emily described how working with clients helped her see beyond the limited world she was used to:

You are stuck at a college that is not diverse. If you work with diverse clients you can see how diverse the world is. You will have to work with these clients. You are going to have a diverse clientele . . . starting as a student and working with clients, it will help. You are not a part of this small bubble anymore.

Exposure to diversity brought an acute sense of awareness regarding difference among participants. Participants not only recognized the need to be exposed to diverse experiences, but they also became aware of diversity in various professional situations. For example, Alexis viewed working for clients as an opportunity to

experience working with diversity or people with diverse backgrounds . . . see how it is, and how it works, and how to interact with other people who are sensitive about things . . . some people may think it’s okay to make jokes, but it is not.

On the other hand, working with clients helped participants view the difference between passive exposures to diversity versus active understanding of how diversity should be thought of when addressing diverse publics in public relations. For example, when describing her work for the client, Emma noted the necessity of being aware of the target client from the beginning of the campaign and recognized that thinking about target publics “like an afterthought [is] going to create a weakness to your campaign.” She explained:

I feel that awareness is the most important. A problem may come with a lack of awareness. If you are not aware that a public that you’re targeting has this diversity, then it’s going to create a problem when you’re going forward with the campaign creation process . . . obviously it’s not going to be like a handout like we had in class, but just looking from the very beginning how your subsets may be diverse from one another and having an understanding before going forward with all the other steps.

Personal Growth

As participants described their experience while working for clients, they expressed a sense of personal accomplishment that reflected a new mindset toward diversity. They described how the fear of unknown transformed into a learning experience, which allowed students to broaden their views. For example, Alexis exclaimed:

I liked that this project was so diverse. At first I was nervous about it, ‘I don’t know what’s going on! It’s going to be terrifying!’ But at the end, I was really happy because I felt like I grew as a person—and I’m still growing and I’m learning and I’m still learning how to deal with things that I don’t agree with in a professional way.

Similarly, Catherine explained how working with an actual client taught students to view diversity through a professional lens and in a broader social context, which sometimes was different than their personal preferences. She said,

I have only heard one side and I truly grew up thinking that affordable housing is bad. And so it was kind of great for me personally because I got to put my own personal preferences aside and see it from the other side. I learned a ton from a sociological perspective. Personally, it was great.

Low-Risk Environment

Participants felt that the classroom environment also played a major role in how they learned about diversity. The classroom posed a risk-free, worry-free, casual atmosphere in which students were not only able to learn the material but also learned to interact with different people. For example, Layla described working with the client as a positive experience:

We could talk to the client and it was more casual, I would assume, than what my real job will be, so it helped us to really talk to the client and learn from them in a low-risk environment . . . this is a cool experience to get to know different people

The classroom also provided a low-risk environment in which participants were able to apply their knowledge, while being sheltered from possible consequences in case of inevitable mistakes. For example, Catherine described working with a client as the “best starting point” to a professional career, “Because people understood you were a student, so they didn’t expect as much but they did expect a lot. If you did make a mistake, they were understanding and it was helpful.” Similarly, Stephanie said,

Working with a client is more like a life lesson. There is only so much you can tell us, until we apply that to a real client. That’s how you’re going to learn, working with different clients, different people and face your mistakes.

Know What to Expect/Preparedness

In addition to students’ sense of accomplishment and personal growth while working with clients, participants also described feeling prepared and knowing what to expect from the professional world. Kristen, for example, described how working with clients can help students “be prepared for anything.” She explained, “When you work with such a group of diverse people, and you know that it’s going to happen again it teaches you to expect the unexpected.” In a similar way, Ron described working with clients as a way to equip students with exposure to many different things:

Exposure, which leads to preparedness: Client work helps with exposure! You can go into the industry and say, ‘I’ve seen that. It may not work . . . Or why don’t we ask more questions!’ It equips you with exposure to many different things.

More specifically, students described feeling prepared to face diverse personalities, backgrounds and opinions within a team. For example, both Kristen and Christine referred to the diversity within the group in which they were working. On one hand, Christine noted how diversity in a team can bring success to a campaign: “Your team can be from anywhere, your client can be from anywhere, and just having a diverse set of ideas and perspectives can really make it a more successful campaign.” On the other hand, Kristen observed that it is not only the diversity of opinions that matter, but the way in which a team achieves the best results: “It’s helpful to remember that everyone is going to have a different opinion, but it’s the way that you go about that that can bring the best results.”

As a corollary of client work, participants view its benefits in terms of exposure to different value sets and preparedness to the work world. For example, Christine described how diversity brought into the classroom by clients and students helped her team broaden the scope of their campaign for the client:

In the campaign class you’re working with a client that might think differently or have different value sets than you, and you have to find a common ground for dealing with a client. And then you have the aspect of diversity within the team. Like my whole group, we didn’t exactly think the same, but that’s actually what makes it interesting, where we all have different perspectives. So, I think it is good to work with different people. People coming from different places or who have different backgrounds, I think that definitely adds a lot to how you approach the campaign and make it something that is broader and more people can find it interesting.


This exploratory study of 22 public relations students’ meaning-making of diversity and client work illustrated students’ varied perceptions of diversity while exposing both subtle and blatant assumptions regarding race, class, age and technological ability. Nonetheless, public relations client work appears to enrich students’ understandings of diversity in vital ways by promoting diversity awareness, personal growth, and preparedness to meet the challenges of an ever-evolving public relations industry.

When considering diversity in the context of client work, students appear to reference their own diverse identities first, then engage in meaning-making of diversity as they consider individuals and the world around them. Avowed identities (Sha, 2006), which individuals declare or subscribe to themselves, were much more salient to students than ascribed identities. Though not articulated explicitly, participants appeared to understand for the most part that “diversity” was more complex than racial or ethnic diversity, as they often identified elements of religious, cultural, racial, class, or ethnic diversity that they associated with themselves. This finding seems to contrast with those of Brooks and Ward (2007) and Valenzuela (1999), who found that students often default to notions of race or ethnicity when defining diversity.

In contrast, however, student comments in this study reflected previous findings of Brooks and Ward (2007) who found that students have difficulty identifying or understanding whiteness or privilege. This was especially evidenced by Cassie, a Caucasian-American student who touted the multicultural benefits of low-income housing for a large neighboring city, but eschewed the idea of having low-income housing in her hometown, a primarily Caucasian, upper-middle-class bedroom community. Indeed, students’ meaning-making of diversity also exposed subtle and blatant forms of racism, classism, and ageism. Evidence of this was especially apparent among student comments reflecting diversity as “different from me,” “different from white” or a “problem.” Especially concerning was the overriding sense that students associated diversity in the context of public relations client work with a negative connotation through use of terms such as “issue,” “problem,” “blockage,” “challenge,” “fight,” “struggle,” and “annoy.” These all present challenges for public relations educators who strive to help students address their personal and professional biases and teach students to effectively research, identify, and communicate to a broad array of individuals (and identities) with sensitivity, empathy and respect. Moreover, educators themselves must critically reflect upon their own biases and assumptions and how they may affect students’ perceptions of public relations practice, client work, and segmentation of publics.

Findings expose important implications regarding how public relations campaigns are taught and implemented. Students’ tendencies to simplify—or even ignore—diverse target publics, strategies and tactics in order to achieve a more streamlined campaign call for more critical reflection on diversity and publics. Furthermore, student assumptions regarding social media call for public relations educators to be vigilant in dispelling notions of social media (and mobile technology) as a communication panacea or means to communicate to everyone when indeed they remain quite inaccessible to publics of diverse income statuses, levels of education, or physical/mental abilities. Integration of critical race theory (CRT) (e.g., Delgado & Stefancic, 2012; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Pompper, 2005b) and intersectionality theory (e.g., Crenshaw, 1989, 1991; Vardeman-Winter, 2011; Vardeman-Winter & Tindall, 2010) into public relations pedagogy and course content may help students to critically reflect upon their own personal identities and biases, understand diversity as socially-constructed and historically rooted in power differences, and more sensitively respect and prioritize multiple, diverse publics while engaging in client work.

In regard to public relations client work as a means to prepare students to address diversity as future public relations professionals, client work appears to serve as a vital means through which students are exposed to diversity, become more acutely aware of diversity, and then experience a change of mindset regarding diversity. Interestingly, participant comments exposed an overriding sense of fear associated with conducting public relations client work for diverse clients whose identities or backgrounds differed significantly from students’ own backgrounds—even to the point that some students considered not taking on particular clients. Students also feared making mistakes or upsetting a client during public relations client work, potentially exposing a culture fueled by a terror of error. Despite these fears, the public relations classroom serves as an ideal place for students to make mistakes, learn about diversity, and ultimately gain a comfort level with conducting client work in diverse contexts prior to entering the real world. Participants also perceived that public relations client work helped them to gain and improve interpersonal and group-work skills, which complemented previous findings (e.g., Aldoory & Wrigley, 2000; Muturi, An, & Mwangi, 2013).

Public relations students, as this study illustrated, often have difficulty identifying or addressing their personal biases, assumptions, or stereotypes regarding diversity, which holds serious implications for how students, as future public relations professionals, might carry over those biases or assumptions into the workplace. In order to facilitate students’ understanding of diversity as quite broad, complex, socially constructed (L.A. Grunig, 2006) and multicultural (Tsetsura, 2011), educators should integrate a diverse range of teaching tools into the public relations classroom, such as videos, guest speakers, and reflection assignments or questions. Building upon Tsetsura’s (2011) recommendation that educators guide diversity discussion by integrating reflection questions, we recommend that public relations educators develop reflection questions specifically geared toward addressing notions of diversity in client work contexts. Some sample questions could include:

• How does my identity compare or contrast to that of my client and their publics?
• How does my personal upbringing or background play a role in how I treat my client and its publics?
• How might my personal assumptions or biases affect the public relations strategies or tactics I choose?
• How might my personal assumptions or biases affect how I identify or segment publics?
• How easy or difficult is it for me listen or understand a client who is not like me?
• How do I feel working in a diverse group?
• How do I feel working for a client whose identity/background is different from my own?

Participants in this study shared that diverse client-based service-learning activities offered them a glimpse into industry practices and values. Although limited by a small sample, implications of these findings reach beyond the confines of public relations education in the United States. For example, while exploring cultural competence in public relations education in two universities in Australia and Singapore, Fitch and Desai (2012) identified a number of recommendations made by industry professionals. In particular, participants touted “the importance of authentic and complex learning activities and real-client and real-world projects” because “they exposed me to a situation that I was not used to” (p. 72). Similarly, in the United States, the 2015 Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) report noted recommendations made by industry leaders regarding entry-level public relations practitioners’ desired characteristics, skills, and knowledge. Among these, the report lists the importance of being “sensitive to individual and cultural differences” (p. 7) and having knowledge of “cross-cultural and global communication” (p. 8). Industry leaders also noted “the importance of ‘real world’ experience” (CPRE, 2015, p. 8).

Particularly important are the findings on students’ personal growth that went beyond their personal comfort zone while interacting with a client and team members. This is encouraging because, in an early assessment of the impact of globalization on U.S. public relations, Fitzpatrick and Whillock (1993) questioned “the preparedness of U.S. professionals to negotiate the business, social, cultural, economic, and political complexities” inherent to diverse global societies (p. 315). Encouraging students’ understanding of new diverse situations before entering the workforce could encourage more sophisticated public relations professionals who are more attuned to the continuous changes in the current fabric of society and more considerate of local diversity and identity.

This study shows that service-learning can be transformative (Felten & Clayton, 2011) or at least potentially improve students’ attitudes (Butler, 2013), as it introduces students to a world beyond their personal bubble and helps them adapt to different demands and communicate across a range of diverse contexts. Such professional knowledge and experience built into public relations education can develop an intellectually rich foundation for future practitioners before they enter the workforce.

Ultimately, this exploratory study of diversity and client work fulfilled the need for more research examining this understudied topic regarding public relations education. It confirmed that public relations students may struggle with notions of diversity but can benefit greatly from the exposure to diversity, preparedness and personal growth that client work with diverse publics can offer. Although limitations of this study include a small sample size and inconsistent interview settings and lengths, it offered rich descriptions of students’ own meaning-making of diversity and public relations work. Future research should continue to uncover students’ assumptions, biases, or varied definitions of diversity and client work in order to better understand the cultural, societal or professional underpinnings and associated implications for public relations practice.


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