Tag Archives: diversity

Eco-Tourism Campaigns as a Framework for Global PR Course

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: nandinib@txstate.edu

Arien Rozelle, APR
Assistant Professor
Department of Media and Communication
St. John Fisher University 
Rochester, New York
Email: arozelle@sjf.edu

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:

  1. Country analysis: students pick a country other than the U.S. and Canada and conduct comprehensive research to understand PR practice in that country. 
  2. 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. 


  • 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


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.”


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 

Bardhan, N., & Gower, K. (2020). Student and faculty/educator views on diversity and inclusion in public relations: The role of leaders in bringing about change. Journal of Public Relations Education6(2), 102-141. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2020/08/15/student-and-faculty-educator-views-on-diversity-and-inclusion-in-public-relations-the-role-of-leaders-in-bringing-about-change/

Brown, K., Waymer, D., & Zhou, Z. (2019). Racial and gender-based differences in the collegiate development of public relations majors: Implications for underrepresented recruitment and retention. Journal of Public Relations Education, 5(1), 1-30. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2019/01/31/racial-and-gender-based-differences-in-the-collegiate-development-of-public-relations-majors-implications-for-underrepresented-recruitment-and-retention/

Ceballos-Lascurain, H. (1987). The Future of Ecotourism. Mexico Journal, January, 13-14.

Commission on Public Relations Education (2018). Fast forward: Foundations + future state. Educators + practitioners: The Commission on Public Relations Education 2017 report on undergraduate education. http://www.commissionpred.org/wpcontent/uploads/2018/04/report6-full.pdf 

Creedon, P., & Al-Khaja, M. (2005). Public relations and globalization: Building a case for cultural competency in public relations education. Public Relations Review, 31(3), 344–354. https://doi. org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2005.05.021 

Flowers, A. A. (2020). Learning about diversity worldwide: How a social media writing assignment provides students with multicultural perspectives. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(1), 85-98. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2020/01/21/learning-about-diversity-worldwide-how-a-social-media-writing-assignment-provides-students-with-multicultural-perspectives/

Global Alliance. (n.d.). Global capability framework. https://www.globalalliancepr.org/capabilitiesframeworks 

Holbert, A., & Waymer, L. D. (2022). Teaching race and cultural sensitivity in public relations: The case of Comic Relief and the Western savior ideology. Public Relations Education, 8(1), 116-131.  https://aejmc.us/jpre/2022/03/31/teaching-race-and-cultural-sensitivity-in-public-relations-the-case-of-comic-relief-and-the-western-savior-ideology/   

Ju, R., & Kang, D. (2021). A critical dialogical approach to teaching public relations students intercultural competence. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(1), 153-168. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2021/05/28/a-critical-dialogical-approach-to-teaching-public-relations-students-intercultural-competence/  

Pompper, D. (2005). Multiculturalism in the public relations curriculum: Female African American practitioners’ perceptions of effects. The Howard Journal of Communications16(4), 295-316. https://doi.org/10.1080/10646170500326582

Sirakaya, E., Sasidharan, V., & Sönmez, S. (1999). Redefining ecotourism: The need for a supply-side view. Journal of Travel Research, 38(2), 168-172. https://doi.org/10.1177/004728759903800210

Taylor, M. (2001). Internationalizing the public relations curriculum. Public Relations Review, 27(1), 73-88. https://doi.org/10.1016/ S0363-8111(01)00071-6

Tsetsura, K. (2011). How understanding multidimensional diversity can benefit global public relations education. Public Relations Review, 37(5), 530-535. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.09.020

Verma, A. (2022, June 4). What Is ecotourism? Meaning, examples, pros and cons. Native Planet. https://www.nativeplanet.com/travel-guide/what-is-ecotourism-meaning-examples-pros-and-cons-006737.html

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

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. 



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.


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.

© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Bhalla, N. and Rozelle, A. (2023). Eco-tourism campaigns as a framework for global
PR course
. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(4), 240-250. https://journalofpreducation.com/2023/02/24/eco-tourism-campaigns-as-a-framework-for-global-pr-course/

Shaping Tomorrow’s Industry Leaders by Incorporating Inclusivity into Campaign Planning Curriculum: Student Reactions to the SMART+IE Mindset in Strategic Communication Efforts

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: rdwaters@usfca.edu

Tricia M. Farwell, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Journalism and Strategic Media
Middle Tennessee State University
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Email: tricia.farwell@mtsu.edu

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.

Keywords: public relations campaigns, public relations education, SMART+IE objectives, authenticity, diversity, equity, inclusion, DEI, organizational culture


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.

Literature Review

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:

  1. Help the company revise their campaign to be more genuinely inclusive 
  2. Help the company develop and maintain a culture of DEI 
  3. 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. 

  1. 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? 
  2. 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? 
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. How difficult was it to write SMART+IE objectives?  What made it easy/difficult to develop them?
  6. 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 DescriptionDialogue 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 tripDialogue 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

To:Johnny Creekside II, chief executive officerValentina Martinez, chief information officerDonnie Paige, director of marketing
From:Jai Lee, communication      specialist
CC:Creekside Tires account team at CorpComm
Re: Television Commercial

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

Subject: Memo

Date: 04/06/2022


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

Date:  04/06/2022


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

1993 Water Street
Milwaukee, WI 53202
(414) 555-8445


To: Kris Bufonte, CorpComm

From: Johnny Creekside, Creekside Tires

Subject: Re: Memo

Date: 04/06/2022


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

Subject: TikTok

Date: 05/16/2022


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

Date:  05/16/2022


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

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!

Date: 05/18/2022

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!

Date: 05/18/2022

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!

Date: 05/18/2022

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!

Date: 05/18/2022

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.

Todd Hunter

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!

Date: 05/18/2022

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!

Date: 05/18/2022

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.  

Franklin Conner

Legislative Liaison

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!

Date: 05/18/2022

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!

Date: 05/18/2022


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!

Date: 05/18/2022

Hey team,

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

© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Waters, R.D. and Farwell, T.M. (2023). Shaping
tomorrow’s industry leaders by incorporating inclusivity into campaign planning
curriculum: Student reactions to the SMART+IE mindset in strategic communication
 Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(4),
91-197.  https://journalofpreducation.com/2023/02/24/shaping-tomorrows-industry-leaders-by-incorporating-inclusivity-into-campaign-planning-curriculum-student-reactions-to-the-smartie-mindset-in-strategic-communication-efforts/

Systematically Applying DEI Accreditation Standards to a Strategic Communications Curriculum

Editorial Record: Submitted May 30, 2022. Revised August 29, 2022. Accepted October 28, 2022. 


Lee Bush
Strategic Communications
Elon University
Elon, North Carolina
Email: lbush3@elon.edu

Vanessa Bravo, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Strategic Communications
Elon University
Elon, North Carolina
Email: vbravo@elon.edu

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). 

Strategic Writing

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.

Strategic Campaigns

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 testing is 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.

Qualtrics Survey

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.

Instructor Reflections

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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© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public
Relations Division

To cite this article: Bush, L. and Bravo, V. (2023). Systematically
applying DEI accreditation standards to a strategic communication curriculum.
Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(4), 128-160. https://journalofpreducation.com/2023/02/24/systematically-applying-dei-accreditation-standards-to-a-strategic-communications-curriculum/

Enhancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Public Relations Classroom: Current Practices of Public Relations Educators 

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: megancsl@jmu.edu

Yeonsoo Kim, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations, The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas
Email: Yeonsoo.kim@austin.utexas.edu

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

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 change regarding 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. 

Literature Review

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). 

Educator-Level Efforts 

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).

Textbook/reading selection.

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). 

Course evaluation.

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.

Survey Instruments   

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). 

Structural Elements

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.” 

Textbook/reading selection.

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).  

Course evaluations.

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).        

Pedagogical Approaches 

Intrapersonal awareness.

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.

Professional development.

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). 

Interpersonal awareness.

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).  

Curricular transformation.

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). 

Inclusive pedagogy.

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.  

Structural elements 

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.   

Pedagogical Approaches 

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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To cite this article: Meganck, S. and Kim, Y. (2023). Enhancing diversity and inclusion in the public relations classroom: Current practices of public relations educators. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(4), 15-58. https://journalofpreducation.com/2023/02/23/enhancing-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-in-the-public-relations-classroom-current-practices-of-public-relations-educators/

Called, Committed and Inspiring Activism: How Black PR guest speakers experienced the PR classroom during the COVID-19 and Racial Reckoning academic year of 2020/2021

Editorial Record: Submitted June 15, 2021. Revised December 3, 2021. Revised February 25, 2022. Accepted March 7, 2022.


David Brown
Associate Professor of Instruction and Diversity Advisor to the Dean at Klein College of Media and Communication
Department of Advertising and Public Relations
Temple University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Email: davidwbrown@temple.edu

Teri Del Rosso, Ph.D.
Strategic Media department
University of Memphis
Memphis, Tennessee
Email: teri@teridelrosso.com


Through nine in-depth interviews with Black PR experts, this project explores how public relations professors can support and engage guest speakers from underrepresented communities during traumatic times; specifically the public health and racial violence pandemics during the 2020/2021 academic year. We suggest that by understanding the motivations and experiences of Black guest speakers, public relations professors can (better) implement an activist pedagogy practice.

Keywords: in-depth interviews, black pr experts, diversity, guest speakers, activist pedagogy


The spring and summer seasons of 2020 were an unexpected time of reckoning for many public relations professors. In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced many educators and students to their home to work, lecture, study, and collaborate; and faculty were regrouping after teaching, researching, advising, and mentoring digitally for the last half of the spring semester. Although the summer brought a degree of uncertainty, there was a familiarity with the accelerated, often already online, summer courses and research agendas.

Unfortunately, along with the familiarity of a faculty summer work schedule was another tragically familiar story for too many in the U.S.: the police shootings and murders of Black Americans. In May 2020, leaked video footage documented the February 23 killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was gunned down by two White men while jogging in Brunswick, Ga. (Rojas et al., 2020). On May 11, 2020, Errin Haines (2020) reported on Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot and killed in Louisville, Ky. on March 13 after police executed a search warrant.

The murders of Arbery and Taylor drew considerable traditional and social media attention (Brown & Ray, 2020; Specter, 2020); but the country took to the streets for weeks after George Floyd was murdered on Memorial Day (May 25, 2020) in Minneapolis. Floyd was killed after now former police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes.

The public reckoning of these three murders, in addition to the public health crisis, brought a question and call-to-action to the forefront: “What role can, and should communication education scholarship play in this racial justice movement?” (Waymer, 2021, p. 114). Professors, especially faculty of color, have grappled with this question prior to and since May 2020. Overall, many seemed to take Waymer’s question as a call to increase diversity, and professors joined institutions in conversation about how they can incorporate diversity into their own public relations classrooms. 

The need to bring more diversity to the PR classroom is spurred by the lack of diversity among  PR professors, who overwhelmingly identify as white, so much so that the profession was described as “a lily-white field of women” (Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017). Many of these summer 2020 discussions concluded that a path to decentering whiteness was through rethinking references and media; and professors were encouraged to be diligent in facilitating relationships among students, guest speakers, and mentors of color. Unfortunately, this often resulted in emotional, unpaid labor for guests, mentors, and panelists. 

This project explores how to engage more diverse guest speakers; and suggests that intentionally approaching this relationship can be a form of activist pedagogy. Using in-depth interviews, we spoke with nine Black public relations experts who spoke, taught, mentored, and supported public relations students during the 2020/2021 academic year. We focused on how they are processing the collective and individual trauma of 2020 and 2021, how they experienced the PR classroom, and how they felt PR professors can better support them and their students. These findings, which include templates and suggestions for outreach with guest speakers, will aid professors in creating a more activist-friendly space in the public relations classroom.

Literature Review

Although the inclusion of guest speakers in the classroom helps professors deliver professional world experiences to students (Craig et al., 2020; Davis, 1993), few studies in mass communication  explore this topic. This literature review will outline activism and the public relations classroom, our theoretical lens of activist pedagogy, and the research on guest speakers.

Activism in the Public Relations Classroom

A shift in public relations scholarship began in the early 2000s when researchers began to study the relationship between public relations and activism. Holtzhausen and Voto (2002) posit that a postmodern approach helps scholars understand practitioners as organizational activists and change agents. Activists often take-on public relations duties in their work as well (Smith & Ferguson, 2001) and must consider how to budget, communicate, and reach publics (Kovacs, 2001; Taylor et al., 2001).

The scholarship on the role activism plays in public relations and vice versa has influenced and reinforced a need to teach activism and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the classroom. Scholars have explored activism in the classroom through the teaching of activism scholarship (e.g., Pascual-Ferrá, 2019), campaigns (e.g., Luttrell & Wallace, 2021), and writing assignments (e.g., Flowers, 2020). These activities acknowledge a need to prepare students to talk about social issues, which includes diversity, equity, and inclusion. One way to implement these issues in the classroom is to develop an activist pedagogy.

Activist Pedagogy

The dual crises have continued to expose a violent tendency in the U.S. around the dehumanization of marginalized people. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire (2005) writes how dehumanization marks “those whose humanity has been stolen” (p. 44). Around the world, people witnessed activists taking to the streets in the summer of 2020 to fight for their humanity, which was being threatened by police brutality and white supremacy.

Alongside protests on the streets, educators can also approach the revolution in the classroom. For Freire, a humanistic approach to teaching and pedagogy was a solution to the dehumanizing violence. Freire (2005) notes that the way to “surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity” (p. 47). This idea, in many ways, serves as the foundation for activist pedagogy.

Activist pedagogy is the practice in which a professor “exposes, acknowledges and unpacks social injustices… and [commits] to personal and social change both inside and outside the classroom and academy” (Preston & Aslett, 2014, p. 514). This approach transforms the “classroom into a site for ‘doing’ as well as ‘thinking about doing’” (Preston & Aslett, 2014, p. 515). As we outlined in our introduction, scholars called on professors to imagine their classroom as a space to decenter privilege and promote the ideas and experiences related to BIPOC scholars and professionals. As the many workshops, webinars, and readings suggest, this is an active relearning and unlearning for many scholars and professors.

In their study to understand whether scholars and professors are decentering whiteness and promoting a more critical and nuanced understanding of (de)colonization, race, and diversity, Chakravartty and Jackson (2020) studied 25 syllabi and 16 curricula belonging to the top first-year communication and media studies doctoral programs in the United States. Of the 1,070 authors cited on first-year course syllabi, the 16 most assigned scholars were senior or emeritus scholars or had died. Of the top 16 most cited, only one was a woman and one scholar of color (Chakravartty & Jackson, 2020). In addition to these demographics (old, White male), most of these scholars were writing and theorizing on democracy without any attention paid to race or imperialism. This led Chakravartty and Jackson (2020) to conclude that there was a “communication theory whiteout” (p. 6).

         What is taught and prioritized in doctoral programs is important to note because these graduate students go on to become journalism, advertising, and public relations professors (Sadler, 2020). As Sadler (2020) notes, “decolonizing the curriculum is a vital step in giving students access to more scholars of color” and when professors do that, they encourage students to “critically assess the process of media strategy from the position of those it impacts [which] will better prepare [them] for the industry” (p. 60). Given mass communication and public relations’ role as culture creators, professors must seek “transformative pedagogical adaptations of course text, deliverables, and discussion” (Sadler, 2020, p. 63).  Embodying an activist pedagogy is embracing the classroom as a constant “work in progress” (Preston & Aslett, 2014, p. 515). Just as assignments and readings must be intentionally crafted, a guest speaker list has an equally important impact on students.

Guest speakers in Mass Communication

As we introduced, the literature on the use of guest speakers in mass communication is limited, although the practice is well implemented (Merle & Craig, 2017). Since Merle and Craig’s 2017 article, which originally stated that there are no empirical studies exploring the use of guest speakers in mass communication courses, a few studies have examined the relationship between the students and guest speakers.

Ji et al. (2021) concluded in their review of literature that guest speakers improve teaching outcomes and often lead to mutually beneficial relationships among students and professors (see also Zou et al., 2019). Professors recognize that building guest speakers into a classroom schedule can help bridge academics and industry, motivate students, provide information about positions, industries, and the field; and those guest speakers can go on to serve as mentors (Craig et al., 2020). 

Research suggests that strong, successful guest speakers need to wear many hats, and should be smart, committed, and credible (Eveleth & Baker-Eveleth, 2009; Farruggio, 2011). Effective guest speakers often develop their own teaching philosophy, which includes understanding their audience (students), presentation preparation, and strategies for engagement and motivation (Lee & Joung, 2017). In addition to demographics and pedagogy styles, Ji et al. (2021) discovered that overwhelmingly, students prefer alumni as guest speakers because these guests provide “imagined future professional selves” (Ji et al., 2021, p. 63). The authors noted that international guest speakers were increasingly valued by students due to globalization (Ji et al., 2021).

While the previous study did not explore student perception of guest speakers outside of age and gender, Craig et al. (2020) concluded there was a significant need for faculty to be strategic when selecting guest speakers based on diverse lived experiences. Just as alumni help students “imagine their future selves” through a shared university experience, students are also looking for guest speakers to embody other diverse identities (e.g., racial, gender, first generation) (Craig et al., 2020).

The need for diverse guest speakers. When organizations embrace diversity, it signals to its stakeholders a set of values (Edwards, 2011; Muturi & Zhu, 2019). The 2017 Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) report notes that educators are a crucial voice in making diversity central (CPRE, 2018). Professors and lessons must reflect diversity in content and teaching due to the fact there is still a diversity challenge within the field. Public relations professors have a unique responsibility to diversity, given it’s a central standard for the two primary accrediting bodies: ACEJMC and PRSA’s Certificate in Education for Public Relations (CEPR). The report notes, “to deepen students’ understanding and appreciation of diversity, educators can invite speakers from backgrounds that differ in terms of ethnicity, religion, and other demographic and psychographic dimensions” (CPRE, 2018, p. 53).

One of the key recommendations regarding diversity is for professors to find ways to support underrepresented groups. This project takes a unique look at this call by interviewing Black public relations experts about how professors can create an encouraging and nurturing environment for invited guests. This way of support complements and reinforces other CPRE recommendations such as student retention, teaching diversity and multicultural perspectives, and building and developing thought leaders.

As we outlined in this literature review, the scholarship on guest speakers explores how to best use guest speakers (see Haley & Blakeman, 2008; Spiller et al., 2011) and student perception (see Craig et al., 2020; Ji et al., 2021; Merle & Craig, 2017), but few studies explore the relationship from the guest speaker perspective. Additionally, many of the above cited studies collected quantitative data, which although helpful, lacks a deep, in-depth understanding of experience.

This project has two goals. The first goal explores the guest speaker experience in the public relations classroom during the 2020/2021 academic year and how they feel public relations professors can best support them. Our second goal centers around how these findings can be explicated to help public relations professors create and foster an activist pedagogy practice.

RQ1: How did Black public relations experts experience the 2020/2021 academic year as invited guests in the classroom?

RQ2: How do they feel PR professors can better support them in the classroom?

These research questions will help guide our discussion, which explores how understanding the experiences and motivations of Black PR experts can be viewed as a contribution to an activist pedagogy.


To understand more about the experiences of our interviewees and how professors can better support Black PR experts and guest speakers, we conducted nine in-depth interviews over Zoom. At first, we wanted to speak with any guest speakers who identified with a marginalized group (e.g., gender, race, and/or sexual minority), but after realizing the weight of the dual crises (COVID and racial violence) in 2020/2021, we opted to interview Black PR experts to learn more about their specific experiences. The interview allowed us to understand more about the individual experiences in the PR classroom as they are lived and perceived by our participants (Englander, 2012).

Sample and recruitment tactics  

After we received IRB approval to conduct in-depth interviews, we used a purposive and convenience sample to recruit our nine interview participants. Given our Broom Center for Professional Development for Public Relations grant, we sent an interview pitch to the Broom Center Speaker Bureau list and recruited from our networks. Participants were asked to fill out a form which focused on demographics (age range, pronouns, region) and guest speaker logistics (e.g., how many invitations, presentations, topics). Twenty emails were sent out and we received 16 interest forms. Taking into consideration gender, age, invites/presentations, and region; we extended the invitation to 10 participants. Of our original 10, we were able to schedule and conduct seven interviews, which we then increased to nine after another round of purposive recruitment via personal networks to increase our gender and age diversity. To maintain confidentiality, all participants were given a pseudonym. In addition to their pseudonym, each participant was situated within a region and age range, but we did use their provided pronouns (Appendix A). 

Procedure and Analysis

We conducted semi-structured interviews, with most lasting approximately 60-minutes. Given that we were talking to working professionals, often during lunch hours or right after the workday, sticking to the hour was very important for both researchers. Every interview was conducted over Zoom with both authors joining for the call.

After we recruited and scheduled the interviews, each participant was emailed the consent form and the list of interview questions. We opted to share the interview questions to build trust and provide the interviewee with the opportunity to reflect on their year before the interview.

The first researcher facilitated the outreach, scheduling, and rapport building portion of the interview. She told the interviewee the goals of the interview and went over key takeaways from the consent form. After the short introduction, she turned off her audio and proceeded to take notes and ask the occasional follow-up question, while the second researcher conducted the interview.

Early in the project conceptualization, we both had an open conversation with our own identities and privileges. The two authors work as public relations professors at two large universities in urban areas, and one identifies as a White woman and the other identifies as a Black man. It was important for us to have the Black researcher conduct the interview with the White researcher observing and taking notes. In addition to building trust, the openness, transparency, and intentionality facilitated a more collaborative space to share stories, experiences, and exchange sentiments of solidarity, empathy, and concern (Holstein & Gobrium, 2003). We recognized that the interview would not have been the same if the White researcher was the one asking the questions.

We recorded each interview and used the Otter.ai app to transcribe the interview in real time. We met after every interview to compare notes and start to develop the list of themes. From there, transcripts were read closely, and we developed more abstract codes and built connections across the conversations (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011).     


Through our interviews we discovered  many opportunities for public relations professors to support Black PR experts invited into the classroom. We found that understanding why a guest speaker takes speaking engagements is crucial to understanding the logistics around support. Guest speakers identified a few key areas for professors, including clear instructions and connections to the course’s outcomes and goals, in-depth background on the students’ interests and personalities, the opportunity to bring one’s authentic self, and approaches to compensation. In addition to these findings, we provided tangible materials for PR professors when working with guest speakers (see Appendix B-D).

“It’s been a year”

Three weeks before the interviews began on May 18, 2021; Derek Chauvin was convicted of the murder of George Floyd (Levenson & Cooper, 2021). The anxiety around the possible not guilty verdict—and the following mixed feelings around realizing that Chauvin would be held accountable—was short lived when news broke that Columbus, Ohio, police shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant that same day (Ludlow et al., 2021).  Many guest speakers were still reeling from the aftermath of that, in addition to other personal and collective traumas around the dual crises. To make space for that, the first question posed was, “How are you?” Most guest speakers quipped, “Well… it’s been a year.”

Danielle launched into the unrelenting events that encapsulated her 2020 and 2021. In addition to COVID and racial violence, Danielle was overwhelmed with the natural disasters and personal challenges so much so that she joked, “I’m waiting for locusts, frogs, and other plagues from the Old Testament to come. We’ve been through so much; it’s just been overwhelming.”

Marvin didn’t hold back, “Simply put… it mostly sucked.” Marvin hit a lot of personal and professional roadblocks in 2020/2021 and it took a toll on his mental health. As part of his reflection of 2020/2021, he did acknowledge that what was keeping him afloat was some of his work with students and universities. Marvin told us, “That would kind of be the highlight of my day even if I was really struggling or had to think about putting on a brave smile and face that day.”

For others, 2020/2021 existed in more of a gray area. Ena told us, “I think I’m doing OK.” Professionally, she acknowledged that it’s “a weird space to be in.” She continued:

As a comms professional, where you’re advising leadership to make statements or to take certain action, and then, you know, represent yourself as yourself. There’s some tension there and it can be difficult to reconcile. Especially in our job where we’re trying to influence and move the needle… you hit a wall with that.

Two of our more senior position interviewees, Wayne and Connie, took a more positive look at the events of the last year. Both held doctorates and worked professionally in leadership positions at their organizations. When asking them, “How are you?” Wayne and Connie talked about what they had done rather than the emotional assessment of the year. Wayne, who received his doctorate while working full time during the pandemic, spoke of that great accomplishment. He told us, “I’m balanced. It’s been good. You know, I’m the optimist so my glass is always half full.” Wayne did acknowledge that it’s not perfect, but overall “it’s probably been one of the most rewarding years in my career.”

In addition to understanding the experiences facing Black PR experts in 2020 and 2021, we were curious to learn more about their motivations and how they felt PR professors could make the classroom experience more transformative. A few major themes arose regarding how to better support: (1) understanding why Black PR experts go into the classroom, (2) the preparation around “the ask,” (3) an acknowledgment of compensation, and (4) the ability to bring one’s authentic self.

The Why: Representation Matters

Overall, the Black public relations experts interviewed went into the public relations classroom because they felt they were called, committed, and inspired to do so. This commitment was not to the professor, but rather they felt it was a calling to “be represented and be counted.” April told us when she goes into the classroom, “It’s not lost on me that representation does matter. That just my presence, just being there and… having the type of career experience that I’ve had… the profound impact that has on students of color.” April continued:

When you don’t have proper representation, especially in the public relations field, how are our students going to be able to know what jobs are available? So, I think just being in the room… I think says a lot without saying anything.

Jas echoed April’s thoughts about the power of being in the classroom and having that influence, “I don’t take it lightly the ability to impact someone’s life in their trajectory… it’s an honor and privilege to be able to help shape opinions and thoughts.” Marvin agreed, “It’s about making a difference and that’s really the whole reason why I got into this profession.”

Wayne specifically talked about his experience as a Black man:

Quite simply my motivation was this: I have worked in the field of communications and marketing for the better part of 30 years, and I’ve always wondered, ‘Where are the people who look like me and in particular, where are the Black men?’

Wayne realized that this was due to access and representation, and that Black men weren’t taught about strategic communication. Because of this, “I feel a bit of a calling, if you will, to share with anybody who will listen and is interested, but in particular students of color, what this field is all about.” Wayne continued, “I think it’s important for folks to know that there are men of color—Black men—who work in the field.” April mentioned a similar thing and noted that digital and virtual experiences can help, “There’s an exposure gap with students of color and through online engagement you can do panels—you can get them [diverse guest speakers] all in the room.”

The Ask

One of the most important things that public relations professors can do before their guest speaker arrives in the classroom is give them direction on how to best support the curriculum and information about the students. Overwhelmingly guest speakers shuddered at the “do/talk about whatever you want” approach. In addition to guidance around the professor’s agenda, guest speakers want to know more about the students’ interests, goals, and the personality of the classroom.

Understanding the course. For Jas it was “imperative that guest speakers support the curriculum.” When invited in, she wants to know “how can I support what you guys are working on? Are there any gaps you think I could fill?” Jas sees her role not rooted in personal thoughts, beliefs, or opinions, but rather “I’m here to make sure you are learning [and] that we are meeting the curriculum.”    

When organizing and scheduling, Wayne wants to know how the professor conceptualizes success. Wayne went as far as purchasing the textbook so he could situate his discussion. Wayne told us, “That’s what’s always inspiring me anytime I can get in front of young students and say, ‘your textbook says this and let me help you bring it to life.’”

Marvin, who took over 10 speaking engagements during the 2020-2021 academic year, said:

There’s a lot of ways I can talk about my career… [what is] most important for me, if I want to keep doing this, is to add an understanding of what the class already knows. If you really want me to talk about how I can be helpful and supportive to the bigger picture, what you want your class to get out of talking to me.

An understanding of what was being covered and how she could best supplement that material was crucial to April, who saw her role as one that can bridge the academy and the industry, especially when it comes to trends and professional development (e.g., salary negotiation and asking for flex schedules). April told us, “There’s a lot of disruption happening. It may not be in the syllabus or the curriculum, but it’s probably helpful to ask these guest speakers their thoughts on these things.” For Connie, knowing what and whom the students have been exposed to is helpful, especially as a Black woman who feels she surprises the students when her video joins the virtual classroom.

Understanding students. April talked about how professors tend to be too broad when it comes to explaining who their students are. Even if a request is coming early in the semester, April encourages professors to learn about the students, “If you know what your students’ interests are, that’s a really great time to inform a speaker so they can really read the room and speak to the things that are actually relevant and of interest to the students.” In all of April’s classroom experiences, missing this step is a lost opportunity and does not make things easier; “Making it generic is making it harder.”

Wayne first makes sure that he understands what the professor is looking for when he’s invited into the classroom and then his next step is for the professor “to tell me about your students, you know, the makeup of your class, what are they interested in, what are they not interested in. What are they particularly focused on with this class… help me understand the audience.”

If the class size and schedule allow for it, Ena prefers to hear from the students themselves: “If the group is small enough to hear who the students are, where they’re from, particularly what their interest is, why are you a PR major, where are you from… I always like that.” Knowing where the students are coming from helps Ena pick and choose what types of examples and stories to tell. For example, if she learns a student is into sports, she knows to tell her sports story.


Overwhelming, guest speakers come into the classroom to give back to students and to be the person who inspired them (if they had exposure) or to fill a gap (if they weren’t exposed to a Black PR expert yet). A lot of the senior experts balked at the idea of being financially compensated for their time in the classroom. Danielle told us about the time she was asked to speak on a panel about compensation. Danielle laughed, “I was like, I can’t be on this! I don’t ask for money for most of my speaking engagements, I’m a horrible person to have on this panel—I need to be in the audience listening!”

Many of our Gen. Z and young Millennial professionals did bring up some degree of transaction for speaking engagements, with a few participants addressing financial compensation explicitly. Sam was very clear in that compensation (or lack thereof) should be addressed within the initial pitch; “My first question right out the gate is: “what is your budget?” This is all dependent on the work and the labor that you’re expecting me to do.” Sam likened the practice of not paying speakers to not paying interns.

Alex agreed that “it’s a very important question and something I’ve had to think a little more explicitly about.” Alex serves in a leadership role with PRSA which requires that they take engagements within a volunteer capacity. Alex noted, “I think my biggest thing about compensation is being mindful of the time.” This means taking inventory of what is the overall ask. Is this person being invited to a small class or is this an event with all the students from the major joining?

Sam had ideas around how to compensate in what they termed “relationship compensation.” Relationship compensation is the professor’s ability to show up for guest speakers outside of the classroom. This could be recommending the guest speaker for paid speaking engagements or trading lectures, goods, or services. For example, Sam was invited to an unpaid panel with an event photographer. Sam negotiated five new headshots for their portfolio in lieu of financial compensation for moderating.

Marvin agreed that if a professor can pay a guest speaker that it’s the ideal way to compensate them for labor. He did recommend quite a few tangible things professors could do if they couldn’t financially compensate for his time, such as writing a testimony or recommendation for his LinkedIn or website, and requiring students to complete feedback forms, which help him develop benchmarks and goals.

Bringing their authentic selves

Marvin recognized quickly into his guest speaking career that the key to a successful speaking engagement is his ability to bring his authentic self. He notes that Gen Z are hyper focused on opportunities that allow them to be their full selves. He said, “Gen Z. really appreciates that people are not sanitized and not being what you think that they should be… telling things like it is and being present with what you have.” Sam, who multiple times referenced themselves as an “unapologetically Black, queer nonbinary Southerner,” spoke at length about how they couldn’t in good faith take on opportunities that didn’t embrace who they are.

The topic of authenticity was a theme in our conversation with Alex, too. Bringing their authentic self into the classroom was a way for Alex to disrupt a conditioned urge to not be authentic. Alex told us:

There are definitely challenges [in bringing one’s authentic self to the classroom] and I think that comes for any number of reasons. A lot of times it’s just the extent to which you’ve been conditioned to not be authentic, from elementary school, middle school, high school and at the start of college.

Alex acknowledges that because of this conditioning, for many marginalized identities, bringing one’s authentic self into the workplace often results in people leaving or losing their jobs. That said, coming to the classroom wholly and complexly is part of their brand.

To build trust and acknowledge the nuances around bringing one’s authentic self, Alex’s approach to creating this empowering space is to be upfront:

I tend to preface and practice those sorts of things as I am carving this space out for myself. Your professor or instructor invited me here, but you know, I’m not just reading the bullet points they gave me… I am bringing my experience to that.

         For Danielle, keeping her authentic self-intact during 2020/2021 was difficult. Her roles and responsibilities had her handling a lot of administrative tasks and she was “putting out fires 85% of the day.” At this point of her career, Danielle could be picky about speaking engagements; and as a leader in her organization, she often recommends others for those opportunities.

         Wayne wants to know the parameters of the class and he is not afraid to decline invitations if he feels certain important topics, such as race, are off the table: I’m at this age… stage… where there are some things that I’m not going to compromise on, and I’m doing the students a disservice if I did. If we can’t, for the most part, have free and open dialogue and conversation…, I’m doing them a disservice.


By critically examining Black PR professionals’ experiences as guest lecturers and asking them how professors might best support them in these educational endeavors, we provide insight for PR educators interested in implementing an activist pedagogy. As indicated above, the emergent themes of authentic self and representation are critical to informing our understanding and practice of an activist pedagogy. This discussion explores how our findings contribute to activist pedagogy scholarship

In an academy that is largely white, it’s important for public relations professionals to continue to not fall into the trap of reacting to seasonal and situational DEI efforts. Professors must promote and advocate for a diversity of experiences in the classroom. This is crucial to the health of the profession. To see the industry embrace diversity, it first must be intentionally centered in the public relations classroom (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Brown et al., 2019). Students and faculty alike recognize the importance of guest speaker diversity, and there are considerable efforts to bring public relations faculty and educators together to talk about how to better support faculty and students of color (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Race in the PR classroom, n.d.).

Our research questions about classroom experience and relationships with professors suggest that the 2020/2021 academic year was complicated for our participants. Many referenced the weight of the public health crisis, in addition to the racial violence, and how those dual crises affected their mental health. That said, the participants also spoke about the importance of meeting with young professionals and sharing their talents. Interviewees spoke about how representation matters and acknowledged the importance of students being able to see intersectional identities in the profession. The nine public relations professionals told us if professors wanted to better facilitate this classroom experience, they should be explicit in their ask (e.g., clearly outline course objectives, student body characteristics), create a safe space for them to be vulnerable and authentic, and consider compensation.      

This discussion section explores how public relations professors can use this information to implement an activist pedagogy.

Decentering Privilege

From our conversations with Black PR experts, we concluded that one way to build an activist pedagogy is for the professor to decenter their own professorial and personal privileges. This includes demographics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, but also includes institutional biases around pathways to expertise and approaches to education.

Freire (2005) critiques how many people come to understand “real” knowledge. This objectification of knowledge privileges institutions and the powerful (i.e., professors). Freire centered critical thinking, emotions, reflection, and experience as important ways of knowing, not just degrees. For public relations professors looking to adopt a more activist pedagogy, providing space for guests to speak authentically about their lived experiences can facilitate this type of humanistic learning. 

As we’ve outlined, participants spoke at length about the value in their ability to bring their true, authentic self into the classroom and students should do the same. To allow a guest to bring their unique experiences to the students is for the professor to come to terms with their own limitations and the privilege associated with imparting knowledge and skills. To cede expertise and provide a space for speakers to talk candidly about their experiences (if they wish), public relations professors can decenter themselves and encourage these dialogues. Additionally, providing guest speakers with the detailed information about the students’ lived experiences, acknowledges that this relationship is often about building knowledge and meaning making together.

Authentic selves in the classroom. Freire (2005) calls on educators to blend practice with theory; and intersectionality can serve as a guiding theoretical lens for how and why it is crucial to provide a safe space for marginalized guest speakers to bring their authentic selves and experiences into the classroom. Just as Crenshaw (1991) and Collins (1990) proposed a both/and approach to identities, public relations professors must embrace that guest speakers from underrepresented communities cannot divorce their lived experiences and identities from their profession.

For example, activist pedagogy seeks to transform the classroom by exposing, acknowledging, and dismantling inequalities. The professionals we interviewed addressed how important it was to be clear with the students about what it meant to be both Black and a PR expert at this time in history. As many participants pointed out, going into the classroom under this spatial and temporal context (Vardeman-Winter et al., 2013), these identities shift given what is going on in the world (e.g., pandemics) and when it’s happening (e.g., during an election year, while the students are virtual learning).

         Professors as allies. As professors decenter themselves, they can more easily move into the role of ally. When this practice happens, students are exposed to new ideas, which can ignite their drive and activism (i.e., helps them see themselves in these roles) and facilitate a growth mindset. Diversity of experiences and approaches can help students inform their ideologies and help build their stories. In this way, DEI can serve as an ethical compass for professors seeking to center authentic lived experiences. This results in the intersection of theory and practice, which is crucial to activist pedagogy.

Tangible Tactics

Freire (2005) writes about how the oppressed struggled between freedom and authenticity; and that without freedom, the oppressed cannot live authentic lives. Freire notes that the tension around authenticity lies in the fact that an authentic human life is one that is created and nurtured through oppression systems and ideologies. As Freire states, “the oppressed have adapted to the structure of the domination in which they are immersed” (p. 47). When professors decenter their privilege and recognize the humanity of themselves, their students, and the guest speakers, it creates a space for oppressive systems, implicit and explicit, to be challenged and disrupted. 

As our findings outlined, there are considerable efforts made by Black PR professionals to provide diverse stories, frameworks, and opportunities for public relations students. For many Black PR experts, there is no divide between the politics of the classroom and what’s happening in society. Black PR experts are still facing racism and racial violence as they come into the classroom to talk about, for example, media relations. For public relations professors looking to authentically engage with an activist pedagogy, they must consider the emotional, physical, and mental labor taken on by Black PR guest speakers.

Paying for labor. One way to do this in a very concrete and actionable way is to pay guests for their labor. We make a call on leaders and administrators to support activist pedagogy through systemic change at the department, college, school, and university level, and encourage leaders to take statements of solidarity and put those words into actions. Developing funds and resources for professors to offer financial compensation for guest speakers is a start, in addition to making sure that all courses and educators are prioritizing DEI initiatives, not just the social issue classes. This work often already falls on the shoulders of faculty identifying from underrepresented communities (Madden & Del Rosso, 2021), so there should be incentives and/or consequences to support a department-wide commitment to DEI and activist pedagogical approaches.

In addition to the actionable suggestions provided by our participants that provide direct support to invited guests (Appendix B), professors should see their classroom as a transformative site for justice, which will facilitate the opportunity for more authentic engagement (Preston & Aslett, 2014). In other words, it’s not enough to bring in a few underrepresented guest speakers. Professors must radically change what is taught and prioritized, including the required texts, assignments, and the facilitation of discussions and lectures to support guest speakers (Sadler, 2020).  

Future studies. In March 2021, after we conceptualized the scope of this study, Asian and Asian American communities experienced a horrific hate crime in Atlanta, which took the lives of six women and two men working at three spas and massage parlors. According to Stop AAPI Hate, a national database and resource website collecting data on Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) hate crimes, Asian Americans found the increased hate and racism to be more stressful than the COVID-19 pandemic (Saw et al., 2021). Future studies could look at how Asian and Asian American public relations experts are navigating that dual crises, in addition to adding more intersectional identities into the conversation such as disabled practitioners, LGBTQIA+, international, first generation, and/or undocumented.


If faculty are nervous to ask professionals, especially professionals from underrepresented groups, to come into the classroom, April puts that concern to rest, “I think professionals don’t feel like we’re asked enough. People don’t ask us enough, they’re scared that they were too busy or, you know like, it’s a burden.” For April, this was a great opportunity to reflect on her own journey and pay it forward.

Overall, the 2020/2021 academic year “was a year” for Black PR experts who were invited into the classroom. Many of our participants were working through the joys and challenges cropping up in their professional, academic, and personal lives as they were joining classrooms, and networking and mentoring students. Adopting an activist pedagogy approach can equip professors to transform their classrooms to be an open, welcoming, and productive space for guest speakers. Providing detailed background on the class agenda and students, being upfront about compensation, and allowing guest speakers to bring their true authentic selves into the classroom, helps to humanize and will ultimately better the profession overall.


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Teaching Race and Cultural Sensitivity in Public Relations: The Case of Comic Relief and the Western Savior Ideology

Editorial Record: Original draft Submitted January 22, 2021. Revisions submitted February 21, 2021. Accepted March 22, 2021. Published March 2022.


Ashley Holbert
Graduate Student
Advertising & Public Relations
The University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL
Email: aeholbert1@crimson.ua.edu

Damion Waymer, Ph.D.
Professor and Department Chair
Advertising & Public Relations,
The University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL
Email: dmwaymer@ua.edu


In the following teaching brief, we undertake the task of providing a means for public relations educators to talk about diversity, race, equity, and inclusion in the classroom. We know that educators are asked to teach about these matters; yet, many of them do not have adequate resources from which to draw. So, we provide one such teaching brief. This teaching brief centers on the case of Comic Relief and its perpetuation of the Western Savior Ideology. It then takes readers through the experience of how Comic Relief evolved its approach after public outcry. We have provided critical questions and an essay question an instructor can use to facilitate discussion about and to assess, subsequently, student learning on diversity issues in public relations.

Keywords: nonprofit communication, comic relief, diversity, race, public relations education, international PR


In this age of heightened awareness about issues of social justice in the U.S. and abroad, it is becoming evident that if we are going to more fully prepare our students to enter the profession and be successful practitioners, we must address issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, whiteness, privilege, and social injustice in the classroom and overall curriculum (Waymer, 2020). As Flowers (2020) noted, several scholars in the discipline have called for greater intercultural, multicultural, diversity, and international skills and competency for public relations students in the U.S. (Bardhan, 2003; Creedon & Al-Khaja, 2005; Taylor, 2001; Tsetsura, 2011; Waymer, 2012a, 2012b; Waymer & Brown, 2018; Waymer & Dyson, 2011). Likewise, the Commission on Public Relations Education (2019), has recognized the centrality of diversity to public relations education—and has “encouraged it—one might say, mandated it (emphasis in original)—with new standards for accreditation of schools of journalism/mass communication and certification of public relations programs” (para. 3). In light of current events in our world and the Commission on Public Relations Education’s (CPRE) mandate, the time and opportunity are ripe for public relations education scholars to address diversity matters and racial justice more fully.

We know that educators are asked to teach about these matters; yet, many of them do not have adequate resources from which to draw. In the following teaching brief, we undertake the task of addressing diversity matters and racial justice more fully. After or as part of a PR unit on intercultural communication, diversity, or global public relations, the instructor should introduce the following case. It is best to use this case after the instructor has conducted at least one lecture or seminar on the topics of diversity, intercultural communication, or global public relations so students are at least familiar with concepts used to discuss these matters. At a minimum, if an instructor has no resources from which to draw, the instructor can assign for reading and discussion CPRE’s (2019) statement on diversity that details four critical definitions (of diversity, culture, segmentation, and stereotypes) and expected outcomes of diversity education in public relations.

STEP ONE: ensure the discussion on diversity in public relations has taken place with students. This sets the stage if faculty want to use the Comic Relief case study to facilitate teaching and discussion of diversity in public relations. The remainder of the case analysis should be covered over at least two class sessions (50-minute or 75-minute sessions).

To familiarize instructors with the case and to demonstrate why it is suitable for teaching diversity matters in public relations, we introduce the case of Comic Relief and provide adequate context for instructors to see its relevance and pedagogical potential.

Assigning and Teaching the Comic Relief Case
In a subsequent class, STEP TWO is to introduce the case of Comic Relief. Have them read about Comic Relief. Also allow them about five minutes to peruse the organization’s website https://www.comicrelief.com/. After students have read about the history and mission of Comic Relief and have spent 5 minutes reviewing its website,
STEP THREE is to have students read the following news articles in class. The first is written by Sarah Young (2019), and the second was written by Kitty Wenham-Ross (2019). Also have the students read Comic Relief’s (2019) response to this situation on Twitter. Students should take about 20 minutes to read both news articles and Comic Relief’s brief statement issued on Twitter. Once students are finished reading these items, the instructor should ask Reflection Question 1 and then later Reflection Question 2 located at the end of this teaching brief. These questions should drive conversation with students for the remainder of the class session. At the end of the class session, after students have engaged in instructor-facilitated dialogue around Reflection Questions 1 and 2 above, the instructor assigns for homework the following readings to be completed before the next class session.

STEP FOUR sets the stage for what happens during the next class session and marks the beginning and in some instances the continuation of tough discussions of diversity issues in public relations. These are the assigned readings: Charity So White’s (2020) blog entry detailing its newfound partnership with Comic Relief; Pragya Agarwal’s (2019) news article/critique that highlights discriminatory language, ideals, and policies nonprofits use as they work with and describe the racially underrepresented communities that are the recipients or targets of their charity; Charity So White’s (2021a, b, c, d, e, f) Our Story, Our Vision, Our Calls to Action, Our Values, How We Talk, and Defining Racism pages on its website; Cipriani’s (2020) article that announces Comic Relief’s decision to hire new director of fundraising, Fatima Ribeiro; Comic Relief’s (2020a) press release that announces its decision to hire African directors to work on international appeal films and its (2020b) press release that reflects its attempts to address racial inequity; and finally Sandhu’s (2020) article detailing Comic Relief’s decision to stop using images of starving children in Africa for Red Nose Day events. All links are hyperlinked above.

STEP FIVE asks the instructor at the beginning of class to ask an open-ended question that solicits student feedback about their initial response to the assigned readings. Let this conversation and dialogue take place for about 10 minutes. Finally, the instructor should facilitate discussion further around the more structured questions: Reflection Questions 3 and 4.

STEP SIX allows the instructor the opportunity to assess student learning. The instructor can assign Reflection Question 5 as a short essay to be turned in at a later date, or if the instructor does not want to assess student learning for this unit or case example, the instructor can simply ask Question 5 during the same class period as the instructor asked Questions 3 and 4. Regardless of the approach to assessment the instructor takes, after completing this case analysis and discussion, students should be able to determine how well Comic Relief, via its public relations, was able to deal with diversity issues and needs, and they should be able to measure that success against the DEI outcomes prescribed in the CPRE (2019) statement on diversity provided as a supplement to this unit. In short, students get to see how an organization makes attempts to achieve the CPRE’s (2019) ideals about what public relations practitioners should be doing to help organizations be more equitable, diverse, and inclusive—as the commission espouses that “public relations practitioners should be at the forefront in helping organizations respond to these matters” (para. 12).

Now that we have presented specific guidelines for introducing the topic, this case, and facilitating discussion about this case and diversity issues in public relations, we turn to providing more in-depth details about the case for background and context for instructors.

Comic Relief Case Background and Context
Comic Relief, based in the United Kingdom, is one of the most prominent charities in the world. The organization was founded in 1985 by British comedian, Lenny Henry, and comedy writer, Richard Curtis. The organization is known for raising money, via late-night fundraising shows, for those afflicted by a famine in Ethiopia. By 1988, the organization began hosting its first Red Nose Day, a telethon on BBC, which raised more than £15 million euros for tackling poverty during this first event. (Comic Relief, 2013). Many celebrities, musicians, and comedians take part in Red Nose Day each year, and funds raised by the organization are awarded as grants for multiple charities worldwide; the charity has raised more than $1.4 billion since the nonprofit’s inception (BBC, 2015; Sandhu, 2020). In addition to live events, Comic Relief fronts a hefty budget for their cause-marketing collateral, which includes informational documentaries, original photography, and footage for their youthful and entertainment-driven social media presence.

In 2019, the charity came under fire for their use of predominantly White British celebrities in their fundraising and advertising campaigns. Simultaneously, claims began to arise about a lack of diversity across the nonprofit sector. In 2020, Comic Relief made the risky decision to completely eliminate the emotional, “tear-jerking” marketing tactic used by several other charities worldwide, and instead they pursued an unprecedented approach. The changes they made both internally and externally not only reflected the success of a company reinventing their marketing strategy, but they also provided a new framework for other nonprofit organizations seeking to integrate greater levels of diversity and agency at the local level.

Students likely are not familiar with the events of 2019 that damaged Comic Relief’s reputation nor are they likely familiar with the actions Comic Relief took in 2020 to address the criticisms and threats to its legitimacy. These factors make it a solid, non-US centric case to discuss and interrogate diversity and public relations.

Comic Relief Campaigns in Crisis
On February 27, 2019, Strictly Comes Dancing champion Stacey Dooley posted a photo to Instagram from Uganda, where she was working on a documentary with Comic Relief. In the photo, the redheaded media personality was cradling a small African child, with his fingers in his mouth and his eyes averted from the camera. The photo was captioned, “OB.SESSSSSSSSSSED”; it was also one of several similar posts made as part of the documentary’s marketing material. Within minutes, the internet blew up, full of belligerent social media users accusing Dooley of a “Western Savior complex” and begging her to take the photo down. Member of Parliament, David Lammy instigated the onslaught with a tweet, reading:

“The world does not need any more white saviours. As I’ve said before, this just perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes. Let’s instead promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate.” (Young, 2019 paras. 3-5)

Immediately, Comic Relief was thrust into the spotlight, as social media users scrutinized the organization’s previous fundraising materials and use of celebrity influencers to promote their causes—a key aspect of their cause-marketing strategy. An earlier documentary from 2017 resurfaced, showing singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran trying to quickly pull money from his own wallet to front the cost of a hotel for two homeless children in Liberia. This documentary was called “poverty porn” (para. 1) by aid watchdog groups (McVeigh, 2017), and Sheeran and the organization were accused of using an emotional marketing appeal that sacrificed the dignity of the children pictured and painted a limited narrative where Sheeran was the leading character coming to the rescue (McVeigh, 2017). Other photos used as promotional material by Comic Relief showed media personalities Ben Shephard and Fearne Cotton handing out Malaria nets in Uganda—two smiling celebrities in a sea of otherwise sad faces (Wenham-Ross, 2019). Many social media users were outraged.

Comic Relief’s Response
Comic Relief used Twitter to issue a response almost instantaneously after Lammy’s tweet. Instead of apologizing for Dooley’s actions or their own, the organization expressed gratitude that Dooley “agreed to go to Uganda to discover more about the projects the British people have generously funded, and (we) make no apologies for this” (Comic Relief, 2019, para. 1). Further, Comic Relief expressed that they had offered David Lammy an opportunity to help them with their filming efforts, and he had not taken them up on the offer; however, “Lammy said it was “simply not true” that he had not responded to the offer, adding he had held two meetings with the organization” and that Comic relief “had “fallen short” of what he called its “public duty” to promote racial equality and serve minority communities” (Badshah, 2019, para. 5). Publics’ feelings toward Comic Relief’s response were divided as the story circulated around the United Kingdom and beyond. Some threatened to pull their aid from British charities altogether, while others emphasized that Comic Relief and the celebrities the organization used in their public relations efforts were not at fault for using what influence they had for a good cause.

Lack of Diversity in the Third Sector
Charity So White (2021d) used the spotlight around issues of racial insensitivity and inequality given to the third sector to make their case that a lack of diversity at the management level of nonprofit organizations and unaddressed issues of institutional racism account for the minimal or stereotypical representation of people in developing countries seen in marketing materials. Charity So White was formed just three months after Comic Relief’s crisis with Stacey Dooley, and Charity So White’s hashtag trended on Twitter as thousands of racial and ethnically underrepresented persons shared their experiences of exclusion while working in or with the charity sector. At the center of the outrage was training materials used by a charity named Citizens Advice and its guidelines for working with Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) communities; these guidelines were based on racist stereotypes about these communities being a “cash-centric culture,” having “low literacy levels,” and their having a fondness for “gender discrimination.” Citizens Advice presumed these stereotypical characteristics to be prevalent in these underrepresented cultures (Agarwal, 2019). Charity So White emphasized that these stereotypes could affect funding for charities led by racially and ethnically underrepresented persons working on the ground in developing countries, especially when third sector leadership demonstrated an inherent lack of diversity and racial insensitivity.

The Transformation of Comic Relief
Many had moved past Comic Relief’s crisis by August of 2019, accepting their statement about Stacey Dooley as well-intentioned naivety. Yet, the leadership at Comic Relief stayed engaged in the conversations happening in the third sector, and the leadership began to meet and strategize with the team at Charity So White at the end of 2019 about how Comic Relief could better represent and support communities in the countries, specifically developing African countries, where they had proverbial boots on the ground for their humanitarian efforts. Comic Relief planned strategic changes over the course of the next 18 months, and the result was a new cause-marketing and promotional strategy—one designed to minimize the Western savior ideology in their communication, and the angles with which they framed life in other cultures.

Changing Internal Leadership
While the leadership team at Comic Relief sought to transform their external communication strategy, they first looked inward for a new candidate to fill the role of Executive Director of Fundraising and Creative—the head of their integrated marketing efforts. In August of 2020, they selected Fatima Ribeiro. Ribeiro is a Muslim woman of Portuguese and Gujarati descent who served as marketing director for the nonprofit Islamic Relief over a span of five years; furthermore, Ribeiro received awards for her Ramadan fundraising campaigns, including Third Sector Marketing Campaign of the year in 2019 (Third Sector, 2019). Choosing Ribeiro for the job brought to the organization the perspective of a woman from a culturally diverse background whose stated mission and prior work experiences were focused on helping others understand the beliefs and values of marginalized communities. For example, in her previous Ramadan campaigns for Islamic Relief, she featured references to a verse from the Qur’an splashed on the sides of buses across the UK; the marketing message generated traffic from those outside the Muslim faith to their website. Many persons from those outside the Muslim faith, out of curiosity, looked up the references, and several gained a greater understanding of the month of Ramadan and its significance to those taking part in the spiritual ritual (Ahmed, 2019; Third Sector, 2019). Hiring Ribeiro can be seen as Comic Relief’s newfound commitment to inclusiveness in their storytelling and marketing techniques.

Prioritizing Local Voices and Creating New Influencers
After Ribeiro’s hiring, the first external decision Comic Relief made in October of 2020 was to stop sending British celebrities, like Dooley, to African countries as influencers. The charity decided to remove footage of starving and ill children from their documentaries, even though that particular tactic was considered effective because it successfully elicited emotion from stakeholders who often gave money to support needy children (Sandhu, 2020); however, such imagery did not provide a more accurate representation of development on the continent as a whole. To adequately portray life in the countries where they operated, Comic Relief announced plans to bring members of communities on air as storytellers, captured by local filmmakers and photographers. In a press release dispatched on October 28, 2020 by Comic Relief, President and co-founder, Sir Lenny Henry stated:

“African people don’t want us to tell their stories for them, what they need is more agency, a platform and partnership. I have seen first-hand what it means for African communities to see someone who looks just like them in charge of directing films.”(Comic Relief, 2020a, para. 12)

Furthermore, Kenyan filmmaker and director of one of Comic Relief’s newest documentaries, Eugene Muigai, added:

“This opportunity makes people like us feel like we are finally being listened to. For so long we’ve seen people tell our stories, misinterpreting intentions, beliefs and the values we hold. It has led to a loss of culture and pride among our people.” (Comic Relief, 2020a, para. 17)

Comic Relief also announced that high profile supporters could continue to play an influential role in entertaining and narrating during their Red Nose Day telethons, and they could continue appearing in and supporting other marketing materials created in the United Kingdom; however, the representation of Africans and African culture would be led by members and directors of those local communities. Comic Relief followed these decisions with an online event, releasing three new films from Kenyan filmmakers tackling the difficult topics of mental health, climate change, and child marriage (Comic Relief, 2020a).

While Comic Relief’s initial response to ‘White Savior’ criticisms was deflective and unapologetic, the organizational changes made in the following 18 months reveal time spent listening and seeking to understand the responsibility given to the third sector to help facilitate storytelling. The result is a series of initiatives which set a new precedent for charities with a substantial level of exposure, including changes to the marketing tactics they use. Comic Relief’s CEO, Ruth Davidson, emphasized that despite the radical changes to the organization’s practices, they still knew that they could maximize their efforts to fund those in need and reduce donor fatigue, by showing the ways that developing countries across the world are changing for the better. Davidson stated, “what prompts people to give is an emotional connection—that doesn’t have to be pity. It can be joy, it can be anger, it can be a sense of positivity and hope” (Sandhu, 2020, para. 6). All of the organization’s changes—including the broadcasting of their localized films—will be on full display in March of 2021, with their internationally acclaimed and televised Red Nose Day.

Reflection Questions

Do you believe that Comic Relief did anything wrong in their initial response to criticisms of perpetuating the Western Savior ideology? Why or why not?

Given the backlash, in retrospect what specifically could Comic Relief’s public relations team have done differently in their initial response to backlash for Dooley’s photo?

Given your knowledge of diversity issues in public relations, how could a more nuanced understanding of cultural sensitivity, diversity, equity, inclusion, or race have allowed Comic Relief to execute a better humanitarian campaign?

What are alternative ways that influencers can aid in promoting a nonprofit organization to their audiences without taking the spotlight off of local efforts?

Evaluate Comic Relief’s decisions to change course, to partner with Charity So White, to hire Fatima Ribeiro as Executive Director of Fundraising and Creative, and to change how they created campaigns—by using local filmmakers and photographers for example. Share your evaluation and thoughts.


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© Copyright 2022 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Holbert, A. & Waymer, D. (2022). Teaching Race and Cultural Sensitivity in Public Relations: The Case of Comic Relief and the Western Savior Ideology. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(1), 116-131. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2881

A Shortage of Excellence? An Exploratory Study of U.S. Doctoral-level Education in Public Relations

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted January 11, 2021. Revised May 7, 2021. Accepted June 11, 2021. Published March 2022.


Luke Capizzo, Ph.D., APR
Assistant Professor, Public Relations
School of Communication Studies
James Madison University
Harrisonburg, VA
Email: capizzol@gmail.com

Rosalynn Vasquez, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Public Relations
College of Communication
Boston University
Boston, MA
Email: rosalynn@bu.edu

Hyoyeun Jun, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, English, Communications and Media
Salve Regina University
Newport, RI
Email: hyoyeun.jun@salve.edu


This exploratory content analysis of doctoral-level education in public relations at U.S. universities describes the state of doctoral training in the discipline, applies existing best practice criteria, and generates recommendations for improving the structures and processes that undergird the preparation of new scholars and faculty members. Bringing together existing doctoral and master’s-level best practices from the discipline alongside doctoral best practices from the broader fields of communication and mass communication, this paper explicates the work of strengthening public relations doctoral programs and improving the size and quality of the graduate student-to-faculty pipeline. Key recommendations include additional codification of public relations and strategic communication tracks and classes within broader doctoral programs, as well as a more explicit commitment to diversity and inclusion (D&I) as a measurable value and objective for doctoral programs.

Keywords: d&i, inclusion, diversity, doctoral education, public relations

While the public relations field has seen significant growth in the volume and quality of pedagogical scholarship over the past several decades, there has been a shortage in the number of scholars produced for available tenure-track faculty positions (Botan & Hazleton, 2006; Commission on Public Relations Education [CPRE], 2012; Turk, 2006; Wright & Flynn, 2017). U.S. doctoral-level education in the public relations discipline has yet to be studied systematically. Foundational studies have examined undergraduate education (e.g., CPRE, 2018; Turk, 2006) and master’s-level programs (e.g., Aldoory & Toth, 2000; Briones & Toth, 2013; CPRE, 2012; Toth & Briones, 2013; Weissman et al., 2019) and touched on doctoral education (Auger & Cho, 2016), but, even as scholars have spoken to the “shortage of excellence” in public relations teaching and research (Wright, 2011, p. 245; Wright & Flynn, 2017, p. 55), little has been done to formalize expectations for doctoral programs and graduate students to help address this gap. The Commission on Public Relations Education’s (CPRE) 1999 report provided broad guidelines for curriculum and learning objectives in U.S.-based public relations doctoral programs, but no research has evaluated (1) whether these guidelines have been followed by existing programs and (2) what updates, adjustments, and improvements could be made to better address the needs of today’s graduate students and tomorrow’s faculty members.

As a young discipline (in academic time), U.S. public relations graduate students do not have wide accessibility to highly developed, focused, and established degrees and programs at the doctoral level. Yet, they still have more opportunities than other countries. As of 2017, Canada had no doctoral programs allowing students to focus on public relations (Wright & Flynn, 2017). Therefore, this research addresses this lacuna to better understand the programs that currently train tomorrow’s scholars and educators. The results and discussion propose an updated framework for doctoral programs to ensure they provide students with access to the best-possible preparation for the research, teaching, service, and professional work. Additionally, given the significant challenges faced by faculty of color across disciplines (e.g., Arnold et al., 2016; Guillaume & Apodaca, 2020; Haynes et al., 2020), and the underrepresentation of faculty of color in communication and mass communication (e.g., Hon et al., 1999; Murthy, 2020; Stephens, 2003), as well as within the discipline and profession of public relations (e.g., Landis, 2019; Place & Vanc, 2016; Tindall, 2009a, 2009b; Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017; Waymer & Brown, 2018; Wills, 2020), this project looks to add student and faculty diversity and inclusion (D&I) as measurable outcomes of successful doctoral programs.

The purpose of this project is to, first, provide an exploratory examination of existing U.S. public relations education at the doctoral level and compare the findings with existing and emergent best practices. Next, as doctoral best practices in the discipline have not been studied (CPRE, 1999), the researchers investigate and connect existing best practices in master’s-level programs in public relations with research from related doctoral programs in communication and mass communication to recommend updated guidelines. The results provide crucial insights about who is teaching public relations doctoral students, how students are being taught, and how these processes may be improved.

Literature Review
The first public relations degree at any level offered in the U.S. was Boston University’s Master of Science in 1947 (Wright, 2011; Wright & Flynn, 2017). While the discipline has seen significant efforts in the interim to generate best practices, there is little uniformity in the structure of public relations graduate education in the U.S., either at the master’s or doctoral level (e.g., Briones et al., 2017; CPRE, 1999; Toth & Briones, 2013). Previous research on master’s-level education has focused on the variety of existing programs and attempted to understand how they address the changing needs of students and the PR industry. Multiple factors have contributed to this variety, including the multiple models for students prioritizing doctoral education or professional development, evolving specialization within the public relations profession (Turk, 2006), and an attempt to bridge the ongoing disconnect between existing curricula and employer-demanded skills (Toth & Briones, 2013). Yet, this variety at the master’s level has not translated into a similar depth of programs at the doctoral level.

Best Practices in U.S. PR Graduate Education
A U.S. doctoral degree in public relations should serve as a gateway for graduates to generate research specific to the discipline (for scholarly or organizational purposes), teach and mentor students at multiple levels, and serve the academy and the profession (CPRE, 1999). Beginning in the 1970s, a series of commissions led the discipline’s direction on education and pedagogy at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Wright and Turk (2007) outlined the historical path from the 1970s to 2006, beginning with the first formal commission in 1973-1975. At the graduate level, it recognized the shortage of doctoral programs in existence at the time and focused its attention on strengthening the research components of master’s programs. By 1985, a reconstituted commission recognized the growing need for improved graduate education, as well as a more defined structure for undergraduate skills and expectations (Wright & Turk, 2007, p. 577). For the doctoral programs, the commission strongly advocated for an increased focus on research and methodology development. Unlike the master’s-level PR programs, a public relations doctoral program should focus on helping students develop theoretical and methodological skills applicable to either an academic or applied research setting (CPRE, 1999).

In contrast to scholarship in journalism, which prioritizes professional development research (Macdonald, 2006), CPRE cemented the importance of social science research as the center of academic public relations’ scholarly inquiry and doctoral training (1999). Delineated expectations for graduate education in public relations were initially developed in 1985 by the Commission on Graduate Public Relations Education (Aldoory & Toth, 2000), and later updated in the CPRE report, Standards for a Master’s Degree in Public Relations: Educating for Complexity (CPRE, 2012). According to the report, all master’s degree-seeking students should be exposed to a core curriculum with five content areas: (1) strategic public relations management, (2) basic business principles and processes, (3) communication/public relations theory and research methods, (4) global influences on the practice of public relations, and (5) ethics (see CPRE, 2012, pp. 11-15). It describes a “fork in the road” (p. 16), where curricula should diverge for professional- and academic-focused students. The recommended academic track includes additional courses in research, as well as a thesis, in contrast to a professional track, which would include a topical or industry specialization (e.g., health communication, crisis/risk communication, sports public relations, etc.) and an internship or practicum experience.

The most complete set of guidelines for U.S. doctoral programs in public relations was completed by the CPRE as part of its 1999 report: A Port of Entry. It offered four recommended outcomes for doctoral graduates: (1) to be prepared for faculty and high-level managerial roles, (2) to be well versed in public relations theory and concepts, as well as related fields in communication and mass communication, (3) to be able to generate original research that contributes to the discipline of public relations, and (4) to contribute to new paradigms and directions for the communication and mass communication fields. In order to achieve these ends, the report makes a number of curricular recommendations (see Table 2).

These recommendations point to establishing a foothold for public relations within existing U.S. communication and mass communication doctoral programs, and creating additional space to perform public relations research, lead public relations seminars, and allow students to pursue their individual interests. For a discipline early on in its development at the doctoral level, these recommendations broadened the ability for students enrolled in existing programs to focus more directly on public relations as the center of their study. Many of these recommendations should be familiar to more recent doctoral graduates. This study seeks, in part, to evaluate this progress. Yet, as undergraduate public relations programs have expanded rapidly, these recommendations and limited disciplinary doctoral program offerings may not be enough to keep pace with the demand for new public relations faculty (Botan & Hazleton, 2006; Wright & Flynn, 2017).

Pipeline Challenges for U.S. Doctoral Programs in Public Relations
The applied nature of the discipline has meant that public relations faculty are often expected to have terminal degrees and “experience in the public relations field” (CPRE, 2018, p. 106), for example, Toth (2010) and Smudde (2020) argue for the value of both professional and academic experiences for doctoral students and researchers. Due to practical enrollment needs, public relations faculty are often recruited and/or rewarded for their professional knowledge and ability to teach rather than their ability to conduct research (Botan & Taylor, 2004). For doctoral programs, this poses a significant potential problem for inequity between the discipline of public relations and other disciplines in communication and mass communication with more established and developed Ph.D. pipelines. The challenge is compounded by the lack of existing faculty in communication and mass communication doctoral programs who focus on or specialize in public relations, which contributes to the gap of Ph.D. graduates with a public relations research focus (CPRE, 1999). While these challenges are present today, they are not new—as explained by the CPRE more than two decades ago:
“It is essential that the instructors of these core courses understand public relations, encourage new research on public relations problems, and encourage the building of public relations theories. This has seldom been the case in current doctoral programs.” (CPRE, 1999, p. 18)

Around this same time, Johnson and Ross (2000) found fewer than 10 public relations graduates at the doctoral level in 1995 and 1999. As undergraduate enrollments for public relations majors have increased, doctoral programs have not kept pace (Botan & Hazleton, 2006). According to Wright (2011) and Wright and Flynn (2017), one of challenges in finding well-qualified faculty is the insistence by U.S. universities on having doctoral graduates or those with terminal degrees as faculty members, in the midst of exceptional growth of undergraduate student enrollment in public relations courses, particularly at smaller institutions. In 2012, the CPRE report focused on master’s programs recommended that these programs could “help address the shortage of public relations faculty” by “mentoring talented students in their master’s degree programs to earn doctoral degrees and acquire significant professional experience (p. 30). Yet, many R1 universities, particularly the elite universities that produce a disproportionate number of doctoral graduates, do not dedicate resources to doctoral programs in public relations that would help rectify this imbalance. Despite the availability of tenure-track positions in public relations and the general sentiment that at least some public relations faculty should hold terminal degrees in the field (CPRE, 2012; 2018; Turk, 2006), doctoral education in public relations has lagged behind the demand. According to the most recent CPRE report (2018),

“while not every university teaching position can be tenured, it is important that there are tenured faculty in public relations programs to help provide leadership and influence in faculty governance. Tenured educators help secure resources and funding as well as providing sustainability by ensuring that programs remain relevant in teaching students worthwhile skills and abilities. Additionally, tenured faculty are instrumental in leading and directing research that ultimately enhances the public relations industry by testing and verifying that teaching methods and industry practices are achieving their desired output.” (p. 102)

The shortage of terminal degree-earners continues to drive the over-reliance on professional-track faculty (e.g., adjuncts and part-time instructors), despite the governance and accreditation challenges it creates for colleges (Turk, 2006). Even as professionals in the field have increasingly embraced graduate education (DiStaso et al., 2009) and master’s degree programs have multiplied (Shen & Toth, 2013), doctoral-level education has not followed the same trajectory.

Professionally, success as tenure-track faculty is also dependent on doctoral students building relationships that support research productivity and successful job searches. Relationships and relationship-building can be understood from a social network perspective, as networks of relationships play a significant impact on doctoral students’ abilities to gain employment (weak ties), as well as build research and mentoring partnerships (strong ties) (Saffer, 2015). Effective doctoral programs generate ties among students and faculty—building social capital for graduates and giving students and early career scholars the chance to fill “structural holes of a learning network” (p. 7)—yet the spoils of inequity disproportionately go to those already set up to succeed from elite doctoral programs (Holley & Gardner, 2012). This may be reflected at an individual level, affecting traditionally marginalized students more than privileged students, as well as at the level of the discipline, as public relations faculty often represent a small group of scholars at larger institutions. Other faculty in communication and mass communication programs may also perceive public relations as “dirty work” or less academically worthy than other disciplines (Sommerfeldt & Kent, 2020, p. 1), leading public relations scholarship to be potentially marginalized within departments that lack an established core group of PR faculty. In a survey, Neuendorft et al. (2007) asked communication scholars to rank successful doctoral programs in the field and found that only 20% of faculty and 22% of program chairs thought that more doctoral programs should emphasize the promotional communication category, including public relations and advertising. Additionally, 27% of faculty thought that there was already too much of an emphasis on these areas. Given these disciplinary challenges, the next section examines best practices in doctoral education from across academia.

Best Practices in U.S. Doctoral Education
Significant research across higher education has provided broad recommendations and guardrails for doctoral education. A leading model to understand the process is grounded in socialization—explaining doctoral training as professional identity development through relationship building with those in the research area (e.g., Sweitzer, 2009). This combines a network mindset with the idea that students who are more willing to develop their professional identity will be more successful at setting relevant goals and completing the necessary work during their time in graduate school. As few, if any, doctoral students begin with a complete understanding of the path toward faculty careers, graduate programs have a responsibility to provide professionalization training, networking opportunities, and practical career guidance to students (Wulff et al., 2004).

Gardner’s (2009) multi-disciplinary study defines success in doctoral programs as a combination of academic achievement, retention, degree completion, and professional skill development for academic positions (research, teaching, etc.). Across diverse disciplines, faculty members in what Gardner defines as successful departments (based on the completion rate of their graduate students relative to national averages for their field) identified two key markers of students’ success: empowerment through self-direction and a desire and ability to disseminate research through conferences and publications. By contrast, departments with low completion rates had a less collegial and more competitive environment among current students and focused on maintaining status more than those with high completion rates. Retention and success rates for doctoral students have been described as tied to the degree to which students are professionalized—exposed to the rules in play for their specific field of study (Gopaul, 2015). Gardner (2009) recommends successful doctoral programs should (1) be using mentoring to facilitate habits and skills such as self-motivation as well as (2) helping students to publish through coursework: “aligning course assignments and research opportunities so that students engage in the publication process is also necessary” (p. 401).

Places to look for guidance in benchmarks and best practices include doctoral education scholarship in the broader fields of communication and mass communication. In mass communication, Christ and Broyles’s (2008) benchmark study arose from the 2006 Task Force on the Status and Future of Doctoral Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which surveyed chairs or directors for 39 of 40 AEJMC-affiliated doctoral programs in existence at the time. Participants explained that preparing doctoral students for professional success in academia required, among other factors, research preparation (e.g., coursework, exposure to quantitative and qualitative methods, research assistantships/mentorship), and conference travel funding to present their own research and gain exposure to others’ research. That said, respondents also noted that doctoral students should be prepared for the teaching and service expectations of the tenure-track faculty position. Pardun et al. (2015) investigated the mentoring relationship between advisor and doctoral student by conducting a survey of 241 full professors of journalism and mass communication. The researchers found that senior faculty perceived graduate students as “colleagues in training” more than research assistants (p. 363), and that successful mentor-mentee relationships grew from shared experiences with both participants. By contrast, Neuendorf et al. (2007) found that explicit specialization in specific areas of research was a strength for doctoral programs in communication, which provides support for programs seeking to further define a niche in public relations—and convince colleagues outside of the discipline of the potential value in developing additional tracks within existing programs.

D&I in U.S. Doctoral Education
Public relations faces the challenge of limited diversity in the industry by multiple measures (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Tindall, 2009a; Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017; Wills, 2020) and in higher education (Brown et al., 2011, 2016, 2019; Tindall, 2009b; Waymer, 2012). Public relations has been criticized for a lack of cultural diversity in education and the industry for three decades (Brown et al., 2019; Kern-Foxworth et al., 1994; Len-Rios, 1998; Muturi & Zhu, 2019; Pompper, 2005). As the percentage of Americans identifying as non-white continues to increase (42% in 2020) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021), the PR industry continues to lag behind with an estimated 19% PR professionals identifying as non-white (Elasser, 2018; Muturi & Zhu, 2019).
However, the public relations industry has made some progress in its attention and awareness toward D&I. For example, the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) recently founded the Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (IPR, 2020); the Diversity Action Alliance (DAA) has created a coalition of diverse communication leaders; and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Educators Academy and chapters across the U.S. have made efforts to support diversity among practitioners and DEI principles in organizations’ communication and actions (Blow & Gils Monzón, 2020). While efforts to increase the number of underrepresented groups in the PR profession has been slow, some scholars have indicated that the root problem begins in the classroom, which ultimately affects the industry pipeline (Brown et al., 2011, 2016, 2019). In this environment, some have called on universities and public relations faculty to take a leading role in diversifying the profession (Landis, 2019). Past research has indicated that cultural diversity can be addressed by (1) actively recruiting faculty of color to better reflect the student body, (2) creating more networking and mentoring opportunities, and (3) incorporating D&I within the curricula (Brown et al., 2019; Landis, 2019; CPRE, 2018). Having a diversity of identities among faculty provides role models for more students—as noted in Brown et al.’s (2011) research with Black undergraduates. According to the CPRE report:

“In order to see D&I within the public relations industry flourish, change must begin at the academic level through a more diverse student and educator base, and through changes in how D&I is taught at the educational level. This school-to-industry pipeline will result in a more diverse workforce.” (CPRE, 2018, p. 139)

Unfortunately, doctoral education in PR tends to maintain the current status quo or exacerbate this existing inequity (Gopaul, 2011, 2015). Across academia, faculty of color are consistently underrepresented and face more difficult paths to tenure and promotion (Arnold et al., 2016; Haynes et al., 2020). Public relations doctoral education is often embedded within schools and departments of communication and mass communication, which also face significant D&I issues (e.g., Corrigan & Vats, 2020; Hon et al., 1999; Murthy, 2020; Stephens, 2003). Despite these challenges, the benefits of diverse faculty in the discipline are clear: When faculty and curricula embrace and embody D&I, public relations undergraduate students benefit in improved understanding, increased skills in communicating with diverse publics, and exposure to a wider variety of client work and career opportunities (Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Place & Vanc, 2016).

While race and ethnicity are often at the center of discussions of D&I, any conception of these terms should represent multiple salient facets or categories (e.g., Hon & Brunner, 2000; Mundy, 2015; Pompper, 2007; Sha, 2013). Gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, (dis)ability, international student status, and many other factors must inform any evaluation of and recommendations for doctoral programs (Smith, 2015). As such programs look to play a productive role diversifying faculty, they should keep in mind the challenges of first-generation college students who go on to earn doctoral degrees, including financial challenges, familial pressures, and imposter syndrome, as well as the specific structural discrimination and othering faced by students from underrepresented and historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups (Holley & Gardner, 2012; Waymer, 2012). Additionally, doctoral programs should examine their role and responsibility in preparing future PR faculty leaders who will oftentimes act as the bridge between the industry and the academy to prepare students to have a multicultural perspective. As J. Grunig and L. Grunig (2011) explained, excellence in public relations means having diversity in roles and perspectives that can benefit the organization. Doctoral education clearly has a role to play in driving diversity among faculty and, ultimately, among students and practitioners.

Based on these challenges in public relations education, doctoral education, and D&I, the following research questions explore the current state of U.S. doctoral programs in public relations:

RQ1: Where can students study public relations at the doctoral level in the U.S.?
RQ2: What does the PR curricula look like in U.S.-based doctoral programs in communication and mass communication?
RQ3: How do these curricula align with best practices for U.S. doctoral education?
RQ4: How are D&I reflected in the curricula and policies of doctoral programs in PR?

This study used an exploratory content analysis of U.S.-based doctoral programs in communication and mass communication to address the research questions at hand. The research team gathered data on public relations doctoral programs that were available through the public websites of the departments, schools, and colleges. Based on prior studies by Aldoory and Toth (2000) and Johnson and Ross (2000), the researchers used qualifying criteria for the programs involved in the study. Beginning with initial lists of doctoral-level programs from the National Communication Association (NCA) and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), 32 programs met two of the following four criteria: (1) a degree in public relations or strategic communication or a track/focus area in public relations or strategic communication (or similar), (2) at least two courses in public relations or strategic communication (i.e. not just a single PR Theory course), (3) at least one current, tenure-track faculty member who has published in public relations journals over the past five years, and (4) at least one current student researching public relations. Data for all 32 programs is provided. The initial list was culled to 25 programs that met three of the four criteria or had four or more public relations researchers as tenure-track faculty members. The second list will be referred to as well-established public relations programs. The universities in the sample represented primarily public, R1 institutions with significant research productivity, as well as several large private institutions. They range in size from just under 10,000 students to more than 50,000.

To better understand these programs, categories for further data collection were determined by best practices for doctoral education (CPRE, 1999) and master’s-level education in public relations (CPRE, 2012). To the degree that it was publicly available (via departmental websites and accessible graduate handbooks), the researchers also collected data regarding the degree name, degree specializations (relevant to public relations scholarship), the number of current students researching public relations, the number of listed public relations courses, and the number of public relations tenure-track faculty, as well as several curricular data points: pedagogy courses, research methods, and professional development. Among the challenges faced in collecting these data were the many variations in definitions to represent similar concepts among students, faculty, and program guidelines. For example, in order to adequately capture the breadth of scholarship constituting public relations, students and faculty were considered public relations researchers if they listed their research interest as public relations, strategic communication (not exclusively advertising/marketing), crisis communication, or risk communication or if they actively (within the past five years) published in a public relations journal (i.e. International Journal of Strategic Communication, Journal of Public Relations Research, Public Relations Review). Students and faculty were not included in the sample if their publications were exclusively in advertising, health communication, journalism, marketing, mass communication, media studies, political communication, science communication, social media, or other related communication subfields. Public relations courses reflected a similar definition, including strategic communication, crisis communication, and risk communication, but excluding health communication, communication theory, mass communication theory, etc. Incorporation of D&I language in the graduate handbooks served as an initial way to investigate this category and better understand where public relations theories could be taught.

In order to develop updated criteria for doctoral education in public relations, the researchers utilized a thematic analysis approach to examine and synthesize existing frameworks (e.g., McKinnon, 2014; Lindlof & Taylor, 2010). This included a close reading of the existing frameworks and best practices (as documented in Table 5), which contributed to the verification of existing criteria (CPRE, 1999) and the synthesis of new, literature-driven criteria. These criteria attain resonance (Tracy, 2013) through connecting aforementioned best practices in doctoral education, research and professionalization in academia, public relations pedagogy, and D&I —topics central to the success of doctoral students.


RQ1: Where can students study public relations at the doctoral level?

The results of this investigation found 32 U.S.-based doctoral programs where studying public relations with expert faculty oversight was available, and 25 programs where studying public relations was clearly codified and supported (see Table 3). Programs ranged in their commitment to the discipline and established best practices, but findings supported the notion that there are a variety of options—geographic, interest-specific, and entry point/accessibility—that may allow for growth and expansion of the doctoral faculty pipeline through existing channels. The eight universities with the possibility for the study of public relations did not fit a different profile demographically or geographically, but had fewer faculty members researching public relations and fewer courses focusing on public relations topics. Of the well-established programs, most (17 of 25) only accepted students with master’s degrees into the doctoral program. Of the remaining seven, two universities strongly recommended a master’s degree, leaving only five programs that would admit students regularly with just a bachelor’s degree.

The 25 established public relations doctoral programs included a variety of degree names, the most common being mass communication (eight programs) and communication (six programs), as well as several instances of strategic communication and media & communication. This represents, in part, the historic split between programs paired with (for example) interpersonal communication and rhetoric in contrast to those connected to schools of journalism and mass communication (Wright, 2011). Within these, a variety of degree specializations or tracks represented the preferred coursework for public relations students. These included applied communication, corporate communication, public relations, and strategic communication, among others. Data on current doctoral students was not publicly available for many programs, but among those where it was, established programs averaged 4.7 currently enrolled doctoral students researching public relations. These programs had up to 13 students and between one and eight faculty members researching public relations and related topics. Even among the established programs, many had very few enrolled students listing specializations or a research focus in public relations, which may point to a problematic lack of recruitment or faculty focus in relevant areas.

RQ2: What do PR curricula look like in U.S.-based doctoral programs in communication and mass communication?

RQ3: How do these curricula align with best practices for U.S. doctoral education?

From a curricular perspective, the doctoral programs reviewed in this sample shared many similarities and reflected many existing best practices. For example, all programs for which assistantship information was available provided opportunities for gaining teaching experience. Additionally, each program required students to take at least one research methods course. At a baseline level, this ensured that doctoral students have the tools to develop humanistic or social science research skills, but it does not mean they have a deep exposure to public relations scholarship. Proseminars or similar professionalization courses were part of the curriculum for 19 of the 25 well-established programs and six of the eight other universities. Fourteen of 25 established programs and five of the eight other programs required a course in pedagogy (in several cases, combined with the professionalization course). Taken together, programs are prioritizing the research training aspect of doctoral work, but several may be potentially underemphasizing pedagogy and professionalization.

Public relations courses varied widely from program to program with public relations theory and crisis communication being the most popular. Well-established programs included 18 that offered more than one course specifically focused on public relations or related content, averaging just under 3.5 courses per university, with several not clearly having a relevant subject matter course listed. Even with these offerings, it was not clear that many doctoral students would have regular access to a sequence of regular public relations courses, even at several established programs. This was even more apparent at the other eight programs, which had up to three courses listed—most having just one.

RQ 4: How is D&I reflected in the curricula and policies of doctoral programs in PR?

D&I were evaluated in two ways: curricula and policies (see Table 4). First, curricula were examined by searching for a course in public relations with a focus on global PR, international PR, or culture in PR. For the 32 programs listed, 30 had accessible lists of courses offered. Of those 30, six had a course that reflected one of these three areas. Policies addressing D&I were examined by searching graduate handbooks for relevant content. Among programs where graduate handbooks were publicly available (19 of 32), only one included a formal diversity statement while two others referenced D&I as part of the program’s vision or values. For the other 16 programs, D&I terms only appeared as part of faculty research or grievance procedures. Despite the limitations of the data, it was evident that, on the whole, doctoral programs still did not demonstrate visible, tangible commitments to D&I through policies or courses—two straightforward avenues for such action.

Discussion & Implications
Scholars have pointed to challenges in the pipeline of doctoral programs generating graduates with expertise in public relations research (e.g., Botan & Taylor, 2004; Botan & Hazleton, 2006; Wright, 2011; Wright & Flynn, 2017), but these data support a more optimistic view. Students interested in pursuing a doctorate in public relations have more options than many faculty members might realize. That said, existing doctoral programs in communication and mass communication demonstrate openness to public relations and strategic communication scholarship, but not always with the depth necessary to provide a thorough understanding of existing research and theory in the discipline as part of scholars’ development. There is still, seemingly, a chicken-and-egg problem: Doctoral programs need more public relations faculty to teach additional public relations courses and move into administrative roles, but those new faculty cannot be trained without existing faculty in these programs. The crucial next step may not be establishing new doctoral programs, but rather ensuring that existing programs with the potential for growth in the public relations area (1) codify and formalize public relations and strategic communication tracks and courses, and (2) expand their use of existing best practices. Additionally, the findings point to possibilities for expanding access and inclusivity to improve D&I along multiple criteria. As the structures of doctoral education tend to magnify (rather than reduce) such inequity, doctoral programs must be proactive in addressing them (Gopaul, 2011).

What might these best practices look like? Beginning with the framework of the CPRE (1999; 2012) and supplementing with additional best practices from extant literature on doctoral pedagogy, the authors identified seven core competencies for public relations doctoral programs (Table 5). This includes three recommendations based on CPRE master’s-level recommendations (2012) and doctoral-level recommendations (1999): attaining (1) a deep knowledge of public relations research and theories, (2) advanced methodological training, and (3) pedagogical training. The findings and review of relevant literature led to four additional, emergent recommendations: (1) professionalization training to be a successful faculty member, (2) mentoring and networking support, (3) a clear, codified area or track for public relations doctoral studies, and (4) active, explicit support and metrics for D&I.

Programs that develop successful doctoral graduates focus on research expertise as well as pedagogical preparation, but they must also address the professional development needs of today’s graduate students—who may not always have the opportunity to learn about how to succeed as tenure-track faculty members on the job (Gardner, 2009; Gopaul, 2015; Holley & Gardner, 2012). Doctoral students need exposure to networks of researchers in order to secure tenure-track positions and build new partnerships for research (Saffer, 2015). Additionally, for public relations doctoral programs to thrive and grow, they should further establish themselves as clear, demarcated spaces as part of broader doctoral programs (Neuendorf et al., 2007). While the results indicated that many mass communication and communication doctoral programs have the potential to train public relations doctoral students, many fewer programs had public relations or strategic communication as an explicit area or track, and few had an assortment of public relations courses listed. Such codification works to prevent the loss of valuable programs when faculty retire or leave institutions, as well as to ensure opportunities at the doctoral level are clearly advertised to potential students. Programs must help students build their scholarly identities, nurture relationships within existing programs (among students and between students and faculty), and facilitate external networks with other graduate students and researchers in the field (Sweitzer, 2009; Wulff et al., 2004).

Finally, as D&I have been clearly outlined as significant challenges in communication and mass communication, more doctoral programs (including those in public relations) must begin the process of developing and integrating policies and curricula that support D&I in recruitment, graduate student policies, pedagogical training, exposure to theory and research, and—maybe most importantly—in visible support for doctoral students. To say that programs must begin this process is certainly not a slight to the exceptional scholarship and efforts of many faculty to bring D&I to the center of public relations research and pedagogy (e.g., Bardhan & Gower, 2020; Mundy, 2015; Place & Vanc, 2016; Pompper, 2007; Tindall, 2009b; Vardeman-Winter & Tindall, 2010; Waymer, 2012), but it reflects the lack of institutionalization of these values in the structures and processes that frame the doctoral experience. While rules or policies—written and unwritten—may shape the doctoral student experience, it is the faculty, graduate directors, and administrators who have the power and obligation to reshape these rules with an eye toward improving D&I (Gopaul, 2015). As the 2017 CPRE report notes, D&I efforts will be successful in the public relations profession when there is change at the educational level in terms of diversifying faculty, students, and changing the way we teach.

Limitations and Future Research Directions
As an exploratory study using publicly-available program data, this research has several limitations, a number of which point toward future directions for scholarship. This research does not address a range of important questions for U.S.-based doctoral education in the PR discipline: What challenges do today’s public relations doctoral students and doctoral faculty face? What do these groups see as areas of opportunity or improvement? What do both groups see as obstacles and opportunities for increasing D&I in the public relations faculty pipeline? Additional qualitative research could further explore these questions to deepen insights about best practices and better grapple with perceived barriers. While labyrinthian institutional requirements and processes for course changes and updates may explain some of this variety, it is clear that (1) no two programs are alike or include the same offerings, and (2) many graduate courses may exist that are never or rarely taught. The researchers attempted to investigate several other categories and factors, but the data was not publicly available for many programs. These included assistantship funding, program graduation data and placements, dissertation topics, and the knowledge or visibility of currently enrolled students and their research interests. Additional granular data must be collected to investigate how and whether the programs that provide the infrastructure for developing public relations doctoral students are fulfilling that potential, as well as to identify additional obstacles for student success. In particular, publicly available data related to D&I from a policy perspective was scarce. As it stands now, PR educators are not equipping students with D&I knowledge and skills (CPRE, 2018). Therefore, more research is needed to examine how doctoral programs can contribute to diversifying the PR curricula, recruit and fully support diverse faculty and students, and improve the overall school-to-work pipeline. Future research should consider generating additional data through surveys and interviews to more fully address these questions.

The discipline of public relations can only grow and thrive if an established pipeline consistently generates a diverse group of scholars that values the theories, questions, and approaches that answer a shared set of questions. This is not to say that public relations scholars should aim to replicate themselves or to only seek others like them (Toth, 2010), but that there is value in codifying the discipline and clarifying best practices to guard against contraction, confusion, or dilution. Building more robust public relations faculty units within specific doctoral programs helps to provide more opportunities for growth and development, as well as to strengthen ties and fill structural holes within the doctoral learning network (Saffer, 2015). Established programs develop and refine the curricula, courses, and specializations needed to prepare future faculty in public relations. More U.S. doctoral programs can and should move toward formalizing public relations tracks, as well as defining and measuring goals and strategies to increase D&I among faculty and doctoral students. In doing so, those managing the training and professional socialization of doctoral students must also assume the responsibility of limiting the transference of engrained inequities (Gopaul, 2011). The public relations industry’s lack of diversity is an area of growing concern and professional focus, but little improvement (Bardhan & Gower, 2020). This represents an industry-wide problem and numerous studies are pointing to education as the catalyst and leader for change (Brown et al., 2019; CPRE, 2018; Pompper, 2005). Improving D&I for students in public relations doctoral programs is an important part of this larger project.

Public relations is rich with a growing number undergraduate students. The discipline’s research is increasing in stature and eminently practical beyond the academy. As this exploratory study indicates, U.S. PR doctoral education is well positioned to continue its growth alongside the demand for practitioners, undergraduate majors, and faculty. Scholars must take advantage of this opportunity to further establish and formalize these successful practices—as well as to prioritize changing those that have been less successful to improve D&I for future scholars and scholarship.


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Public Relations Doctoral Program Webpages


Doctoral Program Webpage
2.Central Florida*https://www.ucf.edu/degree/strategic-communication-phd/
7.George Mason*https://communication.gmu.edu/programs/la-phd-com
8.Georgia Statehttps://communication.gsu.edu/public-communication/
14.Michigan Statehttps://comartsci.msu.edu/academics/academic-departments/advertising-public-relations-journalism-media-information/graduate
17.North Carolina*http://hussman.unc.edu/phd
18.North Carolina State*https://crdm.chass.ncsu.edu/
19.North Dakota Statehttps://www.ndsu.edu/communication/programs/doctoral_program/
22.Penn State*https://www.bellisario.psu.edu/graduate/ph.d.-in-mass-communications
24.South Carolina*https://www.sc.edu/study/colleges_schools/cic/academic_programs/phd/mass_communication_phd/
29.Texas A&M*https://liberalarts.tamu.edu/communication/graduate/about-the-doctoral-program/
30.Texas Tech*http://www.depts.ttu.edu/comc/graduate/phd/
31.Virginia Commonwealth*https://robertson.vcu.edu/graduate/strategic-public-relations/
32.Wayne State*http://comm.wayne.edu/phd/index.php

*These universities represent “well-established” PR programs that meet three of the four criteria.

Program Qualifying Criteria: 

32 programs met at least 2/4 (potential), 25 met at least 3/4 (well established)

  1. A degree or a track/focus area in public relations or strategic communication (or similar)
  2. A curriculum (at least two) courses in public relations or strategic communication
  3. At least one current, tenure track faculty member who has published in public relations journals* in the past five years (or self-identifies as a PR researcher^ in their university bio)
  4. At least one current Ph.D. student researching public relations or strategic communication, defined by publishing in public relations journals* or by self-identifying as a PR/stratcomm researcher^ in their university bio

* “Public relations journals” were defined as the International Journal of Strategic Communication, Journal of Communication Management, Journal of Public Interest Communications, Journal of Public Relations Research, Journal of Public Relations Education, PR Inquiry, Public Relations Journal, and Public Relations Review.

^ Self-identified research topics included public relations, strategic communication (not exclusively advertising/marketing), crisis communication, or risk communication.

© Copyright 2022 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Capizzo, L., Vasquez, R., & Jun, H. (2022). A Shortage of Excellence? An Exploratory Study of U.S. Doctoral-level Education in Public Relations. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(1), 76-115. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2846

Special Issue Call for Papers | Leadership, Mentorship and DEI in the Post-Pandemic Public Relations Classroom

Special Issue – Volume 8 (4), Journal of Public Relations Education

Full manuscript submission deadline: June 1, 2022

Special Issue Co-Editors:

Juan Meng, Ph.D.  Department of Advertising & Public Relations, University of Georgia, jmeng@uga.edu

Nilanjana Bardhan, Ph.D. Department of Communication Studies, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, bardhan@siu.edu


The combined effects of COVID-19 and racial unrest following the killing of George Floyd have significantly changed how we teach, and the PR classroom is no exception. Numerous webinars have been hosted by the Public Relations Society of America, the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and the Institute for Public Relations, to name some, to discuss race and diversity/inclusion/equity (DEI) in the classroom and industry. This special issue will add the topics of leadership and mentorship to the mix, and specifically focus on the intersections of leadership and mentorship in fostering DE&I in public relations education. 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).

The Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) has unequivocally emphasized the pressing need to make DE&I an integral part of public relations education, especially the undergraduate curriculum, for the purpose of “creating a more diverse school-to-industry pipeline” (Mundy et al., 2018, p. 144). This work requires proactive leadership and mentorship. Research over the decades shows a clear link between leadership engagement and DE&I. Educators play a critical and instructive role in enhancing students’ competitive advantage by incorporating leadership content and training into undergraduate curriculum (Meng, 2013, 2015).

The purpose of this special issue call is to invite research articles, teaching briefs, scholarly and critical essays, and case studies, and we are especially interested in articles that explore 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 public relations classroom.  Submissions that offer practical knowledge and guidance for undergraduate and graduate public relations education are encouraged as are articles that enhance our theoretical understanding of this topic. We invite original submissions, and areas of focus could include but are not limited to:

  • Pedagogical, theoretical and practical implications of jointly engaging leadership and mentorship to foster DE&I in undergraduate and/or graduate public relations education
  • Current challenges associated with teaching PR at the intersections of leadership/mentorship/DE&I
  • Resources that aid in teaching PR at the intersections of leadership/mentorship/DE&I
  • Best practices ranging from experiential learning, activities and cases for teaching PR at the intersections of leadership/mentorship/DE&I
  • PRSSA and other PR student organizations and extracurricular activities as a site for learning and teaching PR at the intersections of leadership/mentorship/DE&I
  • The role of leadership and mentorship in cultivating a diverse generation of future leaders
  • The role of student leaders in advancing DE&I
  • Creation of platforms and networks to connect educators, practitioner and students for enhancing leadership/mentorship/DE&I in PR pedagogy
  • Curricular issues related to teaching PR at the intersections of leadership/mentorship/DEI
  • Faculty preparation/training and peer mentoring for teaching PR to advance DE&I in this time of great uncertainty
  • Structural issues for teaching PR at the intersections of leadership/mentorship/DE&I (e.g., how to recruit more diverse students and faculty)

Contributions that provide insights with robust pedagogical, practical and theoretical implications and recommendations on leadership, mentorship and DE&I in post-pandemic public relations education will be given the highest consideration.

Submission Guidelines:

Submissions should follow the Author Guidelines on the JPRE website. Authors should include the special call name in parentheses after their manuscript title to indicate the submission is for this particular special call. Authors should submit their manuscript through Scholastica, the online submission system for JPRE. All submissions will be anonymously reviewed, following the guidelines of JPRE. Authors must use APA style for citations, references, tables and figures caption. All identifying information must be deleted before full paper submissions.

Timeline with Key Dates:

  • Deadline for full manuscript submission to JPRE’s Scholastica submission portal: https://jpre.scholasticahq.com/ June 1, 2022
  • Notification of review results, including invitations for revision and resubmission (R&R): August 1, 2022
  • Deadline for R&R submission: September 1, 2022
  • Scheduled Publication: Volume 8 Issue 4 (November/December 2022)

Selected References:

Bardhan, N., & Gower, K. (2020). Student and faculty/educator views on diversity and inclusion in public relations: The role of leaders in bringing about change. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(2), 102-141. Available at https://journalofpreducation.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/d7c44-pdf-of-bardhan-and-gower-2020-from-jpre-6.2-1.pdf

Meng, J. (2013). Learning by leading: Integrating leadership in public relations education for an enhanced value. Public Relations Review, 39(5), 609-611.

Meng, J. (2015). Integrating leadership in public relations education to develop future leaders. Journal of Public Relations Education, 1(1), 31-37. Available at https://aejmc.us/jpre/2015/08/04/integrating-leadership-in-public-relations-education-to-develop-future-leaders/

Mundy, D., Lewton, K., Hicks, A., & Neptune, T. (2018). Diversity: An imperative commitment for educators and practitioners. In Fast Forward: The 2017 Report on undergraduate public relations education (pp. 139-148). Commission on Public Relations Education. Available at: http://www.commissionpred.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/report6-full.pdf

Any questions or inquiries about the special issue?

Please contact guest editors by email: Dr. Juan Meng at jmeng@uga.edu and/or Dr. Nilanjana Bardhan at bardhan@siu.edu

Shifting the Paradigm – Improving Student Awareness of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts Through Public Relations Campaigns

Editorial Record: Submitted to the Educators Academy of the Public Relations Society of America, June 8, 2020. This top paper submission was selected by JPRE in collaboration with PRSA-EA September 17, 2020. First published online May 2021.


Regina M. Luttrell, Ph.D.
Associate Dean for Research and Creative Activity, Assistant Professor
Syracuse University
Syracuse, NY
Email: rmluttre@syr.edu

Adrienne Wallace, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Advertising & Public Relations 
Grand Valley State University
Allendale, MI
Email: wallacad@gvsu.edu


As PR professors it is our responsibility to make diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)  top of mind when teaching our students to develop comprehensive campaigns. It is our role to educate the next wave of practitioners to take the “diversity first” approach when working with clients or organizations. Through learning how to apply the researcher-developed Diversity & Inclusion Wheel for Public Relations Practitioners, this paper illustrates how students can operationalize this tool to build strategic campaigns that encompass DEI principles.

Keywords: Public Relations, Campaigns, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, cultural competency 

Rationale: Through this activity, we seek to shift the paradigm of student awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion practices in and through public relations campaign courses. Through learning how to apply the researcher-developed Diversity & Inclusion Wheel for Public Relations Practitioners, students can then operationalize this tool to build strategic campaigns that encompass diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) principles. Facilitation of cultural competence through relevant curriculum, such as public relations campaigns, empowers students (Pelletier, 2019) and breaks barriers of cognitive and cultural dissonance (Smith, 2019), which in this case applies to creating a “diversity first” approach of examination into, and development of, comprehensive communications campaigns with students. 

Targeted Learning Outcomes: 1) students become more comfortable with many of the aspects surrounding DEI, 2) students can demonstrate a deliberate and effective way for addressing various audiences through empathy and consideration of diverse populations using a customized tool built for PR practitioners, 3) students reflect on the importance of application of DEI efforts to campaigns and the field.

Teaching Practice & Assignment: During the first week of class, to help students begin to think critically about DEI issues, we first define diversity, equity and inclusion to set the stage for the semester and open the discussion surrounding the role diversity plays within the field of PR. We propose the following: diversity is the “difference or variety of difference or variety of a particular identity”; equity addresses the “resources and the need to provide additional or alternative resources so that all groups can reach comparable, favorable outcomes;” and inclusion involves the “practices, policies, and processes that shape an organization’s culture” (Beavers, 2018, p. 3). Rather than making DEI add-on elements of strategic communication campaigns and messages, practitioners should make conscientious decisions to put DEI considerations at the forefront of their planning. This model can be introduced in introductory level courses, then students can carry the model forward throughout their program of study. 

Next, we introduce the Diversity & Inclusion Wheel for PR Practitioners (Appendix A). This wheel is based on previous research by Dr. Lee Gardenswartz and Dr. Anita Rowe (1994, 1998). In doing so we teach our students how to develop more inclusive campaigns from the beginning – the “diversity first” approach. Explaining the wheel: the center of the wheel has six core spokes that brands should consider when beginning to develop a campaign – national origin, age, physical qualities/abilities, gender, race and ethnicity. The outer layer of the wheel, beginning at the top and moving clockwise around the wheel includes seventeen additional attributes such as marital status, religious beliefs, mental health/well-being, language, communication styles, thinking styles, education or language. The idea is not to incorporate every spoke or external layer represented in the D&I Wheel, rather to consider deeply whether the same people are continually represented and create a campaign that includes two or three inner spokes and an array of external layers presented here.

Step 1

To begin, students are given a recent PR case study or campaign to read chosen by the instructor. Allow the learners to read the case completely. Instruct them to highlight and make notes that illustrate direct connections to DEI principles. Additionally, students should go online to assess the digital assets available for the campaign. In this step students begin to connect specific areas of DEI to actual campaigns.

Step 2

Hand out a sheet of paper that has an image of a circle in the center of the page with a smaller circle in the center of that or have students take out a piece of paper and draw a circle in the center (Appendix B). Prompt the students to use the D&I Wheel as a guide (Appendix A). In the smaller circle, ask the students to identify at least two aspects from the center of the wheel. In the larger circle ask students to identify at least four aspects from the external portion that they believe were implemented in this case study. In this step, students investigate and identify multiple aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion. Here students begin to understand the importance of multidimensional diversity.

Step 3

Ask students to look up the diversity and inclusion policy of the company featured in the case study. They should analyze the principles of DEI and compare them to the case study they just evaluated. Do the company’s mission and values align with the campaigns they are executing? By doing this, students think critically about the messages being sent publicly versus the actions taken internally by organizations. Sometimes the two are at odds with one another.

Step 4

Open the floor to discuss the student findings from the exercise. The learners should provide examples from their discovery to fuel the conversation. Have students explore why certain decisions were made and why (or why not) certain representations are present. This assignment provides a foundation for instructors to use and refer back to often when conducting research, developing content, identifying strategies or planning campaigns. An add-on assignment is to have students write their own DEI statements that they can post to their website portfolios using concepts learned.

          Assessment & Student Reactions: Having taught this approach over the past two years, students consistently respond positively. Some comment that this is the first time they have been introduced to the D&I Wheel. Students become more comfortable with aspects of DEI (LO1), a student commented, “This was all new to me. I’ve never thought about diversity from a communication perspective. Other classes don’t use this concept and I wish they would.” While another remarked on the importance of application of DEI efforts to campaigns and the field (LO3), “I don’t know why this isn’t a standard part of learning how to put together an integrated campaign.” Others noted that before learning how to incorporate a diversity first approach from the research process throughout, they simply would include photos of diverse people. As a result of this practice, students can demonstrate a deliberate and effective way for addressing various audiences through empathy and consideration of diverse populations using a customized tool built for PR practitioners (LO2), whereas one student commented, “I used to think diversity was just making sure that different color people were in the pics I used for my assignments. Now I know that to really understand diversity we must take what we understand about culture, communication, gender and so much more and apply it to building content.”  Additional assessment results available in Appendix C.

Appendix A    

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Appendix B

Appendix C

Note: The instructors collected the following pre- and post- test attitudes over two semesters in campaigns courses, below are the results with regard to Student Attitudes and Perceptions of DEI in the PR Classroom.

  1. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are important to consider while building effective public relations campaigns.
  1. Diversity, equity, and inclusion education should be included in all classes related to public relations.
  1. I feel prepared to learn and effectively apply new material from textbooks, journal articles, blogs, etc. without classroom review on matters related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in public relations.
  1. I have sufficient background knowledge on diversity, equity, and inclusion related to public relations in order to apply these matters to campaigns successfully.
  1. I am open to learning more about how diversity, equity, and inclusion are related to public relations.
  1. I wish there were more offered in my public relations curriculum that addressed diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.


Beavers, D. (2018). Diversity, equity and inclusion framework: Reclaiming diversity, equity and inclusion for racial justice. The Greenlining Institute. http://greenlining.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Racial-Equity-Framework.pdf

Gardenswartz, L., & Rowe, A. (1994). Diverse teams at work: Capitalizing on the power of diversity. Chicago: Irwin.

Gardenswartz, L., & Rowe, A. (1998). Managing diversity: A complete desk reference and planning guide. McGraw Hill Professional.             

Pelletier, K. (2019, April 29). DEI and Empowering Students. Educause. https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2019/4/dei-and-empowering-students

Smith, K. C. (2019). Developing a culturally relevant curriculum and breaking the barriers of cognitive and cultural dissonance [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. Wayne State University.

© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Luttrell, R. & Wallace, A. (2021). Shifting the paradigm – Improving student awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts through public relations campaigns. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(1), 200-209. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2445

Journal of Public Relations Education, Volume 6, Issue 1

Note from the Editor-in-Chief:
We are pleased to share Volume 6, Issue 1, which offers our readers three research articles,
two teaching briefs and two book reviews. The articles cover a variety of topics: public
diplomacy training around the world, a comparison of expectations for PR graduates made
by practitioners at different levels in their careers, and suggestions for helping students
increase their knowledge and confidence in using statistics. We believe you will gain both
inspiration and guidance from the teaching briefs, as they explore multicultural training
through writing assignments and building recognition of the connections within and across
personal networks. Finally, the book reviews offer helpful insights into how these two books
might fit into your classes.

The editorial team expanded in November 2019 to include Dr. Kelly Vibber. We are grateful
to have her join us as Dr. Lucinda Austin transitions deeper into leadership within the
AEJMC PR Division. Dr. Austin has been a great help these past 2 years and will be missed.
I am thankful for this entire team, which invests countless hours into proofreading,
formatting and preparing each issue. Their service to the field is greatly appreciated. I also want to express my gratitude to our reviewers who offer useful advice through the blind-
review process and help us maintain a solid reputation. Thank you!

Emily S. Kinsky

Current Issue

Research Articles

Training International Public Relations Teams: Active Learning in a Multinational Context
by Bond Benton, Montclair State University

Curriculum Rebuilding in Public Relations: Understanding what Early Career, Mid-Career, and Senior PR/Communications Professionals Expect from PR Graduates
by Arunima Krishna, Donald K. Wright, & Raymond L. Kotcher, Boston University

Demystifying Data: A Constructivist Approach to Teaching Statistical Concepts Using SPSS
by Lauren Bayliss, Georgia Southern University

Teaching Briefs

Learning about Diversity Worldwide: How a Social Media Writing Assignment Provides Students with Multicultural Perspectives
by Arhlene A. Flowers, Ithaca College

Implementation of Active Learning Techniques in an Undergraduate Public Relations Course: Comparing Individual Social Networks and Brand Communities
by Corrie A. Wilder, Washington State University

Book Reviews

Public Relations Campaigns: An Integrated Approach
Reviewed by Brandi Watkins, Virginia Tech University

Teach Social Media: A Plan for Creating a Course Your Students Will Love
Reviewed by Natalie T. J. Tindall, Lamar University

Read the full issue here:

A publication of the Public Relations Division of AEJMC Copyright 2020 AEJMC Public Relations Division

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:

  • Research Articles
  • Teaching Briefs
  • Book/Software Reviews

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).

Questions? Contact the Editorial Staff.