Editorial Record: Submitted May 25, 2022. Revised September 17, 2022. Accepted October 28, 2022.
Nandini Bhalla, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Public Relations School of Journalism and Mass Communication Texas State University San Marcos, Texas, US Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Arien Rozelle, APR Assistant Professor Department of Media and Communication St. John Fisher University Rochester, New York Email: email@example.com
Abstract As an understanding of international diversity has become more vital than ever before, PR educators are responsible for the mammoth task of imparting cultural sensitivity and equality in undergraduate classrooms. This teaching brief provides an opportunity for PR educators to help students understand cultural and structural differences among different countries. It also asks undergraduate students to think in an environmentally-friendly way in an international context. This teaching brief provides individual and group assignments along with samples to help instructors facilitate thought-provoking conversations in the classroom, and enhance student learning on international diversity issues in public relations.
Keywords: eco-tourism, diversity, race, public relations education, international PR, global PR
The recent rise of social and political unrest on a global scale has underscored the need for communicators with global and cultural competencies. While public relations educators are tasked with imparting cultural awareness in undergraduate classrooms, the field of public relations itself has been slow to make advancements in diversity, equity and inclusion. “Despite numerous calls and initiatives for change for over three decades, the industry’s D&I needle has barely moved” (Bardhan & Gower, 2020, p. 103).
Public relations educators play a major role in moving the needle. As Pompper (2005) notes, “The status of public relations practice is directly linked to public relations education” (p. 299). And, “Diversity must start at the classroom level in order for emerging practitioners to embrace diversity at the professional level” (Brown et al., 2019, p. 19).
Today’s public relations students are tomorrow’s practitioners, and educators have the ability to positively impact the pipeline from the classroom to the boardroom through exposure to courses and coursework that bring topics of global communication, diversity, equity and inclusion to the forefront. Globalization and a growing environment of inter-linked economies and multinational companies create a heightened demand for public relations students and practitioners to achieve intercultural competence (Ju & Kang, 2021).
Flowers (2020) noted that a number of scholars in the discipline have emphasized the need to teach global perspectives, as well as multicultural, intercultural, and international skills to the public relations students in U.S. classrooms (Bardhan, 2003; Creedon & Al-Khaja, 2005; Holbert, & Waymer, 2022; Taylor, 2001; Tsetsura, 2011; Waymer & Brown, 2018; Waymer & Dyson, 2011). In addition, the 2018 Commission on Public Relations Education’s report on undergraduate PR education, Foundations + Future State. Educators + Practitioners, notes “Efforts to improve D&I knowledge must start at the academic level. We recommend educators place focus on how diversity and multicultural perspectives are taught in the classroom, and commit to integrating D&I focused topics and discussions into the curriculum” (p. 139).
The concept of ecotourism presents a way to integrate global perspectives into the public relations classroom. Conservationists, professional organizations, and/or academicians have defined ecotourism in multiple ways based on their study area of tourist behavior (Sirakaya et al., 1999). The first known formal definition of ecotourism is written by Ceballos-Lascuráin (1987) as “Travelling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas” (p. 14). In 1994, Andersen defined ecotourism as “a tourism experience infused with the spirit of conservation and cultural change that results in a net positive effect for the environment and local economy…” (p.32). In a more recent article, Khanra and colleagues conducted a bibliometric analysis and literature review of ecotourism and argued that the four critical thematic areas of ecotourism are the ecological preservation of the tourist destination, the carbon footprint from tourist mobility, the protection of residents’ interests in tourist destinations, and tourists’ attitudes and behavior toward sustainability, respectively.
This assignment helps students think about all four areas of ecotourism by conducting a deep analysis of a place (a country) and creating sustainable strategies to enhance tourism.
A visit to a safari park such as the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania or Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan (India) are examples of ecotourism as they allow tourists to experience animals in their natural habitat and learn about them firsthand, rather than through documentaries or movies (Verma, 2022).
This semester-long project, which can be deployed in a face-to-face or online course, provides an opportunity to integrate topics of DEI and global perspectives into a class through a hands-on project. This project was deployed in a Global PR course, but could easily be integrated into a variety of PR courses including PR Writing.
Students are given an objective: research the political, economic, and cultural aspects of a country other than the U.S. and Canada, in order to develop an ecotourism campaign in that country for 18-25-year-old American citizens.
There are two parts of this campaign assignment:
Country analysis: students pick a country other than the U.S. and Canada and conduct comprehensive research to understand PR practice in that country.
Ecotourism campaign (team-based project): The final assignment asks students to create an ecotourism campaign based on the research conducted in the first part of this assignment. This assignment provides an opportunity for students to work according to the key PR and structural variables of that country, using diverse American residents as the target audience.
This project gives students an opportunity to research, write collaboratively and individually, and peer edit. Throughout the process, students not only develop and refine PR skills but also develop empathy toward other cultures and teamwork skills through open conversations in the class as well as in small groups. The lectures and discussions in the class will allow students to share their intercultural experiences and observations, which also help them to respect other views and backgrounds and develop an effective global PR campaign.
STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES:
Understand and evaluate information about global public relations
Identify key global publics and analyze their characteristics
Plan and conduct global public relations strategies and tactics
Learn principles to be an effective public relations professional in a global setting
Create a global public relations campaign
EVIDENCE OF STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES:
Note: One of the authors taught this course twice at a small liberal arts university with four and fourteen students respectively. Evidence of SLOs is limited but authors will continue collecting data in the future.
All students (100%) indicated “agree” or “strongly agree” on “I am more competent in this area after having taken this course.”
Qualitative feedback from course evaluations includes:
“[The professor] provided us with many case studies and background information that was very helpful in learning about Global Public Relations.”
“I very much enjoyed the report I got to give on Germany. While my grandmother was a German immigrant, I freely admit that I did not have much knowledge of the country’s economic, political, or cultural systems until conducting additional research.”
“Your examples, those offered by students, and those you requested I find, all helped me remember both the principles themselves and the realistic applications for them on the global stage.”
“She brought in speakers and people from other cultures and that worked in different facets of PR, which was really helpful.”
“I think that because this course was discussion-based, it made the material easy to retain.”
CONNECTION TO PR PRACTICE:
In our ever-changing media and social media landscape, public relations practitioners need to have a strong understanding of public relations practice in other countries and demonstrate cultural competencies. The 2017 CPRE report notes that a global perspective is essential today, and career opportunities in the public relations field are available worldwide.
The Global Capability Framework, which is a Global Alliance’s benchmark for professionals in public relations and communication management, highlighted the capabilities that professionals hold in common across the world. It states, “to provide contextual intelligence” is an essential capability for PR and communication professionals, in which “you see the bigger picture – socially, culturally, politically, technologically and economically. You identify strategic opportunities and threats, issues and trends. You operate in a connected world, demonstrating broad understanding of local and global diversity in culture, values and beliefs” (Global Alliance, para. 13)
The same study also found that the issues pertaining to businesses and organizations are global today. This indicates that a successful public relations practitioner will have to go global, beginning with the simplest of steps: understanding that public relations practice varies with borders and languages, around the world.
As PR educators work to foster a new generation of public relations practitioners, it has become more important than ever before to address topics of equality and justice by addressing multiculturalism and international diversity in the classrooms.
Andersen, D. L. (1994). Developing ecotourism destinations: conservation from the beginning. Trends, 31(2), 31-38.
Bardhan, N. (2003). Creating spaces for international and multi(inter) cultural perspectives in undergraduate public relations education. Communication Education, 52(2), 164-172. https://doi. org/10.1080/03634520302473
Pompper, D. (2005). Multiculturalism in the public relations curriculum: Female African American practitioners’ perceptions of effects. The Howard Journal of Communications, 16(4), 295-316. https://doi.org/10.1080/10646170500326582
Waymer, D., & Brown, K. A. (2018). Significance of race in the US undergraduate public relations educational landscape: Reflections of former public relations students. Journal for Multicultural Education, 12(4), 353-370. https://doi.org/10.1108/JME-06-2017-0036
Waymer, D., & Dyson, O. L. (2011). The journey into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory: Exploring the role and approaches of race in PR education. Journal of Public Relations Research, 23(4), 458- 477. https://doi.org/10.1080/1062726X.2011.605971
Global Public Relations PROJECT OVERVIEW: COUNTRY ANALYSIS and ECO-TOURISM CAMPAIGN PROPOSAL
Note for professors: Assignments can be adapted to fit any country/region by identifying the country’s designated tourism regions.
All students are required to write a comprehensive research report related to public relations practice in the country of their choice. Then, a team of 2-3 students will develop an international eco-tourism campaign for diverse audiences of 18-25-year-old American citizens.
Examples of Eco-Tourism in different countries are:
On YouTube channel of World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), there is a wonderful example of Eco-Tourism video, India – Exceptional Stories of Sustainable Tourism.
Also, on the website of Ecotourism World, there is an article showing different examples of eco- tourism. The name of the article is “5 Inspirational Sustainable Tourism Videos for 2020.”
OBJECTIVE: By writing comprehensive research reports and presentations, the objective is to enhance understanding of global public relations strategies and raise awareness of eco-tourism in the country of students’ choice among 18-25-year-old American citizens.
COUNTRY ANALYSIS [INDIVIDUAL ASSIGNMENT- report + presentation]
Students are required to conduct thorough research related to a country of their choice. Students will conduct a deep analysis of the public relations practice of their chosen country by understanding various structural variables such as political environment, cultural characteristics, media systems, and economic environment, and also provide an example to substantiate their argument.
The report will elaborate on the history and development of public relations practices in that country, identifying when public relations practices/events began in that country, and examining how public relations is practiced today. Through this exercise, students will be able to identify the most important variables that influenced the practice of public relations in that country.
The research report must include an introduction followed by a brief summary of public relations development in their chosen country and concluding thoughts at the end, focusing on the important variables that they believe most influence the practice of public relations in their chosen country, as mentioned above.
CAMPAIGN PROPOSAL (GROUP ASSIGNMENT)
As teams, students transition to the role of PR practitioner of their country of choice, and will collaborate to produce a comprehensive international eco-tourism campaign proposal targeting
18-25-year-old American residents, which they will present in class. In consultation with the instructor, each team will select a country and create ONE proposal.
Each student has already done extensive research about his/her/their county in the CCA report assignment. Students will collaborate and can choose either country. Students can make this choice among themselves. Students will also conduct research related to target audience of 18-25 year old American residents, specifically related to their traveling habits, preferences, and expenditure criterion.
Students will craft a campaign proposal for their chosen country. Ex: Consider their campaign proposal as a pitch to the decision makers. It should be persuasive (based on research); they should spend thousands of dollars on it.
The key sections are (1) Target audience, (2) Travel campaign “idea” overview- define purpose, (3) context-argument/ justification for the “idea [target nation analysis], (4) SWOT analysis of the country, (5) strategic (implementation) suggestions for the future.
Editorial Record: Submitted May 29, 2022. Revised September 2, 2022. Revised October 28, 2022. Accepted October 28, 2022.
Richard D. Waters, Ph.D. Associate Professor School of Management University of San Francisco San Francisco, California Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tricia M. Farwell, Ph.D. Associate Professor School of Journalism and Strategic Media Middle Tennessee State University Murfreesboro, Tennessee Email: email@example.com
Abstract This paper combines a teaching activity that could be incorporated into a public relations management, campaign, ethics, or strategy course with qualitative research on student reactions and its goal of getting students to critically think about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in strategic communication campaigns. The activity is designed to give students the ability to explore the differences between diversity, equity, and inclusion while learning how to have difficult conversations with co-workers and employers. Using a hypothetical case of an organization’s promotional campaign that is criticized by social media influencers, the activity takes students through thinking about the campaign and working through responses to the company’s actions and considering organizational change. The case challenges students to explore the nuances of diversity, think beyond the knee-jerk reactions to outside forces and consider how to communicate diversity and be inclusive in the media. In addition to providing discussion questions and supplemental materials for the activity that can be used to engage students and assess their learning about DEI issues related to campaigns, the paper uses interviews with students to explore their reactions to DEI concepts and how campaigns can move beyond targeting specific audiences to authentic inclusion.
The idea for the teaching activity introduced in this article was inspired by season 1, episode 6 of the television show American Auto on NBC. The episode, entitled “Commercial,” which originally aired on U.S. television on January 25, 2022, was a fictional representation of a company reacting to being called out on social media for online virtue signaling. The episode then took viewers through the pitfalls Payne Motors encountered when trying to create a commercial for the company that was more inclusive, authentic, and diverse.
While the episode was a fictional comedy, it highlights the problems that organizations encounter from social media and missteps that can be experienced when trying to incorporate diversity because of external forces. Despite the problems, social media influencers are key elements of many public relations campaigns. Agility PR, for example, reported that among marketers, 90% of respondents felt that influencer marketing was effective (Sharva, 2022). Additionally, Agility PR recommended that influencers be added to campaigns because they can become brand ambassadors and can expose an organization to a larger engaged audience.
Due to its ubiquitous nature, social media has also become a platform for conversations regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion and an outlet for organizations to show their support for specific causes. The increased show of support and conversations surrounding DEI have led to expanded research regarding DEI in strategic communication organizations and campaigns. Yet organizations implementing DEI struggled with training and having needed conversations around the topic (Carufel, 2021). In fact, an IPR survey revealed that 20 percent of respondents acknowledged they did not recognize a difference in meaning between the terms “diversity” and “inclusion” (Carufel, 2021). Additionally, another survey found that only 53% of respondents said that their organizations provided, but did not require, training on DEI topics (Haddad, 2022). Yet, despite this lack of required training, communication professionals find themselves as being the resource for DEI counsel and practices.
Organizations such as the Public Relations Society of America , Public Relations Student Society of America , and Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication have stepped up to provide training for their members through a variety of outlets, including webinars. Despite these efforts, academia and the industry are still struggling with DEI efforts at all levels (Brown & Laughlin, 2019; Bardhan & Gower, 2020).
To help reduce the struggle with DEI, this article recommends using the definitions endorsed by the Institute of Public Relations when they released The Wakeman Agency’s (2021) survey on the language public relations leaders use when discussing DEI. Diversity is the mere presence of differences whether those are demographics (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status among others) and psychographics (e.g., values, attitudes, personal background). Diversity encompasses the intersection of these traits and considers other characteristics, such as neurodiversity, special needs, disabilities, and physical attributes. Equity promotes justice, impartiality, and fairness while promoting proportionate access and opportunities based on people’s diverse characteristics. Inclusion focuses on the genuine incorporation of diverse people into an environment so that they feel welcomed and accepted throughout the organization, resulting in feelings of being heard, respected and valued.
This article introduces a classroom activity that is a step toward DEI training within the safety of a classroom setting, which answers the call by Bardhan & Gower (2020) to incorporate more diversity and inclusion activities in the classroom. Based on interviews with students who went through the activity, the article also recommends that educators embrace the mentorship role in regard to DEI topics as called for in the report by the Commission on Public Relations Education (Mundy et al., 2018). Encouraging and supporting students to explore ways to design more inclusive communication campaigns can help these future public relations leaders move from targeting audiences with persuasive messaging to engaging authentically with them.
Public Relations and DEI. Public relations has long been aware of its diversity problem. As expressed during an interview, one practitioner felt that “We ‘talk the diversity talk,’ but I’m not sure we ‘walk the walk’ as much as we could.” (Hon & Brunner, 2000, p. 320). Nearly 20 years later, the industry has started to take proactive efforts to address its diversity issues. In 2015, Steve Barrett, editor-in-chief of PR Week issued a challenge to the industry to reach a benchmark for the profession to have more diverse peoples in leadership positions (2020). Although progress has been made since that charge was issued, with the largest firms reporting approximately 20% diverse talent in 2021 (Diversity Action Alliance, 2021), there is still much work to be done. In order to make sure that the work toward a diverse profession does not stop, industry organizations and businesses are taking the lead by showcasing and sharing their efforts. Practitioners of strategic communication have acknowledged that although awareness of DEI issues has improved, there is still a long way to go to ensure that the profession is representative and communicates with its audiences in a truly inclusive way.
So that their stance is clear, PRSA created a Diversity & Inclusion Committee with the goal of “building consciousness by increasing the visibility of D&I standards, resources and best practices for racial, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation and gender differences, as well as diverse skill sets, mindsets and cultures at all levels of the organization” and to equip practitioners with the tools necessary to be advocates and leaders in this area (Public Relations Society of America, n.d.). The Diversity Toolkit created by the organization provides information on being a D&I liaison to the organization, a mission statement, links to websites and the “Diverse Voices” book by the PRSA Foundation, “Do’s and Don’ts” for chapters, and a list of diversity and inclusion-focused awards and events sponsored by PRSA.
Firms and agencies focusing on strategic communication are also sharing their tips on how to be more inclusive and what they are doing to make sure they are doing their part to be more representative. These agencies recognize and acknowledge that diverse voices and practices are essential for their profession and their clients. PAN Communications, for example, suggests that ways to incorporate more diverse voices include: mentoring diverse interns, partnering with universities to identify diverse future professionals and connecting with professors, reading and implementing material on diversity provided by industry organizations, and holding panels on diversity (Magdovitz, n.d.).
Rodney Pruitt of Weber Shandwick St. Louis reminds readers that diversity, representation and acceptance are key factors when millennials are searching for their professional home (2018). These young professionals are looking to see that they are represented at all levels of the organization and often search for diverse mentors. In order to be able to recruit and mentor incoming professionals, Pruitt calls for the industry to be proactive and not reactive to their needs regarding representation and awareness of diverse voices.
The Wakeman Agency (2021) carried out the first of its kind research addressing how public relations leaders define and discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion in organizations. The research surveyed 393 public relations leaders and found some common trends. First, the language used by organizations reinforces the existing power dynamics in an organization and can derail an organization’s DEI efforts when they are not aligned. Similarly, despite the expressed commitment to DEI across the industry, there is a large gap in meaningful action and a narrow view of what constitutes diversity. Public relations leaders mostly viewed race (83% of practitioners), sex (77%) and ethnicity (75%) as a high or medium priority in industry initiatives. Diversity of thought, sexual orientation, neurodiversity, religion, and socioeconomic levels were largely viewed as a low priority. Reflecting the leaders’ failure to “walk the walk,” most of their DEI initiatives were carried out in human resources offices rather than being company-wide initiatives, and research has shown that organizational change cannot happen in departmental isolation in an organization. Its leadership must be active and ever present for cultures to shift, particularly with successful DEI implementation (Waters et al., 2023).
Simply put, firms, agencies, and industry organizations have called for the industry to make sure that diversity is one of the first things they think about regarding their workforce and work for clients, instead of an add-on at the end of the day or because of public outcry. But the day-to-day work has not yet reflected this concern, based on industry reports. Organizations that do not follow this mindset will find themselves dealing with avoidable claims and damage to their reputation of being oblivious and insensitive to the needs of the public.
PRSA (Carroll, 2022) as well as industry blogs and publications (e.g., Strater, 2021) recognize that younger practitioners from Generation Z are in the best position to shape the industry’s approach to DEI because of their lifelong access to information. They are forcing conversations about inclusion and equity in the workplace and society at large. They’re also drawing attention to the need to expand typical depictions of diversity to include neurodiversity and one’s physical and mental capabilities. As optimistic as these industry pieces are about the future of the field, young and upcoming practitioners need to be encouraged to lead and make sure the industry shifts from a DEI casual stroll to a fast-paced walk toward progress. The public relations curriculum must include lessons that help them address those challenges and develop their confidence in the classroom before they take their first jobs.
Leadership. As cliché as it sounds, today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. However, several studies have found that leadership development and education is lacking in journalism and mass communication programs (Mills et al, 2019; Blom & Davenport, 2012; Bronstein & Fitzpatrick, 2015). Specifically, Mills et al. found that approximately 39 of the 119 programs studied had no focused leadership course and in the approximately 79 programs that did have leadership courses, the leadership component was not the primary focus of the course. This lack of focus on leadership may be due to JMC programs focusing more on hands-on experience over leadership training (Bronstein & Fitzpatrick, 2015) or because leadership is not considered a core course for JMC program directors (Blom & Davenport, 2012).
Given this lack of focus on leadership, JMC educators need to ensure that students have exposure to leadership practices or else they will enter the workforce unprepared for leadership tasks that they encounter. Though it may not be realized, students take leadership cues from educators who serve as role models and from in-class activities where they can explore different leadership approaches in a safe environment. Educators have an opportunity to create a playground for risk-taking, to explore new ideas and to cultivate best practices in their classrooms. Having the freedom to explore, and perhaps fail, in a safe classroom sets students up to be able to be accepting and encouraging of change. As future leaders in the communication field, students need to become the leaders who acknowledge, support and encourage change (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Meng, 2015). These future leaders also need to engage with diversity and represent diversity (Bardhan & Gower, 2020).
While there is no universal approach to being an effective leader, Sudkee (2021) found that key indicators of transformational leadership in undergraduate students are “intellectual stimulation” that “stimulate[s] their colleagues’ creativity,” “idealized influence” where peers are examples of “respectable and trusted leaders” and “individual consideration” where students “recognize other’s value and importance” (p. 102). Berger (2009) identified nine qualities essential in public relations leaders: being a leader by example, being effective and credible in decision making, having a strong ethical stance and professional standards, being able to communicate well, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of themselves and others, having a desire to lead, being transformational and inclusive, being passionate about the profession, and fostering change and a culture of communication. Students in JMC courses have the opportunity to build these skills and define what they believe makes for good leadership if they have in-class opportunities to explore the process of leadership and develop their concepts of an ideal leader.
Higher education is the perfect setting to provide students with opportunities needed to explore and take risks. By allowing and encouraging risk and change, academia can create a new generation of informed citizens by refocusing and reinventing curricula and assignments to challenge students and develop leadership. Mills et al. (2019) called for JMC programs to “work to ensure the competencies [of leadership] are spread throughout the 4-year curriculum in a meaningful way” (p. 273). The advertising/public relations/strategic communication campaigns course is the ideal place to assess student leadership skills gathered throughout a JMC program while adding current relevant leadership due to the fact that this course often has a team project and often follows the structure of a real-world agency. Challenging students to think through difficult conversations like those involving DEI will better prepare them to be tomorrow’s leaders when they face those questions in the workplace.
Audience Segmentation or Stereotyping? Through campaigns courses in the public relations curriculum, client-serving agencies, and campaign competitions like the Public Relations Society of America’s Bateman Case Study competition and the American Advertising Federation’s National Student Advertising Competition, students have the ability to gain leadership experience in developing and implementing campaigns. Strategic communication curriculum has outlined several approaches to campaign development, including the ROPES Process, RPIE, and RACE (Kelly, 2001; Smith, 2020; Universal Accreditation Board, 2018). Hardy and Waters (2012) reviewed 42– years of PRSA Silver Anvil-winning campaigns to determine how well they adhered to recommended campaign development approaches. They found that campaigns were successful in naming specific targeted audiences and increasing in their sophistication of developing objectives; however, evaluation largely consisted of basic publicity measures.
Communication campaigns regularly name specific audiences that they are trying to persuade; however, recent scholarship and industry groups have criticized that audience segmentation is based on stereotypes for most organizations and should be removed from practice (e.g., Tan et al., 2022). Segmentation breaks up a large target market into smaller, more homogeneous groups by grouping people together based on shared traits for more effective outreach. Research has found that using demographics to segment audiences is the most common practice in strategic communication (Müllensiefen et al., 2018); however, other approaches include geographic, psychographic, and behavior-based segmenting. Demography divides the target audience based on traits, such as age, gender, race, sexual orientation, income, and education while geographic segmentation is based on local, regional, national, or global markets. Psychographic segmentation is based on shared interests and lifestyle traits, and behavior-based segments are typically focused on loyalty or product/service usage (Goyat, 2011).
When segmentation is done correctly it can lead to successful identification of and communication with key audiences. However, segmentation must be driven by research data and not simply based on gut instincts (McKercher et al., 2022). Campaign planners cannot assume that someone they know personally typifies a stakeholder group. Data must be used to segment the audiences. Segmentation should not be oversimplified but be research-based. Technology, data tracking, and analytics have made it easier to pinpoint target audiences and create detailed brand personas, but campaign planners still need to make some generalizations about their audiences. It’s when those generalizations are pushed to the extreme that brands run into trouble.
However, the parameters for separating the segments cannot be too broad. Models based on demographic variables run this risk. For example, age-based segmentation frequently uses age to identify a generational cohort and not a segment within that generation. Similarly, brands that have created messaging for women or LGBTQ+ audiences have backfired because the messaging was deemed patronizing or offensive (Hoffman & Delahanty, 2021). Segmenting based solely on one or two demographic factors ignores the significant work that has been produced on intersectionality (Rosa-Salas & Sobande, 2022; Vardeman-Winter et al., 2013; Vardeman-Winter & Tindall, 2010). Work on intersectionality and multidimensional diversity is paving the way for a culture ready to embrace inclusivity.
Developing More Inclusive Campaigns. Advertising and public relations campaigns frequently divide the entirety of their stakeholders into smaller, more reachable audiences through segmentation. However, the language used to describe the process (e.g., targeting) and the groups that result from this process (e.g., target audiences) conjure up images of hunting down a particular group and capturing their attention. While segmentation may be necessary for campaigns to create and deliver more effective messaging, it also steers practitioners to think about those audiences in a non-inclusive manner. The audiences become groups to track and target rather than include in the campaign in a more engaging, meaningful way.
Public relations literature has recently encouraged practitioners beyond the targeting approach with its campaigns through the introduction of SMART+IE objectives (Waters et al., 2021). The SMART+IE approach traces its origins to broad organizational management to ensure that organizations check for disparate impact along identity and power lines and ultimately minimize that impact for everyone. The addition of inclusion and equity to the traditional SMART goal challenges organizations to promote these aspects in their work. While some goals may not appear to have an inclusion and equity component to them, organizations are challenged to think how they can promote these elements in the organization’s work.
As an example, in wake of the June, 2022, United States’ Supreme Court’s reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision, nonprofits on the pro-life (e.g., March for Life) and pro-choice (e.g., Planned Parenthood) sides of the discussion could have simply created awareness campaigns to highlight the issue and argue for their positions. This work easily could have incorporated SMART criteria (specificity, measurement, audience-focused, realistic, and timebound) into its design, but it becomes significantly more meaningful when inclusion and equity components are added to awareness building. This can be done by adding specific actions that reach out to diverse populations and meaningfully engage with them. For this example, the pro-life and pro-choice positions might decide to “increase the number of African-American/Black church leaders’ voices in policy discussions and propositions” or “develop coalitions with women’s health clinics in Hispanic communities,” respectively, to their awareness campaigns.
The Management Center (2021) recommends adding inclusion and equity to SMART goals to address systemic issues that perpetuate inequity and social injustices. For public relations, moving beyond traditional SMART criteria for campaign objectives to include elements of inclusivity and equity challenges the industry to be more socially responsible and engage its audiences in more respectful and meaningful ways–not simply target them. Incorporating SMART+IE objectives into campaigns indicates that inclusion and equity are additional components that require extra consideration. Practitioners should not simply work to target an audience with messaging; rather, socially responsible practitioners carefully consider the communities they serve and reflect on how they can be brought into the organization and campaign without merely tallying the diversity that they have targeted (Farwell et al., 2022).
Inclusion and equity must be intentional in strategic communication campaign efforts. For example, a corporation that is recruiting employees for a new endeavor it is pursuing may have a communication objective to “Recruit a team of 50 new entry-level employees from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex for Project XYZ by August 31, 2022.” This objective meets the SMART criteria by having a specific outcome (employee recruitment), being measurable (50 new entry-level employees), naming an audience (Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex residents), being realistic given the company’s resources and schedule, and being timebound (completed by August 31, 2022). With this objective, planners could go into the community and target specific neighborhoods for recruitment and completely overlook other stakeholder groups.
To add the inclusion and equity components and make this a SMART+IE objective, campaign planners need to pause and reflect on these concepts and how they can intentionally bring them into the organization. A revised SMART+IE version of the objective might read: Recruit a team of 50 new entry-level employees from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex for Project XYZ, using feedback from internal BIPOC and LGBTQ+ employee resource groups, by August 31, 2022. Using this revised SMART+IE objective, campaign planners acknowledge that perspectives from employee resource groups may be helpful in creating a more inclusive team rather than leaving the hiring decision in the hands of a small group of administrators.
Younger public relations practitioners have repeatedly told researchers that they want more than a career; they want to have big impacts on topics such as social justice and systematic change (Gallicano et al., 2012; Pompper, 2015). Educators can help students accelerate that change by challenging them to confront difficult issues, such as DEI, in course work. By incorporating assignments that emphasize inclusion and equity over targeting a named audience, students are on the fast track to become industry leaders with gained confidence from classroom discussions and experiences with their own campaign planning in capstone courses.
SMART+IE objectives can transform publicity and awareness building campaigns into ones that embrace marginalized communities. Throughout the year, corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies embrace heritage/history and awareness months with messaging saying they celebrate different communities or encourage audiences to donate to select causes. These performative messages embrace the marginalized audience briefly but fail to demonstrate how – or, if – the organization has genuinely reached out to the community for greater involvement.
Incorporating the SMART+IE mindset into communication campaigns requires embracing inclusion and equity as part of the organization’s culture. Bringing inclusivity and equity into strategic communication campaigns challenges planners to bring traditionally excluded groups into processes, activities, and decision-making in a way that shares power (Mor Barak, 2022). It moves beyond incorporating the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism’s Diversity Style Guide (Kangiel, 2019) into messaging to removing social systems and structural barriers that prevent all of an organization’s stakeholders from having the same opportunities to participate and benefit from the organization’s offerings, whether they be community sponsorships, employment, discounts, or simply access to programs and services. Being diverse merely is a tally of what demographic or sociographic representatives are involved. Being inclusive moves beyond tallying up who was involved to thinking about ways that perspectives and ideas are heard and acted upon, and legitimate partnerships are created to uplift stakeholders so that equitable outcomes are available for all individuals.
Given the relationship between mentoring students and training them to be leaders, this research explores how a classroom exercise challenges students to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion in communication campaigns and gauges their reactions to SMART+IE objectives. Based on the previous research and other practitioner-literature reviewed prior to creating the classroom activity, the following research questions were created to guide the student interviews:
RQ1: How do students view public relations’ connection to diversity, equity, and inclusion?
RQ2: How did students perceive the classroom activity?
RQ3: How did students react to SMART+IE objectives in the activity?
Early in the Spring, 2022, semester, an episode of “American Auto” featured a plot where a Payne Motors’ commercial was being reshot to highlight the company’s inclusivity after a series of events portrayed the company negatively. Though written in a humorous tone, the episode introduced important lessons about authenticity and being committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The researchers designed an activity reflecting the overall nature of the episode, but introducing a broader range of diversity than the episode presented and adding social media responses to leaked behind-the-scenes footage from a commercial shoot.
The Assignment. The complete “Our Family is Your Family” assignment details are presented in the Appendices. Supporting materials include a basic scene description featured in the commercial series developed by the strategic communication agency hired by the company, an internal memo from a communication team specialist expressing concerns about the scenes, a series of emails and text message exchanges sent throughout the planning and filming of the commercials as well as examples of social media response the campaign generated.
The Research. To answer the study’s three research questions, in-depth interviews were conducted with 22 students who participated in the exercise in two separate classes taught by the researchers, one undergraduate “Issues in Advertising” class (43 students enrolled) and one graduate “Strategic Communications Management” course (18 students enrolled) at the researchers’ institutions. Nine of the students interviewed were graduate students while 13 were undergraduates. Students at both the undergraduate and graduate level were asked to participate in the interviews to gauge how students from both the Millennial Generation and Generation Z viewed the exercise and reflected on its utility.
After receiving expedited approval from the institutional review board, students were recruited to participate when the researchers sent emails asking for students’ comments and reflections on the exercise during one-on-one interviews; more than one-third of students participated in interviews (36.1%) even though the semester had ended. The majority of students who participated identified as female (68.1%) while males (31.8%) represented a smaller proportion of participants. Three individuals (13.6%) used they/them pronouns in addition to she/her and he/him pronouns.
Prior to the interviews, students were reminded about the goals of the research and encouraged to be open about the exercise. The informed consent documents promised confidentiality to the participants, and modifiers are used in place of participants’ names in the results section that follows. Interviews were conducted after final course grades were calculated and submitted to the schools so that could be eliminated as an influence on participants’ answers. Most interviews (n=17) were recorded with Zoom (Archibald et al., 2019); however, detailed notes were taken during in-person interviews, which ranged from 19 to 35 minutes, to capture quotations and sentiments. Two students provided email responses due to work constraints.
The interviews opened by asking students to reflect on their perceptions about diversity, equity, and inclusion as it pertains to strategic communication. Questions then shifted to focus on their reactions to the planned Creekside Tires campaign, experiences with the classroom activity, and their thoughts about SMART+IE objectives generally and specifically to the exercise.
Zoom’s automated transcripts were reviewed and cleaned by the researchers. Transcripts along with notes taken during the interviews were read and compared against each other while looking for similarities. As documents were read, researchers used an evolving process to evaluate thoughts expressed by students that began as positive/negative and then grew to represent specific thoughts or themes presented in the results. Those with shared commonalities are grouped together by category to reflect the similar ideas (Lindlof, 1995). During the analysis, validity checks were conducted by asking students whether quotations and their thoughts were captured correctly (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). These member checks were conducted within 14 days of completing the full analysis.
Research Question #1. The study’s first research question sought to explore how students view the industry’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Overall, the students felt that they were experiencing a change in industry practices. One female undergraduate said, “I love the increase in diversity in recent years. For far too long, there was a strong focus on white, heteronormative messaging” for all of an organization’s stakeholders. Another undergraduate female made an observation that “a lot more diverse people are going into advertising and public relations” based on her internship experiences, and the influx of a more diverse workforce “will be reflected in the campaigns they launch.”
While students generally expressed positive sentiments about the diversity of the field, one undergraduate female expressed that “while I am happy with [the growing diversity of the industry], there are still fundamental issues that companies are getting wrong. One graduate female student agreed, noting that “HR is regularly recognized for its recruiting efforts for diverse talents at my agency, but that’s all that’s being done.” A male graduate student felt that public relations developed campaigns for specific communities “but it never goes beyond social media posts celebrating Pride or a donation to a community center.” Students hoped to see more genuine inclusivity with both internal and external stakeholders in the future.
One female undergraduate felt that specific agencies and corporations were unlikely to become inclusive. She said, “although I don’t agree with it, I don’t think companies will take the risk of creating an environment where everyone has their voice heard.” A male undergraduate noted that while companies needed to show they were listening, “they don’t really want to hear suggestions and feedback, so they put on a show listening to [marginalized voices] even though decisions have already been made.”
A portion of students do not fully understand the challenges faced by others as one male graduate student questioned why it had become a trend. He commented that “I just don’t get the big focus on DEI. Everyone’s encouraged to participate in team meetings and strategy sessions. It’s like that at all the agencies I know people at.” A female graduate student with a decade of professional experience also questioned the strong emphasis on inclusion but came around to recognize that “some concerns that are brought up in meetings aren’t really paid attention to.”
When asked about equity in the industry, most students acknowledged that the industry was “not even in the ballpark’s parking lot” as one female graduate student put it. Another female undergraduate confessed that “I don’t really know the difference between inclusion and equity. They’re always grouped together.” While the response may not have been what we were looking for after the activity, it shed light on the need for more discussion about inclusion and equity in the public relations curriculum.
Research Question #2. The second research question asked how students perceived the classroom activity and ultimately how it reflects the industry. Students understood that the classroom activity highlighted the challenges organizations could face if they were not fully committed to diversity at all levels of the organization. The exercise demonstrated how complex diversity, equity, and inclusion can be for organizations that lack an inclusive culture. One undergraduate female student said it opened her eyes to how organizations connect to different stakeholders, noting “I don’t want to say [Creekside Tires is] going about it the right way, but I understand why they operate in that way.” Her comments were echoed by a male graduate student who said, “If you don’t include everyone in a message, then you’re going to face the woke army. But, if you make it obvious that everyone’s included, you also face the fire.”
The activity caused a female graduate student to realize issues faced from being inclusive; she noted, “Even for companies that support DEI, your commercials can be taken the wrong way. You’re always going to be criticized for not doing enough because you can’t put everything into a 30 second spot.” She added, “Companies that get it still have to worry about their bottom line. Ideally, they would have a chance to include someone from a marginalized community. But these days one side will accuse them of courting that group and the other side slams them for wanting that community’s business.” A female undergraduate student said, “this [activity] made me realize how important the parts of a campaign are that you don’t see on TV, the web, or social media.” Other students also reflected on how important genuine outreach to marginalized communities isnecessary but wondered “if [Creekside] worked with LGBT or disabled groups with scholarships or something, how do they get people to notice that?”
While some students wondered about how to demonstrate inclusivity to mass audiences, there were also students who identified as strong supporters of DEI who questioned how they would handle the situation in the case study if they were in the same situation. A female graduate student said, “It seems wrong but some of the stereotypes are true. I’m a lesbian, and I dress a certain way. Why can’t you use language or visuals that cue us into the commercial? GLAAD or some other group may complain about that, but it’s true for many of us.”
The exercise generated meaningful discussion in the classroom, and students reflected on this during the interviews. “I’m glad we talked about this after it. My group was scared to talk about how we would handle [the Creekside Tires situation] because we thought we’d be judged,” said one undergraduate male. A female undergraduate added, “I felt comfortable talking about it in class cause we all seem on board with DEI, but I don’t know if I would have said anything at my internship.” As discussions about the exercises drifted from the classroom to the workplace, students became less confident though one female graduate student said:
This example helped me think through how I’d bring it up at work. We talk about diversity but it’s fake like the commercials. We have programs that we present to different groups, and the [Executive Director] is proud of [our diversity outreach] but we didn’t involve them. We just presented to them.
Finally, students expect they will see significant changes in communication campaigns as they enter the workforce. “That commercial idea seems so 2000s, but all you gotta do is watch advertising for an hour to see it’s still everywhere. It’s ridiculous,” said one female undergraduate. One male undergraduate said that companies seem to get diversity, but it’s going to take “understanding how to really include people of all walks of life into campaigns to become respectable.” Through the various discussion questions, students began to see the difference between diversity, equity, and inclusion. One undergraduate female felt “inclusion will continue to expand because my generation are profound supporters of it, and we’ll make change whether they want to move on from diversity or not.” SMART+IE objectives helped clarify the distinction but the participants struggled with how to achieve inclusion and equity in campaign planning.
Research Question 3. Students’ reactions to their initial exposure to SMART+IE objectives were collected for the final research question, and there were a few skeptical voices. One student questioned, “couldn’t the inclusion part be part of the action in a SMART objective?” while another pointed out that “the [weekly course reading] showed objectives weren’t following SMART fully, so will they really add the IE?”
Other responses were more positive though they found the SMART+IE objectives challenging. “I wish we had these in our strategy class because it forces you to think beyond publicity,” one female undergraduate said. A male undergraduate said, “I didn’t get the difference between DE&I until I had to use SMART+IE. Targeting is really easy to accomplish diversity, but it’s a lot tougher to get people included in an equal way.” A female undergraduate offered that “I kept thinking my inclusion component was superficial. It’s tough to write about such an important part in an objective. It’s going to take practice to get it right.” Another female undergraduate noted that SMART+IE objectives were tough because “I don’t see how these would work with the work I do at my internship, but maybe they make more sense when you manage accounts.”
She added “I want to show this to my [internship] supervisor because we’ve talked about the SMART ones but never these. It could really change how they do their campaigns.” The female undergraduate was not the only one who was taking a lead in bringing SMART+IE objectives to the industry. A female graduate student with a six-year career in the nonprofit sector said, “I’m going to use these with our community outreach program and talk about them with program staff.” Other students felt that SMART+IE objectives “should replace SMART objectives because that makes us think about inclusion and equity,” said one female undergraduate. If the traditional SMART objectives continue to be used in campaign planning, “they’ll only focus on inclusion and equity if someone in the room brings it up,” one female graduate student said, “but starting with SMART+IE puts it on the table for discussion from the very beginning.”
Although students sometimes struggled with writing SMART+IE objectives, they were optimistic about the future of their profession. One male graduate student asked, “why aren’t these objectives in our textbook? They’re going to lead to deeper campaigns that have more important outcomes than increased sales or views.” After an interview with a female graduate student, one of the researchers received an email in which the student said:
Thank you for introducing SMART+IE objectives in class this semester. I’ve not used them at work yet, but I plan to. Talking about them during the interview yesterday got me excited to talk about them at work. I’ve already set up a meeting with my manager to show it to her.
While students had some hesitations when they first began using SMART+IE objectives, the Creekside Tires case study activity and subsequent discussion helped them see SMART+IE’s value to campaign planning and ultimately the future of the profession.
Post hoc commentary. Although not the primary focus of the study, the researchers asked each other questions about their experiences with the assignment once the results had been analyzed and they were able to reflect on it. One author noted that “the best part was after class when students would come to my office to discuss DEI and how they could be prepared for when they graduate so that they could make a change.” Even though only 36% of students enrolled in the two classes participated in interviews, there was a clear interest in inclusivity from many others in the classroom. The same author received an email after the interview was completed that thanked him/her/them for doing this exercise in class and evaluating reactions to it because it was the first time the student had this type of discussion in a course in their field of study. One author had a similar reflection noting that “By incorporating DEI activities in the classroom, we are telling our students that we are open and willing to have these discussions with them. We are setting the example for how they can have these discussions with others in the workplace.”
“This assignment really challenged me to proactively think about how I can create a safe space for students since I didn’t know how the exercise would go,” said one author. Similar to the results of The Wakeman Agency report, one author said, “I’m still learning too. I don’t have all the answers, and it’s helpful to have working students bring their experiences into the classroom. At times, they’re teaching me as much as I’m teaching them.” That co-teaching effort is helping them develop their confidence to become leaders who address these situations moving forward. One author said, “It is clear our students really wanted to be leaders in DEI activities and that they were looking for resources. They are looking for people who they can emulate in terms of leading the DEI discussion.”
Public relations has long been aware of its diversity problems (Hon & Brunner, 2000) and the benefits of correcting its lack of inclusion and equity among practitioners and stakeholders (Edwards, 2011). Tsetsura (2011) discusses how faculty can present diversity in a multidimensional manner in the classroom so that students understand how complex addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion can be, but also appreciate how rich the industry could be if practitioners are able to move past narrowly targeting and manipulating audiences to embracing them as vital components of campaigns and not just static message recipients.
The classroom activity presented as part of this research sought to do just that. In presenting Creekside Tires’ plans for the “Our Family is Your Family” campaign, the case and supporting evidence highlights how broad diversity is at the practical, campaign-planning level and challenges students to think about the audiences using multiple dimensions of diversity. But the activity moves beyond simple representations of diversity in a commercial to challenge students to develop a culture of inclusivity and equity in an organization. Interview findings showed that students embraced the DEI concepts but struggled to devise clear strategies for how they would implement that in either the workplace or a communication campaign.
As educators, it is our responsibility to challenge our students with difficult questions and help them in their struggles to answer them. Having awkward or difficult conversations in the classroom prepares students for career opportunities where they can build inclusive, equitable teams and ultimately be the change agents needed to create an organizational culture that embraces inclusion and equity. Educators are in the perfect position to be a mentor to students to help them devise strategies to incorporate a more enlightened approach to communication campaigns beyond targeting and manipulating audiences or presenting idealized depictions.
One of the first lessons educators must stress to students is that organizations must quit communicating a commitment to DEI without having credible evidence or demonstration of progress. Many organizations felt compelled to share their DEI commitment during the social movements that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, little communication followed the statements posted to their websites or social media accounts. This was also reflected in Creekside Tires’ desire to combat COVID-19 isolation by reinvigorating its “Our Family is Your Family” tagline. Although its proposed new campaign was designed to be more reflective of its stakeholders, there was no evidence beyond commercial visuals to demonstrate a commitment to DEI. Through classroom activities and conversations with students, educators must stress that organizations and industries cannot be committed to DEI unless there is ongoing measurement of that work (Kirton & Greene, 2021). As soon as that commitment has been expressed, stakeholders–whether they are employees or social media influencers like Serenity in our case study–will begin to look for examples or measures of that progress
That measurement, however, cannot simply be increased percentages of women, people of color, or LGBTQ+ shown in marketing collateral or hired to work for an organization. The goal of inclusivity is one where stakeholders genuinely feel included because of the organization’s or industry’s culture that respects and supports all stakeholders (Dover et al., 2020). When organization’s measurement of their DEI efforts transitions from simply tallying diversity numbers to true measures of belonging and inclusivity, stakeholders have an active role in shaping the culture, not simply being a token representation. Based on descriptions in the case study, Creekside Tires had a diverse workforce; however, ignoring Jai Lee’s commercial concerns and comments made in emails and text message exchanges reveal that the organization may present diversity but it is not genuine.
Another mistake that educators can stress to students is to avoid messaging that does not reflect what is being said by management. When organizations promote DEI as Creekside Tires did in its campaign, its public and private conversations must also reflect that message. The case study highlights an organization that presents diversity and the idea that “Our Family is Your Family,” but comments made among company representatives hardly support that.
Creekside Tires was preparing commercials to target marginalized groups with visuals that show they are part of the family, but those same voices were not heard within the organization. Jai Lee was ignored and dismissed because of her age. The initial response to the social media influencer included language that was far from inclusive when the CEO demands the agency “make her stop” and tells his internal communication team they need to “find a way to muzzle” the “snot-nosed little brat.” While it is understandable that the company would be upset over the social media crisis, comments made during heated moments often reveal how management views its DEI efforts (Mikkelsen & Wåhlin, 2020). Having students experience these scenarios in a classroom setting will help them develop their skills for if they see these views or similar in their careers. Preparing students to address these types of conversations openly in an organization helps them develop as potential leaders. Having students maneuver the situation in a hypothetical setting gives them the confidence and skills to communicate the issue and challenges to management. Having classroom activities such as the one in this study gives educators the opportunity to prepare and mentor students for these situations and conversations.
Organizational leaders must be an active part of the DEI culture in their organization, and they have more than a profit-margin rationale to do so. A successful DEI culture cannot thrive in a pure top-down environment (Thibeaux et al., 2006). In the Creekside Tires situation, inclusivity concerns from a communication staffer were ignored while the approach taken was from an order from the company’s executive. When management is not fully engaged in DEI efforts, they will inevitably fail. Managers may stay silent when they see unsupported actions as a result of being concerned about saying the wrong thing. That silence, however, provides false safety and sends the wrong message. Leaders must be willing to address DEI situations that arise in the workplace and advocate for cultural and systematic changes that advance marginalized voices.
Finally, DEI practices must move beyond one-way communication channels. Public relations often advocates for two-way communication with stakeholders. Kent and Lane (2021) argue that two-way communication rarely produces genuine dialogue because of the difficulties of engaging with audiences; yet relying on one-way campaigns to convey an organization’s DEI efforts simply will not work. Inclusion and equity require leaders work to understand audiences which, in turn, requires asking questions and active listening. Practitioners should learn how to demonstrate empathy with stakeholders and become comfortable addressing sensitive topics.
Educators stress engagement and interactivity in discussions about strategic communication campaign planning, and we must use this same approach when mentoring our students about DEI. Sharing our own positive and negative experiences can be a bridge to understanding how to successfully create an inclusive campaign.
As the industry struggles with moving beyond diversity to incorporate inclusivity and equity in its efforts, educators might use their own challenges with understanding and incorporating DEI into their professional lives to mentor students (Brown, 2018). We can pass along lessons that we have learned to our students so that they can build on our experiences and develop initiatives to improve the strategic communication industry’s approach to DEI.
When students graduate and enter the workforce, they will encounter situations where they may be asked to lead DEI discussions or even be expected to be the lead structural change for their organizations or the future of the profession. Providing DEI mentorship in class gives students a foundation to draw upon in future professional settings. Students who are mentored will have a long-lasting relationship with their professors and a valuable resource when they encounter difficult situations. This will provide students with the opportunity to continue to foster the mentor-mentee relationship while also keeping the educator aware of potential trends and changes in the industry.
Additionally, having a successful mentoring experience connected to DEI while in a classroom setting encourages young professionals to step up and become successful mentors and leaders for others in their profession. Having practiced leadership and DEI challenges in the classroom gives students the confidence in their ability to start, lead, or shape the difficult discussions that often need to happen around DEI in organizations.
Most important, however, is the fact that students emerging from successful mentoring experiences have a stronger sense of identity and feel more connected to their chosen profession. This cultivates passion and the desire to change their profession to be more inclusive. Mentoring, in essence, prepares our students to be more effective mentors and leaders for future generations.
Limitations. Every research project has limitations, and this one is not an exception. Given the size of the classes that were asked to participate, the sample size of interview participants was relatively small although saturation was reached. The saturation point may have been reached, however, because of the sensitivity of the topic. Students may not have wanted to reveal their thoughts on DEI, especially to an instructor whoheld a SMART+IE-focused activity in the classroom. Additionally, given the modern “cancel culture” some students might have not felt comfortable discussing DEI for fear of saying something that might offend. Even though the interviews were conducted after the semester’s final grades were submitted, students might have felt that saying something “wrong” might jeopardize the relationship they had with the teacher, who might be needed for job or college recommendations or might even be a colleague.
Although the interviewed students were asked about their gender identity (e.g., what gender they identified with and what pronouns they preferred), the researchers also acknowledge that students were not asked about other demographics due to administrative oversight of the project. Though generational differences did not emerge in these results, further examinations of SMART+IE objectives in public relations should also take racial/ethnic identities into consideration.
Future Research. Given the triple focus of the special issue with mentorships, leadership, and DEI, there are plenty of opportunities to build on this project and grow public relations awareness and understanding of how to cultivate a DEI culture. Spinning off of the ideas presented in this paper, research could examine the faculty-student mentoring relationships to determine what successful matches look like and what purpose they serve for both sides of the relationship. Additionally, research could be carried out either qualitatively or quantitatively to determine how students view themselves as DEI leaders both before and after working through classroom activities where difficult concepts are introduced. Students might also be asked to evaluate the impact of these classroom activities on their confidence in navigating similar challenges in the workforce.
But, the leading topic of interest of this special issue and the industry is diversity, equity, and inclusion. Regarding education, a review of strategic communication curriculum or the entire journalism and mass communication curriculum to see how DEI is woven into coursework would be appropriate, especially if faculty are looking to develop students into leaders who are capable of changing existing organizational structures and cultures in the future. A coorientation method study would be helpful to compare and contrast the perceptions of DEI of current students with practitioners to see just how close or far apart the contemporary and future practitioners are with their views toward diversity, equity, and inclusion.
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Appendix A: The Assignment
Learning Objectives. Overall, this assignment encourages students to think critically and inclusively about DEI in a communication campaign. It is designed for them to see the struggles, both internal to the organization and external to the organization, that might be faced when organizations try to improve their diversity without authenticity.
This activity is designed for students to meet the following learning objectives:
Students will acknowledge that diversity is a nuanced term that needs to be well defined.
Students will understand the importance of DEI as an initial and ongoing consideration for communication campaigns.
Students will evaluate, analyze, and incorporate SMART+IE objectives into campaign planning in ways that consider DEI concerns.
Students will gain practice addressing difficult situations to prepare them for holding difficult conversations with colleagues and employers regarding DEI practices.
The Case: A Diversity-Focused Promotional Campaign.Creekside Tires is a family-run company started by Johnny Creekside in 1945. The business began as a tire manufacturer, but branched out to include service stations, after becoming a household name. Although it is a family-run business, the company has expanded to be a multi-national powerhouse with 1,750 service stations in the United States and 575 stations internationally. Their annual revenue is $2.6 billion. The organization employs approximately 34,125 employees world-wide.
Creekside’s management understands the value of strategic communication and has made sure its campaigns are initiated in and controlled by headquarters. They believe this centralized approach helps them develop consistent branding. Since 1945, the company’s tagline has been “Our Family is Your Family.” Over the years, campaigns under this tagline have had multiple touchpoints including mailers to specific zip codes, service station window wraps, and print advertisements. Mailers and advertisements always included the tagline and featured one family in different scenes. Previous storylines referenced a father working a 9-to-5 job and facing the grind of a daily commute, a mother running errands and getting their 8-year-old daughter to soccer practice, and a teenage son nervously practicing driving for the first time. By only featuring one family in their storytelling, the campaigns unintentionally used imagery of a White family alongside the tagline “Our Family is Your Family.”
Recently, the company decided to add television advertising and social media, particularly incorporating influencers, to their strategic communication mix. To manage the communication expansion, Creekside Tires hired CorpComm, a full-service strategic communication agency to handle their campaigns. After strategy sessions, CorpComm recommended a new tagline, “Driving Forward Together,” to break from the past and demonstrate the company’s commitment to diversity, but Johnny Creekside II insisted on using the “Our Family is Your Family” tagline to reignite the brand. CorpComm felt that the existing tagline could be used in light of how alienated people have felt during and after COVID.
In addition to the brand boost, the campaign is designed to remind consumers it would be a good time to have their tires checked to keep their family safe. As part of the campaign, CorpComm presented a key scene pitch of the commercials to Creekside employees (Appendix B). CorpComm identified key influencers and sent them a packet containing a contract offer, past campaign collateral, and suggested content and hashtags for future posts. In exchange for a predetermined payment based on the number of posts shared and the influencer’s popularity, influencers agreed to post content highlighting Creekside Tires on a mutually-agreed to schedule over the next six months. Influencers could use content prepared by CorpComm or create their own content, as long as specified hashtags were used.
When the campaign idea was presented to employees, it was mostly received well. Jai Lee, a communication specialist, detailed her concerns in a memo (Appendix C) which was sent to the Chief Executive Officer, Chief Information Officer, and Director of Marketing; it was also carbon copied to the CorpComm account team. Lee never received a response to their memo, but there was an email exchange between the CEO and CorpComm (Appendix D). To provide influencer partners with the opportunity to create their own content for the campaign, Creekside Tires flew them to watch the first day of filming the commercial scenes. One of their essential influencers, Serenity Cervantes, a 24-year-old micro influencer, accepted the offer and signed a contract that paid $20,000 in exchange for 10 positive posts over a six-month period and that included a nondisclosure agreement about the contract and details of the commercial shoot. While on the set, she created a TikTok critical of the campaign by pointing out that her Latino family was not depicted in the campaign. She went after the Creekside Tires brand and their slogan by starting using the hashtag #NotMyFamily to mock the “Our Family is Your Family” tagline. Her post started a movement that spread across social media (Appendix E).
Johnny Creekside sent emails to CorpComm and Creekside Tires’ internal communication team complaining about the influencer breaking her contract to post positive messages for the company and the non-disclosure agreement by posting behind-the-scenes footage of the commercial shoot. He demanded something be done to reverse the attacks the company was receiving online. Various members of the CorpComm account team (Appendix F) and Creekside Tires’ communication team (Appendix G) communicated over email about strategies to correct the company’s diversity problem.
The Activity. The supporting materials end with the communication teams discussing ways to demonstrate that Creekside’s “Our Family” is diverse. At this point, students are tasked with taking the lead in directing the Creekside Tires communication team and the CorpComm account team on where missteps occurred and make recommendations of the next steps the company should take. Students may decide to pursue the current “Our Family is Your Family” advertising concept, or they may take an entirely different approach using outreach to create community partnerships. Students should use the SMART+IE method to devise objectives and strategies that:
Help the company revise their campaign to be more genuinely inclusive
Help the company develop and maintain a culture of DEI
Help the company set DEI benchmarks for the next 3 and 5 years.
Discussion Questions. There is room for expansion in this project if there is time available in class, such as asking students to develop tactics for their strategies and a plan for implementation. After the activity is completed, the following discussion questions can assist students in reflecting on the challenges and benefits of implementing DEI in an organization and its communication campaign.
How do you define diversity, equity, and inclusion? How would you explain the differences to someone who said those three terms mean the same thing?
In a survey by Muck Rack, 78% of public relations professionals said that race and ethnicity were the highest DEI priority while only 42% said people with disabilities were the highest DEI priority. What does diversity look like in a campaign? How would you set organizational DEI priorities considering the wide range of demographic and sociographic identifiers?
What are ways that communication campaigns can involve audiences other than showing them messaging? How can we create opportunities for meaningful involvement with different brands?
What factors should you consider when deciding to include social media influencers in a campaign? How do you respond when they change the campaign’s narrative?
How difficult was it to write SMART+IE objectives? What made it easy/difficult to develop them?
What suggestions do you have for an organizational leader to start the conversation about DEI topics? What would you suggest to create an inclusive and equitable culture in an organization?
Appendix B: TV Pitch
Creekside Tires is a foundation of the automobile tire industry, and we at CorpComm have created the ideal campaign to remind consumers that “Our Family is Your Family.” In addition to upholding the brand messaging Creekside Tires is known for, we recommend updating the commercial approach by incorporating multiple families into various scenes to keep up with the changes in today’s culture. Featuring different families will give different communities a reason to see that they are part of the Creekside Tires family. We propose using the key scenes below for the commercial series. Script and voiceover dialogue will be provided at least two weeks before the commercial shoot. We are providing general descriptions of the scene so that final versions can evolve based on feedback from Creekside Tires and the chemistry between the production team, director, and actors.
Commercial Scene Description
Dialogue and Voiceover Description
A White mother, father, teenage son, and tween daughter are packing up the minivan for a vacation. Their golden retriever eagerly runs around excited for the trip
Dialogue will focus on the mother worrying about the safety of going on a road trip. She is concerned about being stranded on the road. The father puts her concerns at ease by telling her he had the tires checked at Creekside Tires and got their seal of approval. “Our Family is Your Family” is shown over a close-up of the family driving away.
A Black woman is driving in an SUV. Children are in the backseat wearing seatbelts. She is driving with grocery bags visible in the back of the SUV. The dashboard tire light comes on, and she says she doesn’t have time for it.
Dialogue will focus on women needing to take care of everything from feeding their children to making sure their cars are safe. A voiceover provides details on safety check services and Creekside Tires’ new service of performing safety checks at work or wherever one needs it.
An Asian man and a Black man are in a sedan as part of a carpool to work. It is the morning commute, so traffic is picking up. A second Asian man and a White man are sitting in the backseat. The White man has his eyes closed.
The White man is complaining about the stop-and-go traffic and worrying that they won’t arrive at work safely. The driver lets him know that he just had the car checked out at Creekside over the weekend.
The first-scene family arrives at a beachside lot and unpacks the minivan. After closing the hatchback, the family and dog walk toward the beach. Visual becomes a still with the Creekside Tires logo and tagline underneath.
Voiceover: Remember at Creekside Tires, our family is your family. Whether in traffic or driving to vacation, we pride ourselves at making sure our family is safe on the road. Schedule your tire checkup at w-w-w dot creekside tires dot com.
Appendix C: Internal Memo
Johnny Creekside II, chief executive officerValentina Martinez, chief information officerDonnie Paige, director of marketing
Jai Lee, communication specialist
Creekside Tires account team at CorpComm
We need to revisit the television commercial series concept. I applaud the concept of including diversity in our advertisements because that’s something that we haven’t done in the past. But I’m concerned that the scene and dialogue descriptions have some potential problems. Here are just a few problems I saw in the initial pitch:
The “Our Family is Your Family” tagline is only used in commercials where the White family is featured. It’s shown at the end of the first commercial and spoken in the last commercial. None of the other commercials include this messaging. Does this mean BIPOC and other marginalized communities are not our family?
The man in the White family is the one who “knows all about cars” while the woman is overly concerned about safety. This perpetuates unhealthy stereotypes.
A Black woman with kids? Seriously? This is perpetuating the Black single mom stereotype. Why can’t people of color have a traditional family? Why must the men always be portrayed as absent?
An Asian and Black man are driving the carpool while the White man is sitting in the backseat? I can’t even believe I have to bring this up. Let’s have the Black man cater to the White man’s every need while we are at it. The dialogue “explaining” things doesn’t “fix” this image of servitude that you are glorifying.
Closing scene: This references that only White families are welcome at Creekside Tire. Is this really the brand image you want for the organization?
I’m sure there’s more that could be addressed, but I was so shocked at hearing the pitch that I couldn’t process everything fast enough. Yes, we need diversity in our advertising, but we also need to be inclusive and not reinforce negative stereotypes. I’d be happy to meet with you all to discuss this in greater detail so that Creekside Tires won’t have a crisis to deal with after the commercials air.
Appendix D: Internal Emails about Jai Lee Memo
To: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm
From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires
Just ignore that memo from Jai. These young kids think they know everything about how to run a business and that those of us in management are “Boomers” who don’t know anything. I’ve been running this company for years and look where we are now. We’ll take care of Jai’s issues.
Johnny Creekside, President
Creekside Tire 1957 Buick Drive Fontana, WI 53125 (414) 275-5555
To: Johnny Creekside II, Creekside Tires
From: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm
Subject: Re: Memo
Your team definitely knows business, but don’t hold anything against Jai. It’s better to hear her reactions now than wait to hear how the audience perceives them. As discussed over the phone with you before sending the entire team the scene descriptions, some of our ideas were misinterpreted based on how we described them. We need to take that into consideration.
In scene two, we meant for the Black mother to be seen as a lesbian mother. Do we have the budget to hire another actor to play her spouse? I hadn’t thought about it reinforcing a Black single mother stereotype. Let’s make it a lesbian couple to bring in the LGBTQ community.
If we don’t have the extra budget, we can lose the 4th coworker in the carpooling scene. I had an idea that we could make the White guy disabled. Maybe we could put him in sunglasses rather than have his eyes closed? If it’s the morning commute, the audience may think he’s sleeping.
I’ll get our team working on how to incorporate the “Our Family is Your Family” tagline into all of the commercials and not just those featuring the vacationing family.
Kris Bufonte, Account Director
CorpComm 1993 Water Street Milwaukee, WI 53202 (414) 555-8445
To: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm
From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires
Subject: Re: Memo
Good points about the memo. Let’s try to keep the budget down and replace the fourth coworker with a second lesbian. The blind guy can even use my sunglasses instead of sleeping in the backseat. Oh, maybe instead of an Asian man, we hire someone who resembles Jai. If we get an older White guy to play the blind guy, we can show we’re not ageist.
Johnny Creekside, President
Creekside Tire 1957 Buick Drive Fontana, WI 53125 (414) 275-5555
Appendix E: Initial TikTok Post made by Serenity on the set of Commercial Shoot and examples of various social media posts made in response to her #NotMyFamily hashtag
Appendix F: Internal Emails about Serenity Cervantes’ TikTok Post
To: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm
From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires
Why is this 24-year-old influencer saying such horrible things about us on TikTok? We paid for her trip to watch the commercials being filmed. We put her up in the nicest hotel. She signed a contract, and the nondisclosure agreement! This is how she thanks us? Reach out to her and make her stop and take down all that she has posted so far.
I’m also going to reach out to our communication team and get them to think of ways to fix this so it doesn’t ruin everything we’ve invested in the “Our Family” message over the years.
Johnny Creekside, President
Creekside Tire 1957 Buick Drive Fontana, WI 53125 (414) 275-5555
To: Johnny Creekside II, Creekside Tires
From: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm
Subject: Re: Memo
We’ll reach out to Serenity to let her know this is a breach of contract and her nondisclosure agreement. Hopefully, she’ll pull the post down voluntarily, but it may be too late. I see #NotMyFamily is trending on Twitter, and our team found the hashtag being used on Instagram too.
We can reshoot the commercials to make them more inclusive if you’ve got the budget for it.
Kris Bufonte, Account Director
CorpComm 1993 Water Street Milwaukee, WI 53202 (414) 555-8445
Appendix G: Internal Emails about Serenity Cervantes’ TikTok
To: Creekside Tire Communication
From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires
Subject: Fix the Commercial!
As you already know, that snot-nosed little brat is trying to destroy my family business. We have to figure out how to put a stop to #NotMyFamily. We’re going to have to reshoot the commercials. Figure out how to design different scenes so that they make everyone happy, especially Serenity Cervantes. We have to find a way to muzzle her. We are not a racist company that excludes Latinos. Our CIO is a Latina for crying out loud. Do something to make this right!
Johnny Creekside, President
Creekside Tire 1957 Buick Drive Fontana, WI 53125 (414) 275-5555
To: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tire Communication
From: Donnie Paige
Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!
Ok team! Let’s start with trying to fix the commercial. We need something that SINGS diversity and showcases the Creekside “Our Family” beliefs. Anyone have any suggestions?
Donnie Paige Director or Marketing
Creekside Tire 1957 Buick Drive Fontana, WI 53125 (414) 275-5562
To: Donnie Paige, Creekside Tire Communication
From: Jenny de la Bloque
Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!
From what I can tell, Serenity’s big issue is that there’s no Latino representation in the commercial. If we add a Latino/Latina somewhere, does this whole problem go away? We could make one of the coworkers Latino, or maybe add a Latina to the commercial with the mother and kids. We could make it a lesbian couple, or if we’re not ready to cross that barrier we could have a Latina mother in the family commercials. What do you think?
Jenny de la Bloque Social Media Manager
Creekside Tire 1957 Buick Drive Fontana, WI 53125 (414) 275-5563
To: Jenny de la Bloque, Creekside Tire Communications
From: Todd Hunter
Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!
Okay, before we go too far, we know Johnny’s not going for hiring any more actors for the reshoot. We have the one person we can move around depending on which scene they’re in. We don’t need 4 employees in the carpool spot. We can move that 4th person into the Black mom scene. Let’s recommend hiring a Latina to be her partner and do the LGBT thing.
Public Relations Specialist
Creekside Tire 1957 Buick Drive Fontana, WI 53125 (414) 275-5565
To: Todd Hunter, Creekside Tire Communication
From: Jai Lee
Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!
I like the idea about including the LGBTQIA+ community (not just LGBT!), but how would we know that a Black and Latina woman sitting in an SUV with kids are lesbians? They could just be single mothers or best friends on the way back from the grocery store. And before anyone else says it, we are not putting them in flannel shirts.
Jai Lee Communication Specialist
Creekside Tire 1957 Buick Drive Fontana, WI 53125 (414) 275-5567
To: Jai Lee, Creekside Tire Communication
From: Franklin Conner
Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!
Jai, could we just have a rainbow flag sticker visible on the SUV? That way we’re not shouting out that they’re lesbians, but people who see the sticker and know what it means will get it.
We don’t have anyone over the age of 60 in any of the advertisements. I’ve been working here for nearly 30 years and not one single advertisement has ever included that age. They’re all centered around middle-aged families.
Creekside Tire 1957 Buick Drive Fontana, WI 53125 (414) 275-5569
To: Franklin Conner, Creekside Tire Communication
From: Donnie Paige
Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!
Alright, let me try to recap our suggested changes:
Scene 1: Mother, Father, teenager, tween, dog
Scene 2: Black and Latina lesbian couple with kids with rainbow flag on SUV
Scene 3: 3 co-workers but not with the White man driving
Scene 4: Scene 1 family again
Donnie Paige Director or Marketing
Creekside Tire 1957 Buick Drive Fontana, WI 53125 (414) 275-5562
To: Donnie Paige, Creekside Tire Communication
From: Jai Lee
Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!
Could we have the White man driving the carpool so that a member of the BIPOC community doesn’t appear to be working for the White man? #PresentationMatters
Jai Lee Communication Specialist
Creekside Tire 1957 Buick Drive Fontana, WI 53125 (414) 275-5567
To: Jai Lee, Creekside Tire Communication
From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires
Subject: Re: Fix the Commercial!
Remember that the guy in the backseat of the carpool commercial is supposed to be blind. He can’t drive. Things look pretty good otherwise with the suggestions. We’ll talk about them with CorpComm during a Zoom call tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. I want everyone there so we get this fixed! If you have other ideas, please share them tonight via email or Creekside Slack channel.
Johnny Creekside, President
Creekside Tire 1957 Buick Drive Fontana, WI 53125 (414) 275-5555
Editorial Record: Submitted May 31, 2022. Revised September 12, and October 18, 2022. Accepted October 20, 2022.
Arshia Anwer, Ph.D. Associate Professor Communication Department Manhattan College Riverdale, New York Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Timmy Kwong Student Communication Department Manhattan College Riverdale, New York Email: email@example.com
Abstract This article examines student-led teaching and learning of diversity, equity, and inclusion education in the public relations field in a Public Relations Student Society of America chapter at a private liberal arts college in the United States. Student leaders used three tactics – utilization of survey data, DEI-focused guest speakers, and driving student representation and recognition in the chapter – as ways to center DEI education. Implementation showcased that extracurricular clubs like PRSSA can be a space for learning and teaching public relations at the intersections of leadership, mentorship, and DEI. Participating students learned about multiple DEI-based issues in the larger workplace through this approach, and student leaders at the PRSSA chapter gained valuable lessons in advocacy and leadership. These approaches can be replicated by other PRSSA chapters, in addition to serving as a catalyst for change in the public relations industry in future.
Keywords: DEI education in public relations, PRSSA, student-led education in public relations, diversity equity and inclusion, diversity in public relations, equity in public relations, inclusion in public relations, DEI advocacy and leadership
The study and implementation of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the public relations field is a crucial part of addressing and engaging increasingly diverse publics (Commission on Public Relations Education, 2021; Schneider, 2021). DEI initiatives have been proven to positively affect organizational productivity and employee morale in general (Harvard Business Review, 2021), and institutions that lack in DEI suffer from lack of leadership insight as well as workplace bullying issues (Violanti, 2021). Considering that the public relations workforce has traditionally been Caucasian and male (Pompper, 2021), at least at the higher levels of organizations, conversations, research, and implementation of DEI programs need to take center stage when issues in the public sphere call for the need for increased focus. The past few years’ unique issues – from a global pandemic to a reckoning of the place and politics of race in the public sphere through the Black Lives Matter movement, or increasing division and segmentation of political publics – have shown that public relations education is at a transformative moment if it is to reckon with exigent DEI challenges.
Despite the vital need for a spotlight on DEI initiatives, there is scant attention paid to diversity education in public relations (Place & Vanc, 2016). While resources to teach diversity, identity, and intercultural competency in public relations are available online (Toth, 2009), and increasingly find a place in public relations theory-building and research (Mundy, 2015; Pompper, 2021; Sha, 2018), most of the work is largely focused on gender-based issues rather than intersectional or multidimensional aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion (Logan & Ciszek, 2021; Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017). Moreover, there is still a large gap between research, and learning in the classroom or application in the field (Mundy, 2015). This reveals an exigent requirement for an emphasis on DEI in public relations education, as research has shown that when students are taught diversity through public relations theory or client work, they benefit by understanding DEI as a multidimensional concept (Tsetsura, 2011), which can shape future workers in the public relations industry.
This paper highlights initiatives and implementation of DEI-focused education by student leadership in a Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter of a private liberal arts college on the east coast of the United States, and how the implementation of DEI tools and workshops resulted in teaching and learning about DEI in the field of public relations. While the chapter has a faculty advisor and its logistics are overseen by the student engagement department of the institution, emphasis is laid on the fact that the strategy and implementation of DEI tactics in this paper were initiated and carried out by student members on the executive board of the chapter.
As The Commission on Public Relations Education (2021), in its most recent Industry/Educator Summit Report’s findings, indicates, student participation in the Public Relations Student Society of America continues to be a resource for skill-building and networking for students. This paper shows that PRSSA chapters can also be a place for supplementing classroom public relations education concerning DEI as well as strengthening leadership qualities in students.
Learning And Implementing DEI Initiatives
The implementation of DEI has become more critical than ever before for public relations students and future practitioners. In light of the post-pandemic and racial movements, such as Black Lives Matter or COVID-19 public service education, organizations around the world have prioritized executing response strategies of diversity, equity, and inclusion in their workplaces (Chauhan & Kshetri, 2022; Corrington, et. al., 2022). DEI initiatives are crucial when it comes to creating and maintaining a successful workplace; human capital can thrive personally and professionally by creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace and driving the growth of leadership and mentorship within an organization (Harvard Business Review, 2021). Moreover, to efficiently contribute toward an impact on DEI initiatives, one must start by developing a diverse pipeline of entry-level public relations practitioners (Place & Vanc, 2016). While most public relations organizations have started having robust DEI conversations, implementation of such initiatives presents a variety of challenges (Mundy, 2015). In public relations education as well, the core value of DEI is not stressed enough.
This paper explores three tactics used in a PRSSA chapter to educate public relations students about DEI issues in the industry: utilizing survey data, inviting guest speakers, and student representation and recognition. This PRSSA chapter is situated in a four-year liberal arts college on the east coast of the United States. It is a small chapter comprised of 30-45 student members in any given academic year. Public relations classes at the institution average 15-20 students per cohort, for a student population of approximately 50-75 undergraduate students in the public relations concentration in total. Membership in the PRSSA chapter, thus, varies between a third and half of the public relations students at the institution, apart from attracting student members interested in public relations who are from other schools and majors in the college.
In detailing the approaches used by the PRSSA chapter in furthering DEI education in the public relations field, this paper will not only reveal the effectiveness of each tactic, but also showcase the challenges that one might encounter during implementation. This examination starts by defining each element within the initiatives, along with their respective implications and benefits. The following definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion were used in this paper.
According to the PRSA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Toolkit (PRSA, 2021), “diversity can be defined as the sum of the ways that people are both alike and different. The dimensions of diversity include, but are not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture, religion, mental and physical ability, class, or immigration status” (p. 3). Diversity encompasses individuals with diverse backgrounds, values, experiences, skills, and expertise, and is considered a requirement for implementing social justice. Diversity enables one to understand the presence of differences in a given setting.
Inclusion, on the other hand, builds a culture where everyone feels welcome by actively inviting every individual or group(s) to contribute and participate. The PRSA Toolkit (2021) uses a definition from the Society for Human Resource Management to state that inclusion is “the achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success” (p. 6). An inclusive work environment is supportive, respectful, and collaborative, and offers respect to everyone in words and actions. By building a robust group of diverse individuals and creating a vibrant climate of inclusiveness, organizations can effectively leverage the resources of diversity to advance their collective capabilities.
Finally, equity provides support based on specific needs, and is manifested in fair access, equal opportunity, provision of resources, and an ability to thrive in an environment of respect and dignity. Equity “look[s] past the ideal of sameness, past the “mechanical application of rules” that purport sameness as the measure of success, and toward systems and societies that treat people as they deserve to be treated” (Belden et al., 2018, p. 1). Whereas diversity refers to the many ways that people differ, equity is about creating fair access, opportunity, and advancement for all those different people. Women, for example, are historically underrepresented in the workplace, as are various racial and ethnic minorities throughout the United States and the rest of the world. Equitable access to the workplace for these groups would require fair and just access to all the opportunities enjoyed by traditionally powerful groups.
The benefits of DEI initiatives can not only be seen as a political, economic, and social transformation within a public relations organization, but also as securing the future for the next generation toward diverse, inclusive, and equitable contribution. Although implementing DEI initiatives might not traditionally be the norm in most industries, the benefits of DEI initiatives are unquestionably healthy for the growth of an organization (Harvard Business Review, 2021). For instance, diversity and inclusion boost creativity and innovation in a workplace. People from a variety of backgrounds often offer distinct solutions, driving difference in the decision-making process. An increase in creativity fueled by inclusive practices also helps to spark unique client/customer relationships in public relations organizations (Place & Vanc, 2016). Diversity and inclusion in public relations can create a more positive reputation, increase marketplace awareness, and lead to a more diverse, and subsequently, larger client base. Equity, centering on the growth of performance of individuals, not only creates more effective work relationships, but also generates greater productivity within the organization. A team with positive working relationships will be more productive, engaged, and focused. Equity is also important for recruitment and retention, which minimizes the cost of losing diverse talent within the organization.
With society becoming more diverse and social media amplifying DEI issues (Bardhan, 2016), young workers in particular are becoming acutely aware of the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the industry and in their potential workplaces (PRSA, 2021). While it is critical for public relations organizations to itemize DEI initiatives as part of their business strategy, educational institutions, such as colleges and universities, should also simultaneously encourage such initiatives to ensure preparation of future practitioners.
However, the reality is that educational institutions lack suitable DEI education in public relations (Mundy, 2015). Pompper’s (2005) findings from focus groups conducted with African American public relations practitioners show that the public relations curriculum falls short in teaching about multicultural issues at the college level. Waymer and Brown (2018) found that race played a role in undergraduate education and practitioners’ entry into the public relations industry – students from an underrepresented racial background reported discomfort and a need to prove themselves both as students and as entry-level practitioners. Similarly, Brown, Waymer, and Zhou (2019) found that minority students found themselves excluded from educational and social public relations experiences during their undergraduate education. Specifically, male and underrepresented racial and ethnic minority students reported unsatisfactory experiences in relation to networking and mentoring opportunities. This showcases a lack of DEI-focused education in public relations.
Bardhan and Gower’s (2020) study on student and faculty/educator views on DEI in public relations details that both students and faculty/educators understand the gaps in DEI education in public relations education. Both groups understood the need for individuals in positions of leadership to herald change in DEI efforts, but within public relations education, the three themes that could help in improving DEI education were found to be, “(1) diversifying curriculum, (2) paying attention to the learning environment, and (3) educator responsibility and structural change” (p. 128).
Acknowledging the need for better DEI-focused education in public relations, this paper details the work of student leaders in a PRSSA chapter at an institution of higher education, who successfully implemented student-led DEI education in public relations. In the academic year 2020-2021, an executive board member at the PRSSA chapter in question, after attending DEI-specific panels at ICON 2020 (Ferenchak, 2020) the Public Relations Society of America’s virtual conference, proposed a new position on the chapter’s executive board: Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The chapter’s advisor possessed a strong foundation in intercultural and interpersonal communication skills with the ability to recognize the communicative needs and values of people from diverse backgrounds, which they used to execute DEI initiatives through student mentorship and leadership. Recognizing the need for the position, the advisor welcomed the proposal, and the position was added to the executive board of the chapter. The Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion was tasked with promoting DEI learning and practices in the public relations field by organizing both virtual and in-person events. In academic years 2020-21, and 2021-22, the chapter has successfully organized multiple DEI events and learning for the undergraduate student community, using the three tactics of utilizing survey data, inviting guest speakers whose expertise focused on DEI practices in organizations, and student representation and recognition.
Utilizing Survey Data
In spring 2020, as the world was undergoing the peak of a global health crisis, the Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the PRSSA chapter initiated the very first virtual DEI event with a guest speaker, along with the first DEI survey. During the planning process for the event, the VP of DEI gathered a variety of questions from the chapter’s general membership, and the guest speaker shared that a practical way to implement DEI initiatives is through surveys. The guest speaker stated that their firm implemented survey use in DEI efforts by sending out an annual survey to all the employees toward the end of the year. They further reported that in response to the 2020 pandemic and various ongoing social justice movements, the 2020 annual survey at the firm covered questions related to understanding the mental and physical health of every employee, seeking opinions on future working models that met everyone’s needs, as well as future workforce planning on recruiting diverse talent. A survey not only allows the organization to gather a large amount of information, but also allows for analyzing the data, after which the organization can take hands-on approaches to make an impact on the employees and the growth of an organization as a whole.
Immediately after this first event, the VP of DEI took the advice of the speaker and sent out the PRSSA chapter’s first DEI survey to its membership. The survey questions asked respondents questions about their college background, preferred pronouns, interest in areas of public relations, their awareness level about DEI, the DEI topics they would be interested in learning about, and the type of events they would be interested in attending. The goal of the survey was to give members a space for expressing their interest in DEI areas that could be used for future programming. Since this was the first survey being administered, the chapter leadership started with surveying gender identity and pronoun use within the chapter membership, with the understanding that further economic, social, and cultural diversity could be explored in future surveys. The survey received 15 responses, which was 75% of the membership of the PRSSA chapter during the semester.
Results indicated that membership comprised an overwhelming majority of women as opposed to men with 21% of respondents being men, and 79% women. There was more diversity in relation to majors, with 33.3% students from the school of business, 60% from the school of liberal arts, and 6.7% from the school of engineering. Considering that the public relations program was housed in the school of liberal arts, it was expected that most of the membership in the PRSSA chapter would be from this school. Finally, interests in areas of public relations and DEI events showed a greater variation in professional interests among student members, with 13.3% interested in beauty or lifestyle PR, 13.3% interested in sports PR, 26.7% interested in celebrity or entertainment PR, 20% interested in fashion PR, 6.7% interested in event planning, 13.3% in crisis communication, and 6.7% responding ‘not sure.’ Similarly, DEI topics of interest were varied, with stereotypes and bias being the topic students were most interested in, with more than a third (35.7%) of respondents being interested in the topic. Cultural diversity and generational diversity were ranked second and third, showing that 21.4% and 14.3% of respondents were interested in them respectively. The initiation of the survey method and participation by members showed development of student leadership as well as the recognition of DEI from the current generation.
Surveying students can be a valuable way of understanding their needs and interests. Brown & Del Russo (2022) found that guest speakers appreciate knowing about students’ interests and career goals, and surveying students beforehand is a good way to invite speakers who can address students’ professional inquiries. Students’ preferences about topics or speakers can prove to be helpful as this can supplement classroom learning with practitioners’ expertise, and links formal classroom instruction with informal settings and interaction with individuals working in the field.
In addition to being helpful for speakers, using surveys to organize events that are attractive to underrepresented students in the field is also a way of providing equitable programming. Since men and students from certain racial and ethnic groups are often the minority in public relations (Brown et al., 2019), surveys provide them with a way to register their interest in different areas within public relations. Kapucu (2012) recognizes that student participation in choice of learning topics develops communities of practice by transforming spaces of learning into networked and interactive environments.
DEI Guest Speakers
Based on the analysis of data collected through the survey, the VP of DEI concluded that one of the issues generating the most interest among current members was the gender pay gap inequality in professional settings. Thus, in fall 2021, the VP of DEI put forward a second DEI event titled “Empowering Women: Salary Negotiation and Gender Wage Gap.” The director of the career development center at the college, as well as a professor heading the women and gender center at the college were invited as the two guest speakers. Both speakers represented female leadership in the college community with their respective expertise, and had organized leadership, mentorship, and DEI initiatives with college students over the years.
The first speaker presented statistics about the average male and female salary range in the public relations field, which included a huge gap despite women having taken over most positions within the industry in recent research (Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017). She then illustrated the causes of the gender wage gap, including potential discrimination, differences in years of experience, and differences in hours worked. While it is critical to be aware of the potential issues that women might encounter regarding the pay gap, knowledge of how to negotiate salary and benefits is more practical for individuals to recognize their value in their future workplace, especially ones who were looking forward to implementing their learning at entry level positions in the industry in the next few months or years.
The guest speaker then led students through the steps in negotiating salaries. The first step, she mentioned, is to conduct research and practice the negotiation. Students could use websites such as Glassdoor, Indeed.com, or Salary.com, to review the average industry salary for a similar position. Next, students could brainstorm and list their non-negotiable requirements, such as flexibility of workplaces, sick days, vacation days, or relocation opportunities. The second step, she said, was to adjust and listen. This step was considered the most vital part of the negotiation process as one might be directly communicating with the hiring manager. Therefore, the speaker emphasized that students should listen carefully and respond respectfully. However, students should also use the preparation from the first step to resell their potential value to the company. The final step, then, was to confirm and respond after negotiations. While some students might not be able to negotiate the entirety of what they expected, the understanding of knowing when to stop was also mentioned as a major part of the negotiation. The speaker then led attendees through a mock exercise, ending with an assessment of students’ mistakes from the mock negotiation to avoid similar situations in the future.
The second speaker at this event took a different approach of sharing her personal experience working at the college. As a Caucasian female professor, she emphasized the importance of increasing faculty diversity across campus. Since students at higher educational institutions are becoming more diverse than ever before, recruiting and retaining diverse faculty and staff becomes critical (Washington et al., 2021). This speaker related DEI initiatives to her work environment and concluded her speech by stressing the importance of implementing a DEI-focused education that could make a significant impact on current and future generations.
Inviting DEI-focused guest speakers provided an opportunity for attendees to discuss gender equality from an educational institution and public relations industry standpoint, and leveraged students’ practical skills such as salary negotiation for future endeavors. In addition to that, students who organized the events understood the critical role of student leadership and initiative in advancing DEI in student clubs.
The chapter also platformed other DEI-focused guest speakers, among them, a 2016 alumna and former active member of the PRSSA chapter of the college. The alumna, who worked as a recruiter in the financial services industry, detailed her past internship experiences at numerous public relations firms. Those and her existing role provided her with a distinct understanding of the challenges in implementing DEI initiatives in organizations.
This event provided a comprehensive overview of DEI in a workplace and outlined the obstacles that one might potentially face during its implementation. For instance, the speaker shared her knowledge of each element of DEI. She stated that she never paid much attention to such initiatives when she was enrolled at the institution, but after a few internship experiences in professional settings, she recognized that there is indeed a lack of diversity within the public relations industry. She shared that when it came to brainstorming strategies and tactics for clients, innovation and creativity matter, expanding the spectrum of new perspectives and ideas. Furthermore, she emphasized that maintaining healthy and transparent relationships with clients and journalists from differing backgrounds is also incredibly critical to working in the public relations industry. Successful implementation of DEI initiatives not only allows employees to speak candidly from their authentic selves, but also increases trustworthy engagement with and among multiple stakeholder groups.
Merle & Craig (2017) surveyed mass communication students’ perceptions of guest speakers, and found that an in-person interactive presentation style emphasizing personal examples and professional tips shared by speakers was found valuable by students. Similarly, Ji, Jain and Axinn (2021) found that students relate to speakers who they find relatable, notably, alumni and recent graduates who are able to speak about career-related topics. In line with the literature on best practices for invited speakers, it can be seen that the guest speaker events outlined above were from a practitioner standpoint, and involved interactive elements like workshops and/or questions from attendees as a part of the event.
Inviting guest speakers can benefit students by providing them with insights from practitioners currently working in the field as well as an opportunity for networking and guidance from professionals (Kim & Freberg, 2017). Students can reach out individually to speakers for internship help or career guidance, and will also be able to continue the conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion by reaching out to the speaker after the event. In this way, guest speaker events can serve the purpose of providing mentorship and a platform for connecting students and educators to practitioners in the public relations field.
Student Representation and Recognition
Besides the implementation of surveys and DEI-focused guest speakers, representation and recognition were also used as effective tactics to strengthen leadership skills among students and allow their voices to be heard. First, considering representation, the chapter recruited student members and leaders from multiple schools and departments of the college. While students from the business school, traditionally marketing or management majors, had participated in the chapter for a number of previous years, 2021-22 was the first year where a few engineering students were also actively recruited and joined as members and leaders in the organization. The results of the survey mentioned above indicated that membership included diversity and inclusivity in relation to gender, majors, and professional interests among student members. Minority groups often are underrepresented and feel uncomfortable as public relations students (Brown et al., 2019; Waymer & Brown, 2018), therefore, a deliberate effort was made toward inclusive recruitment and welcoming a diverse membership in the PRSSA chapter, particularly in relation to educational backgrounds and professional interests. The recognition of DEI initiatives in improving the overall health and impact of a group led student leaders in the chapter to focus on recruiting and retaining diverse membership, which in turn led to inclusive education and activities for students. This tactic is in line with Brown, Waymer, and Zhou’s (2019) recommendation that experiential learning through PRSSA chapter activities should be equitable and inclusive of underrepresented groups, and minority groups should also take part in mentorship and networking opportunities.
Other than the push for more diverse and inclusive representation, recognition was also deemed important for individuals to be rewarded for their good work. As an element of recognition, in the fall of 2021, the chapter advisor nominated the 2021-22 VP of DEI for a Social Impact Award given by PR News (PR News, 2022). The awards recognize industry leaders and students who advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and honor communicators who use their platforms to help create a diverse, equitable future within the communication industry. The 2021-22 VP of DEI was recognized as an undergraduate student diversity leader by PR News and was named a Social Impact Award finalist.
Additionally, the initial creation of the VP of DEI position itself was an act of recognition among student leaders of the club that DEI was an important element in the future of public relations, which demanded the creation of a separate role on the executive board. This recognition of needs and initiative to create a new DEI-centered position was entirely student-led, although aided by the advisor of the chapter.
Student representation and recognition is not merely including students for its own sake, or rewarding students’ one-time achievement. Such an approach aims to set a blueprint for future students in the organization as well. For instance, the VP of DEI mentioned that his experience while working in the role allowed him to partake in professional development activities and to strengthen his social skills, including communication skills, networking, collaborating with others, being a committee leader, and shaping decision-making processes. The 2022-23 VP-elect of DEI has already shown her interest in furthering the work undertaken by her predecessors in her ballot statement. Essentially, the skills learned through this position not only developed due to initiatives being led by members and leaders of a student organization focused on DEI, but the implementation also led to a more diverse and inclusive campus experience as well, providing a model for future members to start and sustain advocacy for DEI initiatives in other student clubs.
This paper explored the effectiveness of three tactics used by a PRSSA chapter in a private liberal arts school in the United States, namely, utilization of survey data, inviting guest speakers with expertise in DEI, and student representation and recognition of student leadership, in advancing DEI education. Implementation of surveys in the chapter ensured everyone was heard, and the tactic had the additional effect of transforming the future decision-making process and programming. Multiple DEI-focused guest speakers provided an opportunity for students to learn and explore the implications of DEI in various professional settings. Lastly, diverse student representation and recognition of student leaders not only set up a model for future students and other clubs on campus, but also recognized students’ achievements in advocating for DEI.
This PRSSA chapter’s student leaders have only utilized three tactics so far, but applications can be further expanded to other areas like setting up mentor-mentee relationships between underrepresented groups in the field and current PRSSA students, education about other intersectional DEI issues, conducting research about barriers to DEI issues in the public relations field, brainstorming solutions to gatekeeping, and engaging more industry leaders in conversations about DEI issues, to name a few. Additionally, the tactics mentioned in this article, as well as the institution of a Vice President of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion position can be emulated by other PRSSA chapters’ executive boards at other institutions.
One of the needs identified was stronger evaluation methods to determine whether the tactics employed were effective in increasing student attendance, engagement, and morale in members. For instance, surveys conducted after the guest speaker events would provide more feedback about effectiveness and further topics of interest to student members. Further efforts by the chapter can include programming about intersectional DEI issues or issues that are not generally discussed in public relations education.
While this paper explores DEI education of public relations students who are about to enter the industry, there is also recognition of the fact that change within the field about DEI issues is still slow in coming (Mundy, 2015). However, student leaders expressed hope that educating the current cohort will lead to a transformation toward DEI-focused initiatives when they assume change-making abilities within the industry.
Since public relations research and pedagogy largely do not focus as much on DEI issues, or do so in a manner that primarily highlights race or gender as a point of diversity (Brown et al., 2019; Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017; Waymer & Brown, 2018), this examination shows that student organizations can be a powerful place of education about intersectionality and DEI issues in the public relations field. Through reviewing specific tactics used by a PRSSA chapter in a private liberal arts college in the United States, one can understand how PRSSA and other extracurricular activities and clubs can be seen as a site for learning and teaching public relations at the intersections of leadership, mentorship, and DEI. These tactics showcased the role of student leaders on the executive board of the chapter in advancing DEI education, as well as the role of leadership, mentorship, and networking in cultivating a diverse and inclusive generation of future leaders. More importantly, this paper shows how the creation of platforms and networks to connect educators, practitioners, and students can improve leadership, mentorship, and DEI education in public relations.
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Editorial Record: Submitted May 30, 2022. Revised August 29, 2022. Accepted October 28, 2022.
Lee Bush Professor Strategic Communications Elon University Elon, North Carolina Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Vanessa Bravo, Ph.D. Associate Professor Strategic Communications Elon University Elon, North Carolina Email: email@example.com
Abstract In November of 2020, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications revised its accreditation standards and included new guidelines for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). To meet the new DEI guidelines in a systematic way, the authors led an initiative to research, develop, and test modules to achieve DEI learning outcomes in four core Strategic Communications courses at Elon University. The authors then shared the modules and assessment with Strategic Communications faculty and discussed how they could be applied in each of the core courses. This initiative created shared language and norms for faculty teaching DEI across the curriculum, provided tested content that resonated with students, and supplied faculty with needed resources and applications they could then customize to fit their own class projects and teaching styles. This pilot study outlines the approach taken and results of the assessment and faculty feedback.
Keywords: accreditation, DEI, ACEJMC, diversity, strategic communication
In November of 2020, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) approved revised standards for its accredited and accreditation-seeking universities. Part of these revised standards included new guidelines for diversity and inclusion. In the area of curriculum, the standards read:
The unit’s curriculum creates culturally proficient communicators capable of learning with, working on and advancing the value of diverse teams. The unit’s curriculum includes instruction on issues and perspectives relating to mass communications across diverse cultures in a global society. (ACEJMC, 2021, p. 50)
In addition, the standards require units to demonstrate “effective efforts to enhance all faculty members’ understanding of diversity, equity, inclusion and ability to develop culturally proficient communicators” (ACEJMC, 2021, p. 50). To meet these standards in the Strategic Communications department at our university (Elon University, North Carolina, USA), the department chair spearheaded an initiative to update student learning outcomes in all our required courses. The newly created diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) learning objectives were specific to each required course and were incorporated into syllabi beginning in the fall of 2021. It was then up to each faculty member to meet these learning objectives in their courses in their own ways.
As Waymer and Dyson pointed out in 2011, while diversity is emphasized in accreditation standards, these issues do not always trickle down to the PR classroom “in systematic ways” (p. 462). Similarly, while the recent report from the Commission on Public Relations Education (2018) charged educators with taking a leadership role in addressing critical DEI areas, particularly regarding the centrality of DEI in accreditation standards, it also acknowledged the difficulty in conveying “how D&I-focused content is reflected in curriculum” and called on public relations programs to “proactively address and plan for diversity related content” (Mundy et al., 2018, p. 141). Likewise, in their study of student and faculty leaders in DEI, Bardhan and Gower (2020) proposed that faculty thought leaders “need to work collectively with peers and accreditation bodies to enhance curriculum for D&I and develop needed courses and content” (p. 136).
While revising our course learning objectives was a good start, we began to think about how we could infuse DEI content more systematically into our courses, while also scaffolding the content so that upper-level courses were building on what was learned in lower-level courses. In addition, we acknowledged that faculty were at different levels in their understanding and ability to teach DEI. While many faculty are already infusing DEI into their courses, it would take time and research to meet the new learning objectives. During the COVID-19 pandemic, time is something faculty members do not have. How could we make it easier for faculty to create content that is meaningful and effective in meeting the new learning objectives?
To accomplish this task, the authors took a leadership role in creating, testing, and sharing content with faculty to help them navigate the challenge of meeting our DEI learning objectives. Through a Diversity and Inclusion Grant from our university’s Center for Teaching and Learning, we spent the summer of 2021 researching and developing teaching modules for each of our core Strategic Communications courses. We tested and assessed the modules in courses during the 2021-22 academic year, and then shared the modules and our assessment with faculty at an information session in the spring of 2022. The result was that we created shared language and norms for faculty teaching DEI across our curriculum, provided tested content that resonated with students, and supplied faculty with needed resources and applications they could then customize to fit their own class projects and teaching styles. This study will outline the approach we took and the results of student assessment and faculty feedback, addressing the focus area of “Faculty preparation/training and peer mentoring for teaching PR to advance DE&I in this time of great uncertainty” outlined by the editors of this special issue.
Literature Review and Modules Focus
For decades, the communication industry has bemoaned its “diversity problem,” and though the industry has made some strides, it still has a long way to go (Dunleavy, 2022; Marszalek, 2021; Moore, 2022). In the results of a 2016 omnibus survey reported by the Commission on Public Relations Education (Mundy et al., 2018), practitioners said they value candidates with a multicultural professional lens, but that this perspective is often lacking in entry-level candidates (p. 139). Acknowledging the link between industry and education, the report states, “In order to see D&I within the public relations industry flourish, change must begin at the academic level,” partly through how DEI is taught in public relations programs (p. 139).
While industry leaders and educators agree that DEI is critical to a public relations education, the content for making this a reality is often lacking. For example, in interviews with faculty, Waymer and Dyson (2011) found that race is often non-existent in PR classes and “few textbooks deal with the subject matter in any real depth” (p. 473). In their paper on the role of industry and education leaders bringing about needed change, Bardhan and Gower (2020) found that the PR curriculum “is still not adequately incorporating diverse course content despite ongoing calls from accreditation bodies and professional associations” (p. 110). In their interviews, students and educators shared that it is often only faculty with marginalized identities who engage DEI in the classroom, that DEI needs to be incorporated throughout the curriculum and not just as one class, the importance of including diverse authors and speakers in PR classes, and the need to challenge students to think in new ways in an industry that lacks diversity.
While several departments within our university provide faculty training in intercultural competence and DEI teaching and learning skills, the focus of our project was on developing and testing the course content needed to meet our DEI learning objectives and create culturally proficient communicators, as required by ACEJMC. The Goodman model for “Cultural Competence for Equity and Inclusion” requires developing in students “a range of awareness, knowledge, and skills,” including “self-awareness,” “valuing others,” “knowledge of social inequities,” and “skills to interact effectively with a diversity of people” and “foster transformation towards equity and inclusion” (Goodman, 2020, pp. 7-10).
To help students achieve cultural competence, Georgetown University provides a toolkit for faculty to design “inclusive, antiracist learning environments” (Georgetown, n.d.a.). The toolkit includes five interconnected aspects of teaching and learning, beginning with content and pedagogy. In the area of content, the toolkit encourages faculty to intentionally bring “a range of activities, materials, perspectives, and identities into the learning space” and to “name and discuss the agenda(s) and historical biases of your field” (Georgetown, n.d.b.). In the area of pedagogy, the guide suggests that course design should “encompass explicit learning goals, transparent assignments and criteria, and engaging active learning activities that stimulate and challenge students” (Georgetown, n.d.c.). Further, in the Wheaton College guide for “Becoming an Anti-Racist Educator,” the resource offers guidance for assessing course content and employing evidence-based anti-racist pedagogy (Torres, n.d.).
To fill the DEI content gap in our program, we developed teaching modules for each of our core Strategic Communications courses: Public Relations & Civic Responsibility, Strategic Writing, Strategic Research Methods, and Strategic Campaigns. Since our newly revised DEI learning objectives were specific to each course, it was important to review literature that addressed these specifics. We developed an annotated bibliography to help us create the content, lessons, materials, and class activities (described later in this paper) for each course. It was sometimes difficult to find educational-related DEI research to apply to each objective and thus it was often necessary to go outside the communications field for resources. Below is a sample of this research and how we used it in each of the teaching modules.
Public Relations & Civic Responsibility
Because Public Relations & Civic Responsibility is our introductory course in the major, it was necessary to share and explain to students certain basic DEI concepts they might not be familiar with (what is diversity, what is equity, what is inclusion) and the state of DEI in the field of strategic communications. Different recent studies have indicated that our industry, in general, and our field within the federal government, in particular, is about 81% to 88% White, respectively. In contrast, the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (2019), is only about 60% White. This data clearly indicates that our profession is not reflecting the diversity of the society in which it operates (Chitkara, 2018; Diversity Action Alliance, 2021; U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). In fact, the DAA’s report (2021) surveyed more than 100 U.S.-based public relations and communications organizations and found that just 21% (about one-fifth) of employees are racially/ethnically diverse, and, in 2019, they were promoted at a lower rate than their White counterparts.
To meet our course learning objectives, it was also important for students to understand why our field is so White (Diversity Action Alliance, 2021; Landis, 2019) and why the United States has marginalized and/or failed to fully include some identity communities for so long (Coates, 2014; DiAngelo, 2019; Hannah-Jones, 2019; 2021), although this second goal would require a full separate course (or several) to do it justice. We included, in our annotated bibliography, some foundational readings for our students to at least start understanding the historical processes that explain why racial and ethnic inequities still exist in the United States (Capps, 2015; Collins, 2018; Curtis, 2015; Elliott & Hughes, 2019; Guilford, 2018; Mulholland, 2019; PBS, 2003). We also added recommendations from the literature on how to make our field of strategic communication more inclusive (Chitkara, 2018; Diversity Action Alliance, 2021; Landis, 2019, PRSA, 2022).
Additionally, we incorporated a case study about the Latinx community, the second-largest community in the United States, to dispel myths and better understand facts (Noe-Bustamante & Flores, 2019). Other PR professors could use this case study or choose to focus on other marginalized communities (i.e., the Black community, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities).
For the Strategic Writing course, which is the second required course in the major, it was important to refresh some statistics about the racial and ethnic demographics of the United States, adding information as well about gender and gender expression, sexual orientation, levels of ability or disability, religious affiliations or lack thereof, and socioeconomic status. Excellent resources about U.S. demographics regarding race and ethnicity, immigration, religion, generations and age, gender and LGBTQ populations can be found at the Pew Research Center’s website under the heading “Research Topics” (Pew Research Center, 2022).
The overarching purpose for the Strategic Writing DEI learning objectives is to teach students that we write for very diverse audiences. Diversity, equity, and inclusion all need to be reflected in the topics we write about, the angles we use for those topics, the sources of information we use for those materials (both regarding expert sources and “regular people”), the visuals that accompany our storytelling, and the media through which we disseminate our messages. In summary, we wanted students to understand that diversity is about all of us in society, not about “the Other.”
We also added information about the importance of consulting expert groups when we create content for internal and external campaigns in our organizations or communication agencies, which we can find through general web searches and by focusing on certain platforms such as LinkedIn. We mention organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of Retired People, The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Institute, UnitedWeDream, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and Voto Latino. Furthermore, we review the guidelines that the Associated Press Stylebook offers related to DEI aspects (AP, 2022).
Strategic Research Methods
Content for Strategic Research Methods, the third required course in the major, focused on teaching students how to develop culturally-sensitive research projects – from design and implementation to analysis and final report writing. This also included discussing DEI in research ethics.
For research ethics, we were cognizant that many communication research textbooks cover only Western and male-centered ethics theories, such as deontological, teleological, and relativism. We discussed how Western ethics theories focus more on the individual, while Eastern and other non-Western theories focus more on the community or group, and why it is important to consider both in an increasingly global world (Hongladarom, 2019).
In covering how to design culturally sensitive research, we began by discussing why it is important to take a “DEI-first” approach when developing a research project rather than making it an afterthought. Baugh and Guion (2006), for example, assert that research should place culture and its impact on human behavior at the forefront of the research process, viewing culture as an explanatory rather than tertiary variable examined in relation to other variables. A resource that was particularly helpful for outlining the components of a culturally sensitive research project was an article in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (Burlew et al., 2019). Although not specific to communications, the article goes through each stage of the scientific research process and identifies the most appropriate strategies for researching marginalized identity groups. In addition, we included more practical guidance, like how to ask questions about race/ethnicity (Burlew et al., 2019; Office of Regulatory Affairs and Research Compliance, 2020), and sexuality/gender (Vanderbilt University, n.d.) in a survey.
We also provided examples of qualitative research methods that challenge the traditional positivist approach. These included examples of “decolonizing” research methods such as participatory action research (Zavala, 2013), and communicative methodologies (Gomez et al., 2019). The purpose of these examples was to show that research should be done “with” rather than “on” marginalized communities. Another example provided was a “research manifesto” created collaboratively by community members in the Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver, Canada (Neufeld et al., 2019). The manifesto was created to eliminate research practices that cause harm to community members and provide guidelines for researchers to engage in practices that are respectful, useful, and ethical.
For the Strategic Campaigns course, the culminating senior-level course in the major, our focus was on teaching students to be proficient in incorporating DEI into their campaigns and understanding the business case for doing so. Since our major includes students who are interested in both advertising and public relations, we reviewed materials that covered both disciplines. In this module, we provided a video of interviews with industry professionals at Cannes Lions (CNBC International TV, 2018) on how far the industry has come on DEI (not far) and how far it had to go. We provided statistics that emphasized the lack of diversity in the industry, including in graphic design (Brewer, 2019; Statista, 2021). We further discussed the impact this lack of diversity has on consumer perceptions, purchasing habits, and missed market opportunities (Brown, 2019; Walker, 2020).
To help students better understand communication professionals’ ethical and moral responsibilities to DEI, we discussed how corporate history is tied to oppression (Coates, 2014; Jan et al., 2020; Lockhart, 2019; Lowell, 2020; Modern Marketing Partners, 2017) and the responsibility of corporations to right this wrong. For example, in her “Theory of Corporate Responsibility to Race,” Nneka Logan (2021) posits that, because corporations have profited from racial oppression, they have a responsibility to “communicate in ways that advocate for racial justice; attempt to improve race relations; and support achieving a more equitable and harmonious society” (p. 1).
Walking through each stage of the campaign planning process, we discussed ways to incorporate DEI throughout. For example, we included resources on brainstorming with cross-cultural teams, outlining how different cultures prefer different styles of participation (Livermore, 2016); making sure your creative concepts and tactics accurately reflect the diverse cultures of your audiences (Dallis, 2020); and approaching social media from a DEI perspective, including diversifying your own social feed and working with a diverse group of influencers (McFarlane, 2016).
After the first round of assessments, revisions to the module included two other resources: materials from the UN Women’s Unstereotype Alliance, and a diversity and representation guide from the World Federation of Advertisers. While these materials focus on the advertising industry, they are applicable to all communicators in strategic communication.
The Unstereotype Alliance is an industry-led initiative convened by UN Women to end harmful stereotypes and affect positive culture change (Unstereotype Alliance, n.d.). In May of 2021, the Alliance created a “State of the Industry” report outlining gaps and opportunities in fostering workplace equality, achieving unstereotyped advertising, and empowering public action (Unstereotype Alliance, 2021a.). In addition, the Unstereotype Alliance has created the “3 Ps” framework for representing diverse people in marketing communications materials. These include Presence (representation that goes beyond simply being a “mannequin for the product”), Perspective (who is framing the story) and Personality (depth of the character) (Unstereotype Alliance, 2021b.). This framework is helpful as students are thinking about their target audiences and how to accurately portray the characters used in their campaigns.
The guide from the World Federation of Advertisers (Daykin & Smith, n.d.) goes through every step of the creative process, from identifying the business challenge, to strategic insight and data, to creative development, media activation, and evaluation and measurement. Under each stage, the guide poses a set of questions for communicators to ask themselves, such as “How are you ensuring your strategy is grounded in diverse consumer insight?” (p. 5) and “What steps are you taking with suppliers to bring in more diverse talent?” (p. 7). The guide includes multiple additional resources to tap under each stage. This guide is helpful for students to refer to as they go through the planning process.
Methodology: Module Approach and Assessment Outline
The pilot test of our DEI curriculum included four components: developing teaching/learning modules specific to the DEI learning objectives for each of our core Strategic Communications courses, including activities for students to apply the concepts; delivering the modules and activities in Strategic Communications classes; assessing the modules from the perspective of both students and faculty presenters; and sharing and getting feedback on the modules from faculty colleagues. Curriculum testing following the above develop/deliver/assess model has been used prominently in education — from K-12 to college and professional training — to test new curriculum content and pedagogy against learning objectives before going to scale (see, for example, Briliyanti et al., 2020; Cannon et al., 2020; Swart et al., 2020).
In its “Toolbox for Curriculum Documentation and Testing,” the Northwest Center for Sustainable Resources (NCSR), funded by the National Science Foundation, states, “Pilot testingis the process of evaluating the efficacy of the course or stand-alone modules in attaining the intended student outcomes,” and it “involves the implementing, evaluating, and revising of each discrete part of the new or revised course or module” (NCSR, n.d.). In pilot testing its Shared Discovery Curriculum, Michigan State University states that, in addition to learning how to best meet learning objectives, pilot testing also provides “time to reflect on required faculty prep time; resources required for faculty preparation; and the group process skills needed by faculty to achieve the learning goals” (Michigan State University, n.d.).
Below we outline each phase of our pilot test.
Module and Class Activities Development
As mentioned above, the teaching modules we developed covered DEI learning objectives for each of our core Strategic Communications courses. Each module included the following:
One foundational reading and one video to introduce the topic to students in the course
A PowerPoint presentation to be delivered by instructors with an initial student lesson about the topic at hand
A hands-on/application activity where students apply the concepts to a real-world situation in the strategic communication industry
A short lesson plan for instructors to execute the activity in class
A list of references that professors could use a) to assign readings to students during the semester, b) to learn more about these topics themselves as teachers, and c) to incorporate this knowledge in their lectures during the semester
It is important to note that, while the teaching modules were designed to be covered in one to three class periods, the aim of the content was to get students thinking about DEI throughout the course. Faculty members could then supplement other materials to reinforce the concepts throughout the semester.
The class activities included in each module varied depending on the course. For our Public Relations & Civic Responsibility course, we included an activity where students worked in groups of three people and compared the DEI statements posted on different corporations’ and communication agencies’ websites with the composition of their C-Suites. Students then arrived at their own conclusions on whether diversity statements got reflected appropriately or not in who has real decision-making power within these organizations.
For Strategic Writing, our hands-on activity includes a “topic-mapping” exercise where we explore the case of a local organization (such as a local hospital or university) in relation to COVID-19. We examine the different topics that we could be writing about for our stakeholders, depending on our publics’ racial and ethnic identities, age brackets, sexual orientation, presence or absence of physical and learning disabilities, urban or rural locations, socioeconomic status, and, in particular, the context of the county where we are located in North Carolina.
Once we map out these possible topics with the students, we ask students to consider those topics as initial input to pitch three different story ideas about the impact of COVID-19, depending on the diversity of audiences discussed. On a separate class day, we review two strategic communication pieces (we selected two print ads by major brands, but this can also be done with TV commercials) – one where a particular community is portrayed with nuance and respect, and one where a particular community is portrayed in stereotypical, insensitive ways – to discuss what probably went right and what probably went wrong in each case.
For the Strategic Research Methods course, we ask students to pretend they have been hired by the Centers for Disease Control to increase COVID-19 vaccinations among unvaccinated populations. Students were asked to think through the preliminary research they would do, the cultural contexts they would need to explore, the language/terms they would need to consider in developing primary research plans and materials, the methodologies they would use, how they could make the project more participatory and communicative, and which community experts or influencers they would engage.
For the Campaigns course, we used the Diversity & Inclusion Wheel for PR Practitioners (Luttrell and Wallace, 2021). The wheel includes six inner spokes of diversity (e.g., race/ethnicity, national origin, age) and 17 outer spokes (e.g., language, education, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, etc.). The authors provide instructions for reviewing a public relations case study and connecting elements of the case study to spokes in the wheel.
Module Delivery and Assessment
We tested the content of three modules in one PR & Civic Responsibility class, two Strategic Research Methods classes, and one Strategic Campaigns class during the fall of 2021 (the fourth module for Strategic Writing was tested in the fall of 2022). After the initial assessment, we revised the teaching modules based on the input we collected from both students and presenters, and the modules were presented again in the spring of 2022. Revisions included updating some content, slightly modifying some of the in-class activities, and incorporating more discussion questions throughout each module. Our assessment plan included four elements: A qualitative Qualtrics survey given to students after they had read the materials and seen the presentations; results of quiz questions on the material in two courses; instructor reflections on what worked well and what didn’t in each class; and a review of reading reflections submitted by students.
A total of 120 students participated in the pilot, from sophomores to seniors, with 58 students voluntarily responding to the Qualtrics survey. Survey data was analyzed using thematic analysis to identify common themes overall, and themes specific to each course. In addition, after the modules were tested, we held a session with faculty colleagues in May of 2022 where we shared the revised modules and assessment results, gathered feedback on the usefulness of the modules in meeting our new DEI learning objectives, and determined what other resources or training might be needed.
As stated previously, modules were tested and assessed in the fall of 2021, revisions were made, and several of the modules were presented again in the spring of 2022. Below are highlights of student and instructor assessment.
One to two weeks after modules were presented in the fall, students were asked to take a qualitative Qualtrics survey to answer four questions: 1) What did you like/appreciate about the class session on DEI?; 2) What would you say are the two most important things you learned?; 3) Was there anything missing from the session that you think is important to add or include?; and, 4) In what ways might you apply the knowledge or concepts from the DEI session in the future (in this class, future classes, or your internships or career)?
In their responses, students said they appreciated hearing about DEI specifically in relation to the communication industry. For many, this was the first time they had heard a DEI lecture or thought about these issues as they apply to their major. In fact, this was the first time many students had learned the definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Several students repeated those definitions in their responses. Many were also surprised at the lack of diversity in the industry. Students felt it was important to discuss DEI as an integral part of the communication curriculum and, “NOT as if this is something extra considered above and beyond in the comm world.”
Examples were helpful to students to envision how DEI can be applied in the field or to their own work in each class. When asked about what was missing from the presentations, students reiterated that more examples would be helpful. Students specifically wanted more examples of how they can apply DEI in the workplace. This was reiterated in class when students asked questions about how to deal with a supervisor or peer who does not believe in promoting DEI.
The Public Relations & Civic Responsibility presentation was given by a professor who immigrated to the United States from Costa Rica (the second author in this article). In responding to this session, students repeatedly stated how much they appreciated the personal examples from the instructor’s own lived experiences. For example, one student said, “I appreciated hearing about DEI from the perspective of a Costa Rican. It made the topic a lot more real and pressing coming from her own personal struggles.”
In stating what they learned from the modules, students often named specific theories or concepts from the presentations, showing that they were retaining the content. When asked how they would apply this information in the future, students in the introductory public relations class used terms like “understanding,” “keeping in mind,” and “being aware.” Students in the upper-level courses, where they were taught about applying DEI to research and campaigns, were more likely to use terms like “personal responsibility” or discuss how they could specifically apply the content to their projects and future workplaces. This aligns with the content in the lower-level course introducing students to DEI in the industry, while the upper-level courses were more about applying DEI specifically to research and campaigns. Noting these response differences helped discussions of how to scaffold the DEI modules for all our courses.
Quizzes and Student Reflections
Quiz questions relating to the content were included in two Strategic Research Methods classes and one Public Relations & Civic Responsibility class. For the three DEI quiz questions in the first Strategic Research Methods class, 88% of students responded correctly to all three questions. In the second Strategic Research Methods class, 100% of students responded correctly to the first and third questions, and 91% responded correctly to the second question. For the three quiz questions in the PR class, 86% of students responded correctly to the first and third questions, and 76% responded correctly to the third question.
In the spring of 2022, Strategic Campaigns class students reflected on what they learned from DEI readings assigned alongside the module. Readings included the two listed above from the Unstereotype Alliance and World Federation of Advertisers, as well as an article in Fast Company titled, “We need to talk about how the media and creatives portray Black people” (Dallis, 2020). Written as an open letter to the industry, the author reflects on how she felt as a Black woman, mother, and brand strategist following the murder of George Floyd. She discusses the power of the communication industry in shaping public perceptions of Black people and outlines 13 steps the industry can take to wield that power responsibly.
Students responded to the poignancy of the Dallis reading and appreciated how the reading reflected the perspective of a Black woman. One student wrote,
This article was incredible and so important for anyone in the communications industry to read. It can be easy to get caught up in the strategy or creativity of a campaign and forget the implications of being able to reach so many people with our ideas and portrayals of others.
The student went on to think about how we can access this cultural diversity in a predominantly White university: “We can spend time doing extensive research on the brand as it pertains to people of color and pull our insights from a wide range of sources, not just those who are readily accessible and convenient.”
On the World Federation of Advertisers guide, one student wrote:
The addition of questions throughout the campaign planning process, rather than the all too common, ineffective act of just a final DEI review, illustrates how integrating DEI . . . is an aid to reach more audiences, more effectively, and think more authentically.
Commenting on the Unstereotype Alliances 3 Ps reading, another student wrote, “Following the three Ps can help avoid tokenizing BIPOC individuals, where rather than just using them as tools to tell our stories, we can provide a platform to share their stories.”
Interestingly, in a reading reflection on a different reading several weeks later, a student mentioned the lack of diversity in the sources of the material:
This article caused me to think back to Reading Reflection #1 and the importance of hiring diverse teams not solely for inclusivity purposes but also for bringing new perspectives that can drive innovation and collaboration. When looking at the CMO section of this article, the headshots show me not much diversity at all . . . different CMOs would have added an extra dimension to this reading.”
This student’s response shows the importance of including diverse resources in our materials throughout the semester, and not just during a specific DEI discussion.
The modules were presented in courses by the two authors, as well as another enlisted professor. We each recorded notes on what worked well or didn’t work well in presenting the modules, the readings, and the activities; student discussions and specific questions raised when presenting the modules; timing of the modules and alignment with other class content/activities; and reflections on the identity of the instructor when presenting materials. Below are highlights from our reflections.
Customization and Application. Adding or adjusting content to align with a specific assignment, project, or client helps students apply the modules to their work. For example, during the presentation, a Strategic Campaigns instructor showed an old commercial from the brand students were working on and this sparked discussion about DEI challenges specific to their client. In two Strategic Research Methods classes, in addition to learning how to develop culturally sensitive research projects outlined in the module, students then applied that learning to a qualitative project where they conducted focus groups with Black participants. It is important to refer to the modules throughout the semester and develop assignments where students can apply what they learned to their class projects.
More Practical Examples are Needed. While the DEI modules deliver a 30,000 ft. view, it is helpful to provide further examples of how these concepts are applied in the field. More discussion questions during the different class sessions would also be appreciated by the students to share ideas and to have a moment to pause and reflect.
Reinforcing the Message from Industry Professionals. The day after the PR module was presented in a class, a DEI professional from a public affairs agency spoke to the class on how her agency applies DEI in their organization. This reinforced that it is not just instructors saying it is important – our industry thinks it is important.
Lived Experiences of the Instructor.One of the instructors is an immigrant to the United States from Costa Rica. It was helpful for her to share her own lived experiences with students about the challenges she faced during her long journey to become a U.S. citizen and her experience of being a Latinx public relations professional in a White-dominated industry. Not every faculty member will be able to do so. However, because these personal reflections resonated with students, we need to think about how we can further bring these experiences into the classroom.
Scaffolding. Since this was the first time many students had been introduced to DEI in our industry, and since the modules for each level of class were presented at the same time, we needed to explain the definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion in each presentation. In future years, the objective is for students to learn the basic DEI terminologies and concepts in the entry-level course, and then be able to apply that knowledge to the professional skill sets of each subsequent course.
Faculty Sharing and Feedback
While the modules were available for use by all Strategic Communications faculty in the fall semester, we held an information session in late spring where we discussed the modules in more detail, shared our assessment of the modules, and engaged in discussion with other faculty members. The 10 colleagues who attended this information session reacted very positively to these materials and expressed that they can see themselves using the modules as they were presented or also customizing certain aspects as needed.
A common theme from the feedback was that the modules provided a common language to be used across our department. One colleague said:
These modules do the important job of introducing students to a common grammar, to shared definitions and to be able to recognize what DEI is. Part of it is providing them with the grammar and with the cultural norms in relation to DEI, and then to find an applied thread to relate these concepts to.
In addition to shared DEI definitions, other colleagues said they appreciated the examples, case studies, real-world applications, and the suggestion of bringing in guest speakers “so that students see how these things matter and are applied in the world, even if, in their industry, they are not a DEI Vice-President or so.” In discussing one of the class activities, a colleague said,
“Most major brands are required to have diversity statements. But there is great power to see how brands are engaging in this conversation through words and actions. Students will encounter these realities when they work in this field.”
One of our colleagues reminded the group that this material is important for all students, not just our White students. The colleague said,
The Asian and Pacific Islander students that I work with have told me that learning more about DEI is not only important for them to pursue their own identity, but also because they need the language, the concepts, and the theories to really process what they are experiencing and feeling, and to process the microaggressions they often experience. This content helps them process their own realities and their own experiences. This is important content not just for White students but for students of all minority groups as well.
When asked what other materials or resources they might need to bring this kind of content into their classes, our colleagues suggested creating an additional module to use in our School of Communications’ introductory class (our equivalent of Introduction to Mass Communication, called Communications in a Global Age), which all Communications students take, no matter which of our five majors they go into later. A colleague said, for example:
Many of us teach COM1000 Communications in a Global Age. We need to be thinking of how to describe the history of the different mass communication fields in multicultural ways to avoid presenting this history only through a White-male lens. We need to expose our students not only to the Edward Bernays’ of our fields but to the Inez Kaisers as well.
At the end of this session, we reminded our colleagues that these materials are posted in our Department’s online learning site, and urged everyone attending the session to share other materials there as well. One of our colleagues, for instance, shared that she has a lesson plan she developed on the multicultural history of public relations, and she promised to share that lesson plan on our site or to create a video to post there for all of us to use in our classes.
Discussion and Conclusion
At a time when both faculty and students are overwhelmed by upheaval from the pandemic and the U.S. political and cultural climate, it is more important than ever to integrate DEI principles into our communication curricula. However, the chaos of the past two years has also made it difficult for faculty to find the time and resources to develop and integrate content that is relevant, research-based, and that can be applied in meaningful ways in our courses. Further, it is important that we look across the curriculum, and not just in our own courses, to ensure students are learning basic concepts and then progressing in their learning as they advance through their college career. We do this when we develop our core communication curricula, but we often do not integrate and scaffold DEI into our courses in the same systematic way. Faculty are often left to their own devices to infuse DEI individually into their courses without knowing what other faculty are doing or if their content is reinforcing what students have previously learned.
By taking the dual approach of creating agreed upon learning objectives, and then two faculty members taking a leadership role in developing and testing content that met those learning objectives, we were able to integrate DEI into our strategic communications curriculum in a more systematic way. Through the modules we created and the annotated bibliography we compiled for four of our required Strategic Communications courses, students were able to appreciate that we were teaching DEI concepts that specifically relate to their major and progressed from having “awareness” in the entry-level course to developing “personal responsibility” for applying DEI in their own assignments and careers in upper-level courses.
By reflecting on what worked well and what didn’t in presenting the modules and activities, we found that students need multiple examples of effective DEI applications, that pairing the content with specific class projects and speakers from the industry helps to reinforce the message, and that sharing the lived experience of diverse faculty members makes the content more real for students. In revising the modules, we incorporated more discussion questions throughout each module. Breaking the lesson plan into shorter segments helped to increase student participation and keep their attention and focus. We discovered that students are eager and willing to reflect on what they are learning through discussion questions at different moments of each class session.
In faculty conversations, we were also reminded to consider all students when teaching DEI, and not just those who have the most privilege, to provide marginalized students with the theories and concepts to help process their own lived experiences. In addition, through the faculty information session, we prompted a dialogue that allowed faculty to share their unique knowledge with each other and consider ways that other faculty members can include that knowledge in their teaching. Moving forward, it will be important to create a mechanism for continuing this dialogue as new information and resources come to light, and as we each progress in our intercultural competence.
Though PR programs at other universities may have different required and/or elective courses, this systematic approach to developing a DEI curriculum applies regardless of the specific classes. The self-study evidence that ACEJMC (2021) requires for the curriculum component of its DEI guidelines is fairly broad and includes 1) Course syllabi reflecting learning outcomes; 2) A grid outlining where cultural communication proficiency is taught in the curriculum; and 3) Assessment of that proficiency. Thus, cultural communication proficiency should align with and be integrated into the communication skills and proficiencies taught in each of our PR courses. Just as being a proficient communicator in the PR field means you know how to understand audiences, write, research, strategize, produce materials, and counsel management in an effective way, being “culturally proficient communicators” means we can do all these things through a DEI lens. The key is to build and scaffold learning objectives and content in a systematic way so that students are continually progressing in their DEI competence throughout their academic career.
A common limitation of pilot studies is “the possibility of making inaccurate predictions or assumptions on the basis of pilot data” (Teijlingen & Hundley, 2001). For example, because we are a predominantly White institution, the data is skewed toward this demographic. Testing the modules in classes with higher percentages of diverse identities may yield different results. Likewise, the limited timeframe of the study (one academic year) means our pilot captures one moment in time. Any changes in student demographics or the DEI knowledge of incoming students will necessitate ongoing evaluation of our DEI content.
Our pilot test also relied largely on qualitative data. In the future, we will need to closely monitor our quantitative curriculum assessments (e.g., our senior assessment exam and department climate surveys) to determine if results are tracking with our pilot test of the modules. Lastly, we know that faculty are at different levels in their own intercultural competence. A question remains if the level of instructor DEI competence will impact the delivery of –or student knowledge gained from– the modules.
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Editorial Record: Submitted June 1, 2022. Revised September 2, 2022. Accepted October 25, 2022.
Jiun-Yi Tsai, Ph.D Associate Professor School of Communication Northern Arizona University Flagstaff, Arizona Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Janice Sweeter* Associate Director and Associate Professor of Practice School of Communication Northern Arizona University Flagstaff, Arizona Email: email@example.com
Amy Hitt* Associate Professor of Practice School of Communication Northern Arizona University Flagstaff, Arizona Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Two authors contributed equally.
Abstract Underrepresented populations are beginning to increase in the public relations (PR) industry and PR university degree programs. Yet, scant literature has investigated the challenges encountered and mentoring resources needed for underrepresented students to be successful. Guided by an intersectional lens of social identities, we conducted 14 semi-structured interviews with strategic communication students who identify as first-generation, Hispanic/Latinx, or African American. Thematic analysis reveals three interconnected themes, suggesting cognitive, socio-emotional, and identity development needs and solutions exist. This study highlights the importance of faculty mentors, identity-based clubs, and classroom peer relationships in building the resilience required to flourish in strategic communication college programs. It is essential to foreground culturally responsive mentorship and pedagogy from a communicative approach, because relational connections serve as support systems to bolster underrepresented students’ identity and increase a sense of belonging.
Keywords: DEI, first-generation college students, social identity, mentoring, PR education
Despite efforts committed to improving diversity, public relations (PR) professionals and leaders still grapple with the issues of equity and inclusion (Stansell, 2020). Disparities are identified on both gender and racial dimensions in the PR industry (Meng & Neill, 2021). According to the 2021 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022) concerning PR specialists, 83.7% were white, 18% Hispanic or Latino, and 12.3% Black or African American, reflecting a positive increase in diversity from 2018 (Chitkara, 2018); however, statistics like these explain why the PR industry has been called “too white,” noting that many communities do not mirror these demographics and blaming inequities on the employee “pipeline” of higher education (Landis, 2019). Indeed, scholars have argued the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace is a result of the lack of diversity in college classrooms (Waymer & Taylor, 2022).
As PR has historically been a feminized ﬁeld, race and gender identities deeply shape students’ experiences with PR education (Brown et al., 2019). Findings remain inconclusive. White and female respondents reported a more positive undergraduate experience in PR programs than their underrepresented and male counterparts. Underrepresented groups were less likely to develop support networks and feel comfortable interacting with peers (Brown et al., 2019). Contrarily, Waymer and Brown (2018) found underrepresented groups’ race and ethnicity did not hinder academic success among young professionals. Although fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) gains scholarly attention, less is understood about underrepresented students’ challenges and their needs for culturally responsive resources for mentorship in colleges. Scant literature has approached mentoring programs related to DEI beyond race and gender identities.
With increased first-generation students and diversity among the student body of strategic communication programs in the United States and a scarcity of literature concerning these populations, especially in communication-related arenas, a systematic investigation is needed. Mentoring relationships are essential in helping minority students shape leadership ability (Christie & Baghurst, 2017; Payne et al., 2021), but institutional mentorship programs do not necessarily consider the needs of underrepresented students’ social identities and values. To bridge these gaps, we conducted 14 semi-structured interviews with underserved students (e.g., first-generation, Hispanic/Latinx, and African Americans) majoring or minoring in strategic communication in a four-year public university. The strategic communication program offers emphases in advertising and PR and is the second largest in the Southwest region, serving over 380 majors.
The findings advance the DEI and leadership literature in two ways. First, this research sheds light on the less known challenges of building relational connections with professors and seeking identity validation. At the same time, underrepresented students negotiate the feelings of not fitting in or not being seen. As such, reliance on student organizations/clubs, close circles of peers, and a few trusted mentors substantially bolstered their identity development and supported socio-emotional well-being. Second, we identify resources to increase retention of underrepresented students and build leadership quality for career preparation. The timely investigation offers pedagogical and theoretical implications of culturally responsive mentorship to foster DEI in PR education.
Lack of Racial and Gender Diversity in Senior Leadership
Given the dominance of Caucasian men in management positions, research has emphasized the racialized leadership landscape (Logan, 2011). Few females and minority professionals advance to senior management in PR. While females accounted for 75% of PR practitioners, only 20% held top leadership positions in 2021 (Kalogeros, 2021). Over 100 U.S.-based PR and communication organizations reported that 93% of top leaders were White, 6% were Black, and only 1% were Hispanic (Glover & Hill, 2021). White men represent 63% of executives, with 24% white women; trailing far behind, black women, Hispanic women and other racial and ethnic groups comprise less than 5% of leaders (McKinsey & Company, 2021). This discrepancy is prevalent in several industries, including K-12 education and higher education (American Association of University Women, 2016).
Gender and racial disparities in senior management are driven mostly by structural barriers. Women and people of color in PR faced biases in promotions and experienced workplace discrimination (Pelham, 2019; Pompper, 2014; Topic et al., 2020). Mentoring relationships will potentially empower underrepresented groups to overcome barriers and cultivate leadership skills (Place & Vardeman-Winter, 2018; The Plank Center, 2018). To guide our exploration, we discuss sensitizing concepts to inform the research questions and serve as interpretive lenses (Tracy, 2020). The following sections outline lived experiences, social identities, and challenges specific to underrepresented students.
Underrepresented Students and Low Sense of Belonging
Underrepresented students include “racial/ethnic minorities, first-generation college students, students with disabilities, students from lower socio-economic households, and students in underrepresented majors” (Cook-Anderson et al., 2015, p. 5). First-generation students (FGS) are those attending college while neither of their parents or guardians have completed a four-year degree (U.S. Department of Education, 2020), representing over half of undergraduate students in 2016 (RTI International, 2021). Four-year universities attempt to enroll diverse students and develop institutional resources to promote retention (Ezarik, 2022).
However, the multiple unique challenges and inequalities FGS face must be addressed, including a lower rating of belonging, greater levels of stress, and lower use of campus services (Stebleton et al., 2014). Longitudinal survey results showed that students of color had lower levels of psychological well-being compared to White peers (Koo, 2021). A 2022 survey of 1,073 FGS revealed that 42% of participants feel like they partially belong or do not belong on campus (Ezarik, 2022). Consequently, these students demonstrate lower enrollment and retention/graduation rates than their counterparts with college-educated parents (Cataldi et al., 2018). Low-income status can also affect students’ ability to succeed in college, as the inability to afford tuition is one of the top reasons for students to drop out (Redford & Hoyer, 2017).
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted underrepresented students in Southwest states with a large Hispanic population. Dubbed the “Class of COVID-19,” students who attended college between spring 2020 and spring 2022 experienced historic challenges (iCIMS, 2022). “These educational disparities, while spurred by COVID-19, perpetuate the structural barriers that continue to limit opportunities for communities of color to use higher education as a pathway to social and economic security” (Ahn & Dominguez-Villegas, n.d., para 12). During the pandemic, college students who were racial/ethnic minorities, of lower-income class and FGS had higher levels of psychological impacts and lower sense of belonging (Browning et al., 2021; Gopalan et al., 2022; Lee et al., 2021). These populations were affected disproportionately because of economic and food insecurities, a lack of quality access to broadband, and the need to help siblings while attempting to maintain their own schoolwork (Barber et al., 2021). FGS reported that academic institutions failed to support their needs during the pandemic disruptions (Scharp et al., 2022).
Strategies for Underrepresented Identities
Social identity theory posits that individuals categorize themselves based on intersections of race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Students carry multiple identities to college and may shift among them (Scisney-Matlock & Matlock, 2001). As argued by Waymer (2012), social class is a particularly relevant identity in PR, where students in lower social classes feel separate from those in higher echelons, with the effects magnified by racial distinctions. Identityis a core concern for underrepresented college students as they seek belonging, while navigating cultural considerations, influences of peers and faculty and their own insecurities; this can manifest in isolation or “imposter syndrome,” when high achievers are unable to accept their success, attributing their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability (Weir, 2013). Imposter phenomenon is particularly prevalent among African American college students (Peteet et al., 2015) and FGS (Gray et al., 2018). Payne et al. (2021)’s research of help-seeking strategies for first-generation students applied a strengths-based approach to mitigate imposter syndrome by spotlighting students’ accomplishments when seeking resources.
While a strengths-based approach to academics has proven effective, many teachers and students tend to focus on improving weaknesses instead (Gordon & Crabtree, 2006). “Honing in on weaknesses creates a mindset that is preoccupied with fault, deficits, and failures in organizations and people” (p. 48). Although students may not be able to overcome completely low talent levels concerning the challenging subjects they are forced to take in college, incorporating a growth mindset about their learning abilities has been shown to help them perform better than the students who maintain a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2016).
Other studies focused on the complexity of familial and community ties related to first-generation students’ identities (Bettencourt, et al., 2022) and the explication of personal attributes, including work ethic and interest in making a positive impact on the world (Stewart, 2022). Tinto (1998) showed the correlation between students feeling connected academically and socially and their likelihood to persist in earning their degrees. Mentoring relationships that are sensitive to the students’ social, academic and personal needs are generally more successful in greater student graduation and retention (Christie & Baghurst, 2017; Sarcedo, 2022; Tinto 1998).
Experiences of othering are added stressors among students of marginalized identities. “Othering–the set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities” (Powell & Menendian, para. 9) can have devastating effects, leading to students feeling isolated, distressed and unsuccessful (Peteet et al., 2015; Udah, 2019). Another important element is self-identification. Some FGS don’t define themselves with this label, usually only applying it when seeking institutional resources offered to this subgroup (Bettencourt, et al., 2022). Still, FGS at predominantly White institutions felt like outsiders, excluded, or invalidated compared to wealthier non-FGS peers (Havlik et al., 2020). To cope with identity threat due to otherness, underrepresented students may identify solutions to nurture core identity, develop and use communication networks to build resilience and find a safe space (Scharp et al., 2022). Marginalized students tend to adapt self-presentation strategies like “passing” and “code switching” to modify their behavior, clothing, language, etc., in different environments to feel like they belong (Gray et al., 2018). Code switching is common when students address a professor or someone in authority (Gray et al., 2018) and for upwardly mobile minorities in professional settings (Morton, 2014). These strategies partially help students preserve their cultural identity in the appropriate settings.
Mentorship Resources for Underrepresented Students
Fostering Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB)is a top priority for universities. Revealing a lack of DEIB studies focused on students in communication programs, more attention has been paid to programs for science, technology, engineering and math fields. Stewart’s (2022) qualitative study illustrated how engineering college students expressed their STEM identities based on personal strengths and peer relations. Yet, this study did not focus on the outcomes of underrepresented social identities. Interviews with FGS about social class worldviews and the lack of social capital were drawn from a university-wide pool of students, not those affiliated with communication programs (Rice et al., 2017). Joshi et al. (2019) found that direct mentorship by faculty was positively associated with life science students’ scientific identity and research productivity. Hernandez et al. (2020) identified mentorship success as a factor to improve the academic-to-professional pipeline for women in the geosciences.
Given the challenges associated with minority identities in colleges, scholars have identified various functions of mentoring relationships to better support underrepresented students, especially among FGS and students of color. Faculty members represent a tremendous resource, intellectually and experientially (Scisney-Matlock & Matlock, 2001). These include offering socio-emotional support, building personal connections, providing career advice, increasing students’ self-efficacy in classrooms, and engaging in service-learning opportunities (Fruiht & Chan, 2018; Sarcedo, 2022). These functions boost students’ academic confidence and foster a sense of belonging. Additionally, African American male leaders’ participation in a race-based college mentorship program significantly contributed to their career advancement and leadership ability (Christie & Baghurst, 2017). Similarly, Waymer and Taylor (2022) revealed that networking opportunities gained through highly-resourced academic departments and identity support from professors prepared Black students for foreseen challenges in communication-related professions.
PR Scholarship in Building Inclusivity
Galvanized by analysis of workplace diversity in the PR industry (Meng & Neill, 2021), PR educators are urged to create inclusive environments and advocate DEI leadership forums for students of diverse identities (Bardhan & Gower, 2020). Brown et al. (2019) recommend the following to support underrepresented students and prepare them for the industries: 1) inform them about professional development and networking opportunities, 2) expose students to experiential learning activities to build confidence and awareness of real-world issues, 3) make diverse professional mentors visible to students, 4) encourage students to socialize with peers from diverse backgrounds, and 5) discuss racial and ethnic disparities related to the PR industry. Still, not enough empirical research has documented students’ experiences with navigating minority identities in the communication fields nor informed how to improve culturally targeted mentoring resources.
To bolster retention rates for underrepresented students in strategic communication studies, a nuanced understanding of challenges and mentoring needs that move beyond gender and race dimensions is needed to consider students’ intersectional experiences related to social class. Therefore, we ask:
RQ1:How do students who identify with underrepresented identities navigate challenges when pursuing strategic communication degrees?
RQ2: What mentoring resources are needed for students who identify with underrepresented identities when pursuing strategic communication degrees?
The study site is a four-year public university with high research activity (R2) located in a rural county (The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, n.d.). The main residential campus reflects an increasingly diverse student body. As of Fall 2021, the enrollment of full-time students was approximately 22,000; 89% of whom were undergraduate students (mean age=22). The majority of the students (56%) identify as White; 25% identify as Hispanic/Latinx and 3% indicate as African American, thereby meeting the Hispanic Serving Institution criteria in 2021. Almost 46% of students identify as FGS. Commitment to DEIB and elevating students’ social mobility represent the university’s values. Two academic advisors served 2,000 students majoring in six degree programs in the School of Communication. Advisors met with students by appointment to ensure individuals’ degree progression plans. Beyond academic advisors, seven strategic communication faculty members encouraged students to seek informal mentoring, but no formalized mentorship programs were implemented.
The university’s Institutional Review Board approved the study design. Using a purposive sampling approach, we solicited participation for virtual interviews from full-time Strategic Communication major or minor students who self-identify as FGS, Hispanic/Latinx, and/or African Americans attending the main residential campus. Between March and April 2022, we distributed multiple emails to the department’s listserv with an external link for sign-ups and set up a table in the Communication building, along with sending flyers to instructors to encourage students in their classes to participate. A screening survey was used to verify students’ eligibility and solicit answers to personal demographic questions (e.g., family financial situations and race and gender identities). The informed consent process involved two steps, including signing physical copies with the investigators and providing verbal consent before the audio recording. Students received a $15 gift card upon completion of the virtual interview.
In-depth interviews are well-suited for “making sense of the scene from the participants’ point of view–examining not only behaviors but intentions, stories, and emotions, (Tracy, 2020, p. 62). We developed 10 broad questions to probe students’ college experiences, proud achievements, interactions with peers and faculty members, and their suggestions for mentoring resources. Questions are designed to “cover a wide range of experiences and narrow enough to elicit and explore the participant’s specific experience” (Charmaz & Belgrave, 2012, p. 351). Grounded in a constructionist context, we allowed respondents to lead the conversation through sharing their successful stories and pain points in college. Considering the influence of researchers in qualitative interviews and the unbalanced power dynamics between faculty and underrepresented students, two undergraduate research assistants who identify as FGS and Hispanic/Latinx conducted all virtual interviews. We selected research assistants based on their professional qualifications: knowledge of qualitative research methods, strong work ethics, interpersonal skills, connections to underrepresented communities, and frequent participation in student organizations. Following the best practices by Tracy (2020) and Turner (2010), assistants received training on conducting semi-structured interviews provided by the investigators. Pilot tests enabled assistants to refine the discussion guide and gain experience. Once the first set of interviews were completed, the investigators met with assistants to provide feedback for improving their probing skills in eliciting truthful stories. Approaching interviewees with an insider approach brought three advantages: 1) building rapport with students who share similar racial identities and backgrounds, 2) conveying a sense of inclusivity, and 3) gathering authentic answers about students’ lived experiences (Buford May, 2014). Student researchers revealed their self-identity in the introduction and developed trust with the interviewees (Charmaz & Belgrave, 2012). Interviews ranged between 30 minutes and one hour.
When conducting in-depth interviews, scholars recommend stopping the process once thematic saturation is reached – usually around 12–14 interviews (Guest et al., 2020; Saunders et al., 2018). Grounded theory research may reach data saturation at nine interviews (Aldiabat & Le Navenec, 2018). Guided by these suggestions, we initially gauged that 10-12 interviews would lead to saturation. Two investigators verified transcripts, took notes of emerging codes, and reviewed instances signifying sensitizing concepts after each interview. Two criteria were employed to determine saturation: code saturation and meaning saturation (Aldiabat & Le Navenec, 2018; Charmaz, 2006; Tracy, 2020). Codes capturing challenges and mentoring resources became stabilized at 12 interviews. To validate the trustworthiness of our findings, we considered the significance of including two research assistants’ perspectives. Therefore, assistants conducted formal interviews with one another. After grounded analysis yielded meaning saturation and redundancy in respondents’ narratives, we stopped at 14 participants. Table 1 summarizes the demographic characteristics: 64% females, 57% Hispanics and 57% FGS. Ninety-three percent of participants indicated their family’s social class as lower middle to middle class.
Anonymized transcripts were obtained and processed for data analysis. We followed the grounded theory method to compile the data and organize the responses into meaningful insights (Glaser & Strauss, 2012). Grounded theory is “the discovery of theory from data” toward the aim of determining how “accurate facts can be obtained and how theory can thereby be more rigorously tested” (Glaser & Strauss, 2012, p. 1), acknowledging the inherent conflict between basing conclusions on emergent data while evaluating previous research to base conclusions (El Hussein et al., 2017). This inductive approach is a “template for all kinds of qualitative research” because of its applicability to many topics in social science, including communication (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011, p. 250). Charmaz (2008) and others placed grounded theory in a social constructionist framework. Social construction of reality as defined by Berger and Luckmann (1966) describes the process of how individuals internalize events that surround them, and the idea that individual consciousness is determined by what that society deems relevant. This has clear implications for the study of culture and human communication (Tracy, 2020). Grounded theory offers flexibility in the systematic analysis of data forms, such as observations, written documents and interviews (Riley, 2010).
We analyzed the transcripts through an iterative process to identify sensitizing concepts (Strauss & Corbin, 1994), beginning with the familiarization stage to become acquainted with the informant’s environment and worldview (Riley, 2010). The initial cycle of analysis involved analytic memos and open coding to identify codes using constant comparative methods (Charmaz, 2006). To verify the analysis, three authors held regular meetings to debrief preliminary findings and synthesize the linkages between data and categories. This was followed by interpreting themes toward finding patterns to “paint conceptual pictures that add to the understanding of the experience” (Corbin & Strauss, 2008, p. 262). Integration and setting a platform for building theory was the final phase of coding analysis (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).
The first author identifies as a first-generation female immigrant academic. Similar to the participants, I grew up in a middle-class home and was the first to pursue graduate degrees overseas with limited cultural and social capital. I attended two public flagship universities in the U.S., where I navigated through the hidden rules in graduate school. Mentoring research assistants of marginalized identities grew my interest to understand behind-the-scenes challenges and unmet needs among underrepresented students. While there is privilege associated with my tenured status, my life experiences of being a model minority shaped my data interpretation.
The second author sees herself as a scholar and a practitioner. My research centers on understanding the dynamics of community interaction and strengthening relationships among participants. I am an Associate Professor of Practice, with 15-plus years as a leader in public relations, nonprofits, advertising and content management prior to joining my university. I relate directly to the challenge of working full-time while pursuing my graduate degrees. I also invite many alumni guest speakers representing multiple viewpoints to my classes to share their success stories and challenges. My heritage is mixed, primarily of European descent. While I don’t identify as first-generation, African American, or Hispanic (or any intersection of these identities), I value highly the opportunity to gain perspective on these identities through my students and in my role as the Associate Director of Student and Academic Affairs for the School of Communication.
The third author identifies as Caucasian and was a first-generation student with socio-economic concerns. I received a full ride to a state university because of being valedictorian at a small high school. However, a personal situation during my freshman year of college aided in losing the scholarship. After which, I transferred to a different state university, closer to family, and worked two part-time jobs while completing my bachelor’s degree. I have since earned two master’s degrees and have become a Gallup-trained strengths coach. Gallup, Inc., uses the CliftonStrengths assessment to calculate a person’s top five talents and recommends students and professionals focus on using their talents instead of attempting to improve their weaknesses. I have taught strategic communication to diverse audiences for over 10 years and have gained an understanding through conversation and observation of the needs and challenges of underrepresented students.
Three major themes emerged through the integration of data analysis. We divided responses concerning challenges and mentorship resources into three salient dimensions, which correspond with the needs of underrepresented student experiences: 1) cognitive skills, 2) socio-emotional support, and 3) identity development (Fruiht & Chan, 2018; Scharp et al., 2022). To contextualize our findings, the state in which our university resides reports populations of 32.3% Hispanic/Latino and 5.4% Black/African American as compared to 18.9% Hispanic/Latino and 13.6% Black/African American in the United States as a whole. However, it is worth noting that our college town shows 19.7% Hispanic/Latino and 2.0% Black/African American populations (United States Census Bureau, 2022). We interpreted these demographic differences to mean Black/African American students attending our school could feel more marginalized than when in their home locations. Similarly, Hispanic/Latino students might also feel this way if they come from more diverse locations within the state. Most participants mentioned COVID-19 as a significant disruption to their academic and social integration.
Resilience Mindsets for Developing Cognitive Skills
Challenges. Concerning the need of developing cognitive skills, nine out of the 14 participants expressed having math course struggles, resulting in acquiring a tutor or abandoning specific degree programs with a strong math component. Some had begun degrees in business but had realized their strengths were with words, not numbers. For example, several interviewees said they felt comfortable with public speaking, writing, and creative skills, which aligns with Waymer and Taylor’s (2022) findings. The investigators, through experience, think this is a realization many strategic communication students come to, not only those of the underrepresented populations in this study. As expressed by Participant 8 (female, Hispanic, FGS):
I wasn’t necessarily good at 100-level math and science classes. My weaknesses are like math, but then with English, writing and my public relations classes…that’s where I do better. I could have gotten like a tutor, but I actually didn’t know where to get extra help from.
Multiple interviewees said, as a freshman, they were not aware of certain degree programs and university resources, suggesting more promotion, like tabling by other students, be directed toward that audience. As noted by Participant 4 (female, African American), “If I had known what public relations was back when I was senior in high school, I probably would have majored in StratComm and minored in business management.” Several stated that the advising received as an incoming student or in the honors college was better than what was received in typical advising sessions later in the program. This perceived lack of proper advising coupled with scheduling difficulties and confusion caused some students to reach out to upperclassmen and teachers for assistance.
One interview question asked whether the interviewees thought they had a growth or fixed mindset (Dweck, 2016). While most claimed to have a growth mindset, the students who chose to overcome course challenges by hiring a tutor instead of dropping the course demonstrated its effectiveness. This type of strength-based approach to learning helps students manage their weaknesses while discovering and validating their talents demonstrated by the decision to switch majors (Gordon & Crabtree, 2006). Students’ narratives about how they overcame obstacles related to academic learning showed that they cultivated resilience by enhancing cognitive skills. For example, several interviewees revealed some ups and downs during their first year or two years at the university. Participant 2 described (female, Hispanic):
I definitely think math is like my biggest struggle when it comes to my academics. It’s so hard. I took a financial planning class for my merchandising program. My teacher was super patient; she would sit with us. She’d let us work on homework again if we got a bunch wrong. She sat us down and really helped teach us the concepts that we didn’t understand. That’s definitely been like the biggest help.
They had done so well in high school that they got accepted into college honors courses as a freshman. However, one participant let his “work ethic” slip during sophomore year and lost his scholarships, which he petitioned to keep after rebalancing academically. “So basically I could describe my challenges like the roller coaster of college for me. I had to find who I was again,” (Participant 12, male, FGS).
Resources. When inquiring about university resources used or available to develop cognitive skills, six mentioned tutoring by “really putting in the work to schedule appointments” (Participant 6, female, FGS). Six mentioned writing centers, three mentioned study groups, two mentioned the Successful Transition and Academic Readiness (STAR) Program for first-generation students and Edge Program leadership camp for incoming students, as well as peer mentoring. Several had found career development offices helpful in polishing their resumés and obtaining internships, allowing them to develop social-economic mobility. Gaining internships was frequently mentioned as valuable for developing professional skills.
While upperclassmen and faculty had helped with limited advising, most participants felt ambivalent about high staff turnover in centralized advising services. Participant 9 expressed her frustration (female, Hispanic, FGS), “my advisor recently left, so I had been trying to find a new one, or just trying to find someone who could help me.” One student offered the idea for some type of online tutorial about course scheduling; others suggested the need for more promotion of university resources that will support academic and professional skill development, especially to incoming students. For continuing students, retaining advisors at advising offices would reduce obstacles.
Seeking Relational Connections for Socio-Emotional Support
Challenges. Participants expressed other common challenges, such as picking the right degree program, changing majors and minors midstream, advising issues, the stresses of course scheduling, navigating across campus, financial concerns, poor Wi-Fi access, and pandemic fallout. Notably, underrepresented groups experienced added stressors related to lacking a sense of belonging, like feeling they don’t fit in, having to perform to be different from their authentic selves, beginning at a starting line behind the norm, anxiety, and imposter syndrome. In addition, participants felt supported but at the same time burdened by familial expectations. Hence, most students treasured the opportunity for creating relational connections with professors or mentors for social and emotional support. Reaching out to establish communication networks appeared to be essential in the process of building resilience (Scharp et al., 2021).
Nevertheless, one repeated course-related challenge concerned unavailable and unresponsive professors. If teachers did not reply to emails, or there were no opportunities created to aid students in meeting one-to-one with faculty during the pandemic, participants said they experienced a disconnect, especially during online-only courses. As participant 10 (female, FGS, Hispanic) stated: “I think you kind of feel disconnected, and you feel a lot more like you’re on your own than you really are.” This student also noted the power of a welcome email to students establishing a connection and starting the class with a supportive tone. The levels of communicative engagement in emails could facilitate relationship building (Tsai et al., 2022).
A few participants expressed a desire for more connections with faculty through after- class availability, office hours, check-in emails, or synchronous meeting opportunities. More than one student mentioned not being able to remember their teachers’ names because of a high level of disconnection. Other course-related struggles included: 1) how having to feverishly take notes made it difficult to follow along in class, 2) the pressure to “throw the teacher a bone” by answering a question during a dead silence, and 3) not being able to see/hear professors or course materials clearly over Zoom and, sometimes, in the physical classroom. While these issues might sound cognitive in nature, we could argue they are, for one reason or another, results of a relational breakdown. Most noted difficulties with larger classes, feeling intimidated to speak up or ask for help, reinforcing that smaller classes were much better for making connections and setting a foundation for academic success. “When it’s a smaller group of people I don’t mind sharing my opinions, but if it’s like a large class it’s a bit harder for me” (Participant 4).
Resources. Regardless of the above challenges about connecting with faculty and peers, nine respondents said they liked and felt comfortable with most of their instructors, specifically their strategic communication professors. Some said faculty members had become mentors, a valuable resource for discovering internships and professional growth opportunities. Participant 1 explained (male, Hispanic, FGS),
Because you build that connection, maybe not with every professor, but you build that connection with one, I can tell you from personal experience. When you have that one supporter, no matter your background, your sexual orientation, who you are – when you have that one mentor that believes in you, it makes all the difference in every class.
However, there was the acknowledgment about how students get “what they put into” the relationship. If students attempted to connect with faculty, like adding a joke to each assignment submission or simply saying, hi, when entering each classroom, it was usually met with a positive response and put the students on a professor’s “radar.” Students made intentional efforts to create interpersonal connections in informal settings. Participant 13 recounted (female, FGS, Hispanic):
I feel like I connect with all my instructors pretty well. I send jokes in the submission box of each of my assignments. Some of them connect back by sending a joke or some of them just tell me in class that it is a funny joke or I like that you do that. So I feel like that’s a good icebreaker for new professors. Just staying in touch with email because a lot of students don’t email. So if you’re that one out of 10 students that does, it just puts you on their radar and gives them a better chance of knowing you.
Campus size may be a factor, as one subject noted, “Since it is a smaller campus, there are more opportunities to connect with your professors. And they’ve all been very helpful and welcoming,” (Participant 4). Despite the general consensus of feeling welcomed and supported by faculty, multiple respondents said it was difficult for them to ask for help, not wanting to waste others’ time, add to the list of problems, or “rock the boat.”
Another supportive socio-emotional resource reported was developing friendships. One student mentioned how important it is to become friends with peers in the same degree program, because students from other programs cannot always understand or sympathize with particular course-related struggles. “I like when teachers offer opportunities for collaboration. I think it can help, especially for someone like me who I guess is part of the underrepresented community. It helps you feel a bit more connected with those around you and not as alienated,” (Participant 4). Other students recounted similar experiences with connecting with peers through group projects and stayed in touch even after classes finished. The socio-emotional support offered by peers increased underrepresented students’ motivation and bolstered their sense of belonging in an alienated environment.
Needs for Identity Affirmation From Faculty and Peers
Challenges. Although most interviewees performed well academically, they experienced personal-enacted identity gaps because of minoritized identities. Personal-enacted identity gaps arise when individuals encounter discontinuity between self-concepts and perceptions of how they present themselves in communication (Jung & Hecht, 2004). Students queried reported not “fitting in” and having to present themselves differently or “code switch,” depending on the situation. Navigating between hypervisibility and invisibility, one made the distinction of feeling uncomfortable as the center of attention because they felt different—also noting that they are proud of their heritage but did not want to be asked to “represent” their race. “I don’t feel like I fit in, but I feel like I am the center of attention,” (Participant 12, male, African American). Participant 2 agreed: “I wouldn’t say that I necessarily fit in, but I don’t mind being here. I just feel like I’m not as connected to the community as I could be.” Several internalized the need to be more “professional” or more “presentable” when dealing with professors; unless they knew the instructor well and became more comfortable being themselves and letting their guard down. Some felt that same pressure in the workplace. “Being a woman and then also just a woman of color, I do feel the need, especially in my classroom settings where there’s not many people who look like me, to try and prove myself” (Participant 4).
Experiencing “Othering.” While the study site’s institutional leaders emphasize a culture of DEIB, a few mentioned feeling out of place, alienated, or outcasts as minority students in class, experiencing the need to “prove I’m worthy of being here,” (Participant 4). Another shared the example of microaggression that they felt a teacher assumed the student didn’t know how to snowboard because of their race. One participant had felt a sense of danger and rejection in the local community because of race, language, and sexual orientation. Participant 1 described: “I felt like an outsider because of getting stared at or being followed by the police. When I speak Spanish, I get so many frowns. When I used to work at Goodwill, I would get so many frowns when I would translate the announcement to help a customer who obviously speaks Spanish.” These narratives depict the lived reality of how deeply several underrepresented students experienced othering and not feeling accepted by faculty and surrounding communities.
Resources. While a few mentioned team building icebreakers as helpful in making classroom connections, the one place most agreed feeling safe to be authentic was in their clubs and organizations of choice. Although clubs are a resource for socio-emotional support, they are also a great resource for developing one’s identity by finding “like-minded” individuals and “kindred spirits” while in college. Eleven out of 14 respondents reported clubs and organizations having a positive effect on well-being, because students could show their authentic selves and feel they truly fit in these groups. As shared by Participant 13:
I found my place and my people just by putting myself out there a lot. I feel like I fit in in relative situations, if that makes sense. I fit in well with my club, and I fit in well with some programs that I do, but I don’t fit in well with everything.
Some clubs and organizations mentioned were the LGBTQA club, Hispanic/Latinx Student Union, Black Student Union, Hawaii club, first-gen, fraternities, sororities, the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), honors, fashion, a religious organization, karaoke, and the Disney club. While extracurricular activities are valuable, students’ involvement with multiple clubs, jobs, and internships made it hard to juggle them all and keep up with classwork. Participant 3 said (male, FGS): “With my work, I get home at midnight 12:30 a.m. and then have to work on homework.” Others noted the membership costs might create potential barriers for underrepresented groups.
Thisresearch delineates underrepresented students’ experiences with strategic communication college education and their needs for mentoring resources. The challenges of negotiating marginalized identities in strategic communication degree programs is understudied, partly contributing to the lack of DEIB in college classrooms and PR professions. Grounded in the intersectionality of social identities (Fiske & Taylor, 1991, Waymer, 2012), we conducted 14 interviews with FGS, Hispanic/Latinx, and African American students to unpack challenges and mentoring needs related to three dimensions: cognitive skills, social-emotional support, and identity development. Findings reveal the processes of overcoming academic challenges, initiating faculty-student connections, and adjusting peer interactions in different sizes and cultures of classrooms. Selected self-presentation through code-switching was mentioned frequently (Gray et al., 2018). Facing exacerbated challenges brought by a prolonged pandemic, underrepresented students adapted coping strategies to move toward finishing the college degree deemed meaningful to themselves and their family. Participant 1, graduated in Spring 2022, proudly shared: “Thank you mom and dad. Because they cross the borders, we can cross the stage.” Echoing the call for pushing against the deficit narratives surrounding underrepresented backgrounds (Payne et al., 2021; Sarcedo, 2022), our results show students focused on strength-based approaches to seek skill-based resources for improving cognitive and professional capabilities. Underrepresented students noted institutional programs are helpful; yet, promoting communication degrees to incoming students and implementing formal structures for degree-specific mentoring would be ideal.
While the satisfaction with skill-oriented resources and an appreciation of feeling welcomed by strategic communication faculty were apparent, underrepresented students expressed a low-to-moderate sense of belonging, reaffirming existing literature (Ezarik, 2022; Havlik et al., 2020; Koo, 2021; Stebleton et al., 2014). This was partly driven by mindsets of intersectional identities (feeling intimidated to speak up and being the few minorities in large classrooms) and experiences of relational breakdown with instructors. As such, the connections with faculty members and specific mentors are described as “valuable resources” for professional opportunities (Scisney-Matlock & Matlock, 2001). Importantly, communicative aspects of faculty-student interactions form a support system to increase motivation, improve socio-emotional well-being during pandemic times, and increase students’ sense of belonging in an alienated environment (Tinto, 1998; Scharp et al., 2022).
Notably, identity affirmation was a crucial factor in shaping underrepresented students’ self-worth and belonging. The process of validating and affirming their identity is multifaceted and requires balancing tensions between conflicting beliefs. While asking for help from institutional resources (e.g., tutoring services, writing centers) was a strategy commonly used, students expressed not wanting to waste others’ time, add to the list of problems, or rock the boat. While desiring connections with faculty, they consciously engaged in code-switching to fit in and earn perceptions of professionalism (Gray et al., 2018; Morton, 2014). While maintaining high levels of academic achievement, they experienced impostorism and felt the pressure to prove themselves constantly, which in turn could lead to poor wellbeing. Although they recounted winning leadership positions in student organizations as proud achievements, students shared that they elevated peers instead of making themselves the center of attention. Involvement in clubs, organizations, and internships brought immense identity support and established networks with like-minded peers; yet, balancing demanding classwork, social activities, and part-time jobs remained challenging.
Limitations and Future Directions
Several limitations are acknowledged. First, multiple layers of marginalized identities influence students’ experience with college education. Our research did not address concerns unique to other identities, including LGBTQIA+ groups or students with disabilities. Qualitative studies extending our framework to delineate challenges these marginalized groups face in strategic communication programs will be useful. Second, the limited number of African American participants in the interview sample might not fully capture the process of negotiating racialized classroom experiences and/or diminishing the role of race to maintain the individual meritocracy (Waymer & Brown, 2018). This was because very few African American students enrolled in the program under investigation. Academic and social experiences might be significantly different in programs with a more prominent presence of African American students. Future studies could examine the influence of socioeconomic status that intersects race and gender dimensions on academic success and professional development.
Longitudinal designs will be well-suited to track how alumni of underrepresented identities receiving culturally responsive mentoring at college succeed in the workplace after they graduate. Several promising questions are worthy of investigation: How do the functions of faculty mentoring build students’ leadership qualities in the PR field? How is the quality of faculty mentoring associated with graduation rates among underserved students? How do the challenges that alumni of underrepresented backgrounds encounter in the workplace differ from the three identified themes? In what way do they consider resources provided by the employers as useful or counterproductive? Lastly, future research could explore the impact of pressure to succeed from family and how this aligns or conflicts with FGS’s internal motivation. It would also be worthwhile to investigate underrepresented faculty’s needs for mentoring programs and leadership development.
Implications and Conclusions
Notwithstanding the limitations, this research offers pedagogical implications for PR educators to catalyze change for improving DEIB in classrooms. First, faculty need to intentionally create a safe space for underrepresented students to connect with peers and with faculty themselves through sending check-in emails, crafting discussion questions inclusive of diverse backgrounds, explaining the meaning of academic jargons, and offering informal meetings. Creating interactive assignments enables underrepresented students to build relationships with classmates in small group settings. Second, foregrounding culturally responsive mentorship from a co-orientation approach is vital, because relational connections serve as support systems to bolster underrepresented students’ identities and build a sense of belonging (Tsai et al., 2020). To improve faculty’s cultural competency, hosting workshops or training will be instrumental for adjusting mentoring styles and deepening connections with students. Mentoring students of diverse backgrounds should not fall on the shoulders of minoritized faculty. Changing the institutional culture of DEIB will ensure that the student mentoring efforts are distributed equitably. Lastly, moving toward actual engagement is desirable. The success of underrepresented students’ needs to happen in everyday faculty-student interactions instead of solely relying on institutional services that tend to operate for advantaged backgrounds. Meaningful student engagement can be achieved through advocating for small class sizes, sharing success stories to empower underrepresented students (e.g., inviting alumni for guest speaking, featuring student achievements on digital channels), and creating degree-specific mentoring opportunities.
Theoretically, this inquiry provides empirical justification for approaching faculty-student interactions from an intersectional lens and cultivating the awareness of intensified challenges due to marginalized identities in predominantly White degree programs. As this college-aged generation “doom” scrolls through the visual consequences of a polarized culture, cognitive, socio-emotional, and identity development needs emerge. By providing meaningful mentoring, encouraging student participation in identity-based clubs, and fostering positive peer relationships, strategic communication educators will make significant inroads toward instilling confidence and creating inclusive environments for underrepresented students, from their first day of college all the way to the graduation stage.
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Editorial Record: Submitted May 19, 2022. Revised August 23, 2022. Accepted October 28, 2022.
Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus Advertising & Public Relations College of Communication & Information Sciences University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, Alabama Email: email@example.com
Elina Erzikova, Ph.D. Professor of Public Relations College of the Arts and Media Central Michigan University Mount Pleasant, Michigan Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract Public relations education is a primary pipeline for preparing and developing future professionals. Yet, one of the most valuable leader, mentor, and educator capabilities—meaningful self-reflection (SR)—is neither highlighted nor strategically developed in many PR education programs. Mentoring programs at many organizations also do not appear to recognize SR as an invisible rudder that helps successfully navigate DEI challenges, day-to-day work issues, and unfamiliar situations like the pandemic. This paper closes the gap by reviewing a three-phase study focusing on self-reflection that highlights dozens of strategies and tactics that leaders, mentors, educators, and practitioners can use to enrich and increase SR in the workplace, classroom, and their personal lives. Doing so will drive, grow, and sustain DEI awareness, understanding, value, and practice in our profession and education even in challenging times.
Keywords: Public Relations, Self-reflection, Mentorship, Leadership, DEI
This research examines and underscores the crucial role of meaningful self-reflection (SR) by public relations teachers, leaders, mentors, and professionals to drive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in public relations education and practice during the pandemic and other challenging times and environments. Recent research, webinars, trade publications, news stories, and conferences have highlighted the great need for increased DEI in public relations education and practice.
The term, DEI, usually refers to a policy or program that, in short, signifies an organizational intention or commitment to respect differences, promote fairness and assure diverse voices are heard and valued (The language of diversity, 2021). Diversity and inclusion in the workplace represents both moral and business cases: treating people equally and with respect is the right thing to do, and such practice brings a business outcome in the form of positive organizational performance (Diversity and inclusion at work, 2018). In this regard, Bardhan and Gower (2022) called for an in-depth look into whether and how organizations strike a balance between the moral and business cases. They also emphasized the role of leaders in cultivating an organizational culture in which differences are valued instead of being feared or resisted. The process of creating (or maintaining) such a culture requires an introspection on both leaders and followers.
The research is based on a three-phase project carried out by the authors in the past four years. The research argues that meaningful self-reflection is the crucial key to building, growing and especially sustaining DEI in education and organizations of all kinds. DEI must not become a here today, gone tomorrow idea. To ensure that does not happen, and to grow and sustain DEI in public relations, educators and professionals must practice meaningful SR, which means: 1) the individual honestly controls both the size of their ego and the extent of their self-criticism, and 2) they examine themselves (me-reflection) and especially how others may see them (we-reflection) regularly to increase self-awareness and other-awareness. SR is the unseen rudder that helps us navigate vital challenges like DEI, workplace issues, and unfamiliar situations like the pandemic.
Drawing from the three-phase research project, the authors provide a practical six-step strategic self-reflection process practiced by excellent PR leaders and mentors, that can be taught and practiced in the classroom and at home. In addition, the research identified a number of strategies and approaches for including SR in PR education. These were then organized into seven building blocks for improving SR capabilities and practice in the classroom to strengthen and sustain DEI and manage other professional issues. Finally, dozens of excellent classroom exercises and tactics to help build SR capabilities are noted and briefly described.
This research-based paper is eminently practical for public relations educators and students. Too often SR is an overlooked skill in PR education, or taken for granted, not unlike listening and empathy capabilities, among others. Yet, meaningful SR is the foundation for continuous improvement in public relations leadership, mentorship, education, and practice, all of which are crucial to driving, growing, and sustaining DEI, which offers a brighter, richer, and more promising future in PR practice and education.
Three Research Projects: Methods and Key Findings
Many studies in communication, psychology, and education confirm the benefits of self-reflection (SR), e.g., richer relationships, heightened emotional IQ, enhanced leadership and mentorship skills, and more engaged work teams. The sooner students and young professionals hone their strategic SR skills, the sooner they and their employers receive the benefits. Yet, as Mules (2018) found, SR is largely absent in PR research, textbooks, and the classroom. We know meaningful SR is not easy—the world is too noisy, we are too busy, and we battle egos—but it is crucial. This paper addresses that deficiency and identifies practical building blocks to advance development of SR in the classroom and organizational settings in order to enrich and sustain DEI in PR education and practice. The first two projects in the three-phase research program are briefly reviewed in this section. The most recent research project focusing on public relations educators and students and how they evaluate and use SR is then presented in more depth.
Self-Reflection Study with 30 PR Leaders (2018)
First, the researchers explored SR in depth interviews with 30 PR leaders in two countries in 2018 to learn about the role, process, practice, and benefits of SR in the workplace (Berger & Erzikova, 2019). Various leadership theories highlight the importance of SR and self-awareness, notably authentic, servant and transformational theories. In public relations, SR is implicit in Excellence Theory and more explicit in the Integrated Model of Leadership in PR (Meng & Berger, 2013). This model combines six personal dimensions for excellent leadership, four of which incorporate SR: self-insights, team leadership capabilities, relationship building and ethical orientation. This model provided the theoretical framework for this phase of the study.
For example, self-reflection is explicit in the self-dynamics dimension of the model, which includes the sub dimensions of visioning and self-insights. In this sense, self-insights refer to the extent to which PR leaders understand their own strengths and weaknesses and understand current issues, like the pandemic, to successfully adapt strategies and tactics to achieve organizational goals. Self-reflection is the process that helps build self-awareness and knowledge that can be put into subsequent actions and reflected in behaviors and communications by public relations leaders. In short, SR is a crucial driver of both continuous learning and improvement in the competency categories in this leadership model.
To learn more about SR perceptions and practices among PR leaders, this study examined SR in diverse Russian and N. American PR leaders. Depth interviews, averaging 45 minutes in length, were conducted with 15 Russian (9-F, 6-M) and 15 American (8-F, 7-M) communication leaders, who represented diverse organizational types, possessed more than 10 years of experience and lead, or have led communication teams, functions, or agencies. The interviews probed for insights to help answer five research questions: how and to what extent the leaders practiced SR, barriers to productive SR, practical benefits of SR in their work role, and the extent to which mentoring might contribute to the development of SR and leadership capabilities.
Overall, the study found all PR leaders in both countries believed SR is an important leadership capability, though it is practiced and valued somewhat differently in the two systems. The leaders regularly self-reflected and shared similar views about the role, process, practice, and benefits of SR. Three differences also were found, the most substantial being the me-reflection approach used by the Russians (a nearly total focus on the self) versus the we-reflection approach used by more N. Americans (incorporating others in their SR). Also, Russians raised far more concerns about “dangerous” SR, or excessive self-criticism, while Americans more strongly valued the role and influence of mentors, whom they suggested were the “best” SR teachers. Most of the Russian leaders were also in mentorship roles in their work.
The study’s richest contributions are the practical, actionable implications for improving SR capabilities and practices among professionals, educators, and students. The most valuable may be a six-step strategic SR process that describes how to prepare mentally for SR, and then to plan and carry out insights from the introspection. Another rich implication for mentors and mentees is a “questioning approach,” or Socratic approach which teaches meaningful self-inquiry: mentors ask thoughtful questions to help mentees reach answers, rather than simply answering their questions. Study participants also suggested many specific approaches to stimulate and improve student SR in the classroom. Overall, the study sheds new light on SR in PR leadership practice and development and provides actionable implications for practice and education in dealing with DEI, a pandemic environment, and other big issues in the field.
Content Analysis of Educator SR Exercises in the Classroom (2020)
Building on the 2018 study, the researchers conducted a comprehensive content analysis of online educator blogs, articles, and websites focusing on how to increase self-reflection skills of students and teachers in the classroom in 2020 (Berger & Erzikova, 2021). More than 200 online blogs, articles and websites were analyzed to identify what specific steps educators took to try to increase SR capabilities in students, and in themselves.
The researchers discovered hundreds of specific exercises and approaches which educators used to advance SR student skills. These were then grouped into seven building blocks (detailed later) for advancing SR in the classroom. The foundational building block focuses on the teacher’s commitment to SR, and their corresponding commitment to enriching DEI awareness and focus in SR. This building block also reflects the idea of trying to build some SR exercise in each class session, rather than devoting one class session to discuss the topic. Other key building blocks include using more Socratic teaching approaches, depth debriefs of team projects, self-assessment tools like Meyers-Briggs and Strengths/Finders, and great literature, films, and poetry to trigger journal writing and self-discussion.
Evaluation and Practice of SR by PR Teachers and Students (2021-22)
In 2021, the researchers used brief written surveys of 22 PR educators, and similar written surveys and focus groups with 23 PR students, to examine SR in PR education today, the extent of teachers’ and students’ SR, the perceived value of SR, and best classroom SR exercises or learning experiences, including those for dealing with DEI (Berger & Erzikova, 2022). The findings in this third phase of the research project are detailed below the brief introduction to self-reflection that follows.
Self-Reflection: What is it and why is it important?
Self-awareness is “the ability to see ourselves clearly—to understand who we are, how others see us and how we fit into the world” (Eurich, 2017, p. 3). Self-reflection (SR) is the primary way we examine ourselves and how others see us. It is deliberate, conscious introspection to better understand our thoughts, experiences, and emotions—to become aware of them, learn from them, and increase self-awareness.
Self-reflection also advances our emotional intelligence (EI) by helping us recognize and understand our emotions, listen better, and be more empathetic (Goleman, 1995). SR deepens critical thinking, improves communication and decision-making, builds confidence, and enriches relationships and leadership capabilities (Miller, 2013). In addition, SR may render us better workers and team players, who are less likely to lie, cheat, and steal (Eurich, 2017).
Acknowledging the complexity of professional practice nearly four decades ago, Donald Schön introduced a concept of the “reflective practitioner.” This professional responds to workplace challenges by reflecting on the happening while it is unfolding (reflection in action) and afterwards using reflection on action. Schön (1983) argued:
In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is a swampy lowland where situations are confusing “messes”, incapable of technical solution. The difficulty is that the problems of the high ground, however great their technical interest, are often relatively unimportant to clients or to the larger society, while in the swamp are the problems of greatest human concern (p. 42).
Given the unpredictable nature of public relations work and number of problems (“messy situations”) PR practitioners face every day, SR should be considered one of the essential features of professional competence. The earlier this skill starts developing, the better a PR practitioner is prepared to deal with dilemmas , uncertainties, and crises.
Despite the recognized importance of SR and self-awareness, little research has been conducted regarding reflection in and by PR and communication leaders (Mules, 2018; Mules et al., 2019).). Mules (2018) found that popular PR textbooks do not address the importance of reflective practices, and there is “very little research into the role of formal reflection in the daily practice of public relations practitioners and public relations curricula” (Mules, 2018, p. 175).
Furthermore, Mules et al. (2019) discussed an action research project implemented in a PR course and shared useful insights into benefits and challenges of formally incorporating reflective practice in PR curricula: While the task “was neither easy nor comfortable,” the project “provided a fresh and exciting way to interact with the students” (p. 10), which might be especially valuable in pandemic times. As an implication for the PR profession, Mules et al. (2019) argued that classroom reflection is crucial for “the professional standing of public relations because it provides a way to integrate theory and practice at the beginnings of students’ professional careers, and because it provides specific strategies for scrutinizing assumptions” (p. 11).
Some barriers to meaningful self-reflection also exist. These include such “inner roadblocks” as a (perceived) shortage of time, a lack of understanding of the process and its benefits (Porter, 2017), and being delusional about personal traits (Eurich, 2017), among others. In addition, Eurich (2017) pointed out that an “insidious societal obstacle” – “the cult of self” (p. 73) – impedes self-awareness as inflated self-esteem makes individuals feel special about themselves and blinds them to the truth about their capabilities. This may be an increasingly acute problem in our fragmented world.
Mentors can play important roles in facilitating reflection by asking mentees seemingly simple – “what” and “why” – questions (Kail, 2012). Coached reflection, or a formal help an individual receives during a difficult situation to work through and learn from, is an essential component of both coaching and mentoring (Day et al., 2009). In other words, mentors’ help is vital during what Eurich (2017) called alarm clock events or “situations that open our eyes to important self-truths” (p. 44). These trigger moments can be negative, neutral, or positive (Avolio & Wernsing, 2008).
Mezirow (1997) argued, “thinking as an autonomous and responsible agent is essential for full citizenship in democracy and for moral decision making in situations of rapid change” (p. 7). The educator or mentor assures that learners achieve this goal by creating a supportive environment to help mentees develop critical reflectivity and self-confidence to “take action on reflective insights” (Mezirow, 2000, p. 25).
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in public relations
A recent study (The language of diversity, 2021) revealed several concerns regarding DEI initiatives in U.S. organizations. At the individual level, some PR practitioners felt uncomfortable discussing DEI, and some were confused about DEI basic terms. At the organizational level, only about a third of respondents said their organizations codified DEI definitions, while two-thirds admitted their organizations did not move from a verbal commitment to meaningful action. Other companies do worse – their actions contradict their DEI statements. For example, Starbucks made a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and later forbade employees to wear pins and clothes with the phrase (Murphy, 2020).
Clearly, there is an urgent need for PR leaders to step in to support and drive DEI initiatives that, in the words of Bardhan and Engstrom (2021), help organizations eliminate bias and discrimination. To approach this task, PR practitioners should start with self-reflection or examination of their own perceptions of DEI. There is little doubt that DEI is here to stay and eventually, the majority of U.S. organizations will define basic DEI terms and make them public for both employees and society. Still, a question is whether this formal appearance of commitment to DEI would result in action. This study argues that without adopting DEI at the individual level, the commitment at the organizational level would be rather superficial. SR seems to be helpful in identifying/articulating personal relevance to DEI as a prerequisite for an organization-wide pledge to the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is expected that PR leaders will be in the forefront of change by modeling a desired behavior and inspiring their followers to deeply embrace DEI (Bardhan & Gower, 2022).
Building on these and other insights from substantial previous research in the area, and the authors’ three previous studies (Berger & Erzikova, 2022; Berger & Erzikova, 2021; Berger & Erzikova, 2019), this paper draws from all three studies but highlights the recent study of educators and students, and tries to answer five research questions in this regard:
RQ1: Do PR educators and students differ in their rank order of self-reflection as one of
the important professional skills and capabilities?
RQ2: To what extent do PR educators and students practice self-reflection in their everyday lives? And what approaches do they use?
RQ 3: In students’ opinions, what are practical benefits of SR? What approaches do PR students experience in the classroom?
RQ 4: In educators’ opinions, why and how is SR a valuable skill and practice for PR students as future leaders?
RQ 5: In educators’ opinions, what are the most powerful SR learning experiences, especially those related to DEI?
Twenty-two PR educators (12 were women) from ten states and 23 PR students (seniors, 19 were women) from a public university provided written responses to six questions about the extent of teachers’ and students’ SR, the perceived value of SR, and best classroom SR exercises or learning experiences. PR teachers’ experiences working at colleges and universities ranged from five to 30+ years, and six of them were of foreign origin. Sixteen educators received terminal degrees from U.S. universities and were tenure/tenured track faculty. Six educators received M.A. degrees and were instructors in undergraduate programs. Professors and instructors taught a variety of PR courses at the undergraduate level, which was the focus of the study (e.g., PR principles, PR writing, PR campaigns, PR case studies). They were recruited via a personal network.
Completing the written questionnaire required about 12 minutes for both teachers and students. In addition, students participated in four focus groups (each 45 minutes in length) to discuss SR approaches they were part of in the classroom. Four student-leaders had a 30-minute training on SR and focus group as a research method prior to the conversations. Student-leaders helped a researcher guide focus group discussions, making the process less stressful and more engaging. Focus groups were not recorded. Instead, each group developed a thorough written summary. Student participants found this task beneficial as it helped them pin down most important discussion outcomes they might use in the future. The researcher took notes during the conversations. All students were born in the U.S.; three of them were people of color.
Using Lincoln and Guba’s (1985) guidelines, the researchers first conducted independent analysis of two data sets (educators’ written responses and students’ individual written responses as well as focus group summaries and researchers’ notes). After patterns in each set were identified, the researchers exchanged preliminary findings to assess the adequacy of analysis. Next, they examined both data sets to categorize differences and similarities. This analysis was important as “Comparisons not only uncover differences between social entities but reveal unique aspects of an entity that would be virtually impossible to detect otherwise” (Mills et al., 2006, p. 621).
RQ1: Do PR educators and students differ in their rank order of self-reflection as one of the important professional skills and capabilities?
The first stage of this research asked PR educators and students to rank order the relative importance of seven skills and capabilities that are usually considered important for young public relations professionals (Table 1). Neither group ranked the “soft” leadership skill of self-reflection as the top skill; educators ranked SR a bit higher (4th) than students (6th). Out of 45 participants (both teachers and students), only one educator ranked SR as 1st.
Collectively, PR educators ranked the technical skill of writing as 1st, followed by three so-called “soft” skills: critical thinking 2nd, listening 3rd, and self-reflection 4th. The last three were technical skills: measurement 5th, channel knowledge 6th, and design 7th.
Students ranked the “soft” leadership skills of critical thinking and listening as 1st and 3rd respectively, with the technical skill of writing 2nd. The top three were followed by the technical skills of measurement (4th) and channel knowledge (5th). Self-reflection was 6th on the list, followed by design know-how (7th).
The relative importance of the seven important professional skills and capabilities
Measurement knowledge and application
Channel knowledge (SM, print, etc.)
Note: The most important skill was ranked “1,” the least important skill was ranked “7.”
RQ2: To what extent do PR educators and students practice self-reflection in their everyday lives? And what approaches do they use?
A majority of educators and students reported using SR extensively in their everyday lives. They reflect daily through journaling and/or thinking about important events. One teacher said, “At work, I constantly make note of which practices seem to work best with my students. I am happy to adjust to keep up with the industry or evolving learning styles. At home, I try to do the same thing.” A student echoed this line of thinking about SR: “I often think back on past decisions and actions I made. I re-evaluate how I handled conversations, relationships, etc. and think to myself maybe where I went wrong. I do it as a learning experience and so I can always try to better myself.”
Further, careful analysis of responses revealed shared and unique themes in the two data sets. The shared topics included two approaches – “Looking back” and “Looking forward.”
A looking-back approach. This method appeared to be most popular among educators and students.A majority of respondents reported reflecting on past experiences. An educator said, “I reflect on my teaching every so often (maybe several times a month) to identify what I could have done differently/better.” Another one said that SR is “something of a compulsion” and happens while “reviewing situations, what motivated my decisions/behaviors and thinking through the why, and what I might have done differently or better.” A student shared, “After finishing a conversation with people, I’ll think if I was too awkward, or if it went well. After tests I’ll also think back on how I did, or how I could have done better.”
A looking-forward approach. Several educators said they use SR as a planning tool. For example, one teacher shared, “I seek feedback at least once a semester and constantly make notes after classes, meetings, etc. Then, I try to reflect on it before a new semester begins.” Another teacher said, “Each time I give an assignment in class and see what my students learned—did I do a good job, or do I need to revise my methods?” A student said she self-reflected when “mulling decisions for me and life. You must self-reflect to move forward with life.”
The following unique approaches were detected in educators’ responses:
A cautionary approach. Two participants indicated that SR should be undertaken with caution to avoid negative consequences. One explained: “I have small segments of time slots to manage since there are multiple tasks to be accomplished, so if the plan changed either based on choices or unexpected, SR will take place. However, I must admit that it is hard to separate positive SR from self-criticism.” Another educator echoed this concern:
There is a thin line between self-reflection and obsessing: One needs to reflect upon organizational and personal relationship interactions but not become bogged down by them or become emotionally self-critical. We must learn to give ourselves grace, keep things in perspective, not be perfectionists, but still be in an ever-growth mindset for ourselves and our organizations.
An imaginative approach. One educator said, “Through reading books or learning others’ situations, I often imagine what I would do if were in their positions. And, more importantly, I think about how to make a situation better.”
The following unique approaches were detected in students’ responses:
A dealing with a stress approach. The theme of an ongoing stress/feeling overwhelmed was directly or indirectly communicated in several student responses. One student shared, “Whenever I get stressed or overwhelmed, I self-reflect of all the things I’ve accomplished so far to get myself in a better mood, or at work, or in church.” Another student said, “I try to do this before I start to feel overwhelmed.”
A dealing with the pressure to succeed approach. A number of students indicated SR is beneficial for them as they strive to find ways to succeed in life and profession. One student defined SR as “Looking inward to address personal/professional strengths and weaknesses, and how you approach life knowing them.” Another provided a similar answer: “SR is being able to know yourself and your own strengths and weaknesses along with knowing what you need to thrive.” While answering how she practiced SR, a student said, “I often do this through therapy, self-help books, or looking at others who have been in my position and what they did to succeed.”
RQ 3: In students’ opinions, what are practical benefits of SR? What approaches do PR students experience in the classroom?
Overall, students assign a high value to SR practice. They see it as “helpful with mental health” and being “one of the best ways to know yourself.” One student said SR is a way to identify her weaknesses and thus, knowing “when to ask for help.” Another respondent saw SR is a necessary component in the process of goal setting that leads to life improvement. SR also helps students to “hold yourself accountable to move forward,” find “perspective, learn and grow from past experiences,” and live “to the fullest potential.” In addition, they believed “it’s important to self-reflect to be a better person and a successful PR professional.”
Students said they are engaged in SR in some classes, mainly through peer review, professor feedback, case study analysis, debriefs on projects, and reflection papers. Respondents shared that SR activities help them learn from mistakes, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and prepare for real-world challenges. In particular, one focus group participant said:
Being a student is about gaining knowledge, experience and confidence. It’s a valuable skill because it’s important to stay on top of industry trends, new techniques and crises. In a PR class, you are putting your skills to the test. It gives us an opportunity to make mistakes. Also, reviewing our own morals and values and what kind of company you want to work for.
Another group also believed it is always a valuable experience – working in a class with three-four people and “see how different minds come up with incredible ideas through reflection.”
Importantly, students said class discussions and assignments should incorporate a better variety of SR activities. Given the fact that SR benefits both individual and group projects, the SR approach should be used on a regular basis in all PR classes.
RQ 4: What do PR educators see the benefits of self-reflection for students as future leaders?
All teachers said SR helps PR students as future change agents to enhance self-awareness and emotional intelligence, among other qualities. One educator provided a detailed answer:
PR professionals must have and hone emotional intelligence, of which empathy is a big part, for they are responsible for creating, maintaining, and nurturing various relationships within and external to their organizations (i.e., among various stakeholders) and providing insight and counsel to management. They also represent the organization, so they need to reflect on how they might communicate more effectively with others, what messages might best resonate, and how they might project a more professional, engaged image. SR involves what one can do differently or better in response to others—not how they can change others. The change should be internal (themselves or their organizations) in response to others, as a result of SR.
In addition, several respondents reported using SR to help students understand “their own set of values and how to use those values, as well as professional communication values (particularly those in the PRSA Code of Ethics), during ethical decision-making.”
One teacher argued SR is a way to meet challenges of a complex and ever-changing industry environment: “The PR industry is constantly changing. Also, there is no one right answer in PR. There are many unpredictable situations and PR practitioners need to communicate with different people all the time.”
Another educator believed that the importance of teaching SR “has been elevated considerably by the toxic environment we live in today. We need to look at ourselves and ask what we are doing to be moral agents.”
However, the extent to which educators practiced SR and “taught” it in the classroom, varied widely. About one-third incorporated SR in their courses and used challenging projects and exercises to help students develop both me- and we- reflection capabilities. These in-class exercises and projects summarized below (see the RQ5 discussion) may be the most valuable and practical findings in this research.
Other examples of rich classroom exercises the educators described included: 1) unconscious bias training and reflection on DEI; 2) self-assessment exercises based on four working-style preferences; 3) requiring seniors in a campaigns class to write a letter to their “Freshman Self,” explaining what they would learned about communication and PR practice in their four years of college; and 4) completing a “privilege knapsack” class exercise, which helps students realize privileges they may take for granted and which may impact their professional PR performance.
On the other end, about one-third of educators did little if anything in the classroom to help build or encourage development of the skill, though they recognized it was probably important to do so.
RQ 5: In educators’ opinions, what are the most powerful SR learning experiences, especially those related to DEI?
Eighteen out of 22 educators shared specific practices they believed are powerful in helping students to do both – master content and improve SR skills. This twofold benefit appeared to be the most prominent theme in teachers’ responses. For example, one educator said an effective method of learning SR is to “build it into a real-life business or professional example, case, situation. This approach allows students to discern SR in a constructive setting and through an experiential.” Another participant echoed, “I found having students evaluate their own campaign execution the most effective. Students brought up many ‘could have done better’ points such as teamwork, messaging, channel selections, and research part in campaign design.”
Other educators reported using simulation and role plays, peer feedback, discussions, written summaries, and soft grading which is giving “students a chance to revise, instead of letting them sit with their grade and do nothing to improve.” One respondent shared she considers discussions of projects she did as a practitioner a form of SR. Another teacher reported using online tools after discovering that “students venture into SR more on Discussion Boards.”
Analysis of teachers’ responses revealed several characteristics of effective SR learning experiences. Regardless of a project type, the effort should be intentional, encompassing, consistent and creative. For example, one educator said she is “intentionally allocating some time (e.g., 5 minutes) each week for students to reflect on what they learnt from the lectures, readings, exercises, assignments, teamwork, etc., summarize, and write down such reflections.”
Educators use an encompassing approach by incorporating SR strategies into assignments related to public relations directly (e.g., case studies) and indirectly (e.g., general management skills). Two participants said they built SR into assignments aimed to improve students’ conflict management skills and create awareness about different working styles.
Another respondent’s answer is an example of a consistent and creative effort:
At the end of a semester, I ask campaigns class students to write a letter to their freshman self. For (name) Agency they write a letter to their pre-(name) Agency self. It is an amazing exercise as they see how far they have come. It usually involves both laughter and tears on their part and mine. For (name) Agency we print it out in a book that we give all the seniors at a Senior Send off. They sign each other’ books like a yearbook. It’s epic.
Several participants mentioned that SR helped them address DEI-related issues in classroom. One educator said:
So far, I think the most powerful SR learning experience will be related to the unconscious bias training or discussion related to DEI. It’s a topic we are aware of, but we are uncomfortable to talk about. The common (or easy) answer is we treat everyone the same, which is colorblindness and a lack of authenticity and failure to recognize differences. Because in the real world, everyone is not the same.
The educator continued by sharing a DEI approach to help students open up and thus, make an SR exercise more meaningful:
Since my class on diversity and leadership is an online course, the SR exercise is not a public discussion in class. I found it actually makes students more comfortable to share and reflect on their past experience or circumstances when they feel privileged (or underprivileged), biased, or those common stereotypes they attribute to other minority groups, since I am their only reader. They tend to be more open and authentic. This is the topic I get to read more authentic self-reflection than other topics such as leadership styles or ethics.
Based on teaching experience of a PR instructor, an effective DEI-related pedagogy is a writing assignment in the format of a reflection paper on student’s “cultural identity, including the influences that shaped that identity, the core values internalized from those influences, and how one personally expresses or resists or transforms those values.” The instructor also asks students to “think about how those values impact how they react and respond to others not like themselves” and “give the paper a title that is reflective of its content.” The instructor added, “I remind them that white is a race.”
Another respondent shared using online resources to discuss DEI:
An exercise that encourages students to realize privileges that they may take for granted and how that may impact their PR communication in negative ways. For example, the privilege knapsack class exercise. See: Diversity Toolkit: A guide to discussing identity, power and privilege (2020).
Overall, analysis of responses revealed those educators who have made SR-related activities part of the curriculum, appeared to be committed to developing both hard and soft skills in their students. As for DEI activities, only a few participants linked SR and DEI, but their approaches seemed to be quite powerful.
Discussion and Practical Implications
This research found most surveyed PR educators and students value SR and practice it in varying degrees in their personal lives and work/professional lives. SR is considered a valuable skill, though ranked as 4th by educators and 6th by students among the seven skills surveyed (all important skills). Educators expressed more caution than students about focusing too much on self-criticism in SR. Most students use a “me-reflection” approach, focusing on their personal lives and how they can improve relationships, communicate better, reduce stress, and create a better and brighter future. They “look back” to help “look ahead.” Students expressed more use of SR to help deal with stress and the pressures to succeed. They described using SR to “react” to such challenges, while educators used SR more to “respond” to such challenges. As an implication for mentorship programs, one of the tasks would be to help mentees to be less reactive and more responsive to issues and problems associated with their work-related challenges. As U.S. organizations are adopting the DEI agenda, SR becomes an indispensable tool in helping position the organizational effort as a moral case (Diversity and inclusion at work, 2018).
All teachers said SR was important. Those educators who use SR to talk about DEI in class, did not appear to utilize a variety of approaches, but their practices seem to be effective. Accordingly, one can imply teacher’s passion and consistency in addressing DEI are more important than an assortment of pedagogies.
The extent to which teachers personally practiced SR and “taught” it in the classroom, varied widely. About one-third incorporated SR in their courses and used engaging projects and exercises to help students develop both me- and we- reflection capabilities. On the other end, about one-third did little if anything in the classroom to encourage development of the skill. The structures of educators’ own SR practices were wide-ranging—from daily walks to morning journaling sessions, daily meditation or exercise periods, to reflecting during wait times in airports.
Implications for Teaching and Mentoring
This study underscores the value and importance of self-reflection in PR education and in mentoring, and the researchers’ two previous studies provide related insights and specific processes and approaches to advance SR skills in the classroom and in mentoring relationships. During depth interviews with 30 leading professionals in Russia and N. America (Berger & Erzikova, 2019), the researchers found all the professionals practiced SR, though in different ways and settings. All 30 also were mentors to students and young professionals, and part of their mentoring focused on enriching SR skills among the mentees.
Based on these interviews, the researchers developed a six-step strategic SR process that bears implications for practice and education, and provides a distinct pathway to more meaningful SR. The six steps are:
1. Make time for SR. It is too important to be too busy. It is difficult getting started, but SR can become part of your daily routine. Walking, exercising, tending the garden, riding to work, reading books, writing in a diary—choose an approach that works best for you. Then do it.
2. Create the “right” mindset. Like putting on a game face, in SR we must create a mental space where SR fills the foreground. We cannot empty our brains, but we can adjust focus.
3. Be self-honest and balance your self-assessment. This is the most difficult step, and two issues are involved. First, do not let ego overpower your self-critique and, second, don’t let self-criticism (rumination) lead to inaction or loss of confidence.
4. Formulate actions based on your assessment and evaluation. Calendar them. Consider discussing them with a mentor or colleague, especially if they deal with DEI or a related crucial issue. For example, you can decide to meet periodically with a colleague/classmate whose worldview differs from yours.
5. Carry out actions. Be professional, timely and authentic. Rehearsing the actions to test and refine them may be useful, whether for small or large events or issues.
6. Self-reflect on the outcomes and renew the cycle. Writing things down may help at this point. Over time, this process becomes routine. Individuals can use this process, and mentors and teachers can help students and young professionals frame each step with relevant questions to ask the self along the way.
The researchers also completed a content analysis and comprehensive review of online SR development approaches and tools for use in the classroom (Berger & Erzikova, 2022). This review helped identify seven building blocks for including more, and more effective SR in the classroom and in organizational mentoring programs. Dozens of specific exercises were identified that can be built into real or virtual classrooms, and mentoring settings to develop SR power among students and teachers. The seven building blocks are briefly described below.
Block 1: Commitment The foundation block is a firm commitment by educators/mentors to develop students’/mentees’ SR capabilities, along with improving their own SR knowledge and practice. Educators can make a similar commitment to developing DEI awareness through their SR teachings. A powerful overall strategy is to structure courses to include SR moments and practices into most class sessions, rather than highlighting SR in a single class. A blog by Tricia Whenham (April 9, 2020): 15 ways to spark student reflection in your college classroom, provides examples.
Teachers’/mentors’ own SR practices and enrichment efforts also are crucial to strengthening students’ SR capabilities. One approach for teachers/mentors is to consistently examine and question their own teaching/mentoring approaches, capabilities, and outcomes. As John Dewey famously argued, we do not learn from experience, but rather we learn from reflecting on experience. A good resource in this area is the report by Julia A. Hatcher and Robert G. Bringle, “Reflection Activities for the College Classroom” (1996).
Block 2: Socratic Teaching Use Socratic teaching more often—less lecturing/less teacher talking, and more listening and questioning—to stimulate critical thinking and draw out ideas and underlying assumptions. Erick Willberding’s Socratic Methods in the Classroom (2019) is an excellent resource. Six types of basic Socratic questions concern: 1) clarifying thinking by using basic “tell me more” questions to drive deeper thinking; 2) challenging or probing assumptions to identify presuppositions, including DEI related issues and beliefs; 3) probing evidence or reasoning in arguments to assess strength and weight; 4) exploring alternative viewpoints on the topic or issue; 5) examining implications and consequences to assess relevance and desirability; and 6) questioning the question(s) itself.
For example, educators can use Socratic questions to discuss the impact of current events (the pandemic and anti-transgender legislation) on mental health of LGBTQ young people. The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth, provides online educational resources to make such discussions informative and meaningful.
The Socratic teaching approach challenges the accuracy and completeness of thinking in ways that help people move forward and promote higher order thinking skills and capabilities. The more such questions are used, especially those dealing DEI issues, the more critical thinking is strengthened, and a wide-lens perspective is adopted. About half of the 30 PR leaders interviewed (Berger & Erzikova, 2019) used a Socratic approach in mentoring students and young professionals. They helped students answer their own questions by raising questions with the students, by way of providing answers. This may be an especially valuable approach during pandemic times.
Block 3: Artistic Stimulation Use poetry, great literature, films, art, and music to trigger journal writing, creative thinking, and reflection and discussions about the self, dreams, hopes, values, and behaviors. Art often stimulates self-reflection because it often is a product of SR. For example, have students read and discuss a poem or short story, listen to music, or view a painting, and then discuss what it means to them, or what it feels like to them. Challenge them to create a tweet to capture the essence of their feeling about the work. Then consider how the tweet might frame or describe a PR or advertising campaign.
A powerful example of artistic stimulation to drive DEI self-reflection and group reflection in the classroom is the poem, I am diversity. Please include me. Written by the former pastor and poet, Charles W. Bennafield, it was apparently used at the Conference Board’s Diversity Boot Camp in 2012. Many version of individuals’ reading this poem is available on Facebook.
Block 4: Deep Debriefs Lead students/mentees through depth debriefs of in-class team projects/work for a client, or review of case studies, which build analytical and reflective thinking and deepen understanding—opening the door for improved planning and execution in future projects. Questions that focus on identifying the most important facts and issues in a case, and then specifying alternative courses of action, closely assessing each course, and finally recommending the “best” course of action, help build analytical and reflection skills.
This approach to SR was evident in responses by about one-third of the PR students and educators involved in this study, and in similar numbers of professional leaders in Russia and North America who described their mentoring approaches with PR students and young professionals (Berger & Erzikova, 2022).
Block 5: Self-Assessment Tools Sharpen students’/mentees’ self-insights and team-insights with assessment tools available online or in booklet form. These self-assessments can drive self-reflection and awareness and help students or professionals better understand themselves and others/different types. Self-awareness can help improve performance, relationships, team building, diversity, and trust. Several educators and students highlighted this approach in their survey responses. Here are four commonly used assessments:
Myer-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI): Reveals personality type (16 types) and helps individuals better understand and accept themselves (and others) and who they are.
Conflict Dynamics Profile (CDP): measures conflict behaviors, increases self-awareness and helps develop conflict management skills. Focuses on behavior, not styles.
Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI): reveals one’s style of problem-solving and increases self-awareness and teamwork. Useful especially for building teams and carrying out change management.
Diversity and Inclusion Self–Assessment (DISA): helps individuals understandtheir team’s or organization’s relative commitment to DEI and where improvements can be made.
Strengths Finders (SF): helps individuals identify their top strengths (from a list of talent themes) and become more engaged and improve performance. This positive approach is a good first step in team building and leadership development.
Block 6: Recurring Workplace Questions Lead students/mentees to create a list of the kinds of recurring SR questions they are likely to deal with in their professional work world as individuals or team members.Consider how you might answer them, and the relevant behaviors needed to convince others you mean what you say. Here are five such questions: 1) Do my words and actions on the job reflect my core values? 2) How do I contribute to my work team’s or organization’s culture? 3) How can I develop a better work relationship with my boss? 4) How do others likely see my actions and behaviors? 5) How do I contribute to the DEI agenda? Educators/mentors may ask similar questions of themselves and their performance.
Block 7: Calendar Approach Use a straight-forward “calendar approach” to help students/mentees reflect on and rehearse important, upcoming events, assignments, or challenges in their current educational/professional world. This might include leading a team session, or study group of mixed race students where DEI is the central issue, applying for a job, delivering a speech, being a social host at some event, participating in a club meeting, a call with a mentor or client, and so forth. This forces students/mentees to consider such events before they take place, as well as their words and actions, behaviors, what to look for, and so forth.
Limitations and Directions for Future Research
While this study provided valuable insights into how self-reflection can help sustain and enrich DEI, the sample included only U.S. students and educators. Future research therefore should include a larger U.S. sample and examine the interrelations between SR and DEI in other countries to shed light on attitudes and practices and attempt to uncover similarities and differences among various audiences—PR students, educators, and practitioners. In addition, this qualitative study revealed patterns that should be further investigated through a quantitative study to provide a generalizable view of DEI initiatives’ sustainability through SR. Finally, future research should specifically focus on best DEI teaching practices of diverse PR educators.
Conclusion: More Research and Practice in Self-Reflection
This was a brief, descriptive study of self-reflection in PR educators and students, and therefore, the findings cannot be generalized. However, combined with extensive SR research in education, psychology, and other fields, and the authors’ two previous studies in this area (Berger & Erzikova, 2022; Berger & Erzikova, 2021), we have a growing sense of the state and importance of SR in public relations practice, education, and mentoring. We also have a strong set of SR learning tactics and strategies to enhance SR in the classroom, mentorships, and practice, which may be crucial in the pandemic world we live in today.
In the end, the study provides intriguing findings and suggestions that may help frame and design future qualitative or quantitative in-depth SR studies. The PR profession and related education programs would benefit greatly from more SR research to identify best SR practices in teaching and mentoring and how such practice might best be shared or incorporated into DEI learning and training, and educational and organizational programs. Many studies in other fields have confirmed the great value and positive power of SR for leaders and professionals, suggesting that SR may be the difference between good and great leadership. At the least it surely carries some weight in making a difference. More research can shine a light on this crucial, albeit often invisible or tacitly taken-for-granted professional and leadership capability and practice.
SR is a kind of invisible rudder that helps guide our thinking and decision-making, especially in difficult or uncertain times. For example, during the current pandemic and growing concerns about the need for greater DEI, or other future dramatic changes in the world, the importance of SR likely multiplies. The building blocks and corresponding teaching tactics herein provide a framework of practical guidance to develop and/or enrich self-reflection about the effects of COVID-19.
Studies reveal that disease outbreaks can have a long-term impact on the workforce’s mental health and well-being (Restubog et al., 2020; Sibley et al., 2020). In this regard, educators/mentors can reflect on the ways to prioritize students’/mentees’ mental and emotional health and help students/mentees do the same. Mentors can help students and young professionals identify SR guides via alumni, PRSA, companies, nonprofits, etc. The guides can assist with reflecting on what DEI means to mentees, their classmates/colleagues, and college/workplace. In addition, the guides can help mentees to reflect on personal biases and outline the ways to manage them.
Teachers also can encourage learners to reflect on changes in class modalities (moving online and back to classroom) and study routines. Brief reflection sessions might be held at the conclusion of classes, stimulated by music or artwork. Topics might include how to stay motivated, cope with stress, or self-evaluate our empathy toward others.
Building this capability in students and young professionals—our future leaders—will enrich the profession and infuse it with power, especially during these trying times. The sooner one begins meaningful SR in education and mentorship, the better for the individual, their organization, and their profession, and for driving and sustaining DEI in the workplace and profession.
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To cite this article: Berger,B.K. and Erzikova, E. (2023). Self-reflection is the engine that drives, grows and sustains DE&I among leaders, mentors and public relations educators and professionals. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(4), 59-90. https://journalofpreducation.com/?p=3425
Special Issue on Leadership, Mentorship and DEI in the Post-Pandemic Public Relations Classroom
Note from the Guest Editor:
Juan Meng, Ph.D. Head & Associate Professor Department of Advertising and Public Relations Grady College Journalism and Mass Communication University of Georgia Email: email@example.com
Nilanjana Bardhan, Ph.D. Professor Communication Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale Southern Illinois University Carbondale Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Introduction The world changed in 2020 in unprecedented ways. In the United States, the combined impact of COVID-19 and the racial unrest following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery left us reeling with regards to questions of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace and in our societal institutions, including higher education. Discourse on public relations education and DEI peaked. This watershed year witnessed numerous webinars, conversations and discussions sponsored by our profession’s organizations such as the Public Relations Society of America, the Institute for Public Relations, and the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, all of which queried with renewed vigor on how well we are preparing our students to be racial-justice-oriented and DEI-minded public relations professionals as they transition from college to the industry. This was the moment when we approached the Journal of Public Relations Education with the idea of this special issue.
Rationale for the Special Issue As educators and scholars, we believe leadership and mentorship are especially important during times of upheaval, uncertainty and radical change. Educators and students are grappling with new pedagogical challenges, and we need scholarship that can aid in navigating these challenges and discovering opportunities (Bardhan & Gower, 2020). As editors of this special issue, we hope the research articles and teaching brief collected in this volume address the pressing need to make DEI an integral part of public relations education as emphasized by the Commission on Public Relations Education (Mundy et al., 2018). We also hope the broad range of perspectives and solutions offered in the articles collected in this special issue will aid in deepening our understanding of and the discussion on the intersections of leadership and mentorship in fostering DEI in public relations education.
It is hard to argue against the proposition that it is difficult for progress to occur in the domain of DEI without committed leadership and stellar mentorship. With regards to public relations education, this means that both students and educators need to understand this crucial relationship between DEI, leadership and mentorship in public relations pedagogy and learning environments. Meng (2013, 2015) has already emphasized that educators play a critical and instructive role in enhancing students’ competitive advantage by incorporating leadership content and training into undergraduate curriculum. In addition, Bardhan and Gower (2020) also addressed the need for public relations educators to lead efforts to advance DEI in education by diversifying curriculum, enhancing inclusive learning environments, and advocating for structural change for DEI-centered pedagogy. The events of 2020 compelled us to weave together both these emphases of DEI and leadership and add the layer of mentorship. We wove in these layers into our call, which encouraged submissions addressing both the challenges and the opportunities in the DEI-Leadership-Mentorship mix in the domain of public relations education. Some key questions were asked as we launched the special issue call:
What are the current practice, challenges and opportunities associated with enhancing public relations education at the intersections of leadership, mentorship, and DEI?
What kinds of pedagogical, theoretical and practical implications and recommendations can we offer educators in empowering them to foster DEI in public relations education by jointly engaging leadership and mentorship in teaching and training?
What are the best practices and resources that aid in teaching public relations at the intersections of leadership, mentorship and DEI?
What are some innovative approaches and strategies to connect educators, practitioners and students to enhance public relations pedagogy by integrating the critical thinking and discussion of leadership, mentorship and DEI?
Contribution of the Special Issue This special issue, Leadership,Mentorship and DEI in the Post-Pandemic Public Relations Classroom, strives to address the above questions. We are pleased to offer our readers a collection of seven articles, which includes six original research articles and one teaching brief. This collection offers a variety of perspectives on exploring both the challenges and opportunities for public relations pedagogy focusing on leadership and mentorship and how the mix could foster a more diverse, equal and inclusive environment in the post-pandemic public relations classroom.
This issue is organized into three sections, which reflect the complexities of the intersections of leadership, mentorship and DEI in public relations education. The first section, Current Practices and Challenges of DEI in Public Relations Education and the Need for Self-Reflection and Mentorship, includes three articles addressing the broad landscape of public relations pedagogy at the intersections of leadership, mentorship and DEI.
The first article titled “Enhancing Diversity and Inclusion in the Public Relations Classroom: Current Practices of Public Relations Educators,” contributed by Shana Meganck and Yeonsoo Kim, provides an overview of the changing higher education landscape in addressing the DEI efforts from multiple perspectives (e.g., recruitment, admissions, climate, curriculum, research, strategic planning, administrative structures, etc.). The study focuses on investigating the pedagogical approaches adapted by public relations educators to integrate DEI practices in the public relations classroom through a self-administered online survey. To provide a snapshot of the current DEI practice in public relations education, the authors reviewed structural elements of courses in public relations curriculum such as value statements and policies in course materials, course objectives and learning outcomes, assignments and course evaluations and investigated how those pedagogical approaches are integrated into public relations education to support DEI in the classroom. The results of the survey indicate that educators are performing better when it comes to practicing DEI pedagogical approaches and that they need to work harder at including clearer DEI structural elements.
The second contribution, titled “Self-Reflection is the Engine that Drives, Grows and Sustains DE&I among Leaders, Mentors and Public Relations Educators and Professionals,” by Bruce K. Berger and Elina Erzikova, offers a critical perspective on examining the relationship between meaningful self-reflection and its underestimated function in navigating DEI challenges and unexpected situations. The authors designed and carried out a three-phase comprehensive research project in the past four years (i.e., self-reflection interviews with 30 PR leaders, a content analysis of educator blogs, articles, and websites addressing self-reflection skills, and surveys of PR educators and focus groups with PR students). Based on the results, the authors argue that educators and professionals in public relations must practice meaningful self-reflection to not only grow but also sustain DEI in public relations. More significantly, the authors provide a practical six-step strategic self-reflection process that can be taught and practiced in the classroom. From the perspective of leadership development, the authors argue that self-reflection is the foundation for continuous improvement in public relations leadership, mentorship, education, and practice.
In the third article in this section, titled “Cross the Stage: Underrepresented Students’ Challenges and Mentoring Needs in Strategic Communication Programs,” Jiun-Yi Tsai, Janice Sweeter, and Amy Hitt focus on investigating the challenges encountered by underrepresented students in public relations programs in college education. The authors conducted 14 semi-structured interviews with students who self-identify as first generation, Hispanic/Latinx, or Black/African American college students majoring in strategic communication. Their research offers insights on the importance of mentorship support from faculty to help underrepresented students build resilience. The research results also mention that identity-based clubs and classroom peer relationships could foster relational connections that support underrepresented students.
The second section of this special issue, Curriculum Innovation and Accreditation Standards in Public Relations DEI Pedagogy, features two contributions addressing innovative pedagogical approaches in public relations curriculum. The first article contributed by Lee Bush and Vanessa Bravo, titled “Systematically Applying DEI Accreditation Standards to a Strategic Communication Curriculum,” shares the authors’ experience in leading a new initiative to research, develop, and test modules to achieve DEI learning outcomes in their strategic communication courses as an effort to meet the new guidelines for diversity and inclusion approved by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC). The reflective results showed that it is important to integrate DEI into curriculum in a more systematic way. The assessment results of what worked and what did not provide important pedagogical suggestions to public relations educators for developing a DEI-focused curriculum.
Leadership, mentorship and DEI can intersect in extracurricular spaces and learning environments inhabited by public relations students, and this is demonstrated in practical detail in the second article in this section, titled “Student-led Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Education in Public Relations: PRSSA as a Space for Teaching and Learning.” Authors Arshia Anwer and Timmy Kwong describe how the student leadership of a Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter at a private liberal arts college in the United States took the initiative to enhance its DEI vision, action and pedagogy during the watershed events of 2020. By inviting multiple DEI focused guest speakers, conducting a survey that gauged chapter members’ interest in DEI issues, recruiting diverse students to the chapter from across campus, and nominating its VP for DEI for a PR News Social Impact Award, this chapter sets an example for other PRSSA chapters to emulate.
The third section of this special issue, Teaching Cases for Exploring DEI Complexities in Public Relations Education, is composed of two contributions that center on incorporating inclusivity and cultural sensitivity into public relations campaigns courses. In the article, titled “Shaping Tomorrow’s Industry Leaders by Incorporating Inclusivity into Campaign Planning Curriculum: Student Reactions to the SMART+IE Mindset in Strategic Communication Efforts,” Richard D. Waters and Tricia M. Farwell present an innovative teaching activity that demonstrates how students can be pedagogically engaged to discuss the nuances of DEI in campaign planning and strategic communication. By incorporating hypothetical case studies that include DEI complexities and teaching students how to lead in DEI communication, this pedagogical innovation emphasizes the importance of inclusive communication. The authors share not just the case study and its DEI pedagogy value, but also describe how students who worked on this case in classes responded to it and what they learned from it about themselves and about the role of DEI in strategic communication. Additionally, the authors reflect on their own experience, as educators, of including this DEI case study in their classes.
The last contribution in this edited issue is a teaching brief, titled “Eco-Tourism Campaigns as a Framework for Global PR Course.” The authors, Nandini Bhalla and Arien Rozelle, address diversity education at the international level and argue for the importance of helping students build cultural sensitivity and equality in the public relations classroom. Their teaching brief provides scenarios for public relations educators to consider and adopt when helping students understand cultural and structural differences in an international context.
Overall, the research articles and teaching brief collected in this special issue present a wide range of perspectives on understanding the intersections of leadership, mentorship and DEI in public relations education. We could not locate any research that addressed the intersections of DEI, leadership and mentorship in public relations education when we sent out the call for this special issue. Now we are pleased to state that this is no longer the case. The intersectionality nature of the topics present the complexity at multiple dimensions such as the practical, the pedagogical and the theoretical levels. It is our sincere hope that the articles in this special issue will serve as a springboard for further scholarship on this critical intersection in public relations pedagogy.
Acknowledgments It has truly been an honor to have had the opportunity to work on this issue and we would like to thank all those who supported it by sending in submissions. We would especially like to thank our team of reviewers with expertise on this topic. We could not have published this issue without their valuable insights, constructive feedback, comments and suggestions, and overall solid reviews to help the authors revise and improve their research and writings. Finally and most importantly, our heartfelt thanks go to Dr. Pamela Bourland-Davis, Editor of the Journal of Public Relations Education and her editorial team for offering the opportunity to edit this special issue. It would have been impossible to produce this special issue without their encouragement and guidance throughout the process.
The Journal of Public Relations Education (JPRE) is devoted to the presentation of research and commentary that advance the field of public relations education. JPRE invites submissions in the following three categories:
Learn more by visiting the About JPRE page and the Authors/Contributors page for submission guidelines. All submissions should follow the guidelines of the most recent edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA).
Editorial Record: Submitted June 2, 2022. Revised September 12, and October 19, 2022. Accepted October 21, 2022.
Shana Meganck, Ph.D. Associate Professor School of Communication Studies James Madison University Harrisonburg, Virginia Email: email@example.com
Yeonsoo Kim, Ph.D. Associate Professor Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations, The University of Texas at Austin Austin, Texas Email: Yeonsoo.firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract This study presents a comprehensive framework for DEI education for public relations educators and explores DEI practices in current educators’ classrooms. Specifically, it presents a framework that integrates structural elements of the course across five dimensions and pedagogical approaches to DEI excellence across six dimensions, and examines the status of public relations educator-level efforts in the classroom. The results of an online survey of public relations educators suggest that, overall, public relations educators appear to be actively demonstrating efforts to advance DEI in the classroom based on the variety of pedagogical approaches that they utilize. Meanwhile, efforts on structural elements seem to have room for improvement, especially in terms of DEI-related course objectives, learning outcomes, and course evaluation. Detailed discussions of the findings and their implications are discussed.
Keywords: public relations, public relations education, diversity, equity, inclusion, DEI, organizational culture, pedagogical approaches, educator-level efforts, structural elements
Introduction With current diversity as well as the deepening disparities of higher education during COVID-19, ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has become one of the most pressing and important agenda items in higher education today. In response, many universities have added diversity statements to their websites (McBrayer, 2022), started more actively engaging in recruiting faculty and students from diverse racial and demographic backgrounds, and created administrative positions focused on DEI (Davenport et al., 2022). Some institutions have also encouraged faculty to include DEI efforts in their annual evaluation reports and increased DEI workshop and roundtable opportunities (e.g., Michigan State University, 2019). This changing higher education landscape is a good starting point; however, efforts to achieve DEI must be multifaceted, not only in recruitment and campus climate, but also in curriculum and instruction, research and inquiry, as well as strategic planning and accountability (Alt, 2017; Worthington & Stanley, 2014). Among the several key areas discussed in previous studies (e.g., recruitment, admissions, climate, curriculum, research, strategic planning, administrative structures, etc.) (Alt, 2017; Clayton-Pedersen et al., 2008; Parkison et al., 2009), this study is particularly concerned with the role of faculty, specifically public relations faculty, as leaders in facilitating student learning and creating diverse and inclusive learning environments.
Faculty are at the forefront of educating students, so how they structure their curriculum, deliver DEI values, facilitate their classes, and create a classroom environment can have a direct impact on their students (Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Parkison et al., 2009). Curriculum – that is the content of courses and instruction, and how curriculum is delivered (Wiles et al., 2002) – focused on DEI can have a strong positive impact on students’ complex thinking skills, awareness of social and cultural diversity, and understanding of the importance of creating social awareness (Hurtado, 2005; Parkison et al., 2009). In other words, educators directly contribute to fostering students with the DEI perspectives needed by society. For this reason, scholars have commonly pointed out the importance of curriculum and instruction as key aspects of DEI in higher education (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Mundy et al., 2018; Salazar et al., 2017).
The critical role of educators in the classroom in the advancement of DEI is no exception in public relations education. Given the criticism that the public relations industry does not reflect the rapidly growing diversity of the U.S. population (Bardhan & Gower, 2020), and that the industry’s DEI efforts are rather slow or inadequate (Brown et al., 2019; Jiang et al., 2016), the role of professors in nurturing future public relations practitioners is becoming increasingly important. As stated in the Commission on Public Relations (CPRE) Diversity and Inclusion report (2019a),in order to combat the current DEI problem in the public relations industry, it is necessary that we equip all public relations students with multicultural competencies “to understand and appreciate the value of diversity” (p. 2). These essential exchanges that prepare students to learn about other cultures and how to work effectively with those different from them need to happen in the public relations classroom because whether students identify and address their personal biases, assumptions, and stereotypes regarding diversity have serious implications since their biases might carry over into the industry (Place & Vanc, 2016). Brunner’s (2005) study of diversity environments in public relations higher education institutions further supports this notion, stating that students come to universities at a critical time in their development and, therefore, learn a lot about themselves in relation to others, including how to orient to DEI, during this time. However, although the CPRE and several industry and academic leaders have repeatedly called for changeregarding the concerning state of DEI in the public relations industry and the need to educate students in ways that respond to this situation, very little has changed (Bardhan & Gower, 2020, Brown et al., 2011; Place & Vanc, 2016).
Additionally, research and action on the important relationship between DEI, curriculum, and pedagogy as a means of preparing students to enter the public relations industry is lacking, as the majority of current research is industry-focused (Place & Vanc, 2016). If change needs to happen at the higher education level, then more research should be focused on the current state of DEI in public relations education and the flow of DEI from schools to industry (Bardhan & Gower, 2020). With this need in mind, the current study aims to present a comprehensive framework for DEI education for public relations educators and to explore DEI practices in current educators’ classrooms. While previous studies mainly focused on the students’ points of view and on how they experience learning focused on DEI (e.g., Brown et al., 2011; Brown et al., 2019; Muturi & Zhu, 2019), this study focused on educator-reported approaches to DEI in the classroom. More specifically, this study examined the status of public relations educator-level efforts in the classroom, across the structural elements of courses (Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Fuentes et al., 2021) and pedagogical approaches geared toward incorporation of DEI (Salazar et al., 2017) – two areas that higher education instructors often have direct control over. Through the results of this study, we provide public relations educators with insights about the status of DEI practices in the classroom and actionable steps necessary for future improvement.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Higher Education
Diversity is a complex concept based on a set of identity factors, such as race, ethnicity, gender and disability (Fuentes et al., 2021). The key idea behind the concept is, as CPRE (2019b) noted, “all differences that exist between and among people” (n.p.). Diversity can come from both primary and secondary dimensions. The primary aspects are characteristics people are born with that cannot be changed, such as age, race, and ethnicity. The secondary dimensions are characteristics that can be altered, such as religion, marital status, social class, and veteran status. Whereas diversity recognizes that differences exist, inclusion goes one step further by respecting and embracing the unique qualities of people that stem from differences as valuable assets. Inclusion is defined as the degree to which an individual perceives themself as a respected member of the group to which they belong through experience of treatment that satisfies the need for belonging and uniqueness (Shore et al., 2011). It, therefore, “refers to treating people equally with fairness and respect so they can feel valued and welcomed” (The Arthur W. Page Center, n.d., n.p.). Equity is defined as the “creation of opportunities for historically underrepresented populations to have equal access to and participate in educational programs that are capable of closing the achievement gaps in student success and completion” (Fuentes et al., 2021, p.71).
Thus, DEI in education aims to leverage, recognize, and value the cultural experiences that students bring into the classroom, and incorporate activities (e.g., lectures, discussions, projects) that consider all sociocultural perspectives (Fuentes et al., 2021). The pursuit of DEI success in the classroom represents a conscious and intentional effort to implement a diverse and inclusive practice targeting multiple student identity groups (Salazar et al., 2017). This conscious effort is critical to building the academic resilience of students, especially for historically marginalized groups of students in higher education (Salazar et al., 2017).
Despite the importance and benefits of DEI in higher education, DEI efforts in higher education are highly fragmented (Milem et al., 2005; Parkison et al., 2009; Salazar et al., 2017). DEI issues may be addressed in some parts of the curriculum but not in others, and students often encounter gaps or contradictions in the curriculum (Parkison et al., 2009). Large gaps or inconsistencies in DEI emphasis between educators and subjects/courses may prevent many students from absorbing the DEI content embedded in the curriculum. As another issue, scholars point out the disconnect between DEI practices and criteria recommended for educational excellence (Salazar et al., 2017).
To overcome these shortcomings and pursue DEI enhancement in education, scholars have proposed several key areas in which higher education institutions, administrators, and educators should work. Alt (2017) and Worthington (2012) suggested key areas for university diversity initiatives to focus on, including recruitment and retention, curriculum and education, leadership development, and campus environment. Parkison et al. (2009) extended the multicultural teaching model of Marchesani and Adams (1992) to propose four dimensions of the teaching and learning process, including faculty, teaching methods, course content, and students. Cohn and Gareis (2007) and Fuentes et al. (2021) emphasized the importance of composing DEI as a major component in the structural elements of a course in order to more explicitly communicate the values of DEI and related policies. As a dimension through which inclusive educators can work to enhance DEI in the classroom, Salazar et al. (2017) presented a comprehensive framework consisting of five dimensions: intrapersonal awareness, interpersonal awareness, curriculum transformation, inclusive pedagogy, and inclusive learning environment. Others focused on the leadership role of educators to improve DEI in education and argue that there are several things that educators should focus on, including curriculum and resources (Vaccaro, 2019), openness to diversity as an individual orientation/cultural competence (Alt, 2017; Fuentes et al., 2021; Vaccaro, 2019), and diversifying the learning environment to enhance inclusivity (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Vaccaro, 2019).
DEI in PR Education
Educators are leaders in the academic environment (Bardhan & Gower, 2020) and play an essential role in creating learning environments that encourage diversity-related growth (Alt, 2017). As such, educators’ DEI work has a direct impact on the future of the public relations industry, as it plays a major role in shaping students to become future practitioners and eventually leaders of the industry. Increasing multidimensional DEI efforts in the public relations classroom will not only enhance cultural awareness, knowledge and understanding, reduce racial stereotypes, and increase commitment to issues of equity (Clayton-Pederson et al., 2008), but it can also help prepare students to work in increasingly diverse environments and feel more confident proposing solutions to diversity-related problems (Biswas & Izard, 2009). Such efforts expand diverse points of view and, therefore, prepare students to solve problems, create ideas, promote innovation and creativity, and consider messaging for diverse groups of people (Brown et al., 2011; Brown et al., 2019). Additionally, students will better understand their role as strategic communicators (Tsetsura, 2011). These DEI competencies acquired through higher education lead to overall organizational and workplace success, as a diverse workforce and competencies increase productivity and competitiveness (Brown et al., 2011; Muturi & Zhu, 2019). For this reason, leadership in public relations education requires active planning and execution of DEI-related program goals (Mundy et al., 2018). To reflect the focus of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) and the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Certificate in in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) on DEI, and to meet the expectations of employers and industry leaders, public relations education must be able to present appropriate and effective DEI education and share its success stories (Mundy et al., 2018). Specifically, Bardhan and Gower (2020) identified three areas in which public relations educators should strive to advance DEI in education: “1) curriculum diversification, 2) concern for the learning environment, 3) educator responsibility and structural change” (p. 128).
Therefore, what these existing studies related to both holistic educator-level efforts as well as PR-specific educator-level efforts commonly suggest seems to be the development or application of DEI-centered pedagogical approaches (method and practices of the instructor) and the structural components utilized (the fundamental content that should be considered and included in the development of every course, e.g., value statements, course objectives, reading selection, assignments, evaluation methods) by educators that directly affect DEI-centered curricula, teaching methods, or classroom environments. Hence, this study focuses on two key dimensions that public relations educators may need to consider in order to achieve DEI success in the classroom. The first is to establish DEI focused structural elements in courses within the curriculum (Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Fuentes et al., 2021), and the second is the pedagogical approach and practice centered on DEI in the classroom (Salazar et al., 2017). A detailed discussion of each dimension continues in later sections.
We believe that this study provides an initial basis for a discussion of an integration framework regarding what efforts are needed at the educator level to better integrate DEI into the public relations classroom. Furthermore, we want to provide a snapshot of the current state of public relations education as well.
Structural Elements of Courses in the Curriculum
In this study, structural elements refer to the formal content of a course (the core building blocks of curriculum design), such as a policy, course objectives, textbooks, assignments, and evaluation methods, that makes up a course. In order to create diverse and inclusive learning environments, it is necessary to consider structural-level content because these elements provide the first opportunity for faculty to communicate their philosophy, expectations, requirements, and other course information (Fuentes et al., 2021). Therefore, from the outset, educators should promote a diversity-centered approach to course development. Oftentimes, educators simply attempt to incorporate diversity-related topics into their courses by including a reading or assignment, or devoting a single class to DEI-related topics, which can have the unintended effect of conveying that such concepts are unimportant or, even worse, such efforts can appear to be tokenistic (Fuentes et al., 2021; Vaccaro, 2019). However, thinking about it from the outset helps to holistically and effectively incorporate DEI into the course (Vaccaro, 2019), and assures that these issues are evident in the topics and schedule outlined in the course syllabus (Fuentes et al., 2021). In terms of the structural development of the course, this includes considering five key aspects (Cohn & Gareis, 2007): 1) value statements and policies in course materials, 2) course objectives and learning outcomes, 3) textbook selection/reading selection, 4) assignments, 5) course evaluation. These five aspects are similarly reflected in Cahn et al.’s (2022) arguments that effective curricular DEI practices must “demonstrate authentic commitment, establish a common language, create spaces for reflection, evaluate program effectiveness, and include substantive follow-up” (p. 1).
Value statements and policies.
The statement of values is the first place for educators to highlight the importance of, and the amount of attention that will be given to, DEI efforts in the course (Cohn & Gareis, 2007). This can include an institutional-level value statement, an instructor-level value statement, and/or a disability/accommodations statement. The inclusion of diversity-related statements is relatively common in academia, particularly disability/accommodation-related statements, and there has been an increasing push to include them in course syllabi and discuss them on the first day of class (Fuentes et al., 2021). The goal of these statements is to make educators’ intentions and values explicit (Fuentes et al., 2021), which has been shown to have a positive effect on students’ perceptions of the classroom climate (Branch et al., 2018). It is also essential to consider the placement of these statements in the syllabus or throughout other elements of the course. Branch et al. (2018) determined that placing them earlier in the syllabus increases recall. Beyond value statements, ground rules for communication also help to promote comfortable learning environments that encourage and support diversity (Cohn & Gareis, 2007). These guidelines promote a respectful discourse and help to create an optimal learning environment, both of which are essential for encouraging a diversity of perspectives (Fuentes et al., 2021; Warner, 2019). Creating these guidelines in collaboration with students can also be helpful (Fuentes et al., 2021; Salazar et al., 2010; Vaccaro, 2019).
Course objectives and learning outcomes.
Another important structural element within courses for incorporating DEI are the course objectives and learning outcomes. This is where educators describe what they expect students to take away from the course. It can involve a culture-centered approach, which introduces DEI into all objectives and outcomes, or adding one specific objective/outcome that focuses on DEI (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Fuentes et al., 2021). Instructors are encouraged to commit to integrating diverse voices across courses in a non-tokenistic manner by articulating DEI-related course objectives and learning outcomes (Cohn & Gareis, 2007). Specifying course objectives and learning outcomes focused on DEI demonstrates a genuine commitment to achieving and enhancing DEI (Cahn et al., 2022).
Course textbooks and readings are an important place for educators to demonstrate the value they place on diversity. Considerations may include focusing on readings of historically underrepresented and marginalized scholars and discussing the purpose of including the readings, assuring examples and applications of textual materials extend to diverse groups, and making sure photographs and graphics depict various groups (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Fuentes et al., 2021). Additionally, educators should reflect on whether textbooks/readings provide accessible and structured text and images to meet the needs of diverse learners and whether they are affordable (Vaccaro, 2019).
In terms of assignments, educators should try to personalize assignments (Clayton-Pedersen et al., 2008), and reconsider the use of standardized exams and individual assignments (Fuentes et al., 2021). Doing so helps to tailor learning to student’s needs, interest, and abilities, which improves student learning and engagement (Feldstein & Hill, 2016). Alternatively, they may consider the diversity of learning abilities and incorporate creative assignments that promote group cohesion (Clayton-Pedersen et al., 2008; Fuentes et al., 2021). It is also important to let students choose topics that they are comfortable with and offer alternative assignment options to accommodate different learning abilities, when possible (Cohn & Gareis, 2007).
As with other aspects of a course, formal and informal evaluation is important for determining whether students perceive that a commitment to DEI was established throughout the class (Cohn & Gareis, 2007) and to monitor the effectiveness of inclusive pedagogical strategies (Cahn et al., 2022). Course evaluations may include questions that focus on DEI efforts and educators should keep track of the value of pedagogical strategies. By evaluating the effectiveness of the efforts implemented in the course in relation to DEI through various methods, it is possible to develop a follow-up plan for future improvement (Cahn et al., 2022).
Based on the discussions above, the following research question was proposed to explore the current practice of DEI-centered structural elements of courses taught by public relations educators.
RQ1: What are the current structural elements of courses incorporated by public relations educators to advance DEI in the classroom (i.e., value statements and policies in course materials, course objectives and learning outcomes, textbook selection/reading selection, assignments, course evaluation)?
Pedagogical Approaches to DEI in the Classroom
Applying structural-level changes to courses within the curriculum is an essential first step toward creating excellent diverse learning environments, but educators need to think beyond this in order to make an appreciable difference in learning environments (Clayton-Pederson et al., 2008). Efforts should be made to develop competencies based on critical awareness of educators’ own sociocultural competencies, and further efforts to adopt comprehensive pedagogical approaches. Pedagogical approaches can be defined as broad principles, beliefs, and methods of education in individual educators’ teaching practices.
Vaccaro (2019) identified three cultural competency components that shape how instructors teach and engage: awareness, knowledge, and skills. Awareness focuses on knowing oneself, being aware of one’s past socialization, and examining one’s beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions (Parkison et al., 2009). These are important considerations; for example, educator perceptions of race can impact how they teach about race and DEI-related topics (Waymer & Dyson, 2011). Knowledge relates to becoming informed about contemporary diversity issues and increasing understanding of students’ campus/classroom realities and the diverse backgrounds of students (Vaccaro, 2019). Lastly, skills are needed to engage students in learning about sometimes difficult, diversity-related topics (e.g., discrimination, privilege, race, religion, sexual orientation) and to ensure students feel challenged to grow (Vaccaro, 2019). Creating diverse learning environments also involves designing inclusive learning spaces. Strategies that foster this include “being approachable, developing trusting relationships with and among students, affirming diverse student experiences, managing classroom dynamics appropriately, acknowledging and reducing power differential in the classroom, modeling inclusion, and engaging in on-going critical self-reflection” (Vaccaro, 2019, p. 31).
Regarding these two broader components, Salazar et al. (2017) developed a detailed framework for inclusive excellence that educators can use to promote DEI along five dimensions. These dimensions are intrapersonal awareness, interpersonal awareness, curricular transformation, inclusive pedagogy, and inclusive learning environments. This study seeks to explore the current practices of public relations educators by applying the comprehensive framework proposed by Salazar et al. (2017).
Intrapersonal awareness. Personal awareness of one’s own ideas, assumptions, and values, as well as increasing knowledge about other cultures, are both important components to truly embracing DEI (Salazar et al., 2017). According to Salazar et al. (2017), such awareness and knowledge can be improved through committing to the process of self-actualization and determining where and how one’s worldview has developed, reading about diverse cultures and identity groups and developing a better understanding of how one’s worldview affects curriculum and pedagogies. Similarly, other scholars recommend faculty introspection as an important part of the pursuit of DEI in pedagogy. For example, Parkison et al. (2009) wrote that the faculty should be open to knowing “oneself, being aware of one’s past socialization, and examining one’s beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions” (p. 6). Fuentes et al. (2021) also pointed out that it is important for educators to engage in reflection on their sociocultural background and position and to communicate this reflection.
Interpersonal awareness. Creating interpersonal awareness can be accomplished by facilitating inclusive interpersonal interactions among students, providing opportunities for interaction, and more. Educators’ commitment to interpersonal awareness facilitates the exchange of diverse sociocultural perspectives and experiences among students. Dialogues can take place that welcome and respect all of these different perspectives and experiences, which validate these experiences (Salazar et al., 2017). Salazar et al. (2017) discussed several tools for improving interpersonal awareness, including empathetic listening, awareness of nonverbal communication, co-creating classroom norms that reflect diversity, and creating group work opportunities.
Curricular transformation. An essential part of creating diverse and inclusive learning environments is transforming the curriculum (Carr, 2007; Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Salazar et al., 2017; Vaccaro, 2019; Zhang et al., 2016). Educators should ensure they are integrating diverse groups into the curriculum, using culturally accurate materials, reflecting on both whom the curriculum does/does not include as well as remaining vigilant in detecting hidden forms of oppression within curriculum and course content (Salazar, 2017). Based on these things, changes should be made to the curriculum, if necessary.
Inclusive pedagogy. Inclusive curricular and pedagogical practices enhance the motivation, engagement, and learning of all students, including historically marginalized groups, because these practices holistically invite students into the learning process (Salazar et al., 2017). Inclusive pedagogy views students as co-constructors of knowledge; therefore, it fosters student choice and establishes critical dialogues with and among them (Salazar et al., 2017). It also includes formative assessments and assignments that personalize learning as well as noncompetitive, collaborative assignments (Salazar et al., 2017).
Inclusive learning environments. Caring for and respecting students not only ensures a safe learning space, but also fosters an environment where DEI thrives. Educators should create opportunities for authentic interactions with and among students, avoid actions that encourage tokenism, learn about students’ backgrounds and learning styles, show pride in student achievement, and provide constructive feedback (Salazar et al., 2017).
Based on the above discussion, this study proposes the following research question to explore the pedagogical approaches currently prevalent among public relations educators.
RQ2: To what extent are the pedagogical approaches discussed above being implemented by public relations educators to advance DEI in the classroom?
A self-administered online survey was conducted to answer the proposed research questions. A survey method was selected in consideration of the descriptive nature of this study, which explores the current status of DEI practices in the classroom among public relations educators. The target population was public relations educators in higher education institutions in the United States. A convenience sampling method was used, allowing public relations educators who wished to participate in the survey to participate in the survey. To recruit participants for this study, we sent out survey invitation emails using the listserves for the public relations divisions of the Association of Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), as it is one of the largest email lists with a wide range of public relations educators in the United States: “AEJMC’s public relations division is the largest organization of public relations educators in the world. Its 500+ members represent institutions of higher learning in the United States and about two dozen countries around the world” (Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, 2022). To extend the reach of survey invitations beyond AEJMC’s email list, we also placed posts encouraging participation in the survey on the social media pages of academic and public relations organizations, including major academic communication associations (e.g., National Communication Association, International Communication Association, Association of Journalism and Mass Communication) and professional associations (e.g., Public Relations Society of America Educators Academy). Respondents who identified themselves as public relations educators and agreed on the informed consent page were able to participate in the survey. The survey was conducted from late April to early May 2022. After the survey was launched, several email notifications were sent to public relations educators using the AEJMC listserv, and reminders were posted on the social media pages mentioned above. On day 10 after the start of data collection, we closed the survey site as the number of survey participants was no longer increasing.
A total of 101 public relations educators participated in the survey, but after removing incomplete responses, a total of 77 responses were used for analysis. Among them, 25.97% were male (n=20), 70.12% were female (n=54), 2.58% were non-binary (n=2), and 1.29% (n=1) preferred not to respond. When asked about race, 2.58% (n=2) identitfied as African American/Black, 18.06% (n=14) as Asian, 61.92% (n=48) as White, 3.87% (n=3) as Hispanic, 5.16% (n=4) reported being Other, and 9.03% (n=7) preferred not to respond. The ages of the study participants was between 27 to 71 years, with a range of approximately 47 years (SD=11.96). When asked how long they had been public relations educators, they answered, on average, about 12 years (SD=8.376). As for the current job position of respondents, 10.32% (n=8) were non-tenure-track instructors, 29.67% (n=23) were tenure-track assistant professors, 19.35% were tenure-track associate professors (n=15), and 19.35% (n=15) were tenure-track professors. The political affilications of the survey participants was 38.7% Democrat (n=30), 5.16% Republican (n=4), and 18.06% independent (n=14). Approximately 56.76% (n=44) of respondents work at universities/colleges with between 20,000 and 35,000 students, but the distribution of university sizes where respondents work ranged from fewer than 5,000 to more than 50,000. Approximately 67.08% (n=52) of respondents worked at public universities. Respondents’ colleges/universities were located across the United States, with 33.54% (n=26) located in the Northeast, 6.45% (n=5) in the Midwest, 34.83% (n=27) in the South, and 9.03 %(n=7) in the West.
First, the structural elements of the curriculum were evaluated through five aspects: value statements and policies in course materials, course objectives and learning outcomes, textbook selection/reading selection, assignments, and course evaluation. Measurements of structural elements were adapted from previous studies to suit the purpose of this study (Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Fuentes et al., 2021; Vaccaro, 2019). Second, the pedagogical approach to DEI was measured in terms of intrapersonal awareness, interpersonal awareness, professional development, curriculum transformation, inclusive pedagogy, and building an inclusive learning environment. Most of the measurement items for pedagogical approaches were adopted from Salazar et al. (2017), and further, we added items from Parkison et al. (2009) and Vaccaro (2019) to explore pedagogical approaches more comprehensively. All measures used a 7-point Likert scale (1-strongly disagree, 7-strongly agree). Appendix A details all measurement items.
While we reported Cronbach’s alpha score for reader reference, these measures do not necessarily assume internal consistency between items (especially structural elements of the curriculum’s subdimensions). Therefore, we report results with more focus on the descriptive statistics of individual items, e.g., in considerations related to textbook selection, the instructor may consider some items while not considering others. As such measures of structural elements of the curriculum do not expect similar responses in all sub-items, it is appropriate to report the descriptive statistics of each item.
Descriptive statistics for tested aspects of DEI practices are explained below. In the order of the presented research questions, we first present the results related to the structural components of the curriculum implemented by public relations educators to advance DEI in the classroom (i.e., value statement and policies, course objectives and learning outcomes, textbook/reading selection, assignments, and course evaluation). We then present the descriptive statistics for aspects of the pedagogical approaches that public relations educators are using to advance DEI in the classroom (i.e., intrapersonal awareness, interpersonal awareness, curricular transformation, inclusive pedagogy, and inclusive learning environments).
Value statement and policies.
When asked if the lecture materials included explanations of values and policies related to DEI, the average score for responses in the seven areas was 5.52 (SD=1.14), indicating “somewhat agree” to “agree.” Looking at the individual areas, the inclusion of disability-related accommodation statements received the highest score (M=6.57, SD=.91). However, in all other respects, items related to formal inclusion of diversity-related value statements or policies in course materials (e.g., institutional values and policies on diversity and inclusion, instructor values, ground rules for class participation, etc.) scored relatively lower, ranging from 4.95 (SD=1.85) to 5.76 (SD=1.35). The item, “I highlight diversity in the course description and acknowledge intersectionality,” received the lowest score at 4.95 (SD=1.85), indicating less than “somewhat agree.”
Course objectives and learning outcomes.
For questions about inclusion of curriculum goals or learning outcomes related to diversity and inclusion, the average score was 4.74 (SD=1.56). Looking at the individual items, survey participants’ responses scored 4.41 (SD=1.58) to the question about whether the courses have a course objective and associated learning outcomes designed to promote diversity and inclusion in general. This indicates that responses were closer to “neither agree nor disagree” with respect to inclusion of course objectives/learning outcomes that promote overall diversity and inclusion. Survey participants’ responses scored 4.91 (SD=1.66) when asked whether their courses have course objectives and relevant learning outcomes to promote diversity and inclusion in relation to the subjects they teach. That is, the inclusion of course objectives and related learning outcomes for subject-specific diversity and inclusion also falls short of “somewhat agree.”
Respondents were asked on nine items what aspects of DEI they consider when selecting textbooks and/or reading materials. The overall score for textbook-related items was about 5.28 (SD=1.14), indicating that respondents somewhat agreed with various considerations related to textbook selection. However, depending on the item, the range of responses was rather wide, from 3.74 (SD=2.18) to 5.97 (SD=1.12). Looking at the responses for each item, “I carefully think about which resources are necessary and consider affordable options and alternatives” received the highest score with a score of 5.97 (SD=1.12). In addition, considerations, such as whether “textbooks/readings can serve to empower and encourage students in all voices,” “textbooks/readings include diverse people (e.g., minorities, women, and people with disabilities) as content experts or authorities,” and “the examples and application of textual materials extend to diverse groups of people, such as minorities, women, and people with disabilities,” also received a relatively high score of 5.65 (SD=1.45), 5.69 (SD=1.45), and 5.59 (SD=1.47), respectively. As items to be considered when selecting textbooks/readings, responses to the following three items were closer to 5, indicating “somewhat agree,” than 6, indicating “agree”: “In photographs and graphics, diverse groups of people are depicted in positions of power with the same frequency as those in the majority” (M=5.16, SD=1.63), “textbooks/readings reflect diversity and inclusion regarding culture, gender, ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, education, and religion, whenever possible, taking into account the context of the particular subject being addressed (M=5.39, SD=1.47),” and “textbooks/readings are affordable or open access” (M=5.42, SD=1.42). Two items scored relatively lower than the others. “Textbooks/readings provide accessible and structured text and images to meet the needs of diverse learners (e.g., providing alternative means of access to multimedia content in formats that meet the needs of diverse learners when applicable)” received a score less than 5 (M=4.96, SD=1.51). Whether instructors request additional desk copies of course materials that can be reserved by the library received the lowest score at 3.74 (SD=2.18).
Respondents were asked about the extent to which they considered the diversity of learning abilities and integrate creative tasks that promote group cohesion in relation to class assignments through six items (M=5.08, SD=1.03). The item “I incorporate noncompetitive, collaborative assignments and group work” received the highest score at 6.29 (SD=1.11), followed by “I incorporate creative assignments (e.g., flipped classroom models, interactive activities, group-based projects) by considering the diversity of learning abilities of my students” (M=5.81, SD=1.28). While the two items received high scores indicating “agree” or more, the other four items scored rather low, ranging from 4.19 (SD=2.14) to 5.01 (SD=1.51). In other words, the other aspects of the assignment composition received rather low responses that fell somewhere between “neither agree nor agree” and “somewhat agree.” In particular, two items were close to 4: “I offer alternative assignment options to accommodate different learning styles for certain structured assignments” (M=4.31, SD=1.71) and “I include assignments, such as life history interviews, personal stories of survival, and autobiographical writing that will diversify and personalize learning” (M=4.19, SD=2.14).
Regarding course evaluations related to DEI practices in the classroom, respondents’ responses varied across the six items. Compared to other aspects of the structural elements of the curriculum, the responses to the course evaluation were found to be the most deficient overall (M=4.38, SD=1.34), with some items scoring less than 4 points. Looking at the items from the highest score to the lowest, “I allow students to offer anonymous feedback about the inclusivity of my pedagogy and take suggestions for improvement seriously” scored the highest with 5.16 (SD=1.89). It was followed by “Course evaluation includes questions about to what extent the instructor makes efforts to create a classroom environment in which diverse perspectives are respected” (M=5.12, SD=1.91), “Course evaluation includes questions about to what extent the course content integrates diverse voices and demographics” (M=4.38, SD=1.91), and “I keep track of the effectiveness of inclusive pedagogy strategies (e.g., disclosure, risk taking, trust building)” (M=4.35, SD=2.00). The other two items scored lower than 4: “Course evaluation includes questions about to what extent the assignments in the class provide opportunities for students to incorporate content related to diverse and underserved populations” (M=3.97, SD=1.76), and “I ask colleagues who are known for effective multicultural and inclusive pedagogy to observe my teaching and provide suggestions for improvement” (M=3.35, SD=1.87).
When asked about respondents’ intrapersonal awareness efforts to support diversity and inclusion in the classroom, the average score was 5.97 (SD=.96), close to “agree.” All nine items were close to 6 (agree) and ranged from 5.74 (SD=1.34) to 6.26 (SD=.89). This indicates that respondents are engaging in practices that support DEI in general by engaging in self-reflection and intrapersonal awareness efforts.
The average score for the four items for professional development efforts to support DEI practices in the classroom was 5.52 (SD=1.22), somewhere between “somewhat agree” and “agree,” and ranged from 6.01 (SD=1.28) to 5.17 (SD=1.75). “Attending diversity workshops, conference sessions, and/or reading books/manuscripts to improve my diversity and inclusion efforts” received a score of 6.01 (SD=1.28), while “I work with diversity competence groups to practice diversity and inclusion skills” received 5.17 (SD=1.75).
For items related to the instructor’s efforts to support DEI through interpersonal awareness efforts, the average score was 5.92 (SD=.85). “I foster opportunities for group work” received the highest score at 6.40 (SD=.95), followed by “I validate students’ experiences by engaging in empathetic listening and asking questions openly and constructively” (M=6.21, SD=.85), and “I am aware of students’ nonverbal communication” (M=6.17, SD=.96). Most of the other items scored slightly below 6, with two exceptions being relatively low, near 5: “I develop and practice conflict resolution skills in order to prepare for difficult situations in the classroom” (M=5.29, SD=1.54) and “I revisit and enforce co-constructed norms reflective of diversity regularly” (M=5.28, SD=1.45).
Instructors’ curricular transformation efforts to support diversity and inclusion in the classroom averaged 5.40 (SD=1.06), closer to “somewhat agree.” “I point out ways individuals from the same social identity groups have unique realities, perspectives, and other social identity differences” (M=5.88, SD=1.14) received the highest score, followed by “I cover differences in my curriculum based on a variety of factors, including race, ethnicity, age, gender, sex, religion, culture, handicap, and social class” (M=5.77, SD=1.28), “I explain how models, theories, and concepts are (or can be) applied to diverse communities” (M=5.67, SD=1.39), and “I consider the various social and culture backgrounds of my students when organizing my curriculum” (M=5.62, SD=1.22). Some relatively low scoring items include: “I audit my curricular materials for the inclusion of multicultural and other DEI-related topics” (M=5.17, SD=1.86), “I review my curriculum for hidden forms of oppression and make appropriate changes” (M=5.23, SD=1.53), and “I invite relevant campus organizations or offices to speak to my class” (M=4.77, SD=1.78).
For instructors’ inclusive pedagogical efforts, the mean score was 5.83 (SD=.84). Most of the items were rated relatively high, but the following items received slightly higher scores: “I recognize students’ personal experiences as worthy knowledge” (M=6.37, SD=.99), “I incorporate noncompetitive, collaborative assignments and group work” (M=6.25, SD=1.17), “I use teaching methods other than traditional lectures and assigned readings” (M=6.19, SD=1.09), “I invite students to share their knowledge in multiple ways” (M=6.13, SD=.89), and “I include experiential learning activities in my curriculum” (M=6.13, SD=1.19).
Inclusive learning environment.
In terms of creating an inclusive learning environment, the average score across the 13 items reported by instructors was 6.13 (SD=.81). Twelve out of 13 items scored above 6, indicating that respondents answered “agree” or more to almost all of the items presented. Efforts to support students in various ways, which have been traditionally done, seem to have received higher scores: “I demonstrate caring through attitude, expectations, and behavior” (M=6.33, SD=.84), “I demonstrate pride in student achievement” (M=6.46, SD=.77), “I meet with students outside of scheduled class time” (M=6.24, SD=.97), and “I provide constructive feedback” (M=6.25, SD=.87). Some of the slightly lower-scoring items (though still very high-scoring items, close to 6) include: “I learn about students’ backgrounds, social identities, and learning styles” (M=5.8, SD=1.06), and “I am sensitive to my students various social and cultural backgrounds and the different ways in which they experience the classroom environment” (M=6.03, SD=1.00).
Recognizing the important role of educators in training future public relations practitioners and ultimately leaders in the public relations industry, this study focused on the role of public relations educators in the advancement of DEI in the classroom and their current practices. More specifically, this study intended, first, to provide a useful and comprehensive framework that encompasses various aspects of the endeavor that public relations educators can refer to as they pursue DEI growth in the classroom. In addition, this study was intended to examine the current state and practices of public relations educators according to the framework proposed for future improvement, beyond the normative proposals for DEI-related pedagogies in the classroom. An online survey of public relations educators in the U.S. was conducted. The findings of the study are discussed below, along with their implications.
First, in terms of structural elements that are key building blocks of a course, such as course policies or course objectives, the findings showed that there was some variation in the stated DEI emphasis and/or DEI-focused practices among the five tested elements (i.e., value statements and policies in course materials, course objectives and learning outcomes, textbook selection/reading selection, assignments, and course evaluation).
The inclusion of value statements and policies in syllabi and other course materials has been shown to be somewhat better implemented than other structural elements. This appears to be because the inclusion of disability-related accommodation policies and explanations is a requirement at the institutional level rather than the individual educator’s choice. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires a statement informing students of school resources and policies for accommodating disabilities. However, the inclusion of other DEI-related value statements or policies that were not mandated was significantly lower. For example, the importance of sharing the values and policies of the institution or the values of instructors supporting DEI was rated as “somewhat agree.” Emphasizing DEI and mentioning intersectionality in course descriptions scored only slightly above neutral. That is, among the five elements tested, the value statement/policy inclusion received the highest score, but the likely reason could be that the inclusion of a disability-related statement is legally/institutionally mandated. As Fuentes et al. (2021) noted, it is common practice in academia to include disability/accommodation statements in syllabi or other course materials. Although there has been a recent push to make DEI-focused statements and policies more explicit in syllabi and course materials to create an inclusive classroom atmosphere that encourages diverse perspectives and collaboration (Fuentes et al., 2021), there is still room for improvement. These efforts can begin as easily as including statements of institutional DEI values, statements of instructors’ DEI values, ground rules for communication, and a description of the intersectionality of course topics in the course description.
Regarding the selection of textbooks and reading materials, the findings showed that public relations educators appeared to strive to select textbooks and readings through careful consideration in almost every aspect of the multifaceted considerations recommended by previous studies (e.g., whether diverse people are included as content experts and authorities, examples and applications of textual material to diverse groups of people, accessible and affordable options, reflection of multiple sociocultural perspective) (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Fuentes et al., 2021; Vaccaro, 2019). The reason this element ranked second highest for structural elements was because whether educators requested additional desk copies scored very low. Possible explanations for this could be that educators are already opting for affordable textbooks, many readings are freely available through the school library, or faculty no longer use physical desk copies due to the possibility of using electronic copies. While it was not possible to determine a reason based on the information available in this study, based on the response that educators are working towards accessible and affordable textbook options, it is likely that educators may use other affordable alternatives instead of desk copies.
In terms of assignment-related structural elements, the gap between items was found to be large. Although educators agreed they incorporate non-competitive collaborative group work, most items other than group work were rated rather low. Because some public relations courses (e.g., public relations campaigns) tend to involve group work to mimic the nature of public relations agency settings, responses that indicate educators use collaborative groups alone do not necessarily indicate that educators are seeking excellence in the DEI domain without support from other related domains. In order to incorporate DEI in assignments, it seems that educators should consider the following options more carefully: developing assignments for diversifying and personalized learning (e.g., autobiographical writing, interviews), providing alternative task options to accommodate different learning styles, and depersonalizing controversial topics and structuring assignments in a way where students can choose topics they feel more comfortable with. These options are intended to account for the diversity of learning abilities, when possible (Cohn & Gareis, 2007; Clayton-Pedersen et al., 2008).
The two areas of structural elements that scored the lowest were two of the most impactful and important areas (these are also areas that require a higher level of systematic effort than that of just individual educators): course objectives/learning outcomes and course evaluation.
Overall, the explicit inclusion of DEI-related course objectives and learning outcomes in syllabi or other course materials does not seem to be actively practiced. Public relations educators were slightly more positive about setting course objectives and learning outcomes to promote DEI related to the subjects they teach, rather than promoting overall DEI. The low rate of practice for the course objective of improving DEI, which is not directly related to course subject matter, is understandable given the complexity of the course objectives and learning outcomes that faculty must achieve in their curriculum. However, specifying DEI-focused course objectives is critical to enhancing DEI in the classroom (Cahn et al., 2022). When faculty don’t set DEI-related course objectives/learning outcomes (whether set as a single course objective or incorporating DEI into all objectives), DEI-related efforts in the classroom lose their direction and, therefore, there is a risk that those efforts will be sporadic and will not aid in systematically building DEI into the curriculum. This is an important area that needs improvement among the structural elements of courses that public relations educators need to keep in mind and practice.
Another practice that was critically lacking was the evaluation of DEI-related efforts in the classroom. Respondents agreed to some extent that course evaluation includes DEI-focused questions, such as whether educators strive to foster a classroom environment in which diverse perspectives are respected and whether students can provide relevant and anonymous feedback. However, given that these two aspects are standard practice in higher education, and the rest received low overall scores, tracking the effectiveness of educators’ efforts appears to be another key area for improvement. One thing to note here is that, in many cases, course/faculty evaluation items or methods do not depend on individual faculty members. In a situation where the influence of individual faculty is limited because of the use of standardized evaluation forms determined by the institution, how to systematically evaluate DEI-related efforts and provide a reference point for improvement emerges as an important question.
Respondents tended to be more active in practicing DEI-focused pedagogical approaches compared to practices across structural elements. For example, dimensions that received relatively low scores in pedagogical approaches, such as curriculum transformation efforts and professional development efforts, had similar scores to value statement/policies (the dimension that received the highest scores in structural elements). That is, public relations educators reported that they have played a better role in holistic efforts to incorporate DEI-focused pedagogical approaches into the overall learning process of the classroom, compared to making systematic changes and taking clear and specific steps to address structural elements of the curriculum.
Of the six areas tested with respect to pedagogical approaches to DEI in the classroom, respondents demonstrated the highest level of practice in creating inclusive learning environments. Inclusive faculty strive to transform the learning environment into an atmosphere in which everyone’s voice is welcome and everyone believes they contribute to the discourse (Elenes, 2006; Salazar et al., 2017). In this context, public relations educators surveyed appear to have made a conscious effort to care for their students, take pride in their achievements, provide constructive feedback, engage with students outside the classroom, and work closely together to create an inclusive learning environment.
In addition, it was found that respondents actively participated in efforts to improve intrapersonal and interpersonal awareness. Self-reflexivity is an important element of embracing differences (Banks & McGee Banks, 2004; Salazar et al., 2017). The findings suggest that public relations educators have engaged in a variety of activities to raise intrapersonal awareness (e.g., by critically examining their ideas, assumptions and values and their impact on pedagogy, articulating where and how their worldview has developed, expanding knowledge of the other through readings about diverse cultures and identity groups, and sharing their own background and experiences with students and more). In addition, educators appear to engage in interpersonal awareness efforts by creating opportunities for interpersonal conversations where diverse perspectives are respected and validated. In particular, educators have demonstrated excellence in fostering opportunities for group work, validating students’ experiences by engaging in empathetic listening and asking questions openly and constructively, and being aware of students’ nonverbal communication. This indicates that public relations educators have recognized the importance of developing interpersonal awareness in the classroom and have worked towards it. In terms of inclusive pedagogical efforts, educators have been shown to recognize the value of the student experience, invite students to jointly create knowledge, facilitate student choice, and include teaching methods other than traditional lectures and directed reading.
The efforts of public relations educators on these four dimensions (i.e., inclusive learning environment, intrapersonal awareness, interpersonal awareness, inclusive pedagogy) should be clearly recognized and appreciated. However, the areas of professional development efforts and curriculum transformation still need further improvement.
As a pedagogical approach, curriculum transformation represents the faculty’s effort to look at the course content from multiple angles using a more inclusive lens, efforts to identify overt and subtle forms of oppression in course material, and efforts to critically approach theories and concepts presented in textbooks in relation to social and historical contexts (Tuitt, 2003; Salazar et al., 2017). Respondents were found to be better at acknowledging that their perceived reality and perspectives, amongst other things, may differ by different socio-political backgrounds. However, overall, it appears that a more conscious effort is required in the process of critically auditing and reviewing course materials. Regarding professional development, educators have attended various workshops and conferences to enhance their DEI efforts, but they are not making the extra effort to work directly with a diversity competency group to practice DEI skills.
That is, even within pedagogical approaches, respondents showed a tendency to engage in soft skills-related practices (e.g., caring for students, mindful listening) or to engage in rather passive activities (e.g., attending DEI workshops), compared to efforts that require additional actions and visible changes, such as curriculum transformation or working with diverse groups.
Overall, the findings showed that there is a slight gap between the pedagogical approaches and structural elements when it comes to enhancing DEI in the public relations classroom. Public relations educators have recognized the importance of DEI advancement in the classroom and have been involved in a variety of practices in the classroom, particularly with regards to efforts to create an inclusive atmosphere and raise awareness of DEI. However, there is room for improvement in active efforts to bring about systematic change beyond fostering an inclusive atmosphere in the classroom. These may include explicit communication for the advancement of DEI in the classroom (e.g., including value statements and policies), visible changes related to structured elements (e.g., specifying DEI objectives and course evaluations), curriculum transformation, and additional proactive efforts to work with diverse groups.
Despite the useful findings and implications of this study, we acknowledge its limitations. This study is an initial attempt to provide a framework for educator-level efforts to strive for DEI enhancement in the classroom. Since the focus of this study was not to develop sophisticated scales of DEI practices in higher education, it provides basic descriptive results based on measures adopted from previous studies. This study has limitations with regard to generalization of results because it used convenience sampling to recruit survey participants and the number of participants was not as high as hoped for. The findings, while they are adequate for providing a snapshot of the current practices of public relations educators, should not be generalized in a statistical sense. In particular, self-selection bias may have occurred as it is possible that educators who are more interested in DEI completed the survey. Therefore, the possibility that the results of this study are somewhat more positive than reality cannot be excluded.
Directions for Future Studies
In future research, it is necessary to improve and develop measures that public relations educators can use based on initial attempts such as this study. In future research, it is recommended that more participants be recruited using the probability sampling method to increase the generalizability of findings. Although this study focused on efforts at the level of educators; future studies should also look at efforts at the level of institutions, administrators, and the higher education sector in general. Additionally, future studies should focus more acutely on specific dimensions of diversity and inclusion, including age, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Lastly, while we can, on a normative level, encourage educators to make every possible effort to improve DEI, it is also important to be aware of the practical difficulties and obstructions that educators may face despite all their intentions and motivations to advance DEI in the classroom, and future research should seek ways to more realistically and effectively support the role of educators.
This study was intended to provide systematic and multifaceted guidelines to public relations educators who strive to enhance DEI in the PR classroom. The framework proposed in this study comprehensively presents the important factors that public relations educators must keep in mind to achieve DEI success in the classroom. In addition to providing a multidimensionally-structured framework, this study illuminates the current state of DEI practice in the public relations classroom, and further suggests areas for improvement.
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