Editorial Record: Submitted May 19, 2022. Revised August 23, 2022. Accepted October 28, 2022.
Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D.
Advertising & Public Relations
College of Communication & Information Sciences
University of Alabama
Elina Erzikova, Ph.D.
Professor of Public Relations
College of the Arts and Media
Central Michigan University
Mount Pleasant, Michigan
Public relations education is a primary pipeline for preparing and developing future professionals. Yet, one of the most valuable leader, mentor, and educator capabilities—meaningful self-reflection (SR)—is neither highlighted nor strategically developed in many PR education programs. Mentoring programs at many organizations also do not appear to recognize SR as an invisible rudder that helps successfully navigate DEI challenges, day-to-day work issues, and unfamiliar situations like the pandemic. This paper closes the gap by reviewing a three-phase study focusing on self-reflection that highlights dozens of strategies and tactics that leaders, mentors, educators, and practitioners can use to enrich and increase SR in the workplace, classroom, and their personal lives. Doing so will drive, grow, and sustain DEI awareness, understanding, value, and practice in our profession and education even in challenging times.
Keywords: Public Relations, Self-reflection, Mentorship, Leadership, DEI
This research examines and underscores the crucial role of meaningful self-reflection (SR) by public relations teachers, leaders, mentors, and professionals to drive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in public relations education and practice during the pandemic and other challenging times and environments. Recent research, webinars, trade publications, news stories, and conferences have highlighted the great need for increased DEI in public relations education and practice.
The term, DEI, usually refers to a policy or program that, in short, signifies an organizational intention or commitment to respect differences, promote fairness and assure diverse voices are heard and valued (The language of diversity, 2021). Diversity and inclusion in the workplace represents both moral and business cases: treating people equally and with respect is the right thing to do, and such practice brings a business outcome in the form of positive organizational performance (Diversity and inclusion at work, 2018). In this regard, Bardhan and Gower (2022) called for an in-depth look into whether and how organizations strike a balance between the moral and business cases. They also emphasized the role of leaders in cultivating an organizational culture in which differences are valued instead of being feared or resisted. The process of creating (or maintaining) such a culture requires an introspection on both leaders and followers.
The research is based on a three-phase project carried out by the authors in the past four years. The research argues that meaningful self-reflection is the crucial key to building, growing and especially sustaining DEI in education and organizations of all kinds. DEI must not become a here today, gone tomorrow idea. To ensure that does not happen, and to grow and sustain DEI in public relations, educators and professionals must practice meaningful SR, which means: 1) the individual honestly controls both the size of their ego and the extent of their self-criticism, and 2) they examine themselves (me-reflection) and especially how others may see them (we-reflection) regularly to increase self-awareness and other-awareness. SR is the unseen rudder that helps us navigate vital challenges like DEI, workplace issues, and unfamiliar situations like the pandemic.
Drawing from the three-phase research project, the authors provide a practical six-step strategic self-reflection process practiced by excellent PR leaders and mentors, that can be taught and practiced in the classroom and at home. In addition, the research identified a number of strategies and approaches for including SR in PR education. These were then organized into seven building blocks for improving SR capabilities and practice in the classroom to strengthen and sustain DEI and manage other professional issues. Finally, dozens of excellent classroom exercises and tactics to help build SR capabilities are noted and briefly described.
This research-based paper is eminently practical for public relations educators and students. Too often SR is an overlooked skill in PR education, or taken for granted, not unlike listening and empathy capabilities, among others. Yet, meaningful SR is the foundation for continuous improvement in public relations leadership, mentorship, education, and practice, all of which are crucial to driving, growing, and sustaining DEI, which offers a brighter, richer, and more promising future in PR practice and education.
Three Research Projects: Methods and Key Findings
Many studies in communication, psychology, and education confirm the benefits of self-reflection (SR), e.g., richer relationships, heightened emotional IQ, enhanced leadership and mentorship skills, and more engaged work teams. The sooner students and young professionals hone their strategic SR skills, the sooner they and their employers receive the benefits. Yet, as Mules (2018) found, SR is largely absent in PR research, textbooks, and the classroom. We know meaningful SR is not easy—the world is too noisy, we are too busy, and we battle egos—but it is crucial. This paper addresses that deficiency and identifies practical building blocks to advance development of SR in the classroom and organizational settings in order to enrich and sustain DEI in PR education and practice. The first two projects in the three-phase research program are briefly reviewed in this section. The most recent research project focusing on public relations educators and students and how they evaluate and use SR is then presented in more depth.
Self-Reflection Study with 30 PR Leaders (2018)
First, the researchers explored SR in depth interviews with 30 PR leaders in two countries in 2018 to learn about the role, process, practice, and benefits of SR in the workplace (Berger & Erzikova, 2019). Various leadership theories highlight the importance of SR and self-awareness, notably authentic, servant and transformational theories. In public relations, SR is implicit in Excellence Theory and more explicit in the Integrated Model of Leadership in PR (Meng & Berger, 2013). This model combines six personal dimensions for excellent leadership, four of which incorporate SR: self-insights, team leadership capabilities, relationship building and ethical orientation. This model provided the theoretical framework for this phase of the study.
For example, self-reflection is explicit in the self-dynamics dimension of the model, which includes the sub dimensions of visioning and self-insights. In this sense, self-insights refer to the extent to which PR leaders understand their own strengths and weaknesses and understand current issues, like the pandemic, to successfully adapt strategies and tactics to achieve organizational goals. Self-reflection is the process that helps build self-awareness and knowledge that can be put into subsequent actions and reflected in behaviors and communications by public relations leaders. In short, SR is a crucial driver of both continuous learning and improvement in the competency categories in this leadership model.
To learn more about SR perceptions and practices among PR leaders, this study examined SR in diverse Russian and N. American PR leaders. Depth interviews, averaging 45 minutes in length, were conducted with 15 Russian (9-F, 6-M) and 15 American (8-F, 7-M) communication leaders, who represented diverse organizational types, possessed more than 10 years of experience and lead, or have led communication teams, functions, or agencies. The interviews probed for insights to help answer five research questions: how and to what extent the leaders practiced SR, barriers to productive SR, practical benefits of SR in their work role, and the extent to which mentoring might contribute to the development of SR and leadership capabilities.
Overall, the study found all PR leaders in both countries believed SR is an important leadership capability, though it is practiced and valued somewhat differently in the two systems. The leaders regularly self-reflected and shared similar views about the role, process, practice, and benefits of SR. Three differences also were found, the most substantial being the me-reflection approach used by the Russians (a nearly total focus on the self) versus the we-reflection approach used by more N. Americans (incorporating others in their SR). Also, Russians raised far more concerns about “dangerous” SR, or excessive self-criticism, while Americans more strongly valued the role and influence of mentors, whom they suggested were the “best” SR teachers. Most of the Russian leaders were also in mentorship roles in their work.
The study’s richest contributions are the practical, actionable implications for improving SR capabilities and practices among professionals, educators, and students. The most valuable may be a six-step strategic SR process that describes how to prepare mentally for SR, and then to plan and carry out insights from the introspection. Another rich implication for mentors and mentees is a “questioning approach,” or Socratic approach which teaches meaningful self-inquiry: mentors ask thoughtful questions to help mentees reach answers, rather than simply answering their questions. Study participants also suggested many specific approaches to stimulate and improve student SR in the classroom. Overall, the study sheds new light on SR in PR leadership practice and development and provides actionable implications for practice and education in dealing with DEI, a pandemic environment, and other big issues in the field.
Content Analysis of Educator SR Exercises in the Classroom (2020)
Building on the 2018 study, the researchers conducted a comprehensive content analysis of online educator blogs, articles, and websites focusing on how to increase self-reflection skills of students and teachers in the classroom in 2020 (Berger & Erzikova, 2021). More than 200 online blogs, articles and websites were analyzed to identify what specific steps educators took to try to increase SR capabilities in students, and in themselves.
The researchers discovered hundreds of specific exercises and approaches which educators used to advance SR student skills. These were then grouped into seven building blocks (detailed later) for advancing SR in the classroom. The foundational building block focuses on the teacher’s commitment to SR, and their corresponding commitment to enriching DEI awareness and focus in SR. This building block also reflects the idea of trying to build some SR exercise in each class session, rather than devoting one class session to discuss the topic. Other key building blocks include using more Socratic teaching approaches, depth debriefs of team projects, self-assessment tools like Meyers-Briggs and Strengths/Finders, and great literature, films, and poetry to trigger journal writing and self-discussion.
Evaluation and Practice of SR by PR Teachers and Students (2021-22)
In 2021, the researchers used brief written surveys of 22 PR educators, and similar written surveys and focus groups with 23 PR students, to examine SR in PR education today, the extent of teachers’ and students’ SR, the perceived value of SR, and best classroom SR exercises or learning experiences, including those for dealing with DEI (Berger & Erzikova, 2022). The findings in this third phase of the research project are detailed below the brief introduction to self-reflection that follows.
Self-Reflection: What is it and why is it important?
Self-awareness is “the ability to see ourselves clearly—to understand who we are, how others see us and how we fit into the world” (Eurich, 2017, p. 3). Self-reflection (SR) is the primary way we examine ourselves and how others see us. It is deliberate, conscious introspection to better understand our thoughts, experiences, and emotions—to become aware of them, learn from them, and increase self-awareness.
Self-reflection also advances our emotional intelligence (EI) by helping us recognize and understand our emotions, listen better, and be more empathetic (Goleman, 1995). SR deepens critical thinking, improves communication and decision-making, builds confidence, and enriches relationships and leadership capabilities (Miller, 2013). In addition, SR may render us better workers and team players, who are less likely to lie, cheat, and steal (Eurich, 2017).
Acknowledging the complexity of professional practice nearly four decades ago, Donald Schön introduced a concept of the “reflective practitioner.” This professional responds to workplace challenges by reflecting on the happening while it is unfolding (reflection in action) and afterwards using reflection on action. Schön (1983) argued:
In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is a swampy lowland where situations are confusing “messes”, incapable of technical solution. The difficulty is that the problems of the high ground, however great their technical interest, are often relatively unimportant to clients or to the larger society, while in the swamp are the problems of greatest human concern (p. 42).
Given the unpredictable nature of public relations work and number of problems (“messy situations”) PR practitioners face every day, SR should be considered one of the essential features of professional competence. The earlier this skill starts developing, the better a PR practitioner is prepared to deal with dilemmas , uncertainties, and crises.
Despite the recognized importance of SR and self-awareness, little research has been conducted regarding reflection in and by PR and communication leaders (Mules, 2018; Mules et al., 2019).). Mules (2018) found that popular PR textbooks do not address the importance of reflective practices, and there is “very little research into the role of formal reflection in the daily practice of public relations practitioners and public relations curricula” (Mules, 2018, p. 175).
Furthermore, Mules et al. (2019) discussed an action research project implemented in a PR course and shared useful insights into benefits and challenges of formally incorporating reflective practice in PR curricula: While the task “was neither easy nor comfortable,” the project “provided a fresh and exciting way to interact with the students” (p. 10), which might be especially valuable in pandemic times. As an implication for the PR profession, Mules et al. (2019) argued that classroom reflection is crucial for “the professional standing of public relations because it provides a way to integrate theory and practice at the beginnings of students’ professional careers, and because it provides specific strategies for scrutinizing assumptions” (p. 11).
Some barriers to meaningful self-reflection also exist. These include such “inner roadblocks” as a (perceived) shortage of time, a lack of understanding of the process and its benefits (Porter, 2017), and being delusional about personal traits (Eurich, 2017), among others. In addition, Eurich (2017) pointed out that an “insidious societal obstacle” – “the cult of self” (p. 73) – impedes self-awareness as inflated self-esteem makes individuals feel special about themselves and blinds them to the truth about their capabilities. This may be an increasingly acute problem in our fragmented world.
Mentors can play important roles in facilitating reflection by asking mentees seemingly simple – “what” and “why” – questions (Kail, 2012). Coached reflection, or a formal help an individual receives during a difficult situation to work through and learn from, is an essential component of both coaching and mentoring (Day et al., 2009). In other words, mentors’ help is vital during what Eurich (2017) called alarm clock events or “situations that open our eyes to important self-truths” (p. 44). These trigger moments can be negative, neutral, or positive (Avolio & Wernsing, 2008).
Mezirow (1997) argued, “thinking as an autonomous and responsible agent is essential for full citizenship in democracy and for moral decision making in situations of rapid change” (p. 7). The educator or mentor assures that learners achieve this goal by creating a supportive environment to help mentees develop critical reflectivity and self-confidence to “take action on reflective insights” (Mezirow, 2000, p. 25).
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in public relations
A recent study (The language of diversity, 2021) revealed several concerns regarding DEI initiatives in U.S. organizations. At the individual level, some PR practitioners felt uncomfortable discussing DEI, and some were confused about DEI basic terms. At the organizational level, only about a third of respondents said their organizations codified DEI definitions, while two-thirds admitted their organizations did not move from a verbal commitment to meaningful action. Other companies do worse – their actions contradict their DEI statements. For example, Starbucks made a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and later forbade employees to wear pins and clothes with the phrase (Murphy, 2020).
Clearly, there is an urgent need for PR leaders to step in to support and drive DEI initiatives that, in the words of Bardhan and Engstrom (2021), help organizations eliminate bias and discrimination. To approach this task, PR practitioners should start with self-reflection or examination of their own perceptions of DEI. There is little doubt that DEI is here to stay and eventually, the majority of U.S. organizations will define basic DEI terms and make them public for both employees and society. Still, a question is whether this formal appearance of commitment to DEI would result in action. This study argues that without adopting DEI at the individual level, the commitment at the organizational level would be rather superficial. SR seems to be helpful in identifying/articulating personal relevance to DEI as a prerequisite for an organization-wide pledge to the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is expected that PR leaders will be in the forefront of change by modeling a desired behavior and inspiring their followers to deeply embrace DEI (Bardhan & Gower, 2022).
Building on these and other insights from substantial previous research in the area, and the authors’ three previous studies (Berger & Erzikova, 2022; Berger & Erzikova, 2021; Berger & Erzikova, 2019), this paper draws from all three studies but highlights the recent study of educators and students, and tries to answer five research questions in this regard:
RQ1: Do PR educators and students differ in their rank order of self-reflection as one of
the important professional skills and capabilities?
RQ2: To what extent do PR educators and students practice self-reflection in their everyday lives? And what approaches do they use?
RQ 3: In students’ opinions, what are practical benefits of SR? What approaches do PR students experience in the classroom?
RQ 4: In educators’ opinions, why and how is SR a valuable skill and practice for PR students as future leaders?
RQ 5: In educators’ opinions, what are the most powerful SR learning experiences, especially those related to DEI?
Twenty-two PR educators (12 were women) from ten states and 23 PR students (seniors, 19 were women) from a public university provided written responses to six questions about the extent of teachers’ and students’ SR, the perceived value of SR, and best classroom SR exercises or learning experiences. PR teachers’ experiences working at colleges and universities ranged from five to 30+ years, and six of them were of foreign origin. Sixteen educators received terminal degrees from U.S. universities and were tenure/tenured track faculty. Six educators received M.A. degrees and were instructors in undergraduate programs. Professors and instructors taught a variety of PR courses at the undergraduate level, which was the focus of the study (e.g., PR principles, PR writing, PR campaigns, PR case studies). They were recruited via a personal network.
Completing the written questionnaire required about 12 minutes for both teachers and students. In addition, students participated in four focus groups (each 45 minutes in length) to discuss SR approaches they were part of in the classroom. Four student-leaders had a 30-minute training on SR and focus group as a research method prior to the conversations. Student-leaders helped a researcher guide focus group discussions, making the process less stressful and more engaging. Focus groups were not recorded. Instead, each group developed a thorough written summary. Student participants found this task beneficial as it helped them pin down most important discussion outcomes they might use in the future. The researcher took notes during the conversations. All students were born in the U.S.; three of them were people of color.
Using Lincoln and Guba’s (1985) guidelines, the researchers first conducted independent analysis of two data sets (educators’ written responses and students’ individual written responses as well as focus group summaries and researchers’ notes). After patterns in each set were identified, the researchers exchanged preliminary findings to assess the adequacy of analysis. Next, they examined both data sets to categorize differences and similarities. This analysis was important as “Comparisons not only uncover differences between social entities but reveal unique aspects of an entity that would be virtually impossible to detect otherwise” (Mills et al., 2006, p. 621).
RQ1: Do PR educators and students differ in their rank order of self-reflection as one of the important professional skills and capabilities?
The first stage of this research asked PR educators and students to rank order the relative importance of seven skills and capabilities that are usually considered important for young public relations professionals (Table 1). Neither group ranked the “soft” leadership skill of self-reflection as the top skill; educators ranked SR a bit higher (4th) than students (6th). Out of 45 participants (both teachers and students), only one educator ranked SR as 1st.
Collectively, PR educators ranked the technical skill of writing as 1st, followed by three so-called “soft” skills: critical thinking 2nd, listening 3rd, and self-reflection 4th. The last three were technical skills: measurement 5th, channel knowledge 6th, and design 7th.
Students ranked the “soft” leadership skills of critical thinking and listening as 1st and 3rd respectively, with the technical skill of writing 2nd. The top three were followed by the technical skills of measurement (4th) and channel knowledge (5th). Self-reflection was 6th on the list, followed by design know-how (7th).
The relative importance of the seven important professional skills and capabilities
|Skills||Educators (n=22)||Students (n=23)|
|Measurement knowledge and application||5||4|
|Channel knowledge (SM, print, etc.)||6||5|
Note: The most important skill was ranked “1,” the least important skill was ranked “7.”
RQ2: To what extent do PR educators and students practice self-reflection in their everyday lives? And what approaches do they use?
A majority of educators and students reported using SR extensively in their everyday lives. They reflect daily through journaling and/or thinking about important events. One teacher said, “At work, I constantly make note of which practices seem to work best with my students. I am happy to adjust to keep up with the industry or evolving learning styles. At home, I try to do the same thing.” A student echoed this line of thinking about SR: “I often think back on past decisions and actions I made. I re-evaluate how I handled conversations, relationships, etc. and think to myself maybe where I went wrong. I do it as a learning experience and so I can always try to better myself.”
Further, careful analysis of responses revealed shared and unique themes in the two data sets. The shared topics included two approaches – “Looking back” and “Looking forward.”
A looking-back approach. This method appeared to be most popular among educators and students. A majority of respondents reported reflecting on past experiences. An educator said, “I reflect on my teaching every so often (maybe several times a month) to identify what I could have done differently/better.” Another one said that SR is “something of a compulsion” and happens while “reviewing situations, what motivated my decisions/behaviors and thinking through the why, and what I might have done differently or better.” A student shared, “After finishing a conversation with people, I’ll think if I was too awkward, or if it went well. After tests I’ll also think back on how I did, or how I could have done better.”
A looking-forward approach. Several educators said they use SR as a planning tool. For example, one teacher shared, “I seek feedback at least once a semester and constantly make notes after classes, meetings, etc. Then, I try to reflect on it before a new semester begins.” Another teacher said, “Each time I give an assignment in class and see what my students learned—did I do a good job, or do I need to revise my methods?” A student said she self-reflected when “mulling decisions for me and life. You must self-reflect to move forward with life.”
The following unique approaches were detected in educators’ responses:
A cautionary approach. Two participants indicated that SR should be undertaken with caution to avoid negative consequences. One explained: “I have small segments of time slots to manage since there are multiple tasks to be accomplished, so if the plan changed either based on choices or unexpected, SR will take place. However, I must admit that it is hard to separate positive SR from self-criticism.” Another educator echoed this concern:
There is a thin line between self-reflection and obsessing: One needs to reflect upon organizational and personal relationship interactions but not become bogged down by them or become emotionally self-critical. We must learn to give ourselves grace, keep things in perspective, not be perfectionists, but still be in an ever-growth mindset for ourselves and our organizations.
An imaginative approach. One educator said, “Through reading books or learning others’ situations, I often imagine what I would do if were in their positions. And, more importantly, I think about how to make a situation better.”
The following unique approaches were detected in students’ responses:
A dealing with a stress approach. The theme of an ongoing stress/feeling overwhelmed was directly or indirectly communicated in several student responses. One student shared, “Whenever I get stressed or overwhelmed, I self-reflect of all the things I’ve accomplished so far to get myself in a better mood, or at work, or in church.” Another student said, “I try to do this before I start to feel overwhelmed.”
A dealing with the pressure to succeed approach. A number of students indicated SR is beneficial for them as they strive to find ways to succeed in life and profession. One student defined SR as “Looking inward to address personal/professional strengths and weaknesses, and how you approach life knowing them.” Another provided a similar answer: “SR is being able to know yourself and your own strengths and weaknesses along with knowing what you need to thrive.” While answering how she practiced SR, a student said, “I often do this through therapy, self-help books, or looking at others who have been in my position and what they did to succeed.”
RQ 3: In students’ opinions, what are practical benefits of SR? What approaches do PR students experience in the classroom?
Overall, students assign a high value to SR practice. They see it as “helpful with mental health” and being “one of the best ways to know yourself.” One student said SR is a way to identify her weaknesses and thus, knowing “when to ask for help.” Another respondent saw SR is a necessary component in the process of goal setting that leads to life improvement. SR also helps students to “hold yourself accountable to move forward,” find “perspective, learn and grow from past experiences,” and live “to the fullest potential.” In addition, they believed “it’s important to self-reflect to be a better person and a successful PR professional.”
Students said they are engaged in SR in some classes, mainly through peer review, professor feedback, case study analysis, debriefs on projects, and reflection papers. Respondents shared that SR activities help them learn from mistakes, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and prepare for real-world challenges. In particular, one focus group participant said:
Being a student is about gaining knowledge, experience and confidence. It’s a valuable skill because it’s important to stay on top of industry trends, new techniques and crises. In a PR class, you are putting your skills to the test. It gives us an opportunity to make mistakes. Also, reviewing our own morals and values and what kind of company you want to work for.
Another group also believed it is always a valuable experience – working in a class with three-four people and “see how different minds come up with incredible ideas through reflection.”
Importantly, students said class discussions and assignments should incorporate a better variety of SR activities. Given the fact that SR benefits both individual and group projects, the SR approach should be used on a regular basis in all PR classes.
RQ 4: What do PR educators see the benefits of self-reflection for students as future leaders?
All teachers said SR helps PR students as future change agents to enhance self-awareness and emotional intelligence, among other qualities. One educator provided a detailed answer:
PR professionals must have and hone emotional intelligence, of which empathy is a big part, for they are responsible for creating, maintaining, and nurturing various relationships within and external to their organizations (i.e., among various stakeholders) and providing insight and counsel to management. They also represent the organization, so they need to reflect on how they might communicate more effectively with others, what messages might best resonate, and how they might project a more professional, engaged image. SR involves what one can do differently or better in response to others—not how they can change others. The change should be internal (themselves or their organizations) in response to others, as a result of SR.
In addition, several respondents reported using SR to help students understand “their own set of values and how to use those values, as well as professional communication values (particularly those in the PRSA Code of Ethics), during ethical decision-making.”
One teacher argued SR is a way to meet challenges of a complex and ever-changing industry environment: “The PR industry is constantly changing. Also, there is no one right answer in PR. There are many unpredictable situations and PR practitioners need to communicate with different people all the time.”
Another educator believed that the importance of teaching SR “has been elevated considerably by the toxic environment we live in today. We need to look at ourselves and ask what we are doing to be moral agents.”
However, the extent to which educators practiced SR and “taught” it in the classroom, varied widely. About one-third incorporated SR in their courses and used challenging projects and exercises to help students develop both me- and we- reflection capabilities. These in-class exercises and projects summarized below (see the RQ5 discussion) may be the most valuable and practical findings in this research.
Other examples of rich classroom exercises the educators described included: 1) unconscious bias training and reflection on DEI; 2) self-assessment exercises based on four working-style preferences; 3) requiring seniors in a campaigns class to write a letter to their “Freshman Self,” explaining what they would learned about communication and PR practice in their four years of college; and 4) completing a “privilege knapsack” class exercise, which helps students realize privileges they may take for granted and which may impact their professional PR performance.
On the other end, about one-third of educators did little if anything in the classroom to help build or encourage development of the skill, though they recognized it was probably important to do so.
RQ 5: In educators’ opinions, what are the most powerful SR learning experiences, especially those related to DEI?
Eighteen out of 22 educators shared specific practices they believed are powerful in helping students to do both – master content and improve SR skills. This twofold benefit appeared to be the most prominent theme in teachers’ responses. For example, one educator said an effective method of learning SR is to “build it into a real-life business or professional example, case, situation. This approach allows students to discern SR in a constructive setting and through an experiential.” Another participant echoed, “I found having students evaluate their own campaign execution the most effective. Students brought up many ‘could have done better’ points such as teamwork, messaging, channel selections, and research part in campaign design.”
Other educators reported using simulation and role plays, peer feedback, discussions, written summaries, and soft grading which is giving “students a chance to revise, instead of letting them sit with their grade and do nothing to improve.” One respondent shared she considers discussions of projects she did as a practitioner a form of SR. Another teacher reported using online tools after discovering that “students venture into SR more on Discussion Boards.”
Analysis of teachers’ responses revealed several characteristics of effective SR learning experiences. Regardless of a project type, the effort should be intentional, encompassing, consistent and creative. For example, one educator said she is “intentionally allocating some time (e.g., 5 minutes) each week for students to reflect on what they learnt from the lectures, readings, exercises, assignments, teamwork, etc., summarize, and write down such reflections.”
Educators use an encompassing approach by incorporating SR strategies into assignments related to public relations directly (e.g., case studies) and indirectly (e.g., general management skills). Two participants said they built SR into assignments aimed to improve students’ conflict management skills and create awareness about different working styles.
Another respondent’s answer is an example of a consistent and creative effort:
At the end of a semester, I ask campaigns class students to write a letter to their freshman self. For (name) Agency they write a letter to their pre-(name) Agency self. It is an amazing exercise as they see how far they have come. It usually involves both laughter and tears on their part and mine. For (name) Agency we print it out in a book that we give all the seniors at a Senior Send off. They sign each other’ books like a yearbook. It’s epic.
Several participants mentioned that SR helped them address DEI-related issues in classroom. One educator said:
So far, I think the most powerful SR learning experience will be related to the unconscious bias training or discussion related to DEI. It’s a topic we are aware of, but we are uncomfortable to talk about. The common (or easy) answer is we treat everyone the same, which is colorblindness and a lack of authenticity and failure to recognize differences. Because in the real world, everyone is not the same.
The educator continued by sharing a DEI approach to help students open up and thus, make an SR exercise more meaningful:
Since my class on diversity and leadership is an online course, the SR exercise is not a public discussion in class. I found it actually makes students more comfortable to share and reflect on their past experience or circumstances when they feel privileged (or underprivileged), biased, or those common stereotypes they attribute to other minority groups, since I am their only reader. They tend to be more open and authentic. This is the topic I get to read more authentic self-reflection than other topics such as leadership styles or ethics.
Based on teaching experience of a PR instructor, an effective DEI-related pedagogy is a writing assignment in the format of a reflection paper on student’s “cultural identity, including the influences that shaped that identity, the core values internalized from those influences, and how one personally expresses or resists or transforms those values.” The instructor also asks students to “think about how those values impact how they react and respond to others not like themselves” and “give the paper a title that is reflective of its content.” The instructor added, “I remind them that white is a race.”
Another respondent shared using online resources to discuss DEI:
An exercise that encourages students to realize privileges that they may take for granted and how that may impact their PR communication in negative ways. For example, the privilege knapsack class exercise. See: Diversity Toolkit: A guide to discussing identity, power and privilege (2020).
Overall, analysis of responses revealed those educators who have made SR-related activities part of the curriculum, appeared to be committed to developing both hard and soft skills in their students. As for DEI activities, only a few participants linked SR and DEI, but their approaches seemed to be quite powerful.
Discussion and Practical Implications
This research found most surveyed PR educators and students value SR and practice it in varying degrees in their personal lives and work/professional lives. SR is considered a valuable skill, though ranked as 4th by educators and 6th by students among the seven skills surveyed (all important skills). Educators expressed more caution than students about focusing too much on self-criticism in SR. Most students use a “me-reflection” approach, focusing on their personal lives and how they can improve relationships, communicate better, reduce stress, and create a better and brighter future. They “look back” to help “look ahead.” Students expressed more use of SR to help deal with stress and the pressures to succeed. They described using SR to “react” to such challenges, while educators used SR more to “respond” to such challenges. As an implication for mentorship programs, one of the tasks would be to help mentees to be less reactive and more responsive to issues and problems associated with their work-related challenges. As U.S. organizations are adopting the DEI agenda, SR becomes an indispensable tool in helping position the organizational effort as a moral case (Diversity and inclusion at work, 2018).
All teachers said SR was important. Those educators who use SR to talk about DEI in class, did not appear to utilize a variety of approaches, but their practices seem to be effective. Accordingly, one can imply teacher’s passion and consistency in addressing DEI are more important than an assortment of pedagogies.
The extent to which teachers personally practiced SR and “taught” it in the classroom, varied widely. About one-third incorporated SR in their courses and used engaging projects and exercises to help students develop both me- and we- reflection capabilities. On the other end, about one-third did little if anything in the classroom to encourage development of the skill. The structures of educators’ own SR practices were wide-ranging—from daily walks to morning journaling sessions, daily meditation or exercise periods, to reflecting during wait times in airports.
Implications for Teaching and Mentoring
This study underscores the value and importance of self-reflection in PR education and in mentoring, and the researchers’ two previous studies provide related insights and specific processes and approaches to advance SR skills in the classroom and in mentoring relationships. During depth interviews with 30 leading professionals in Russia and N. America (Berger & Erzikova, 2019), the researchers found all the professionals practiced SR, though in different ways and settings. All 30 also were mentors to students and young professionals, and part of their mentoring focused on enriching SR skills among the mentees.
Based on these interviews, the researchers developed a six-step strategic SR process that bears implications for practice and education, and provides a distinct pathway to more meaningful SR. The six steps are:
1. Make time for SR. It is too important to be too busy. It is difficult getting started, but SR can become part of your daily routine. Walking, exercising, tending the garden, riding to work, reading books, writing in a diary—choose an approach that works best for you. Then do it.
2. Create the “right” mindset. Like putting on a game face, in SR we must create a mental space where SR fills the foreground. We cannot empty our brains, but we can adjust focus.
3. Be self-honest and balance your self-assessment. This is the most difficult step, and two issues are involved. First, do not let ego overpower your self-critique and, second, don’t let self-criticism (rumination) lead to inaction or loss of confidence.
4. Formulate actions based on your assessment and evaluation. Calendar them. Consider discussing them with a mentor or colleague, especially if they deal with DEI or a related crucial issue. For example, you can decide to meet periodically with a colleague/classmate whose worldview differs from yours.
5. Carry out actions. Be professional, timely and authentic. Rehearsing the actions to test and refine them may be useful, whether for small or large events or issues.
6. Self-reflect on the outcomes and renew the cycle. Writing things down may help at this point. Over time, this process becomes routine. Individuals can use this process, and mentors and teachers can help students and young professionals frame each step with relevant questions to ask the self along the way.
The researchers also completed a content analysis and comprehensive review of online SR development approaches and tools for use in the classroom (Berger & Erzikova, 2022). This review helped identify seven building blocks for including more, and more effective SR in the classroom and in organizational mentoring programs. Dozens of specific exercises were identified that can be built into real or virtual classrooms, and mentoring settings to develop SR power among students and teachers. The seven building blocks are briefly described below.
Block 1: Commitment The foundation block is a firm commitment by educators/mentors to develop students’/mentees’ SR capabilities, along with improving their own SR knowledge and practice. Educators can make a similar commitment to developing DEI awareness through their SR teachings. A powerful overall strategy is to structure courses to include SR moments and practices into most class sessions, rather than highlighting SR in a single class. A blog by Tricia Whenham (April 9, 2020): 15 ways to spark student reflection in your college classroom, provides examples.
Teachers’/mentors’ own SR practices and enrichment efforts also are crucial to strengthening students’ SR capabilities. One approach for teachers/mentors is to consistently examine and question their own teaching/mentoring approaches, capabilities, and outcomes. As John Dewey famously argued, we do not learn from experience, but rather we learn from reflecting on experience. A good resource in this area is the report by Julia A. Hatcher and Robert G. Bringle, “Reflection Activities for the College Classroom” (1996).
Block 2: Socratic Teaching Use Socratic teaching more often—less lecturing/less teacher talking, and more listening and questioning—to stimulate critical thinking and draw out ideas and underlying assumptions. Erick Willberding’s Socratic Methods in the Classroom (2019) is an excellent resource. Six types of basic Socratic questions concern: 1) clarifying thinking by using basic “tell me more” questions to drive deeper thinking; 2) challenging or probing assumptions to identify presuppositions, including DEI related issues and beliefs; 3) probing evidence or reasoning in arguments to assess strength and weight; 4) exploring alternative viewpoints on the topic or issue; 5) examining implications and consequences to assess relevance and desirability; and 6) questioning the question(s) itself.
For example, educators can use Socratic questions to discuss the impact of current events (the pandemic and anti-transgender legislation) on mental health of LGBTQ young people. The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth, provides online educational resources to make such discussions informative and meaningful.
The Socratic teaching approach challenges the accuracy and completeness of thinking in ways that help people move forward and promote higher order thinking skills and capabilities. The more such questions are used, especially those dealing DEI issues, the more critical thinking is strengthened, and a wide-lens perspective is adopted. About half of the 30 PR leaders interviewed (Berger & Erzikova, 2019) used a Socratic approach in mentoring students and young professionals. They helped students answer their own questions by raising questions with the students, by way of providing answers. This may be an especially valuable approach during pandemic times.
Block 3: Artistic Stimulation Use poetry, great literature, films, art, and music to trigger journal writing, creative thinking, and reflection and discussions about the self, dreams, hopes, values, and behaviors. Art often stimulates self-reflection because it often is a product of SR. For example, have students read and discuss a poem or short story, listen to music, or view a painting, and then discuss what it means to them, or what it feels like to them. Challenge them to create a tweet to capture the essence of their feeling about the work. Then consider how the tweet might frame or describe a PR or advertising campaign.
A powerful example of artistic stimulation to drive DEI self-reflection and group reflection in the classroom is the poem, I am diversity. Please include me. Written by the former pastor and poet, Charles W. Bennafield, it was apparently used at the Conference Board’s Diversity Boot Camp in 2012. Many version of individuals’ reading this poem is available on Facebook.
Block 4: Deep Debriefs Lead students/mentees through depth debriefs of in-class team projects/work for a client, or review of case studies, which build analytical and reflective thinking and deepen understanding—opening the door for improved planning and execution in future projects. Questions that focus on identifying the most important facts and issues in a case, and then specifying alternative courses of action, closely assessing each course, and finally recommending the “best” course of action, help build analytical and reflection skills.
This approach to SR was evident in responses by about one-third of the PR students and educators involved in this study, and in similar numbers of professional leaders in Russia and North America who described their mentoring approaches with PR students and young professionals (Berger & Erzikova, 2022).
Block 5: Self-Assessment Tools Sharpen students’/mentees’ self-insights and team-insights with assessment tools available online or in booklet form. These self-assessments can drive self-reflection and awareness and help students or professionals better understand themselves and others/different types. Self-awareness can help improve performance, relationships, team building, diversity, and trust. Several educators and students highlighted this approach in their survey responses. Here are four commonly used assessments:
- Myer-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI): Reveals personality type (16 types) and helps individuals better understand and accept themselves (and others) and who they are.
- Conflict Dynamics Profile (CDP): measures conflict behaviors, increases self-awareness and helps develop conflict management skills. Focuses on behavior, not styles.
- Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI): reveals one’s style of problem-solving and increases self-awareness and teamwork. Useful especially for building teams and carrying out change management.
- Diversity and Inclusion Self–Assessment (DISA): helps individuals understand their team’s or organization’s relative commitment to DEI and where improvements can be made.
- Strengths Finders (SF): helps individuals identify their top strengths (from a list of talent themes) and become more engaged and improve performance. This positive approach is a good first step in team building and leadership development.
Block 6: Recurring Workplace Questions Lead students/mentees to create a list of the kinds of recurring SR questions they are likely to deal with in their professional work world as individuals or team members. Consider how you might answer them, and the relevant behaviors needed to convince others you mean what you say. Here are five such questions: 1) Do my words and actions on the job reflect my core values? 2) How do I contribute to my work team’s or organization’s culture? 3) How can I develop a better work relationship with my boss? 4) How do others likely see my actions and behaviors? 5) How do I contribute to the DEI agenda? Educators/mentors may ask similar questions of themselves and their performance.
Block 7: Calendar Approach Use a straight-forward “calendar approach” to help students/mentees reflect on and rehearse important, upcoming events, assignments, or challenges in their current educational/professional world. This might include leading a team session, or study group of mixed race students where DEI is the central issue, applying for a job, delivering a speech, being a social host at some event, participating in a club meeting, a call with a mentor or client, and so forth. This forces students/mentees to consider such events before they take place, as well as their words and actions, behaviors, what to look for, and so forth.
Limitations and Directions for Future Research
While this study provided valuable insights into how self-reflection can help sustain and enrich DEI, the sample included only U.S. students and educators. Future research therefore should include a larger U.S. sample and examine the interrelations between SR and DEI in other countries to shed light on attitudes and practices and attempt to uncover similarities and differences among various audiences—PR students, educators, and practitioners. In addition, this qualitative study revealed patterns that should be further investigated through a quantitative study to provide a generalizable view of DEI initiatives’ sustainability through SR. Finally, future research should specifically focus on best DEI teaching practices of diverse PR educators.
Conclusion: More Research and Practice in Self-Reflection
This was a brief, descriptive study of self-reflection in PR educators and students, and therefore, the findings cannot be generalized. However, combined with extensive SR research in education, psychology, and other fields, and the authors’ two previous studies in this area (Berger & Erzikova, 2022; Berger & Erzikova, 2021), we have a growing sense of the state and importance of SR in public relations practice, education, and mentoring. We also have a strong set of SR learning tactics and strategies to enhance SR in the classroom, mentorships, and practice, which may be crucial in the pandemic world we live in today.
In the end, the study provides intriguing findings and suggestions that may help frame and design future qualitative or quantitative in-depth SR studies. The PR profession and related education programs would benefit greatly from more SR research to identify best SR practices in teaching and mentoring and how such practice might best be shared or incorporated into DEI learning and training, and educational and organizational programs. Many studies in other fields have confirmed the great value and positive power of SR for leaders and professionals, suggesting that SR may be the difference between good and great leadership. At the least it surely carries some weight in making a difference. More research can shine a light on this crucial, albeit often invisible or tacitly taken-for-granted professional and leadership capability and practice.
SR is a kind of invisible rudder that helps guide our thinking and decision-making, especially in difficult or uncertain times. For example, during the current pandemic and growing concerns about the need for greater DEI, or other future dramatic changes in the world, the importance of SR likely multiplies. The building blocks and corresponding teaching tactics herein provide a framework of practical guidance to develop and/or enrich self-reflection about the effects of COVID-19.
Studies reveal that disease outbreaks can have a long-term impact on the workforce’s mental health and well-being (Restubog et al., 2020; Sibley et al., 2020). In this regard, educators/mentors can reflect on the ways to prioritize students’/mentees’ mental and emotional health and help students/mentees do the same. Mentors can help students and young professionals identify SR guides via alumni, PRSA, companies, nonprofits, etc. The guides can assist with reflecting on what DEI means to mentees, their classmates/colleagues, and college/workplace. In addition, the guides can help mentees to reflect on personal biases and outline the ways to manage them.
Teachers also can encourage learners to reflect on changes in class modalities (moving online and back to classroom) and study routines. Brief reflection sessions might be held at the conclusion of classes, stimulated by music or artwork. Topics might include how to stay motivated, cope with stress, or self-evaluate our empathy toward others.
Building this capability in students and young professionals—our future leaders—will enrich the profession and infuse it with power, especially during these trying times. The sooner one begins meaningful SR in education and mentorship, the better for the individual, their organization, and their profession, and for driving and sustaining DEI in the workplace and profession.
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To cite this article: Berger,B.K. and Erzikova, E. (2023). Self-reflection is the engine that drives,
grows and sustains DE&I among leaders, mentors and public relations educators and professionals. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(4), 59-90. https://journalofpreducation.com/?p=3425