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Self-Reflection is the Engine That Drives, Grows and Sustains DE&I among Leaders, Mentors and Public Relations Educators and Professionals

Editorial Record: Submitted May 19, 2022. Revised August 23, 2022. Accepted October 28, 2022.


Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
Advertising & Public Relations
College of Communication & Information Sciences
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Email: berger@apr.ua.edu

Elina Erzikova, Ph.D.
Professor of Public Relations 
College of the Arts and Media
Central Michigan University 
Mount Pleasant, Michigan
Email: erzik1e@cmich.edu

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).

Research Questions 

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).

Table 1      

The relative importance of the seven important professional skills and capabilities      

SkillsEducators (n=22)Students (n=23)
Writing skill12
Critical-thinking capabilities21
Measurement knowledge and application54
Design know-how77
Channel knowledge (SM, print, etc.)65
Listening skills33

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 SelfAssessment (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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© Copyright 2023 AEJMC Public Relations Division

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 

Journal of Public Relations Education, Volume 8, Issue 4

Special Issue on Leadership, Mentorship and DEI in the Post-Pandemic Public Relations Classroom

Note from the Guest Editor:

Juan Meng, Ph.D.
Head & Associate Professor
Department of Advertising and Public Relations
Grady College Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Georgia
Email: jmeng@uga.edu

Nilanjana Bardhan, Ph.D.
Communication Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Email: bardhan@siu.edu

The world changed in 2020 in unprecedented ways. In the United States, the combined impact of COVID-19 and the racial unrest following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery left us reeling with regards to questions of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace and in our societal institutions, including higher education. Discourse on public relations education and DEI peaked. This watershed year witnessed numerous webinars, conversations and discussions sponsored by our profession’s organizations such as the Public Relations Society of America, the Institute for Public Relations, and the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, all of which queried with renewed vigor on how well we are preparing our students to be racial-justice-oriented and DEI-minded public relations professionals as they transition from college to the industry. This was the moment when we approached the Journal of Public Relations Education with the idea of this special issue. 

Rationale for the Special Issue
As educators and scholars, we believe leadership and mentorship are especially important during times of upheaval, uncertainty and radical change. Educators and students are grappling with new pedagogical challenges, and we need scholarship that can aid in navigating these challenges and discovering opportunities (Bardhan & Gower, 2020). As editors of this special issue, we hope the research articles and teaching brief collected in this volume address the pressing need to make DEI an integral part of public relations education as emphasized by the Commission on Public Relations Education (Mundy et al., 2018). We also hope the broad range of perspectives and solutions offered in the articles collected in this special issue will aid in deepening our understanding of and the discussion on the intersections of leadership and mentorship in fostering DEI in public relations education. 

It is hard to argue against the proposition that it is difficult for progress to occur in the domain of DEI without committed leadership and stellar mentorship. With regards to public relations education, this means that both students and educators need to understand this crucial relationship between DEI, leadership and mentorship in public relations pedagogy and learning environments. Meng (2013, 2015) has already emphasized that educators play a critical and instructive role in enhancing students’ competitive advantage by incorporating leadership content and training into undergraduate curriculum. In addition, Bardhan and Gower (2020) also addressed the need for public relations educators to lead efforts to advance DEI in education by diversifying curriculum, enhancing inclusive learning environments, and advocating for structural change for DEI-centered pedagogy. The events of 2020 compelled us to weave together both these emphases of DEI and leadership and add the layer of mentorship. We wove in these layers into our call, which encouraged submissions addressing both the challenges and the opportunities in the DEI-Leadership-Mentorship mix in the domain of public relations education. Some key questions were asked as we launched the special issue call:

  • What are the current practice, challenges and opportunities associated with enhancing public relations education at the intersections of leadership, mentorship, and DEI?
  • What kinds of pedagogical, theoretical and practical implications and recommendations can we offer educators in empowering them to foster DEI in public relations education by jointly engaging leadership and mentorship in teaching and training?
  • What are the best practices and resources that aid in teaching public relations at the intersections of leadership, mentorship and DEI?
  • What are some innovative approaches and strategies to connect educators, practitioners and students to enhance public relations pedagogy by integrating the critical thinking and discussion of leadership, mentorship and DEI?

Contribution of the Special Issue
This special issue, Leadership, Mentorship and DEI in the Post-Pandemic Public Relations Classroom, strives to address the above questions. We are pleased to offer our readers a collection of seven articles, which includes six original research articles and one teaching brief. This collection offers a variety of perspectives on exploring both the challenges and opportunities for public relations pedagogy focusing on leadership and mentorship and how the mix could foster a more diverse, equal and inclusive environment in the post-pandemic public relations classroom. 

This issue is organized into three sections, which reflect the complexities of the intersections of leadership, mentorship and DEI in public relations education. The first section, Current Practices and Challenges of DEI in Public Relations Education and the Need for Self-Reflection and Mentorship, includes three articles addressing the broad landscape of public relations pedagogy at the intersections of leadership, mentorship and DEI. 

The first article titled “Enhancing Diversity and Inclusion in the Public Relations Classroom: Current Practices of Public Relations Educators,” contributed by Shana Meganck and Yeonsoo Kim, provides an overview of the changing higher education landscape in addressing the DEI efforts from multiple perspectives (e.g., recruitment, admissions, climate, curriculum, research, strategic planning, administrative structures, etc.). The study focuses on investigating the pedagogical approaches adapted by public relations educators to integrate DEI practices in the public relations classroom through a self-administered online survey. To provide a snapshot of the current DEI practice in public relations education, the authors reviewed structural elements of courses in public relations curriculum such as value statements and policies in course materials, course objectives and learning outcomes, assignments and course evaluations and investigated how those pedagogical approaches are integrated into public relations education to support DEI in the classroom. The results of the survey indicate that educators are performing better when it comes to practicing DEI pedagogical approaches and that they need to work harder at including clearer DEI structural elements.

The second contribution, titled “Self-Reflection is the Engine that Drives, Grows and Sustains DE&I among Leaders, Mentors and Public Relations Educators and Professionals,” by Bruce K. Berger and Elina Erzikova, offers a critical perspective on examining the relationship between meaningful self-reflection and its underestimated function in navigating DEI challenges and unexpected situations. The authors designed and carried out a three-phase comprehensive research project in the past four years (i.e., self-reflection interviews with 30 PR leaders, a content analysis of educator blogs, articles, and websites addressing self-reflection skills, and surveys of PR educators and focus groups with PR students). Based on the results, the authors argue that educators and professionals in public relations must practice meaningful self-reflection to not only grow but also sustain DEI in public relations. More significantly, the authors provide a practical six-step strategic self-reflection process that can be taught and practiced in the classroom. From the perspective of leadership development, the authors argue that self-reflection is the foundation for continuous improvement in public relations leadership, mentorship, education, and practice. 

In the third article in this section, titled “Cross the Stage: Underrepresented Students’ Challenges and Mentoring Needs in Strategic Communication Programs,” Jiun-Yi Tsai, Janice Sweeter, and Amy Hitt focus on investigating the challenges encountered by underrepresented students in public relations programs in college education. The authors conducted 14 semi-structured interviews with students who self-identify as first generation, Hispanic/Latinx, or Black/African American college students majoring in strategic communication. Their research offers insights on the importance of mentorship support from faculty to help underrepresented students build resilience. The research results also mention that identity-based clubs and classroom peer relationships could foster relational connections that support underrepresented students. 

The second section of this special issue, Curriculum Innovation and Accreditation Standards in Public Relations DEI Pedagogy, features two contributions addressing innovative pedagogical approaches in public relations curriculum. The first article contributed by Lee Bush and Vanessa Bravo, titled “Systematically Applying DEI Accreditation Standards to a Strategic Communication Curriculum,” shares the authors’ experience in leading a new initiative to research, develop, and test modules to achieve DEI learning outcomes in their strategic communication courses as an effort to meet the new guidelines for diversity and inclusion approved by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC). The reflective results showed that it is important to integrate DEI into curriculum in a more systematic way. The assessment results of what worked and what did not provide important pedagogical suggestions to public relations educators for developing a DEI-focused curriculum.

Leadership, mentorship and DEI can intersect in extracurricular spaces and learning environments inhabited by public relations students, and this is demonstrated in practical detail in the second article in this section, titled “Student-led Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Education in Public Relations: PRSSA as a Space for Teaching and Learning.” Authors Arshia Anwer and Timmy Kwong describe how the student leadership of a Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter at a private liberal arts college in the United States took the initiative to enhance its DEI vision, action and pedagogy during the watershed events of 2020. By inviting multiple DEI focused guest speakers, conducting a survey that gauged chapter members’ interest in DEI issues, recruiting diverse students to the chapter from across campus, and nominating its VP for DEI for a PR News Social Impact Award, this chapter sets an example for other PRSSA chapters to emulate.

The third section of this special issue, Teaching Cases for Exploring DEI Complexities in Public Relations Education, is composed of two contributions that center on incorporating inclusivity and cultural sensitivity into public relations campaigns courses. In the article, titled “Shaping Tomorrow’s Industry Leaders by Incorporating Inclusivity into Campaign Planning Curriculum: Student Reactions to the SMART+IE Mindset in Strategic Communication Efforts,” Richard D. Waters and Tricia M. Farwell present an innovative teaching activity that demonstrates how students can be pedagogically engaged to discuss the nuances of DEI in campaign planning and strategic communication. By incorporating hypothetical case studies that include DEI complexities and teaching students how to lead in DEI communication, this pedagogical innovation emphasizes the importance of inclusive communication.  The authors share not just the case study and its DEI pedagogy value, but also describe how students who worked on this case in classes responded to it and what they learned from it about themselves and about the role of DEI in strategic communication.  Additionally, the authors reflect on their own experience, as educators, of including this DEI case study in their classes.

The last contribution in this edited issue is a teaching brief, titled “Eco-Tourism Campaigns as a Framework for Global PR Course.” The authors, Nandini Bhalla and Arien Rozelle, address diversity education at the international level and argue for the importance of helping students build cultural sensitivity and equality in the public relations classroom. Their teaching brief provides scenarios for public relations educators to consider and adopt when helping students understand cultural and structural differences in an international context. 

Overall, the research articles and teaching brief collected in this special issue present a wide range of perspectives on understanding the intersections of leadership, mentorship and DEI in public relations education. We could not locate any research that addressed the intersections of DEI, leadership and mentorship in public relations education when we sent out the call for this special issue. Now we are pleased to state that this is no longer the case. The intersectionality nature of the topics present the complexity at multiple dimensions such as the practical, the pedagogical and the theoretical levels. It is our sincere hope that the articles in this special issue will serve as a springboard for further scholarship on this critical intersection in public relations pedagogy. 

It has truly been an honor to have had the opportunity to work on this issue and we would like to thank all those who supported it by sending in submissions. We would especially like to thank our team of reviewers with expertise on this topic. We could not have published this issue without their valuable insights, constructive feedback, comments and suggestions, and overall solid reviews to help the authors revise and improve their research and writings. Finally and most importantly, our heartfelt thanks go to Dr. Pamela Bourland-Davis, Editor of the Journal of Public Relations Education and her editorial team for offering the opportunity to edit this special issue. It would have been impossible to produce this special issue without their encouragement and guidance throughout the process. 


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://aejmc.us/jpre/wp-content/uploads/sites/25/2020/08/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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2013.09.005

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 

Table of Contents

Research Articles

Section I: Current Practices and Challenges of DEI in Public Relations Education and the Need for Self-Reflection and Mentorship

Enhancing Diversity and Inclusion in the Public Relations Classroom: Current Practices of Public Relations Educators
Shana Meganck and Yeonsoo Kim

Self-Reflection is the Engine that Drives, Grows and Sustains DE&I among Leaders, Mentors and Public Relations Educators and Professionals
Bruce K. Berger and Elina Erzikova

Cross the Stage: Underrepresented Students’ Challenges and Mentoring Needs in Strategic Communication Programs
Jiun-Yi Tsai, Janice Sweeter, and Amy Hitt

Section II: Curriculum Innovation and Accreditation Standards in Public Relations DEI Pedagogy

Systematically Applying DEI Accreditation Standards to a Strategic Communication Curriculum
Lee Bush and Vanessa Bravo

Student-led Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Education in Public Relations: PRSSA as a Space for Teaching and Learning
Arshia Anwer and Timmy Kwong

Section III: Teaching Cases for Exploring DEI Complexities in Public Relations Education

Shaping Tomorrow’s Industry Leaders by Incorporating Inclusivity into Campaign Planning Curriculum: Student Reactions to the SMART+IE Mindset in Strategic Communication Efforts
Richard D. Waters and Tricia M. Farwell

Teaching Brief

Eco-Tourism Campaigns as a Framework for Global PR Course
Nandini Bhalla and Arien Rozelle

Read the full issue here:

Publication of the Public Relations Division of AEJMC
© 2023 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

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

Student and Faculty/Educator Views on Diversity and Inclusion in Public Relations: The Role of Leaders in Bringing About Change

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE January 23, 2020. R&R decision April 10, 2020. Revision submitted May 27, 2020. Manuscript accepted (with changes) for publication July 6, 2020. Changes received July 7, 2020. First published online August 15, 2020.


Nilanjana Bardhan, Ph.D.
Professor, Communication Studies
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Carbondale, IL
Email: bardhan@siu.edu

Karla Gower, Ph.D.
Behringer Distinguished Professor, Advertising and Public Relations
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL
Email: gower@apr.ua.edu

The authors would like to thank The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations for funding support and Alexa Campbell and Derek Hooper for their assistance with conducting interviews.


The state of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the U.S. public relations industry lags concerningly behind increasing societal diversity. Research indicates a strong link between D&I success and leadership involvement. This qualitative study takes a slightly different approach from previous studies on the topic of leadership, D&I, and public relations. Instead of focusing on industry leadership, it focuses on public relations education. Students are the future leaders of the industry, and faculty/educators shape these future leaders. The current weak school-to-industry D&I flow, which is clearly connected to the industry’s D&I problem, is the focus of this study. In-depth interviews with students and faculty/educators who stand out for their leadership and dedication to D&I revealed both groups have an accurate picture of the D&I problem in industry and education. They clearly understand the responsibility of leadership and offer suggestions for improvement. We use the views of these leaders in the education setting as a platform to explain how the education-industry D&I continuum can benefit from their knowledge, skills, and abilities and offer some concrete suggestions for actionable change.

Keywords: public relations, education, leadership, diversity and inclusion

Student and Faculty/Educator Views on Diversity and Inclusion in Public Relations: The Role of Leaders in Bringing About Change

The state of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the public relations industry in the United States is a major concern. The country is diversifying quickly, and current minority groups will collectively constitute a majority by 2050 or earlier (Lee, 2008). In the face of this reality, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2018 figures report that only about 15% of the PR industry is racially diverse. Other estimates are even lower (see Chitkara, 2018). Inclusion remains an equally important concern because recruitment without inclusion hurts retention (Feloni, 2017). Furthermore, women constitute approximately 70% of the industry, while men are a minority but overwhelmingly dominate senior level positions (Logan, 2011; Place & Vardeman-Winter, 2018). Despite numerous calls and initiatives for change for over three decades, the industry’s D&I needle has barely moved. 

Leadership research shows a strong link between D&I success and leadership efforts. The public relations trade press is full of advice on this point. According to senior practitioner Hugo Balta (2015), “In order for diversity to fulfill its true possibility, top leaders need to create a workplace environment where employees understand that their voices are valued and accepted” (para. 5). According to Van Camp (2012), “Engage top leadership on the issue and help them understand, if they don’t already, that although often hard to quantify, diversity initiatives have a significant ROI” (para. 15). However, the slim research that exists on the topic in public relations indicates that leadership engagement with D&I is concerningly low and that senior leaders see themselves as playing a much bigger role than those not in formal leadership roles (Bardhan et al., 2018).  

This qualitative interview-based study takes a slightly different approach to the topic of leadership, public relations, and D&I. Instead of focusing directly on industry leadership, it focuses on education. According to Pompper (2005), “The status of public relations practice is directly linked to public relations education” (p. 299). Students are the future leadership of the industry. How are they, and those who educate them, thinking about D&I and leadership’s role in advancing D&I? Student and faculty/educator perspectives are important to understand for developing strategies and approaches for actionable change and for highlighting leadership’s role and responsibility in the effort to improve the state of D&I in the education-industry continuum. 

Public Relations Education and D&I

According to Brown et al. (2019), “Diversity must start at the classroom level in order for emerging practitioners to embrace diversity at the professional level” (p. 19). The Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE), which currently comprises 18 national and international professional and academic communication associations and accreditation bodies, clearly emphasizes the pressing need to make D&I an integral part of the undergraduate curriculum. Founded in 1973, the CPRE plays an influential role in shaping public relations curricula through its recommendations based on surveys of educators and practitioners (DiStaso, 2019). According to its most recent survey-based 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. (Mundy et al., 2018, p. 139) 

Of particular interest to this study is that the survey found practitioners value D&I knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) slightly more than educators and note the lack of these KSAs in students currently graduating from public relations programs (DiStaso, 2019; Mundy et al., 2018).

The CPRE has also developed a comprehensive and nuanced definition of D&I based on past research (see Sha & Ford, 2007). It divides diversity into primary and secondary aspects. The primary aspects are characteristics people are born with that cannot be changed (e.g., age, race). The secondary dimensions are those that can be altered (e.g., religion, marital status, social class). The definition emphasizes that these two dimensions of diversity play a key role in how people communicate within organizations and that understanding this phenomenon is crucial to how inclusion is practiced with internal and external publics. For overall D&I success, the CPRE emphasizes practitioners should keep in stride with the organization’s external D&I environment and demographics, make full use of the diversity present within an organization to enhance work environments and relationships, be fully aware of the power differentials that might exist between the organization and its various publics, and develop mechanisms for “listening to and proactively engaging disenfranchised and other possibly marginalized groups” (Commission on Public Relations Education, n.d., para. 13).

Against the backdrop of urgent calls regarding the concerning state of D&I in the public relations industry and the need to educate students in ways that respond to this situation, the literature reveals that the bulk of research on public relations and D&I focuses on the industry with meager attention paid to education, a fact also noted by other scholars (Muturi & Zhu, 2019; Place & Vanc, 2016). More recently in June and July 2020, following the racial justice upheavals in the country, a series of live online discussions titled “Race in the PR Classroom,” jointly hosted by the Institute for Public Relations and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Educators Academy, focused on issues related to race and D&I that urgently need to be addressed in public relations pedagogy (“Race in the PR Classroom,” n.d.). What was originally scheduled to last for only three sessions developed into a monthly series because of the valuable conversations and resources these Zoom meetings provided.

The speakers discussed the need to develop anti-racist public relations pedagogy that benefits all students and the need to disrupt Whiteness in public relations pedagogy (“Race in the PR Classroom,” n.d.). In addition, they called upon White faculty to incorporate race and D&I in their teaching/scholarship and to work as allies with faculty of color. Suggestions were offered for ways to hire more tenure-track faculty of color. The speakers also discussed the importance of bringing in diverse guest speakers and adjunct faculty of color, as well as the need to diversify the curriculum across the board rather than limiting D&I discussions to one day or to one course. Overall, there is a clear gap in knowledge on this aspect of public relations pedagogy. The scant research that does exist on D&I and public relations education is elaborated upon next.

There are at least two aspects to D&I in public relations education: (1) the curriculum and (2) the recruitment of diverse students and faculty. Combining these two aspects, what students learn and who they see around them in classrooms and related environments, impacts how they view D&I in relation to the profession and their own role and prospects in it (Brown et al., 2011; Mundy et al., 2018; Pompper, 2005; Waymer & Brown, 2018; Waymer & Dyson, 2011). Brunner’s (2005) study of diversity environments at two public higher education institutions in the United States highlights that all students, both underrepresented and majority group students, take their cues on how to orient to D&I from their university environments: 

Since students come to universities at a critical time in their development as human beings, diversity is essential. During this time, students define themselves in relation to others, experiment with roles, and begin to make permanent commitments to careers, social groups, and personal relationships. (p. 4)  

Brunner reviews scholarship that shows both majority and underrepresented students on more diverse campuses are likely to be more open to diverse cultures/views and navigate diversity issues in thoughtful, inclusive, and creative ways.  

Through her focus group study that explored the views of African-American female practitioners, Pompper (2005) found that the curricula is “still out of step with multicultural world realities” (p. 310). Waymer and Dyson (2011), in a qualitative study on race and public relations pedagogy, made the point that while it is necessary to teach the technical skills needed to qualify for entry-level jobs, that is not enough. However, historically that has been the focus of the prescribed curriculum for undergraduate education (see McKie & Munshi, 2009). They argue that for students to be socially, ethically, and culturally attuned practitioners, they “must be prepared to engage in critical, reflective discussion and argument about the most pressing issues of contemporary society” (pp. 461-462). They further observed that while diversity and multiculturalism are emphasized in accreditation standards, content does not get included in systematic ways in the day-to-day teaching and applied work that students engage in. The authors also examined how faculty perceptions of race impact how they teach it. Faculty reported the topic of race is almost non-existent in the curriculum and in textbooks, and that the content that does exist is “shallow and misrepresented” and focuses mainly on demographics (p. 473). They expressed wanting to teach more robust and meaningful race-related content but reported the lack of materials to do this well. Back in the 1980s, public relations educator and leader Marilyn Kern-Foxworth (1989) cogently made the same point about the invisibility of the role and contributions of people of color in the major textbooks used for education. Waymer and Dyson’s (2011) study suggested this invisibility had not changed much in 20 years. 

Regarding the second aspect—the recruitment of diverse students and faculty—extant research suggests that for recruitment and retention to be successful, there must be a clear understanding of why students from underrepresented groups choose (or do not choose) public relations as a major, and why they stay or pick another major. Brown et al. (2011) conducted a qualitative interview-based study of undergraduate African-American public relations students at three U.S. universities and found the reasons they chose the major was the same as other students (i.e., usually by accident, see Bowen, 2009); but once they enter the major, race plays somewhat of a role. The interviewees expressed not wanting to be pigeonholed or expected to represent their entire race and wanting to see more faculty and mentors who look like them. They also generally felt their Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter environment was not too welcoming, especially at first. 

A more recent qualitative interview-based study by Waymer and Brown (2018) asked African-American, Latinx, White and Asian-American practitioners with five or fewer years of industry experience to reflect on their undergraduate education environment and how that helped or hurt them in terms of academic success and entry into the profession. While no major negatives emerged, underrepresented group participants reported being a minority was uncomfortable at times, and they felt they had to work harder than White students to prove themselves. The White respondents said while race was a non-factor for them, they were aware of how students of color had to put in additional effort. Another recent study, which focused on current students, revealed more negative findings. In a quantitative survey (N =294) of public relations majors from eight colleges and universities, Brown et al. (2019) found race and gender had a significant impact on the experiences of undergraduate public relations students. In this study, 66% of the respondents were White, 16% Latinx, 9% African-American, and 7% of other races/ethnicities. Also, only 16% of the respondents were male. Specifically, they found White female respondents, the majority demographic in most undergraduate public relations programs, have the most positive experience, both educationally as well as socially. Minority group students “were less likely to build a professional network in PR, build a strong support group among other public relations students, and experience comfort interacting with other students in the classroom and in extracurricular activities” (p. 17). The authors suggest more diverse faculty and professionals should be visible/available to mentor underrepresented students and help them network professionally.

Place and Vanc (2016) conducted a qualitative interview-based study of mainly White undergraduate public relations students from three mid-size universities to examine if exposure to diversity through service learning and client work within coursework impacted students’ views about diversity dynamics in the profession. Findings showed the students were mostly fearful of diversity, perceived it in negative ways (e.g., problem, challenge, struggle), and described diversity as something “different from me.”  While they generally had difficulty coming to terms with their own White privilege, the responses also indicated that the students gained some sense of how diverse client environments are and how to better understand diversity in a professional and broader social context as compared to just the personal context. The authors concluded that how public relations students orient to D&I in school has serious implications for the kinds of stereotypes, assumptions, and biases they carry into the industry. Similarly, Muturi, and Zhu (2019) conducted a quantitative survey (N = 417) of mainly White public relations, advertising, and journalism students at a large Midwestern university to gauge diversity exposure (with a focus on race/ethnicity) through coursework and related activity and its impact. While the public relations students seemed to fare slightly better, all students reported moderate diversity exposure and limited understanding of how race/ethnicity issues relate to the professional world. The authors of the above two studies pointed out the lack of and need for more studies on the complex dimensions of the school-to-industry D&I flow. 

Regarding recruitment and retention of diverse faculty, Pompper’s (2005) study offers specific insights. Her African-American female practitioner participants reported that unfortunately, the curriculum will not improve unless diversity among faculty improves. They emphasized homogeneity among faculty equals a shortage of mentors and role models for students from underrepresented groups. This, in turn, can impact the student perception of their prospects of success. Additionally, they suggested that faculty who do not avow diverse identities often feel unprepared to teach about cultural, racial/ethnic, and other differences, and that all faculty should continually educate and train themselves to teach through the lens of multiculturalism so that students do not continue to “absorb an Anglo Eurocentric worldview that perpetuates the cycle of de-valuing, overlooking, marginalizing, pigeonholing, and stereotyping minorities” (p. 310). Others also noted the importance of recruiting and retaining diverse faculty and adjuncts, incorporating diverse guest speakers, creating experiences that expose all students to diverse experiences (e.g., shadowing, internships, mentoring, client work), training current faculty, and keeping diversity and its measurement high on the agenda of higher education leaders (Accreditation Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, 2018; Brown et al., 2019; Mundy et al., 2018; Muturi & Zhu, 2019; Place & Vanc, 2016). 

Limitations of Extant Studies

 Overall, the scant research on the topic suggests there is a clear need to better understand and address the D&I dynamics of public relations education and how that impacts the D&I dimensions of the industry. Extant research shows that the curriculum is still not adequately incorporating diverse course content despite ongoing calls from accreditation bodies and professional associations. Homogeneity among students and especially faculty persists, and racial/ethnic minority students who do pick public relations generally report feeling they do not belong in the major as much as White students. Underrepresented students emphasize the need for more mentoring and networking assistance from diverse faculty and professionals. Most importantly, White students, who constitute a majority, seem not to think too much about the relationship between practice and D&I and/or struggle with diversity when exposed to it. This literature corroborates the CPRE report’s finding that universities are not producing the D&I-related skills and knowledge the industry is seeking (Mundy et al., 2018).

Furthermore, the meager research that exists began only a little over a decade ago and only a handful of educators/scholars have been pursuing this topic. Diversity and inclusion in higher education, not just public relations education (and research), should be every educator’s priority and not just of those who identify as belonging to underrepresented groups (Brunner, 2005; Mundy et al., 2018). Another limitation in the research landscape is that until now, studies have focused mainly on the race/ethnicity and gender dimensions of D&I in public relations education. Since race/ethnicity is a central marker of identity as well as inequity in the U.S., this focus makes sense. The gender focus also makes sense given the significant gender power imbalance in public relations education and the industry. However, more dimensions of race/ethnicity (the focus so far has mainly been on African-American and White students) and other aspects of diversity and difference, both primary and secondary, need to be studied (Mundy et al., 2018). Finally, studies of curriculum content and recruitment/retention efforts for diverse faculty and students seem to be non-existent.

Research Questions 

Combining the findings of extant studies, our interest in exploring the D&I-leadership link that has not been studied before in the education context, CPRE’s latest report’s comprehensive definition of D&I, and its call to better prepare the school-to-industry flow to work inclusively with diverse publics, we posed the following overarching research questions for this study:  

  • What are the views of current public relations student leaders and faculty/educators invested in D&I about the state of D&I in education and industry? How closely are they aligned with the recent definition of and suggestions regarding D&I forwarded by the CPRE?
  • How do study participants view the role of industry leaders and educators in making D&I efforts successful?
  • What do the overall findings suggest about actionable changes needed to improve the D&I dimensions of the school-to-industry flow? 


Qualitative in-depth interviewing was selected as the method for this study because this discovery-oriented method is well suited for examining topics on which little information exists (Kvale, 1996; Lofland & Lofland, 1995; Patton, 1987). An in-depth interview is a “conversation with a purpose” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011, p. 172) that aims to get at the reality of social actors’ experiences. There are various suggestions regarding how many in-depth interviews are sufficient for a study. The most common argument is that interviews can be stopped when saturation is reached (i.e., when no new information is forthcoming from the interviews). Typically, this point is achieved anywhere between 10 to 20 interviews (Charmaz, 2006; Crouch & McKenzie, 2006). 

The decision was made to recruit and interview 10 participants from two groups: undergraduate student leaders at different universities/colleges majoring in public relations and committed to D&I, and faculty/educators invested in D&I education and research at different universities/colleges. Human subjects approval was obtained for the study. A purposive sampling approach was followed. Students previously selected for scholarships and awards for their outstanding commitment to D&I were contacted. Faculty advisers of PRSSA chapters were also contacted for recommendations of students leading the D&I charge in their chapters. Next, faculty/educators currently engaged in D&I research and education efforts were contacted and recruited. Saturation point was satisfactorily reached with these 20 interviews and, therefore, more interviewees were not recruited. All interviews were conducted between November 2018 and August 2019 over the phone, recorded with permission, and then transcribed.  All interviewees were ascribed pseudonyms for confidentiality and data reporting purposes. The student interviewees comprised four seniors, five juniors and one sophomore from universities/colleges in the Midwest, East Coast, Northeast and Southern parts of the U.S. The faculty/educators ranged between 8 to 39 years in terms of teaching experience. Five had significant industry experience before entering academia (up to 35 years), four had fewer years while one had none. Tables 1 and 2 show the identity statements provided by the interviewees. Instead of collecting cultural data in a directed, closed-question format, we asked the interviewees to describe their identities in their own words.

Table 1: Student Leader Respondent Identities

Student Pseudonym/YearIdentity Statement
Sharif (senior)“I am a Muslim Arab Yemeni American.”
Jasmine (senior)“I am a Nigerian, American born.”
Barb (senior)“Upper middle class, White background. I was raised Catholic, Christian.” 
Mia (senior)“I’m a multicultural individual and I have family from Brazil, Israel, France, Lebanon, Poland . . . a huge part of me is my nationality and my religion so I identify as a Venezuelan Jewish woman.”
William (junior)“American-Colombian. I was born in Colombia and was adopted and moved to Upstate NY when I was young. I was raised in an all-White culture in a small town.”
Derek (junior)“African-American, Black, first generation college student, urban.”
Dave (junior)“African-American homosexual male from the south who grew up in a predominantly White neighborhood . . . my cultural identity is always evolving.”
Ben (junior)“I’m American, but my mother came from Jamaica . . . I tend to be very traditional mainly because I grew up in the Panhandle, which is like deep south.”
Jane (junior)“I’m White and from a smaller rural farm community in Minnesota.”
Sheena (sophomore)“African-American woman.”

Table 2: Faculty/Educator Respondent Identities

Faculty/Educator PseudonymIdentity Statements
Laura“I’m Caucasian.”
Mimi“Eastern European and German.”
John“A White guy from a small rural Indiana town who fortunately had an amazing career that allowed him to see the larger world.”
Terrence “I identify as African American. I am biracial. My mother is White, my father is Black.”
Jerry“I am a White male, but I am a gay southerner . . . my dad’s family is from Mexico originally. My mom’s family has been in North Carolina for like 300 years.”
Marie“Female, Caucasian, heterosexual, Protestant, TAB (temporarily able bodied), mid-life aged.”
Shana“I am an African American woman. That’s what I am. From the south, that’s also very important.”
Susan“I really kind of think of myself as White female, lower-middle class, heterosexual, highly educated.”
Gordon“I am a father, a husband, a son, Black male, born in the Southeast United States, who loves family and is concerned about how do you raise a Black boy today in the southern United States, or the United States in general. Educator. Researcher. Advocate. Political Sociologist.”
Valerie“I am a Caucasian, European American. I am a lesbian. I don’t know if you care about age, I’m 64 years old. I’m middle class. So primarily your average blessed White woman.”

Two closely aligned semi-structured questionnaires that included open-ended questions were developed, one for students and one for faculty/educators. All interviewees in each group were asked the same questions in the same order. Two key criteria for developing sound interview protocols were followed—alignment with research questions and inquiry-based questions to encourage conversation and in-depth perspectives (Castillo-Montoya, 2016). The first set of questions were designed to elicit how students and faculty/educators understand the concepts “diversity” and “inclusion” and the relationship between them, as well as their views about the state of D&I in the public relations industry. The next set of questions asked what they believe industry leaders need to be doing to improve the situation. The final set of questions asked what they believe educators need to do to better prepare students to engage with D&I. Other demographic information was also collected. 

Qualitative interviews are commonly analyzed using open and axial coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Open coding is:

an interpretive process by which data are broken down analytically. . . . event/action/interaction, and so forth, are compared against others for similarities and differences; they are also conceptually labelled. In this way, conceptually similar ones are grouped together to form categories and their subcategories. (p. 432) 

Axial coding is the process of identifying the relationships between the open coding categories and subcategories and collapsing them to develop themes that describe and explain the phenomenon/condition under investigation. For each set of questions in the interview protocols and across all 10 interviews in each group, the authors first conducted a line-by-line examination of the responses and engaged in open coding to develop categories and subcategories. Next axial coding was conducted to develop themes for each line of questioning. Finally, the authors returned to the research questions posed for the study and applied these themes to address them. 


In this section, we describe the results that emerged through our coding and analysis of the interviews we conducted with student leaders and faculty/educators invested in D&I. 

The Relationship Between “Diversity” and “Inclusion” 

Three themes emerged through open and axial coding of the responses under this first line of questioning: (1) diversity and inclusion are not the same, (2) diversity and inclusion are interlinked, and (3) definitions need to be broader, complex, and more flexible.  Responses from student leaders are marked by (S) and from faculty/educators by (F/E).

Diversity and Inclusion Are Not the Same 

Both groups indicated they understand the difference between “diversity” and “inclusion” and that diversity does not automatically lead to inclusion. They described diversity mostly in terms of differences. According to Derek (S), diversity means people who “do not share the same agenda because of race, gender, class, sexuality, etc., coming together in one place. … [it is a] combination of different cultures and different backgrounds of people.” According to Laura (F/E): “I define diversity as the recruitment, hiring, and promotion of competitive individuals who represent our society without discrimination based on gender, or sexual orientation, race, religion, age, socioeconomic status, including those with disabilities and who are other abled.”

Sheena (S) said diversity means “recognizing and acknowledging and respecting the different aspects of people that are visible and non-visible.” Jane (S) grew up in a rural area and came to a big city to study, and for her, diversity equals “race, social class, religion, where one grew up (rural/urban) and so on.” For Mia (S), an international student, diversity equals “culture, gender, opinions, religion, race, etc.” Dave (S) emphasized that diversity is an “everyday” thing and “it is what we eat, the music we listen to, what we wear, the languages we speak, and the people we speak to.” Mimi (F/E) said that in the classroom context, she prefers “to define diversity in very broad terms so that everyone is contributing something to diversity” and all groups—majority and minoritized—can participate meaningfully in the conversation. Susan (F/E) emphasized a diverse organization is one that reflects the increasingly diversifying publics it attempts to connect with. Two students specifically stated that representation matters when it comes to diversity. As Dave (S) put it, you “can’t be what you can’t see.” 

Both groups described inclusion mostly in terms of equity, empowerment, and belonging. All interviewees were of the view that inclusion entails creating an environment where all, no matter their background, feel heard, empowered, a sense of belonging, that their opinions matter, and they are valued (not pigeonholed), and that all have equality in opportunities to advance. According to Laura (F/E), inclusion is “an organization’s active commitment to create an open culture” and “a hospitable environment where all employees are included, productive, and feel respected and valued professionally and personally.” She and another faculty/educator (John) emphasized that inclusive cultures are impossible without support from senior leadership. Both groups were clear that diversity should not be just a matter of surface-level optics. Dave (S) and Jerry (F/E) put it quite simply—inclusion means having a “true” seat at the table.

Diversity and Inclusion are Interlinked 

While stating that diversity and inclusion should not be conflated, both interview groups emphasized the critical link between the two concepts. Sheena (S) shared the story of when she visited PRSSA’s national assembly and was impacted by a keynote speaker who said that diversity means being asked to the party and inclusion means being asked to dance. Sharif (S) and three faculty/educators also mentioned this often-used analogy (attributed to D&I advocate and trainer Vernā Myers), clearly indicating the impact it has had upon D&I discourse. Gordon (F/E) described the diversity-inclusion relationship using the metaphor of “an artistic tossed salad, …where people can experience and taste the flavors, but they are working toward a common goal because it’s a salad. So, it’s not a salad until it’s all together.” William (S) explained diversity is about “having an open and inviting attitude” towards various differences, and inclusion is about “acting upon it.” For Derek (S), inclusion is “step two of diversity.” Ben (S) said diversity and inclusion “hold hands.” 

Laura (F/E) explained that the term “inclusion” became popular when people began “realizing that they were getting people in the pipeline but weren’t doing anything in the workplace to help them be successful.” Valerie (F/E) said diversity cannot thrive without inclusion: “It’s not just enough to pay lip service or say let’s be tolerant. . . . it’s really important that we really make an effort to learn about other people.” According to Terrence (F/E):

I think that diversity is striving for people of difference in the workplace and in the public relations environment. And inclusion is the glue that keeps them there. . . . working together in a shared space that promotes creativity and effectiveness.

Mia (S) and Jane (S) emphasized “both [diversity and inclusion] are needed in order to have change,” describing “change” as the positive outcomes of diversity (Jane).

Definitions Need to be Broader, Complex and More Flexible 

The majority of interviewees in both groups pointed out that current notions of diversity are too narrow and need to include both primary and secondary dimensions of difference. Several interviewees elaborated that diversity discourse often tends to focus on race and gender, which they do not believe is a broad enough view. According to Ben (S), diversity means “an environment where you have as many perspectives as possible.” In fact, Jerry (F/E) emphasized that perhaps the word “diversity” is not sufficient anymore and that we need language that better describes the complicated realities of cultural and power differences we work with in the industry. Marie (F/E) stressed the importance of considering the intersectional effects of different identity categories, for example, considering the effects of race/ethnicity and gender together rather than separately.  

In making the point that diversity should be conceptualized in more complex and flexible ways, the majority of the interviewees said the industry should not define D&I too tightly. William (S) explained that diversity means different things to different people in different contexts (domestic and international) and that how we perform inclusion also changes. According to Dave (S), “The industry won’t evolve if we’re not evolving the definitions of the terms we’re using.” Several faculty/educators remarked how difficult it is to even agree on what public relations is, and that defining D&I would be an equal, if not greater, challenge. Like the students, they emphasized such an effort would be confining. A few student respondents favored a definition, stating it is hard to address a problem when one does not have a good grasp on it. Overall, both groups seemed to support the idea that something broader and less fixed, like a vision, would be helpful for building a sense of what we are collectively working towards in the industry when it comes to D&I.

State of D&I in the Public Relations Industry

The next set of questions inquired about the state of D&I in the industry. Four themes emerged under this line of questioning: (1) some improvement but still a long way to go, (2) leaders need to be more open to change, (3) economic versus moral imperative, and (4) lack of authenticity. 

Some Improvement But Still a Long Way To Go 

Most of the students and about half of the faculty/educators said while there is a higher recognition of the problem and increased attention being paid to D&I, there is still a long way to go and a need for “a lot more action rather than talking” (Mia) (S). Jerry (F/E) noted that recruitment is working much better than retention. According to Terrence (F/E), efforts are in the “adolescent phase” and there is a big gap between awareness and execution/action. Like Mia (S), Valerie (F/E) said: “It seems to me that people talk about it constantly. . . . but there’s no tangible evidence that we’ve really moved the needle.” Ben (S) emphasized steps taken “need to be intentional to help ensure that the industry is reflective of the society that’s constantly changing and evolving.” Gordon (F/E) had a somewhat different take and said we should look at process as well as outcomes. The latter may still be far from what is needed, but the process should not be ignored because some people are sincerely trying and “it’s not all just lip service.” 

About half of the faculty/educator respondents and a few students used words such as “abysmal,” “superficial,” “terrible,” and “shallow” to describe the current state of D&I in the industry. John (F/E) said:

The intention to do good is there, but the follow-through is totally lacking . . . not enough time is being spent in making sure there’s the kind of understanding throughout the organization to make diversity the priority that everyone says it is.

Jasmine (S) said the state of D&I in the industry is “minimal” from what she sees at conferences and networking events and even in her own program. She said it is hard to feel welcome and thrive under these conditions. A few other students also said minority students often do not see themselves in a public relations career. Laura (F/E) added that implicit bias is a major hurdle in the path of D&I, as are the challenges faced by multicultural individuals, especially young professionals with less confidence.

Many of the students were very direct when acknowledging that the profession is still very White. Sharif said he sees “a sea of White people” at all the conferences but that he is not surprised. He explained that his teacher said on the first day to his very diverse class (at a university in a very large city): “As beautiful as this classroom looks and the diversity that is in this class, I just want you guys to all know that the industry does not look like this.” 

The gender imbalance was also highlighted. Ben (S) said the industry profile is “off balance” because of the high number of women and “mostly White people in the field.” Jerry (F/E) specifically emphasized the need to address gender and power disparities, which to him is a “huge” issue. Beth (S), who identifies as coming from an upper middle-class White background, said she is very aware the field is “mostly White and female.” Shana (F/E) said the “White blonde sorority girl” stereotype of practitioners makes it hard for those who do not fit that image to see themselves in that role, and William (S) underscored the high need for more people of color. Gordon (F/E) said the weak school-to-industry D&I flow is a major hurdle in the path of improving the state of D&I in the industry.

Leaders Need to be More Open to Change 

Shana (F/E) reiterated what research shows, stating that public relations is “a really White field. . . . [which is] incredibly tilted towards White men. . . . White men being the CEOs, and White women being the support staff.” Several student interviewees brought up the topic of leadership, specifically the problem with the homogeneity of senior leadership who, according to William (S), “don’t have the same perspectives as most Americans. We need new, younger and more diverse people running the PR industry to keep up with the constant changes and positive progression.” Derek (S) added that “older leadership” has been too used to doing things the same way for too long and “hiring only a certain type of identity” and producing certain types of content. He explained younger employees are coming in with new ideas and ways of doing things and there is “pushback,” especially from senior leadership. He acknowledged some leaders are open to change but noted most are not. Jerry (F/E) emphasized the homogeneity of senior leadership is one of the biggest structural obstacles for D&I. 

Sheena (S) noted that while there has been some progress in including more White women and LGBTQ individuals in leadership positions, there remains a clear lack of racial/ethnic diversity in top leadership. Beth (S) further pointed out it has become “normalized” to think men make better leaders, and this normalization happens not just in public relations but in larger society. A few faculty/educators explained since public relations is not a formal profession (like law or medicine), it is difficult to regulate for diversity and put more pressure on leadership. According to Terrence (F/E), only “truly effective, transformative leadership” that does not treat D&I as “window dressing” can counter all these obstacles.

Economic Versus Moral Imperative 

Several faculty/educators spoke about the conflict between economic and moral imperatives. John (F/E) said the public relations world is “so driven by billability and the need to deliver results that people gravitate to those who look and think like they do, because it’s more efficient and quicker to get the results.” He emphasized intentionality is key and D&I has to almost be forced upon corporate America. Laura (F/E) reiterated:

The reality is that diversity will take a backseat to process, and expediency . . . [companies are] going to take the most reliable, the easiest way for them to recruit individuals . . . it’s the need and desire for companies to be efficient and make money, that is sort of the biggest obstacle to initially building in diversity into their operations. 

Marie (F/E) added there is “too great a focus on the bottom line and business case arguments,” and Susan (F/E) said the main reason diversity is not flourishing in the industry is the “capitalistic society that is focused on profit and short-term accomplishments.” Mimi (F/E) added it is time to shift the conversation from “dollars and cents” to the “human element,” or what is good for society, and therefore the profession. Sharif (S), the only student who reflected on this topic, said this is not a polarized matter and that D&I should be linked to business objectives in meaningful ways. He did, however, emphasize that leaders must be personally invested in D&I efforts “simply because it’s the right thing to do.”

Lack of Authenticity 

Several interviewees in both groups mentioned they perceive a lack of authenticity when it comes to D&I efforts. Some cautioned diversity and inclusion are in danger of becoming just buzzwords if genuine actionable change is not achieved soon. Dave (S) made a skeptical comment, noting while D&I is being acknowledged more, it is probably because it is a trend. Sharif (S) added those with privilege need to acknowledge it, internalize it, and only then will authentic change take place. Several interviewees said another issue is that people are often afraid to offend or want to avoid conflict. Jasmine (S) insisted that, despite fears, it is important to find ways to have conversations about differences. Dave (S) expressed it is “more respectful to take the next step” (rather than be afraid) and say one wants to learn, so we can work together to make this world a better place. 

The Responsibility of Industry Leadership 

Two themes emerged under this line of questioning: (1) lead by example and communicate, and (2) personal engagement, responsibility, and accountability. The relationship between D&I and leadership inevitably came up in the previous lines of questioning, but this section got to the heart of this matter. 

Lead by Example and Communicate 

Both groups emphasized leaders should lead by example, although students emphasized this point a little more than faculty/educators. According to Jane (S): 

It has to start with top management because if they don’t lead on it then it gets pushed down and doesn’t happen. They should make sure there is equal opportunity and that staff reflects the audience they are trying to reach. You can’t aim for a diverse audience if you only have one person of color on a team of like eight White people. It just doesn’t work. That’s when campaigns fail. 

Mia added: “I think it always starts with setting an example.” 

Most of the interviewees said leaders must walk the talk, be authentic in their efforts, and that lip service is not enough. Ben (S) said leaders should be “pioneers” in communicating about D&I. He elaborated D&I language often gets put in writing (e.g., mission statements) and then forgotten. He emphasized it is the leader’s “responsibility to be talking about these things and pushing these things and being as transparent as possible,” and that even if D&I efforts aren’t going so well or are just beginning, it is important to admit faults and mistakes and set up dialogue. Valerie (F/E) pointed out the importance of good leadership communication: 

I think most of the people I can think of who run major organizations, corporations, they certainly do not come from a communication background and they do not understand the value and the power of communications. They think they do, but they really don’t.

Terrence (F/E) said, “We need leaders to be leading conversations. . . . they do not have to provide the answers, but if they are asking provocative questions and getting the right people sitting around the table, that can help produce change.” He emphasized listening as a lost art that must be revived. Jasmine (S) said leaders should not communicate about D&I in “stock” ways as though they’re “just trying to fill a quota” but in genuine ways that convey a real desire “to make the environment more diverse.” She and Mia (S) also mentioned the importance of leadership talking about more than just racial diversity and about “people from different communities, different walks of life.” According to Mia (S), “The message should be to unite and to be inclusive and to think of equality, but in a much, much deeper sense, you know?” 

Shana (F/E) said that unfortunately, leaders tend to focus more on the business aspect and less on the importance of communication in building healthy, diverse and inclusive work environments. Gordon (F/E) emphasized leaders need to be able to communicate to others why building relationships across differences (employees, clients, publics and other stakeholders) is important for the profession itself and for building a sense of community. Susan (F/E) referred to this as the need to communicate for “the greater good.” Dave (S) said leaders need to “communicate realistically” and help others understand that things they might be doing may not be inclusive. Beth (S) added leaders should be “approachable and easy to talk to” and make everyone comfortable, that they should not simply listen but also encourage people to speak up. William (S) emphasized leaders need to share more positive and personal stories about how D&I engagement helped them in work and life and how they have overcome obstacles to bring about change. He added leaders should also include students (i.e., future leaders) in these conversations. 

Personal Engagement, Responsibility and Accountability 

Both groups agreed that D&I success and authenticity is just not possible without support and engagement from the top. Sheena (S) said:

I remember reading that research shows that employees are more engaged and creative and empowered when their senior leaders and people in the C-suite are the champions for diversity and inclusion. They have to set the tone and the precedent and let employees know all have value and that’s important in the culture and success of the company.

Several faculty/educators noted how senior leaders tend to delegate the hiring process. John (F/E) explained:

The hiring decisions keep getting pushed down lower and lower in the organization, and unless in that hiring chain are diverse minds, they are going to hire someone who looks like themselves and thinks like they do.

He emphasized senior leaders should be involved in hiring for diversity, mentoring diverse junior employees, and building inclusive work cultures. 

Personal engagement was linked to responsibility and accountability. Valerie (F/E) said, “We need hard data and CEOs willing to look at that data and make some tough decisions and make it a priority because the demographics that they’re serving in this country are changing so rapidly.” She added that “we really don’t see a lot of bold moves to make the field look different,” and that agency leaders need to come together and work collectively on D&I. Jerry (F/E) emphasized accountability, explaining “that it’s not just creating a diverse board of leadership, but there’s got to be some kind of accountability in terms of what they do with D&I initiatives in terms of moving the needle.” Laura (F/E) said leaders need to take responsibility for outcomes: “One of the ways we measure success is how effective we are in recruiting and retaining diverse professionals, and I think that can only come from the top.”

Most of the students remarked that industry leaders need to change their attitudes and perspectives regarding D&I and be more open to feedback. According to Sheena (S), leaders need to be “intentional” in their D&I work and in “reevaluating agency culture.” John (F/E) said agencies should not just hire diverse people and then “cut the bait the minute they stumble the first time.” Instead, leaders should be personally asking how they can help them succeed and what they themselves might be doing wrong. Laura (F/E) added leaders need to: “figure out ways that they can empower the leaders below them to be inclusive and welcoming and empowering people to do good work based on their capabilities and not on what their skin color is, not pigeonholing people.”

Terrence (F/E) emphasized values, stating they “allow the organization to make decisions that embrace diversity and inclusion.” According to Laura (F/E), those heading D&I “should have a seat at the table for high level corporate strategies.” Derek (S) observed that only those leaders and professionals who themselves identify as belonging to marginalized groups tend to talk about D&I and “that’s not good enough.” He said “more learning and unlearning of unconscious bias” needs to happen and “old mentalities” can only change if more diverse leaders are in place and if current leaders can be more self-reflective, open-minded, and able to talk courageously about the biases they hold and how they’re working on undoing them. 

What Can Educators Do?  

Three themes emerged for this line of questioning: (1) diversifying curriculum, (2) paying attention to the learning environment, and (3) educator responsibility and structural change.

Diversifying Curriculum 

Both groups strongly emphasized that the curriculum needs to be diversified and D&I content should be infused organically into all the courses throughout the curriculum. According to Mia (S), “Every single thing that has to be taught can be taught within diversity and inclusion itself. So, I think it is something that goes with educating in general.” Derek (S) agreed and said D&I should not be treated as an add-on topic. He explained that at his university a professor offers a special topics course on D&I; however, only those interested tend to take it. Some of the respondents in both groups also supported the value of stand-alone D&I courses along with diversification of curriculum. Beth (S) said special courses “that really dig into the topic” could be useful not just to public relations students but also to those in related majors. 

Several students noted the importance of including diverse authors and having diverse practitioners come to speak in classes. According to Mia (S), “We love listening from different people that come from all over the country, all over the world even. That is so impactful.” Diverse practitioners, students emphasized, could effectively mentor underrepresented students and help them feel empowered. Almost all the faculty/educators also emphasized the importance of bringing diverse guest speakers into the classrooms so students can learn directly from them. A few of them also highly recommended study-abroad courses that help students understand cultural differences in embodied and fully immersed ways. Terrence (F/E) said, “I think students need to be pushed outside of their comfort zone. For them to understand difference, they have to see difference.” He also mentioned using role playing activities in classes to help students embody difference. Shana (F/E) added that “pushing your students and giving them new experiences and new ways to think about things and new people to talk with and communicate with is very important. . . . you need to challenge them.” Mimi (F/E) shared an example of how she does this:

I worked with a colleague at a university in another state and her student population is a less traditional population, and it has a more minority population than mine does. It was an online course, and we made them work in groups together on a PR plan. . . . It was interesting just to see their reactions to it and just how different . . . . My students were like, “Well, we want to meet at midnight or whatever to talk about this.” And the students at the other school would say, “Well, I have to work. I’m taking this part-time,” and just trying to see how those differences work.

William (S) and Jasmine (S) added that organizing specific D&I workshops and industry tours would also be helpful.

Paying Attention to the Learning Environment 

Along with curriculum, both groups emphasized the criticality of the learning environment for D&I to flourish (or perish). Ben (S) said teachers must “be mindful of everyone . . . and get students into the rhythm of constantly thinking about everyone and how everyone’s going to perceive something.” Sheena (S) said teachers should make sure they are being inclusive in the classroom and holding their students responsible when they are not. She added they can do this by “creating an environment of inclusiveness and feeling welcome. You know what I mean? . . . of belonging.” Jerry (F/E) said it is necessary to “embed cues into our [classroom] culture that indicate to people that they’re welcome.” He shared how he includes an inclusion statement in all his syllabi and talks about its importance in building an inclusive classroom environment. He said he has had great success with this, and many students have expressed their appreciation.  

Terrence (F/E) emphasized educators must learn how to have difficult conversations about differences in classrooms. Several faculty/educators explained how they try to make their classrooms more inclusive and help students engage with difference in experiential and embodied ways. Sharif (S) emphasized this is especially important because students of color often feel like they do not belong and lack confidence in classrooms dominated by White students. Mimi (F/E) said she pays special attention to see if someone is struggling or feeling isolated, and tries to find “someone who has a similar background that could be a mentor, or just someone who might understand some of the feelings that they might be feeling.” John (F/E) said students tend to gravitate towards their “own kind,” so he mixes them up in how they sit and team up for assignments. 

As a minority-identifying educator, Terrence (F/E) said he attempts to serve as a role model for all, but especially for underrepresented students. Shana (F/E) emphasized self-reflexivity and the necessity for educators “to first examine our own biases, who we favor in our classrooms and who we favor as leaders.” Jasmine (S) said educators should humanize themselves and talk more about their own experiences and struggles with D&I. She added they should “not just lecture” but help students have more “diverse conversations.” According to Dave (S), an effective way for educators to address D&I is by “helping students see the disadvantages of not being diverse in our industry. Once they see that, then they can appreciate the positive.”

Educator Responsibility and Structural Change 

Just like in the case of industry leaders, both groups brought up the responsibility factor for faculty/educators as they are leaders in the academic setting. Faculty/educators spoke more about it. Laura (F/E) explained as an educator it is her responsibility to do at least three things. First, she strives to educate students “on the core understandings, knowledge, and skillsets that they need to make an informed decision if they want to pursue a PR career.” Next, she teaches them to expect and face the challenges of working in a “primarily White workplace,” and third, she teaches them “how to advocate for themselves.” Marie (F/E) also said she teaches “her students how to be consultants and advocates for D&I thinking.” Sharif (S) said teachers should emphasize that D&I is “important not only for the bottom line but also for humanity and for understanding privilege and disparities between people from different backgrounds and how D&I aims to make a more equal world.” On a hopeful note, Mimi (F/E) observed that the current generation is much more aware about D&I issues than previous ones, and this could mean progress in the near future. 

John (F/E), who identifies as a White male educator, emphasized that in his experience, only faculty who identify as minorities tend to make a real effort to engage with D&I, and that this needs to change. Susan (F/E), who identifies as a White female educator, said it is every educator’s responsibility to widen the lens and help underrepresented students see the many values and applications of public relations. Gordon (F/E), who identifies as a Black male educator, also made this point. Faculty/educator respondents who have held or hold administrative roles stressed the need for major structural changes. They emphasized recruiting more diverse faculty and working with admissions/recruitment to better target diverse high school students. Terrence (F/E) recommended “intentionality, communication, thinking differently, thinking creatively, and going into places that are otherwise either ignored or not getting the same attention as other schools because they’re not as mainstream.” Susan (F/E) said programs doing a good job with D&I should be recognized widely and upheld as models for others to emulate. Finally, several faculty/educators said education and industry must work together more systematically to recruit and offer opportunities (e.g., internships, scholarships) in ways that promote D&I. 


This study spotlights the weak state of the school-to-industry D&I flow in public relations. It also points out that the role and responsibility of leadership is bringing about change across the education-industry continuum. The findings support the literature reviewed to a large extent, highlight the current inadequate state of D&I in public relations pedagogy, and acknowledge the recent CPRE report’s concern that “practitioners value job candidates who enter the workforce with a strong, multicultural professional lens, yet they do not see that perspective reflected among entry-level candidates to the extent they would like” (Mundy et al., 2018, p. 143). What this study adds is the important role of leadership across the education-industry continuum. Leadership engagement is crucial for D&I success. Students and faculty/educator D&I thought leaders are well positioned to catalyze the breakthroughs and wider engagement needed to make the D&I needle move faster and improve the school-to-industry D&I flow. Industry leaders need to step up and work with them on this bridging project.

We now return to the research questions posed earlier and offer some actionable suggestions that span the education-industry continuum. Limitations of the study and suggestions for future research are also discussed. 

What are the views of current public relations student leaders and faculty/educators invested in D&I about the state of D&I in education and industry? How closely are they aligned with the recent definition of and suggestions regarding D&I forwarded by the CPRE?

The themes that emerged from our data clearly indicate both students and faculty/educators invested in D&I in public relations have a clear sense of the complexities, nuances, and challenges infusing the issue. Their views align with the CPRE’s comprehensive description of D&I. A majority of respondents emphasized the need to widen the definition of diversity and include more differences in addition to gender and race/ethnicity (i.e., secondary dimensions of difference one may not be born with, such as religion, marital status, and veteran status). Both groups understand that diversity and inclusion are not the same thing and that recruiting diverse employees does not automatically lead to inclusion. Inclusion to them is an attitude and culture wherein all, despite differences, are empowered and respected. In fact, both groups emphasized the importance of inclusion, stating diversity simply cannot thrive without successful inclusion. Neither group was in favor of defining D&I too tightly because they believe the dimensions of D&I are dynamic and change with the times and with context. However, they believe some guidelines are needed for collective industry action. 

Both groups also have an accurate picture of the current state of D&I in the industry. They believe while some improvement has occurred, much still needs to be done. They are well aware of predominant power differentials, the need for structural changes that support D&I, and that the industry does not reflect the diversity of the society in which it exists. They clearly see the link between D&I success and leadership support, and squarely put most of the responsibility for the current concerning situation on industry leaders, emphasizing D&I efforts must be genuine and authentic. It must be noted, though, that our study participants are academic leaders engaged in the D&I conversation who have taken it upon themselves to be well informed. However, this does not minimize the depth and value of their perceptions and views. In fact, as we will soon make the case, these leaders are valuable resources for improving the current situation in the education-industry continuum

How do study participants view the role of industry leaders and educators in making D&I efforts successful?

As mentioned, both groups clearly see the importance of the support and genuine/personal engagement of senior leadership for D&I to be successful. They believe leaders need to lead on D&I by setting examples of behaviors and communication for others to emulate, being open to attitude and culture change, engaging in more intentional D&I work, exploring their own unconscious biases, and not being afraid to admit mistakes and learn from them. According to the students, leaders should humanize themselves, openly talk about their own struggles with D&I, be approachable, and communicate honestly about D&I on an everyday basis. Students also emphasized that older and more homogenous leadership needs to move out of its comfort zone and be more open to new identities and newer ways of practicing the profession. Faculty/educators emphasized industry leaders need to organize better for D&I, lead the conversation, keep in mind the greater societal good, and hold themselves and each other accountable in genuine and measurable ways. Both groups agreed the economic imperative should not be privileged over the D&I moral imperative.

Both groups also emphasized the leadership role of faculty/educators in enhancing D&I in education. They outlined various ways in which curriculum and learning environments need to be revamped for D&I and emphasized the need to recruit more diverse faculty and students. It was underscored that learning environments should be more inclusive, and D&I must not be treated superficially and reduced to a commodity because this can prevent diverse students from feeling they can truly belong. These responses support what the literature review reports. Faculty/educators particularly pointed out that structural changes need to occur in higher education administration to improve recruitment and retention of both students and faculty. They also emphasized all educators, not just those who avow minoritized identities, must take responsibility for D&I in public relations pedagogy, teach all students (majority and minority) to be strong D&I advocates, and work with the industry to establish better school-to-industry D&I connections.

Actionable Suggestions

What do the overall findings suggest about actionable changes needed to improve the D&I dimensions of the school-to-industry flow? Our findings suggest public relations students and faculty/educators invested in D&I have an accurate and up-to-date grasp on the D&I situation, and that the education-industry continuum can benefit from their knowledge, skills, and abilities. In conclusion, we offer some suggestions and strategies for improving the state of D&I across the education-industry continuum.  

  1. There is a need to organize D&I leadership forums and networks that connect students, faculty/educators, and industry leaders so they can work collectively and systematically to build creative programs and initiatives that enhance the conversation on D&I, develop focused exchanges between education and industry, and track the school-to-industry D&I flow. Such forums and networks should emphasize that D&I is every student’s, educator’s, and practitioner’s responsibility, and not just of those who avow underrepresented identities. They should also emphasize the importance of inclusion for diversity to thrive, allyship and the need for authenticity and intentionality in D&I efforts.  
  2. Faculty/educator D&I thought leaders need to work collectively with peers and accreditation bodies to enhance curriculum for D&I and develop needed courses and content. Such efforts should also focus on assisting those educators who feel they need assistance with teaching through a D&I lens and building inclusive learning environments. This could be accomplished through workshops, webinars, training, special topics conferences, and overall systematic collaboration, dialogue, and information sharing. 
  3. Faculty/educator and student D&I thought leaders need to work consistently with administration, recruitment officers, and other relevant units on their campuses on developing strategies to step up recruitment and retention of diverse students and faculty. Because context is important, they should take stock of what the specific D&I needs and challenges of their campuses are.
  4. Student D&I thought leaders need to work consistently with peers across the country (e.g., through PRSSA chapters) as D&I ambassadors to share knowledge and experiences, build dialogue, develop programming, and educate others about the importance of D&I knowledge, abilities, and skills as entry level qualifications necessary for success in industry. Educators and industry leaders must be personally engaged as guides and champions of such efforts.

The current weak school-to-industry D&I flow does not bode well for the future of the industry. Student and faculty/educator leaders committed to D&I success could be change agents in public relations pedagogy and serve as a strong bridge between education and industry.

Limitations and Future Research

One limitation of this study is that it only focused on D&I leaders in the education setting. Other faculty and student voices should be included in future studies to gauge the differences between their views and those leading on D&I. This information would be useful for generating future changes. A broader study, for example a quantitative survey of students and faculty/educators who do not stand out as leaders when it comes to D&I, would enhance the findings of this study. Second, including leadership literature that links D&I success with engaged leadership could shed more light on the leadership dimensions of D&I in the public relations education-industry continuum. Future studies could focus on this aspect. Third, as one of our participants suggested, public relations education programs that are doing well with regards to D&I should be upheld as models for others to emulate. Studies that spotlight such programs and explore the reasons behind their success would be valuable additions to the literature.


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To cite this article: 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.  http://aejmc.us/jpre/2020/08/13/student-and-faculty-educator-views-on-diversity-and-inclusion-in-public-relations-the-role-of-leaders-in-bringing-about-change/