Editorial Record: Submitted May 25, 2022. Revised September 17, 2022. Accepted October 28, 2022.
Nandini Bhalla, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Public Relations School of Journalism and Mass Communication Texas State University San Marcos, Texas, US Email: email@example.com
Arien Rozelle, APR Assistant Professor Department of Media and Communication St. John Fisher University Rochester, New York Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract As an understanding of international diversity has become more vital than ever before, PR educators are responsible for the mammoth task of imparting cultural sensitivity and equality in undergraduate classrooms. This teaching brief provides an opportunity for PR educators to help students understand cultural and structural differences among different countries. It also asks undergraduate students to think in an environmentally-friendly way in an international context. This teaching brief provides individual and group assignments along with samples to help instructors facilitate thought-provoking conversations in the classroom, and enhance student learning on international diversity issues in public relations.
Keywords: eco-tourism, diversity, race, public relations education, international PR, global PR
The recent rise of social and political unrest on a global scale has underscored the need for communicators with global and cultural competencies. While public relations educators are tasked with imparting cultural awareness in undergraduate classrooms, the field of public relations itself has been slow to make advancements in diversity, equity and inclusion. “Despite numerous calls and initiatives for change for over three decades, the industry’s D&I needle has barely moved” (Bardhan & Gower, 2020, p. 103).
Public relations educators play a major role in moving the needle. As Pompper (2005) notes, “The status of public relations practice is directly linked to public relations education” (p. 299). And, “Diversity must start at the classroom level in order for emerging practitioners to embrace diversity at the professional level” (Brown et al., 2019, p. 19).
Today’s public relations students are tomorrow’s practitioners, and educators have the ability to positively impact the pipeline from the classroom to the boardroom through exposure to courses and coursework that bring topics of global communication, diversity, equity and inclusion to the forefront. Globalization and a growing environment of inter-linked economies and multinational companies create a heightened demand for public relations students and practitioners to achieve intercultural competence (Ju & Kang, 2021).
Flowers (2020) noted that a number of scholars in the discipline have emphasized the need to teach global perspectives, as well as multicultural, intercultural, and international skills to the public relations students in U.S. classrooms (Bardhan, 2003; Creedon & Al-Khaja, 2005; Holbert, & Waymer, 2022; Taylor, 2001; Tsetsura, 2011; Waymer & Brown, 2018; Waymer & Dyson, 2011). In addition, the 2018 Commission on Public Relations Education’s report on undergraduate PR education, Foundations + Future State. Educators + Practitioners, notes “Efforts to improve D&I knowledge must start at the academic level. We recommend educators place focus on how diversity and multicultural perspectives are taught in the classroom, and commit to integrating D&I focused topics and discussions into the curriculum” (p. 139).
The concept of ecotourism presents a way to integrate global perspectives into the public relations classroom. Conservationists, professional organizations, and/or academicians have defined ecotourism in multiple ways based on their study area of tourist behavior (Sirakaya et al., 1999). The first known formal definition of ecotourism is written by Ceballos-Lascuráin (1987) as “Travelling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas” (p. 14). In 1994, Andersen defined ecotourism as “a tourism experience infused with the spirit of conservation and cultural change that results in a net positive effect for the environment and local economy…” (p.32). In a more recent article, Khanra and colleagues conducted a bibliometric analysis and literature review of ecotourism and argued that the four critical thematic areas of ecotourism are the ecological preservation of the tourist destination, the carbon footprint from tourist mobility, the protection of residents’ interests in tourist destinations, and tourists’ attitudes and behavior toward sustainability, respectively.
This assignment helps students think about all four areas of ecotourism by conducting a deep analysis of a place (a country) and creating sustainable strategies to enhance tourism.
A visit to a safari park such as the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania or Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan (India) are examples of ecotourism as they allow tourists to experience animals in their natural habitat and learn about them firsthand, rather than through documentaries or movies (Verma, 2022).
This semester-long project, which can be deployed in a face-to-face or online course, provides an opportunity to integrate topics of DEI and global perspectives into a class through a hands-on project. This project was deployed in a Global PR course, but could easily be integrated into a variety of PR courses including PR Writing.
Students are given an objective: research the political, economic, and cultural aspects of a country other than the U.S. and Canada, in order to develop an ecotourism campaign in that country for 18-25-year-old American citizens.
There are two parts of this campaign assignment:
Country analysis: students pick a country other than the U.S. and Canada and conduct comprehensive research to understand PR practice in that country.
Ecotourism campaign (team-based project): The final assignment asks students to create an ecotourism campaign based on the research conducted in the first part of this assignment. This assignment provides an opportunity for students to work according to the key PR and structural variables of that country, using diverse American residents as the target audience.
This project gives students an opportunity to research, write collaboratively and individually, and peer edit. Throughout the process, students not only develop and refine PR skills but also develop empathy toward other cultures and teamwork skills through open conversations in the class as well as in small groups. The lectures and discussions in the class will allow students to share their intercultural experiences and observations, which also help them to respect other views and backgrounds and develop an effective global PR campaign.
STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES:
Understand and evaluate information about global public relations
Identify key global publics and analyze their characteristics
Plan and conduct global public relations strategies and tactics
Learn principles to be an effective public relations professional in a global setting
Create a global public relations campaign
EVIDENCE OF STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES:
Note: One of the authors taught this course twice at a small liberal arts university with four and fourteen students respectively. Evidence of SLOs is limited but authors will continue collecting data in the future.
All students (100%) indicated “agree” or “strongly agree” on “I am more competent in this area after having taken this course.”
Qualitative feedback from course evaluations includes:
“[The professor] provided us with many case studies and background information that was very helpful in learning about Global Public Relations.”
“I very much enjoyed the report I got to give on Germany. While my grandmother was a German immigrant, I freely admit that I did not have much knowledge of the country’s economic, political, or cultural systems until conducting additional research.”
“Your examples, those offered by students, and those you requested I find, all helped me remember both the principles themselves and the realistic applications for them on the global stage.”
“She brought in speakers and people from other cultures and that worked in different facets of PR, which was really helpful.”
“I think that because this course was discussion-based, it made the material easy to retain.”
CONNECTION TO PR PRACTICE:
In our ever-changing media and social media landscape, public relations practitioners need to have a strong understanding of public relations practice in other countries and demonstrate cultural competencies. The 2017 CPRE report notes that a global perspective is essential today, and career opportunities in the public relations field are available worldwide.
The Global Capability Framework, which is a Global Alliance’s benchmark for professionals in public relations and communication management, highlighted the capabilities that professionals hold in common across the world. It states, “to provide contextual intelligence” is an essential capability for PR and communication professionals, in which “you see the bigger picture – socially, culturally, politically, technologically and economically. You identify strategic opportunities and threats, issues and trends. You operate in a connected world, demonstrating broad understanding of local and global diversity in culture, values and beliefs” (Global Alliance, para. 13)
The same study also found that the issues pertaining to businesses and organizations are global today. This indicates that a successful public relations practitioner will have to go global, beginning with the simplest of steps: understanding that public relations practice varies with borders and languages, around the world.
As PR educators work to foster a new generation of public relations practitioners, it has become more important than ever before to address topics of equality and justice by addressing multiculturalism and international diversity in the classrooms.
Andersen, D. L. (1994). Developing ecotourism destinations: conservation from the beginning. Trends, 31(2), 31-38.
Bardhan, N. (2003). Creating spaces for international and multi(inter) cultural perspectives in undergraduate public relations education. Communication Education, 52(2), 164-172. https://doi. org/10.1080/03634520302473
Pompper, D. (2005). Multiculturalism in the public relations curriculum: Female African American practitioners’ perceptions of effects. The Howard Journal of Communications, 16(4), 295-316. https://doi.org/10.1080/10646170500326582
Waymer, D., & Brown, K. A. (2018). Significance of race in the US undergraduate public relations educational landscape: Reflections of former public relations students. Journal for Multicultural Education, 12(4), 353-370. https://doi.org/10.1108/JME-06-2017-0036
Waymer, D., & Dyson, O. L. (2011). The journey into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory: Exploring the role and approaches of race in PR education. Journal of Public Relations Research, 23(4), 458- 477. https://doi.org/10.1080/1062726X.2011.605971
Global Public Relations PROJECT OVERVIEW: COUNTRY ANALYSIS and ECO-TOURISM CAMPAIGN PROPOSAL
Note for professors: Assignments can be adapted to fit any country/region by identifying the country’s designated tourism regions.
All students are required to write a comprehensive research report related to public relations practice in the country of their choice. Then, a team of 2-3 students will develop an international eco-tourism campaign for diverse audiences of 18-25-year-old American citizens.
Examples of Eco-Tourism in different countries are:
On YouTube channel of World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), there is a wonderful example of Eco-Tourism video, India – Exceptional Stories of Sustainable Tourism.
Also, on the website of Ecotourism World, there is an article showing different examples of eco- tourism. The name of the article is “5 Inspirational Sustainable Tourism Videos for 2020.”
OBJECTIVE: By writing comprehensive research reports and presentations, the objective is to enhance understanding of global public relations strategies and raise awareness of eco-tourism in the country of students’ choice among 18-25-year-old American citizens.
COUNTRY ANALYSIS [INDIVIDUAL ASSIGNMENT- report + presentation]
Students are required to conduct thorough research related to a country of their choice. Students will conduct a deep analysis of the public relations practice of their chosen country by understanding various structural variables such as political environment, cultural characteristics, media systems, and economic environment, and also provide an example to substantiate their argument.
The report will elaborate on the history and development of public relations practices in that country, identifying when public relations practices/events began in that country, and examining how public relations is practiced today. Through this exercise, students will be able to identify the most important variables that influenced the practice of public relations in that country.
The research report must include an introduction followed by a brief summary of public relations development in their chosen country and concluding thoughts at the end, focusing on the important variables that they believe most influence the practice of public relations in their chosen country, as mentioned above.
CAMPAIGN PROPOSAL (GROUP ASSIGNMENT)
As teams, students transition to the role of PR practitioner of their country of choice, and will collaborate to produce a comprehensive international eco-tourism campaign proposal targeting
18-25-year-old American residents, which they will present in class. In consultation with the instructor, each team will select a country and create ONE proposal.
Each student has already done extensive research about his/her/their county in the CCA report assignment. Students will collaborate and can choose either country. Students can make this choice among themselves. Students will also conduct research related to target audience of 18-25 year old American residents, specifically related to their traveling habits, preferences, and expenditure criterion.
Students will craft a campaign proposal for their chosen country. Ex: Consider their campaign proposal as a pitch to the decision makers. It should be persuasive (based on research); they should spend thousands of dollars on it.
The key sections are (1) Target audience, (2) Travel campaign “idea” overview- define purpose, (3) context-argument/ justification for the “idea [target nation analysis], (4) SWOT analysis of the country, (5) strategic (implementation) suggestions for the future.
Editorial Record: Original draft Submitted January 22, 2021. Revisions submitted February 21, 2021. Accepted March 22, 2021. Published March 2022.
Ashley Holbert Graduate Student Advertising & Public Relations The University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, AL Email: email@example.com
Damion Waymer, Ph.D. Professor and Department Chair Advertising & Public Relations, The University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, AL Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the following teaching brief, we undertake the task of providing a means for public relations educators to talk about diversity, race, equity, and inclusion in the classroom. We know that educators are asked to teach about these matters; yet, many of them do not have adequate resources from which to draw. So, we provide one such teaching brief. This teaching brief centers on the case of Comic Relief and its perpetuation of the Western Savior Ideology. It then takes readers through the experience of how Comic Relief evolved its approach after public outcry. We have provided critical questions and an essay question an instructor can use to facilitate discussion about and to assess, subsequently, student learning on diversity issues in public relations.
Keywords: nonprofit communication, comic relief, diversity, race, public relations education, international PR
In this age of heightened awareness about issues of social justice in the U.S. and abroad, it is becoming evident that if we are going to more fully prepare our students to enter the profession and be successful practitioners, we must address issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, whiteness, privilege, and social injustice in the classroom and overall curriculum (Waymer, 2020). As Flowers (2020) noted, several scholars in the discipline have called for greater intercultural, multicultural, diversity, and international skills and competency for public relations students in the U.S. (Bardhan, 2003; Creedon & Al-Khaja, 2005; Taylor, 2001; Tsetsura, 2011; Waymer, 2012a, 2012b; Waymer & Brown, 2018; Waymer & Dyson, 2011). Likewise, the Commission on Public Relations Education (2019), has recognized the centrality of diversity to public relations education—and has “encouraged it—one might say, mandated it (emphasis in original)—with new standards for accreditation of schools of journalism/mass communication and certification of public relations programs” (para. 3). In light of current events in our world and the Commission on Public Relations Education’s (CPRE) mandate, the time and opportunity are ripe for public relations education scholars to address diversity matters and racial justice more fully.
We know that educators are asked to teach about these matters; yet, many of them do not have adequate resources from which to draw. In the following teaching brief, we undertake the task of addressing diversity matters and racial justice more fully. After or as part of a PR unit on intercultural communication, diversity, or global public relations, the instructor should introduce the following case. It is best to use this case after the instructor has conducted at least one lecture or seminar on the topics of diversity, intercultural communication, or global public relations so students are at least familiar with concepts used to discuss these matters. At a minimum, if an instructor has no resources from which to draw, the instructor can assign for reading and discussion CPRE’s (2019) statement on diversity that details four critical definitions (of diversity, culture, segmentation, and stereotypes) and expected outcomes of diversity education in public relations.
STEP ONE: ensure the discussion on diversity in public relations has taken place with students. This sets the stage if faculty want to use the Comic Relief case study to facilitate teaching and discussion of diversity in public relations. The remainder of the case analysis should be covered over at least two class sessions (50-minute or 75-minute sessions).
To familiarize instructors with the case and to demonstrate why it is suitable for teaching diversity matters in public relations, we introduce the case of Comic Relief and provide adequate context for instructors to see its relevance and pedagogical potential.
Assigning and Teaching the Comic Relief Case In a subsequent class, STEP TWO is to introduce the case of Comic Relief. Have them read about Comic Relief. Also allow them about five minutes to peruse the organization’s website https://www.comicrelief.com/. After students have read about the history and mission of Comic Relief and have spent 5 minutes reviewing its website, STEP THREE is to have students read the following news articles in class. The first is written by Sarah Young (2019), and the second was written by Kitty Wenham-Ross (2019). Also have the students read Comic Relief’s (2019) response to this situation on Twitter. Students should take about 20 minutes to read both news articles and Comic Relief’s brief statement issued on Twitter. Once students are finished reading these items, the instructor should ask Reflection Question 1 and then later Reflection Question 2 located at the end of this teaching brief. These questions should drive conversation with students for the remainder of the class session. At the end of the class session, after students have engaged in instructor-facilitated dialogue around Reflection Questions 1 and 2 above, the instructor assigns for homework the following readings to be completed before the next class session.
STEP FOUR sets the stage for what happens during the next class session and marks the beginning and in some instances the continuation of tough discussions of diversity issues in public relations. These are the assigned readings: Charity So White’s (2020) blog entry detailing its newfound partnership with Comic Relief; Pragya Agarwal’s (2019) news article/critique that highlights discriminatory language, ideals, and policies nonprofits use as they work with and describe the racially underrepresented communities that are the recipients or targets of their charity; Charity So White’s (2021a, b, c, d, e, f) Our Story, Our Vision, Our Calls to Action, Our Values, How We Talk, and Defining Racism pages on its website; Cipriani’s (2020) article that announces Comic Relief’s decision to hire new director of fundraising, Fatima Ribeiro; Comic Relief’s (2020a) press release that announces its decision to hire African directors to work on international appeal films and its (2020b) press release that reflects its attempts to address racial inequity; and finally Sandhu’s (2020) article detailing Comic Relief’s decision to stop using images of starving children in Africa for Red Nose Day events. All links are hyperlinked above.
STEP FIVE asks the instructor at the beginning of class to ask an open-ended question that solicits student feedback about their initial response to the assigned readings. Let this conversation and dialogue take place for about 10 minutes. Finally, the instructor should facilitate discussion further around the more structured questions: Reflection Questions 3 and 4.
STEP SIX allows the instructor the opportunity to assess student learning. The instructor can assign Reflection Question 5 as a short essay to be turned in at a later date, or if the instructor does not want to assess student learning for this unit or case example, the instructor can simply ask Question 5 during the same class period as the instructor asked Questions 3 and 4. Regardless of the approach to assessment the instructor takes, after completing this case analysis and discussion, students should be able to determine how well Comic Relief, via its public relations, was able to deal with diversity issues and needs, and they should be able to measure that success against the DEI outcomes prescribed in the CPRE (2019) statement on diversity provided as a supplement to this unit. In short, students get to see how an organization makes attempts to achieve the CPRE’s (2019) ideals about what public relations practitioners should be doing to help organizations be more equitable, diverse, and inclusive—as the commission espouses that “public relations practitioners should be at the forefront in helping organizations respond to these matters” (para. 12).
Now that we have presented specific guidelines for introducing the topic, this case, and facilitating discussion about this case and diversity issues in public relations, we turn to providing more in-depth details about the case for background and context for instructors.
Comic Relief Case Background and Context Comic Relief, based in the United Kingdom, is one of the most prominent charities in the world. The organization was founded in 1985 by British comedian, Lenny Henry, and comedy writer, Richard Curtis. The organization is known for raising money, via late-night fundraising shows, for those afflicted by a famine in Ethiopia. By 1988, the organization began hosting its first Red Nose Day, a telethon on BBC, which raised more than £15 million euros for tackling poverty during this first event. (Comic Relief, 2013). Many celebrities, musicians, and comedians take part in Red Nose Day each year, and funds raised by the organization are awarded as grants for multiple charities worldwide; the charity has raised more than $1.4 billion since the nonprofit’s inception (BBC, 2015; Sandhu, 2020). In addition to live events, Comic Relief fronts a hefty budget for their cause-marketing collateral, which includes informational documentaries, original photography, and footage for their youthful and entertainment-driven social media presence.
In 2019, the charity came under fire for their use of predominantly White British celebrities in their fundraising and advertising campaigns. Simultaneously, claims began to arise about a lack of diversity across the nonprofit sector. In 2020, Comic Relief made the risky decision to completely eliminate the emotional, “tear-jerking” marketing tactic used by several other charities worldwide, and instead they pursued an unprecedented approach. The changes they made both internally and externally not only reflected the success of a company reinventing their marketing strategy, but they also provided a new framework for other nonprofit organizations seeking to integrate greater levels of diversity and agency at the local level.
Students likely are not familiar with the events of 2019 that damaged Comic Relief’s reputation nor are they likely familiar with the actions Comic Relief took in 2020 to address the criticisms and threats to its legitimacy. These factors make it a solid, non-US centric case to discuss and interrogate diversity and public relations.
Comic Relief Campaigns in Crisis On February 27, 2019, Strictly Comes Dancing champion Stacey Dooley posted a photo to Instagram from Uganda, where she was working on a documentary with Comic Relief. In the photo, the redheaded media personality was cradling a small African child, with his fingers in his mouth and his eyes averted from the camera. The photo was captioned, “OB.SESSSSSSSSSSED”; it was also one of several similar posts made as part of the documentary’s marketing material. Within minutes, the internet blew up, full of belligerent social media users accusing Dooley of a “Western Savior complex” and begging her to take the photo down. Member of Parliament, David Lammy instigated the onslaught with a tweet, reading:
“The world does not need any more white saviours. As I’ve said before, this just perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes. Let’s instead promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate.” (Young, 2019 paras. 3-5)
Immediately, Comic Relief was thrust into the spotlight, as social media users scrutinized the organization’s previous fundraising materials and use of celebrity influencers to promote their causes—a key aspect of their cause-marketing strategy. An earlier documentary from 2017 resurfaced, showing singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran trying to quickly pull money from his own wallet to front the cost of a hotel for two homeless children in Liberia. This documentary was called “poverty porn” (para. 1) by aid watchdog groups (McVeigh, 2017), and Sheeran and the organization were accused of using an emotional marketing appeal that sacrificed the dignity of the children pictured and painted a limited narrative where Sheeran was the leading character coming to the rescue (McVeigh, 2017). Other photos used as promotional material by Comic Relief showed media personalities Ben Shephard and Fearne Cotton handing out Malaria nets in Uganda—two smiling celebrities in a sea of otherwise sad faces (Wenham-Ross, 2019). Many social media users were outraged.
Comic Relief’s Response Comic Relief used Twitter to issue a response almost instantaneously after Lammy’s tweet. Instead of apologizing for Dooley’s actions or their own, the organization expressed gratitude that Dooley “agreed to go to Uganda to discover more about the projects the British people have generously funded, and (we) make no apologies for this” (Comic Relief, 2019, para. 1). Further, Comic Relief expressed that they had offered David Lammy an opportunity to help them with their filming efforts, and he had not taken them up on the offer; however, “Lammy said it was “simply not true” that he had not responded to the offer, adding he had held two meetings with the organization” and that Comic relief “had “fallen short” of what he called its “public duty” to promote racial equality and serve minority communities” (Badshah, 2019, para. 5). Publics’ feelings toward Comic Relief’s response were divided as the story circulated around the United Kingdom and beyond. Some threatened to pull their aid from British charities altogether, while others emphasized that Comic Relief and the celebrities the organization used in their public relations efforts were not at fault for using what influence they had for a good cause.
Lack of Diversity in the Third Sector Charity So White (2021d) used the spotlight around issues of racial insensitivity and inequality given to the third sector to make their case that a lack of diversity at the management level of nonprofit organizations and unaddressed issues of institutional racism account for the minimal or stereotypical representation of people in developing countries seen in marketing materials. Charity So White was formed just three months after Comic Relief’s crisis with Stacey Dooley, and Charity So White’s hashtag trended on Twitter as thousands of racial and ethnically underrepresented persons shared their experiences of exclusion while working in or with the charity sector. At the center of the outrage was training materials used by a charity named Citizens Advice and its guidelines for working with Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) communities; these guidelines were based on racist stereotypes about these communities being a “cash-centric culture,” having “low literacy levels,” and their having a fondness for “gender discrimination.” Citizens Advice presumed these stereotypical characteristics to be prevalent in these underrepresented cultures (Agarwal, 2019). Charity So White emphasized that these stereotypes could affect funding for charities led by racially and ethnically underrepresented persons working on the ground in developing countries, especially when third sector leadership demonstrated an inherent lack of diversity and racial insensitivity.
The Transformation of Comic Relief Many had moved past Comic Relief’s crisis by August of 2019, accepting their statement about Stacey Dooley as well-intentioned naivety. Yet, the leadership at Comic Relief stayed engaged in the conversations happening in the third sector, and the leadership began to meet and strategize with the team at Charity So White at the end of 2019 about how Comic Relief could better represent and support communities in the countries, specifically developing African countries, where they had proverbial boots on the ground for their humanitarian efforts. Comic Relief planned strategic changes over the course of the next 18 months, and the result was a new cause-marketing and promotional strategy—one designed to minimize the Western savior ideology in their communication, and the angles with which they framed life in other cultures.
Changing Internal Leadership While the leadership team at Comic Relief sought to transform their external communication strategy, they first looked inward for a new candidate to fill the role of Executive Director of Fundraising and Creative—the head of their integrated marketing efforts. In August of 2020, they selected Fatima Ribeiro. Ribeiro is a Muslim woman of Portuguese and Gujarati descent who served as marketing director for the nonprofit Islamic Relief over a span of five years; furthermore, Ribeiro received awards for her Ramadan fundraising campaigns, including Third Sector Marketing Campaign of the year in 2019 (Third Sector, 2019). Choosing Ribeiro for the job brought to the organization the perspective of a woman from a culturally diverse background whose stated mission and prior work experiences were focused on helping others understand the beliefs and values of marginalized communities. For example, in her previous Ramadan campaigns for Islamic Relief, she featured references to a verse from the Qur’an splashed on the sides of buses across the UK; the marketing message generated traffic from those outside the Muslim faith to their website. Many persons from those outside the Muslim faith, out of curiosity, looked up the references, and several gained a greater understanding of the month of Ramadan and its significance to those taking part in the spiritual ritual (Ahmed, 2019; Third Sector, 2019). Hiring Ribeiro can be seen as Comic Relief’s newfound commitment to inclusiveness in their storytelling and marketing techniques.
Prioritizing Local Voices and Creating New Influencers After Ribeiro’s hiring, the first external decision Comic Relief made in October of 2020 was to stop sending British celebrities, like Dooley, to African countries as influencers. The charity decided to remove footage of starving and ill children from their documentaries, even though that particular tactic was considered effective because it successfully elicited emotion from stakeholders who often gave money to support needy children (Sandhu, 2020); however, such imagery did not provide a more accurate representation of development on the continent as a whole. To adequately portray life in the countries where they operated, Comic Relief announced plans to bring members of communities on air as storytellers, captured by local filmmakers and photographers. In a press release dispatched on October 28, 2020 by Comic Relief, President and co-founder, Sir Lenny Henry stated:
“African people don’t want us to tell their stories for them, what they need is more agency, a platform and partnership. I have seen first-hand what it means for African communities to see someone who looks just like them in charge of directing films.”(Comic Relief, 2020a, para. 12)
Furthermore, Kenyan filmmaker and director of one of Comic Relief’s newest documentaries, Eugene Muigai, added:
“This opportunity makes people like us feel like we are finally being listened to. For so long we’ve seen people tell our stories, misinterpreting intentions, beliefs and the values we hold. It has led to a loss of culture and pride among our people.” (Comic Relief, 2020a, para. 17)
Comic Relief also announced that high profile supporters could continue to play an influential role in entertaining and narrating during their Red Nose Day telethons, and they could continue appearing in and supporting other marketing materials created in the United Kingdom; however, the representation of Africans and African culture would be led by members and directors of those local communities. Comic Relief followed these decisions with an online event, releasing three new films from Kenyan filmmakers tackling the difficult topics of mental health, climate change, and child marriage (Comic Relief, 2020a).
Conclusion While Comic Relief’s initial response to ‘White Savior’ criticisms was deflective and unapologetic, the organizational changes made in the following 18 months reveal time spent listening and seeking to understand the responsibility given to the third sector to help facilitate storytelling. The result is a series of initiatives which set a new precedent for charities with a substantial level of exposure, including changes to the marketing tactics they use. Comic Relief’s CEO, Ruth Davidson, emphasized that despite the radical changes to the organization’s practices, they still knew that they could maximize their efforts to fund those in need and reduce donor fatigue, by showing the ways that developing countries across the world are changing for the better. Davidson stated, “what prompts people to give is an emotional connection—that doesn’t have to be pity. It can be joy, it can be anger, it can be a sense of positivity and hope” (Sandhu, 2020, para. 6). All of the organization’s changes—including the broadcasting of their localized films—will be on full display in March of 2021, with their internationally acclaimed and televised Red Nose Day.
Do you believe that Comic Relief did anything wrong in their initial response to criticisms of perpetuating the Western Savior ideology? Why or why not?
Given the backlash, in retrospect what specifically could Comic Relief’s public relations team have done differently in their initial response to backlash for Dooley’s photo?
Given your knowledge of diversity issues in public relations, how could a more nuanced understanding of cultural sensitivity, diversity, equity, inclusion, or race have allowed Comic Relief to execute a better humanitarian campaign?
What are alternative ways that influencers can aid in promoting a nonprofit organization to their audiences without taking the spotlight off of local efforts?
Evaluate Comic Relief’s decisions to change course, to partner with Charity So White, to hire Fatima Ribeiro as Executive Director of Fundraising and Creative, and to change how they created campaigns—by using local filmmakers and photographers for example. Share your evaluation and thoughts.
Bardhan, N. (2003). Creating spaces for international and multi(inter)cultural perspectives in undergraduate public relations education. Communication Education, 52(2), 164-172. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634520302473
Creedon, P., & Al-Khaja, M. (2005). Public relations and globalization: Building a case for cultural competency in public relations education. Public Relations Review, 31(3), 344–354. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2005.05.021
Waymer, D. (2012a). Broaching an uncomfortable subject: Teaching race in an undergraduate U. S. public relations classroom. In D. Waymer (Ed.), Culture, social class, and race in public relations: Perspectives and applications, (pp. 149-162). Lexington Books.
Waymer, D. (Ed.). (2012b). Culture, social class, and race in public relations: Perspectives and applications. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Waymer, D., & Brown, K. A. (2018). Significance of race in the US undergraduate public relations educational landscape: Reflections of former public relations students. Journal for Multicultural Education, 12(4), 353-370. https://doi.org/10.1108/JME-06-2017-0036
Waymer, D., & Dyson, O. L. (2011). The journey into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory: Exploring the role and approaches of race in PR education. Journal of Public Relations Research, 23(4), 458-477. https://doi.org/10.1080/1062726X.2011.605971
To cite this article: Holbert, A. & Waymer, D. (2022). Teaching Race and Cultural Sensitivity in Public Relations: The Case of Comic Relief and the Western Savior Ideology. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(1), 116-131. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2881
Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE September 5, 2018. Revision submitted February 8, 2019. Manuscript accepted for publication May 6, 2019. First published online August 17, 2019.
Muturi, Kansas State University
Ge Zhu, University of Iowa
This study examined students’ perceptions of race/ethnic issues in public relations practice and how they are influenced by students’ level of diversity exposure. Data were gathered from students enrolled in mass communication courses (N = 417) at a Midwestern university, and PR and non-PR students were compared. Participants reported moderate diversity exposure and their level of knowledge about the public relations practice influenced how they perceived racial/ethnicity issues in the profession. Their perceived knowledge was also associated with diversity exposure and so was the number of mass communication courses taken. Public relations students were slightly more exposed to diversity compared to others and were less likely to agree with the negative perceptions of diversity issues in the field.
Keywords: diversity, ethnicity, race, public relations practice, public relations education
Students’ Perceptions of Diversity Issues in Public Relations Practice
Diversity and inclusiveness have increasingly become topics of interest in
public relations education, research, and practice as the racial and ethnic
makeup of the United States population becomes more diverse. Ethnic minorities
account for about one-third of the U.S. population and are estimated to comprise
more than half of the population by 2050 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). It is also
estimated that about 43% of Millennials are people of color, and by 2020, most
of the U.S. population under 18 years will be diverse (Elsasser, 2018). Rapidly
growing ethnic diversity has prompted U.S. organizations, including academic
institutions, to incorporate diversity and inclusion into the workplace
(Brunner, 2005; Fiske, Ross, & Keenan, 2016; Qiu & Muturi, 2016). This
is with the recognition of the contributions of a diverse workforce to the
organization’s productivity, competitiveness, responsibility, and overall
success (Mundy, 2015; O’Dwyer, 2018).
Embracing diversity reflects how organizations value diverse groups in
societies that they serve and the importance they attach to them in their work
(Edwards, 2011). Many businesses have
embraced diversity and multiculturalism to tap into fast-growing markets while
acknowledging that diverse viewpoints promote innovation and creativity, which
can improve organizational effectiveness (Brown, White, & Waymer, 2011).
International corporations like Apple, Coca-Cola, AT&T, Facebook, and Nike,
just to name a few, have published statements that recognize their value for
diversity and inclusiveness (Mundy, 2015). As Mark Parker, CEO and president of
Nike, stated, the company values the “unique background and experiences
everyone brings and want[s] all [employees] to realize their fullest
potential…because different perspectives can fuel the best ideas” (Nike, 2018,
para. 1). Other organizations have invested extensively in diversity and
inclusion. For instance, in 2015, Google announced a $150 million investment in
diversity and inclusion (Mundy, 2015). Academic institutions in the U.S. have
also taken a lead in embracing diversity through development and implementation
of diversity plans, many of which are publicly accessible online with a simple
With a diverse environment comes an urgent need for organizations, both
public and private, to adjust the way they communicate to relate to all
stakeholders effectively and efficiently. Judith Harrison, a senior vice
president of diversity and inclusion at Weber Shandwick, reaffirmed this
urgency in a presentation at the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
General Session, noting that “if we are going to communicate with the rapidly
changing world of stakeholders in ways that are authentic, resonant and
relevant, it is imperative that we treat ramping up diversity in our industry
as an urgent, hair-on-fire emergency” (Elsasser, 2018, p. 14).
According to the Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE, 2015) diversity in the workforce starts at college campuses, where students learn about other cultures and how to work effectively with those different from them. In the 2016/2017 CPRE report, the diversity team noted, “In order to see [diversity and inclusion] within the public relations industry flourish, change must begin at the academic level through a more diverse student and educator base” (Mundy, Lewton, Hicks, & Neptune, 2018, p. 139). Similarly, Brown, Waymer, and Zhou (2019) have noted that “diversity must start at the classroom level for emerging scholars to embrace diversity at the professional level” (p. 19).
Routinely performing curriculum assessment to determine the level of exposure and integration of diverse content is part of the accreditation process in many academic institutions, such as documenting the number of speakers with diverse backgrounds, but limited empirical data exist on the extent to which that exposure to diversity influences students’ perspectives on diversity and inclusiveness in the world of work.
The goal of this
research, therefore, was three-fold: first, to understand how students perceive
issues associated with diversity in the public relations field, second, to determine if there are differences
between public relations and non-public relations students in their level of
exposure to diversity within their academic programs, and third, to examine if
that exposure played a role in their perceptions. Understanding students’
perceptions can help educators identify gaps in the curriculum and prepare
students for a diverse workforce. This study focuses only on cultural
diversity, which entails race and ethnicity (Sha, 2006), two of the elements
included in the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass
Communications (ACEJMC) diversity requirements, but with the understanding that
diversity goes beyond these two elements. This study also contributes to the
existing literature on diversity issues in public relations and provides a
unique student perspective that can generate useful class discussions.
Although diversity has increasingly become part of organizations’ everyday
language and is addressed from various perspectives (Brunner, 2009), there has
been no singular conceptual definition, which makes some organizations view it
as a vague and amorphous concept when they attempt to adopt it (Austin, 2010).
Several definitions have emerged that range from viewing diversity simply as
the differences that exist among people, like race, ethnicity, and culture
(Pompper, 2004, 2005; Sha, 2006; Turk, 2006) to a more complex
multi-dimensional concept. PRSA’s definition includes differences in cultures,
disciplines, ideals, gender, disabilities, and sexual orientation in its
conceptualization of diversity (Fiske et al., 2016). To simplify it, Turk
(2006) suggested viewing diversity as having two dimensions: the primary
dimension entails unchangeable characteristics (e.g., age, sex, nationality,
race, and ethnicity), while the second dimension entails changeable ones (e.g.,
religion, geographics, marital status, and military service). Diversity has
also been defined in terms of minority versus majority, where minorities are defined
as a group of people who, because of their physical or cultural
characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they
live for differential and unequal treatment (Austin, 2010; Gibbons, L. Grunig,
Toth, & Hon, 2001). In the past three decades, scholars have viewed
diversity within organizations as a public relations responsibility (Hon &
Brunner, 2000; Kern-Foxworth, 1989; L. Grunig, Toth, & Hon, 2000; Mundy,
2016). Mundy (2016) views this responsibility to include the development of
internal policies that support individuals professionally while responding to
the external cultural mandates from the communities that the organizations
serve. Such responsibility requires the integration of diversity in public
relations education and other forms of training for professionals to
effectively carry it out. As Ki and Khang (2008) have suggested, an education
that incorporates cultural diversity is likely to make students aware that
diversity can be a key element for improved public relations practice.
Diversity Issues in the Public Relations
Excellent public relations practice includes having diverse professionals
included in all roles so that decisions and communications can have varying
viewpoints (Bowen, 2009; J. Grunig & L. Grunig, 1992). As proponents of the
excellence model of public relations (e.g., Dozier, L. Grunig, & J. Grunig,
1995; J. Grunig & L. Grunig, 1992; Roper, 2005) have emphasized, diversity
is critical for the success of any organization, but this would require
sensitivity of diversity issues among those in decision-making positions.
However, as Mundy, et al. (2018) observe, it is the multicultural professionals
who are more likely to view the importance of recruiting employees with diverse
backgrounds compared to their white counterparts or those in management
Scholars have also continued to examine the
intersectionality of gender and race where few female minorities and those of
different sexual orientation venture into the public relations profession
(Brown et al., 2011; Mundy, 2015, 2016; Tindall, 2009; Tindall & Waters,
2012). Recent studies have also focused on men as the underrepresented gender
in the public relations field (Brown et al., 2019; Pompper & Jung, 2013),
although they earn more than women (Chitkara, 2018) and are more likely to get
promoted and to occupy management positions. What is missing in public
relations scholarship is studies about gay men (Tindall & Waters, 2012).
The industry has gradually acknowledged this gap and made some efforts, albeit
minimal, such as Fleishman-Hillard’s “Out Front” program, which targets LGBT
audiences (Tindall & Waters, 2017).
Issues related to cultural diversity in public relations education and
practice range from underrepresentation and the status of racial/ethnic
minorities to problems with career advancement and job satisfaction (e.g.,
Abeyta & Hackett, 2002; Elsasser, 2018; Ki & Khang, 2008; Pompper,
2004; Qiu & Muturi, 2016). Racial and ethnic underrepresentation in the
public relations profession has been on researchers’ radar for three decades
(e.g., Austin, 2010; Brown et al., 2019; Kern-Foxworth, Gandy, Hines, &
Miller, 1994; Len-Rios, 1998; Poindexter, Smith, & Heider, 2003; Pompper,
2004; Pompper & Jung, 2013). A survey by Business Planning and Research
International (BPRI, 2005) found only 17% of practitioners considered
themselves racial/ethnic minorities, although senior management felt the need
for improvement in recruiting and hiring minorities at all levels. More than a
decade later, only an estimated 19% of public relations professionals are non-white
(Elsasser, 2018), which indicates room for improvement, particularly in
providing access to management positions (Mundy, 2016).
Although the racial/ethnic makeup has gradually improved within
organizations, issues related to the promotion of racial/ethnic minorities,
especially women who rise to the senior management level, have consistently
emerged (Aldoory & Toth, 2002; Pompper, 2004, 2005; Simpson, 2018). CPRE
(2015) has observed that many racial/ethnic minorities fall out of public
relations from their organizations or the practice entirely somewhere between
earning a degree and staying long enough for promotion, which is about five
years. Several reasons that prevent them from rising to senior management level
include discrimination, limited opportunities for career advancement, being
overlooked or underappreciated, and only being assigned to minority-related
campaigns or public affairs projects (Brown et al., 2011; Pompper, 2004).
Cultural diversity in public relations education
has also been a major concern. Despite its popularity compared to other mass
communication areas (DiStaso, Stacks, & Botan, 2009), the public relations
discipline has not been equally attractive to racial/ethnic minorities both
among faculty and students (Brown et al., 2011). Part of this shortage has been
associated with the lack of role models, mentors for young professionals or
success stories about minorities in public relations (Maul, 2008; Qiu &
Muturi, 2016). Studies have indicated the importance of career role models and
noted cultural diversity at the senior level of management in the public
relations industry as critical not only for current and prospective students
but also for young professionals (Curtin & Gaither, 2006; Len-Rios, 1998;
Qiu & Muturi, 2016).
Although professional organizations have provided some guidelines on how
to diversify public relations education, there is a dearth of research that
empirically examines barriers associated with diversification from the
students’ perspectives, specifically the level of exposure to diversity as they
prepare to join the workforce. Mundy et al. (2018) suggested a focus on how
diversity and multicultural perspectives are taught in the classroom and a
commitment among educators to integrate diversity and inclusion-focused topics
in the curriculum.
Perceptions of Race/Ethnicity Issues in Public Relations
How society views certain races/ethnicities
reflects workplace perceptions and the nature of assignments given to them
within an organization. Pre-existing racial/ethnic perceptions and stereotypes
hinder hiring and progress in diversification. For example, all Hispanics are
presumed to speak Spanish (Abeyta & Hackett, 2002) and Asian practitioners
are seen as having a similar physical appearance—younger-looking, shorter,
unable to speak English, and introverted (Ki & Khang, 2008).
African-American stereotypes are associated with Black neighborhoods and with
the physical appearance of males, which are based on misconceptions and ideas
about male masculinity and sexuality (Tindall, 2009). The angry black woman and
the welfare-mother stereotype are also consistent in media portrayals (Lind,
2013) and may have a strong influence on hiring decisions.
With limited racial or ethnic diversity, the public relations field has been
a white-dominated profession where hiring culturally diverse professionals is
an anomaly (Brown et al., 2019; Pompper, 2004), which led Layton (1980) to
reference the field as the “last of the lily-white professions” (p. 64).
Agencies were historically uneasy about matching people of color with white
clients (Layton, 1980), an issue that has faced many organizations more than
two decades later, where minorities are commonly hired exclusively to
communicate to consumers or publics in their minority group or to fill quotas
(Brown et al., 2011; Pompper, 2004; Qiu & Muturi, 2016). Scholars have
referred to these as “show positions” for minorities with no real policy-making
input or development of their talent and careers (Diggs-Brown & Zaharna, 1995;
Tindall, 2009). This issue has contributed to job dissatisfaction and lack of
progress among racially/ethnically diverse public relations practitioners.
In a documentary about being Black in public relations, professionals
underscored the small number of racial/ethnic minorities and their everyday
challenges, which include the lack of opportunities within their organizations
to progress and advance their careers in the field, unlike their white
counterparts (Simpson, 2018). Likewise, African-American students expressed
discomfort about being assigned exclusively to campaigns aimed at their race,
noting that “one of the reasons they were attracted to public relations, in the
first place, was the potential for the variety of activities and they did not
want to be pigeonholed or locked into any certain type of work” (Brown et al.,
2011, p. 526).
Other challenges include discrimination and everyday racism, such as
racial insensitivity in the form of comments, behaviors, and actions from
colleagues and supervisors (Tindall, 2009). This implies that although hiring
is important, retention is critical, and programs should address the specific
needs of minority employees. Literature also suggests diversity-driven
initiatives should go beyond recruiting and hiring a diverse workforce by
focusing on determining ways to convey to stakeholders the benefits of a
diverse workforce and by better integrating diversity values into
organizational culture (Brunner, 2009; Mundy, 2015).
Public relations researchers have also identified gaps in the existing
literature on issues that continue to hinder minorities’ successes in the
field. For example, in a study on framing diversity, Austin (2010) found that
most studies focus primarily on Hispanic and Black populations, with only a limited
focus on Asian Americans, Native Americans, the LGBTQ communities, and almost
none on the Jewish community. Prior research has reported an absence of
Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans, both as subjects of news and as
reporters (Poindexter et al., 2003). Overall, several gaps exist in the
literature concerning public relations employees who have a diverse
racial/ethnic, religious background, and/or physical ability.
Awareness and sensitivity to diversity-related issues in public relations
are important and necessary for change to occur. The profession emphasizes the
engagement of stakeholders and the critical role of research in understanding
how to best meet their needs while building relationships. Public relations
education is a step towards the necessary change in the profession, given that
students are tomorrow’s professionals. As one of the most promising majors for
communication that provides students with ample career opportunities (DiStaso
et al., 2009), public relations is an opportunity to sensitize students to
these issues with the anticipation that they play a role in the needed change
in the field.
Diversity Exposure in Public Relations
Diversity and inclusiveness in public relations education are addressed
through recruiting a diverse faculty and student population and incorporating
diversity-related topics within the curriculum (Brown et al., 2019; Brunner,
2005; Turk, 2006). ACEJMC (2018), the
accrediting body of mass communication programs, has diversity as one of its
standards to enhance diversity within the curriculum. The standard requires
programs to develop diversity plans to address gender, race, ethnicity, and
sexual orientation; a curriculum that includes instructions on issues and
perspectives related to diverse cultures in a global society; and an
environment that is free of harassment and all forms of discrimination (ACEJMC,
2018). In achieving the curriculum requirements, ACEJMC recommends to either
organize a stand-alone course or incorporate diversity in an array of courses.
These requirements are set to help students understand how to communicate and
work effectively in a diverse workplace and to keep pace with the changing
demographics of the organization’s external environment (Turk, 2006).
Professional organizations have also played a key role in facilitating
diversity in public relations education by making recommendations and providing
resources to the academy for higher education to expose students to diversity
as they prepare to join the workforce. For example, ACEJMC (2018) requires
programs to develop curriculum and instruction that educate faculty and prepare
students with diversity and multicultural knowledge, values, and skills, and to
document their efforts to ensure representation of diverse races and
ethnicities among the faculty and student body. Additionally, CPRE has
developed curriculum guidelines that emphasize diversity and globalization
(Turk, 2006), while the PRSA Foundation has created a book titled Diverse Voices, which features diverse
professionals’ challenges and success stories to enable educators to
familiarize public relations students with racial/ethnicity issues in the field
(Elsasser, 2018). Scholars have also provided examples on how to integrate
diversity into the curriculum, such as in research designs and methodologies
that recognize diversity (Pompper, 2005) and using examples or choosing
textbooks that include minorities’ roles to make students aware of the
fundamental role of diversity in improving public relations (Ki & Khang,
2008). Exploring diversity in communication strategies (Curtin & Gaither,
2006) would also enhance the understanding of diversity and how to incorporate
it into public relations education and programming.
Recruitment and retention of diverse students and faculty are crucial in
diversity exposure within academia, although studies have continually raised
concerns about racial and ethnic disparities in public relations education
(e.g., Brunner, 2005; Fiske et al., 2016; Kern-Foxworth, 1989; Ki & Khang,
2008, Len-Rios, 1998; O’Dwyer, 2018; Tindall, 2009). As research has
demonstrated, a key reason for students to select a major is the influence from
interpersonal relationships with advisors, faculty, family, and friends, as
well as prestige and job value (Brown et al., 2011). Parents especially have an
influential role in a student’s career choice. For instance, Asian American
communities stress prestigious careers, such as law and medicine, while
discouraging their college-age children from seeking education in
service-oriented jobs such as public relations (Ki & Khang, 2008; Qiu &
Muturi, 2016). To enhance exposure, ACEJMC provided tips for the
diversification of academic programs, some of which involve leadership talking
about diversity regularly, forming diversity committees, aggressively
recruiting minority students in high schools, creating student chapters,
mentoring minority students, among other efforts (Ceppos, 2018).
Additional forms of exposure, which can be incorporated into the
curriculum, include observances of public and diversity holidays celebrated by
other cultures and populations. The PRSA Diversity and Inclusion toolkit lists
several diversity holidays celebrated by various cultures and populations, such
as Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday in January, Black History Month in
February, Asian Pacific American Month in May, and Día de la Raza or Day of the
Race in October, among others (Fiske et al., 2016). As Edwards (2011) argues,
understanding diversity and experiencing it is important because public
relations produces discourses that help constitute and sustain the relative
positions of diverse groups in society, as well as in the profession itself.
There are, however, gaps in evidence-based information on the effect of that
experience on their perceptions of public relations and diversity-related
perceptions about race/ethnicity issues in public relations vary based on the
participants’ levels of diversity exposure?
perceived knowledge about the public relations practice influence students’
perceptions of race/ethnicity issues in the field?
RQ3: Is there an association between the level of
diversity exposure and the perceived knowledge about the public relations
RQ4: Does the number of mass communication courses taken
have any influence on (a) diversity exposure and (b) race/ethnicity perceptions
of public relations?
Is there any significant difference between public relations students and those
in other academic concentrations in (a) their perceptions of race/ethnicity
issues and (b) diversity exposure?
This study is based on an online survey administered to college students at a large Midwestern university (N = 417). The mass communication program has three sequences—advertising, journalism, and public relations—with approximately 600 enrolled majors and minors. All students enrolled in mass communication courses in the spring semester received the survey, which included majors, minors, and those taking electives or cross-listed courses between mass communication and other disciplines. Following approval by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for human subjects, the registrar’s office provided the list of students with email addresses only. Each participant received an email generated from the Qualtrics survey system requesting them to participate in the survey. As indicated in the informed consent form, participation was voluntary, and only those who consented could proceed with the survey. The system sent three reminders to those who had not completed the survey after three, six, and nine weeks, respectively.
The main variable in this study was the students’
perceptions of race/ethnicity issues in the public relations field. Other key
variables included diversity exposure, perceived knowledge of the public
relations profession, the number of courses taken in mass communication, and
whether they were in mass communication and the public relations sequence.
Demographic factors included age, gender, race/ethnicity, and year in college.
Perceptions of race/ethnicity issues in public relations were measured
with 11 items adapted from several studies (e.g., Brown et al., 2011; Ki &
Khang, 2008; Qiu & Muturi, 2016; Tindall, 2009). The items asked
participants to indicate their level of agreement with a list of statements
that scholars have addressed as race/ethnicity issues in the public relations
field. Statements included perceptions of public relations as a white-dominated
profession; racial/ethnic minorities being assigned only to technician roles
and racially/ethnically-based assignments; earning lower salaries; putting more
effort in for the same amount of achievement as their White counterparts, and
not making career progress due to their race/ethnicity. A 5-point Likert scale
of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) measured the items in the scale,
which also had a reliable internal consistency (Cronbach α = .82).
Diversity exposure is the opportunity to interact with and learn from or
about those with culturally diverse backgrounds in formal or informal settings.
The scale was developed from reviewed literature, specifically from the ACEJMC
diversity standards, PRSA recommendations, and several academic and
professional publications (e.g., ACEJMC, 2018; Brown, et al., 2011; Brunner,
2005; CPRE, 2015; Diggs-Brown & Zaharna, 1995; Edwards, 2011; Fiske et al.,
2016; Ki & Khang, 2008). The questions focused on various opportunities
where students can receive exposure to cultural diversity, such as enrolling in
stand-alone diversity courses; enrolling in other courses that address race and
ethnicity issues; completing assignments that require a diversity component;
working on class projects with members of other races/ethnicities; having
instructors or academic advisors with diverse backgrounds; or participating in
guest lectures, internships, or service-learning projects that involved some
diversity aspects. The items in this dichotomous variable were coded as 1 (yes)
and 0 (no) and summed to create one composite variable “diversity exposure”
with a possible total score of seven points (range of 0 to 7, M = 4.85, SD = 1.74; median = 5). The variable was then categorized as low
exposure (below 3 points), moderate exposure (3-5 points) and high exposure
(above 5 points).
Participants’ perceived knowledge about public relations practices was
measured by asking students how much they believed they were familiar with the
profession. Previous studies have indicated the lack of knowledge among
students, professionals, and personal influencers is a key deterrent in the
diversification of the public relations practice (Ki & Khang, 2008; Qiu
& Muturi, 2016). This was necessary because the survey was conducted among
all students enrolled in communication courses, some of whom were not in public
relations but may have learned or had perceptions about the field from other sources.
The one-item measure “How knowledgeable are you about public relations
practice?” had three options (1) “not knowledgeable at all,” (2) “mildly
knowledgeable,” and (3) “very knowledgeable.”
The survey was validated in multiple ways. First, face validity was
established through reading the questionnaire multiple times by the researcher
and research assistant to ensure that all questions were appropriately worded.
Second, the data were cleaned to remove incomplete cases and to label the
values appropriately based on the survey variables; also, negatively stated
questions were reverse-coded. Gathering data online eliminated human errors
that often occur in manual entry. This was followed by running study
descriptives (frequencies and means) to verify that the data were error free.
Finally, reliability analysis for the race/ethnicity perceptions was performed
to determine internal consistency with an acceptable Cronbach’s alpha of 0.70
The sample was composed of 39% males (n
= 164) and 61% females (n = 253),
with an age range of 18 to 38 years. The sample was evenly distributed across
undergraduates with 22% freshmen (n =
93), 20% sophomores (n = 84), 26%
juniors (n = 109), and 27% seniors (n = 111). Only about 5% were graduate
students (n = 20). The sample was
predominantly Caucasian (82.5%), while ethnic minorities accounted for about
18% (n = 73). About 68% of
participants (n = 283) were in mass
communication. Another 134 students (32%) were from other disciplines but enrolled
in one or more mass communication courses. Among mass communication majors, 45%
(n = 127) were in public relations
and 55% were in other concentrations (advertising, journalism, or pre-majors).
About 228 students had taken fewer than three mass communication
courses, and 216 (52%) had taken a mass communication course that had addressed
diversity issues. Likewise, 290 students (70%) had taken a course outside of
the mass communication discipline that had a diversity component. Among those
who had taken fewer than three courses (n
= 228), only 29% (n = 67) indicated a
high diversity exposure. The majority of them (n = 129) were moderately exposed to diversity issues (3-5 points),
while 32 students (14%) had limited exposure to diversity (< 3 points).
Overall, public relations students had slightly more exposure to diversity (M = 5.13, SD = 1.58) compared to others in the mass communication field (M = 4.73, SD = 1.79). About 49% (n
= 62) had moderate exposure, while 46% (n
= 58) reported high exposure to diversity, and only 7 public relations students
(6%) reported low exposure compared to 31 (11%) non-public relations student in
The first research question (RQ1) examined if the students’ levels of
diversity exposure affected their perceptions of race/ethnicity issues in
public relations. Overall, students had low perceptions of racial/ethnicity
issues in public relations (M = 2.31,
SD = .724), which means they did not
agree with the statements that reflected diversity issues in the field. Results
show that diversity exposure was not a significant predictor of students’
perceptions of race/ethnicity issues (β = -.007, t =-.152, p > .05).
This means there was no relationship between students’ perceptions about
race/ethnicity issues in the field and their exposure to diversity. Those who
were more exposed to diversity in various forms were not more likely to be
aware or concerned about race/ethnicity-related issues in the public relations
The second research question (RQ2) examined if participants’ perceived
knowledge about the public relations profession had any influence on their
perception of race/ethnicity issues in the field. The majority (73%) of the
students reported being mildly knowledgeable about public relations practices (n = 305), 14% indicated being very
knowledgeable (n = 57), while (13%)
were not knowledgeable at all (n =
55). A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was performed, and the results
showed that their perceived knowledge about the profession significantly
influenced how they perceived race/ethnicity issues in the field (F (2, 414) = 4.077, p < .05). A Bonferroni post-hoc analysis showed significant
differences between those who perceived themselves as very knowledgeable and
those who were not at all knowledgeable about the public relations profession (p < .05), but no other differences
The third research question (RQ3) examined the association between students’ perceived knowledge of public relations practice and the level of diversity exposure. Pearson’s Chi-Square analysis showed a significant association (χ2 = 15.009, df = 4, p < .05). Those who perceived themselves as very knowledgeable about public relations (54%) were more exposed to diversity issues, whereas the majority of those who were mildly knowledgeable indicated low diversity exposure (63%).
The fourth research question (RQ4) focused on the number of mass communication courses taken by the time of the survey and how it affected students’ diversity exposure and their perceptions of ethnicity issues in public relations. Results from a one-way ANOVA show that the number of courses taken in mass communication also influenced diversity exposure [F (3, 413) = 11.069, p < .001]. A Bonferroni post-hoc analysis showed variation in diversity exposure among those who had taken one or two mass communication courses and all other groups. Similarly, there was variation in the perceptions of race/ethnicity issues in public relations based on the number of courses taken in the discipline [F (3, 413) = 2.960, p < .05]. A post-hoc analysis also showed specific differences in ethnicity perceptions between those who had taken one or two courses and those who had taken three or four courses (p < .05).
research question (RQ5) examined if public relations students’ perceptions of
ethnicity issues in the field and their exposure to diversity differed from all
the other students. T-test analyses indicated a significant difference between
those who were in public relations (n
= 127) and other participants (n =
290) in their perceptions of race/ethnicity issues in public relations (t = -4.755, df = 291, p < .001).
Participants in the public relations concentration were less in agreement with
the statements on race/ethnicity perceptions (M = 2.08, SD = .610)
compared to other students (M = 2.41,
SD = .748), with a moderate effect
size (Cohen’s d = .49). There was
also a significant difference between diversity exposure between public
relations students and others (t =
2.318, df = 270, p < .05). Those who are in public relations reported more
exposure to diversity (M = 5.13, SD = 1.58) compared to others (M = 4.73, SD = 1.79) but with a relatively small effect size (Cohen’s d = .24).
Most of the literature has explored diversity issues in public relations
from a professional’s perspective, specifically on the underrepresentation of
racial/ethnic minorities, their experiences, and challenges for succeeding in
the field. Extant literature has also focused on the need for diversity in
public relations education, from recruitment and retention to curriculum
adjustments to incorporate diversity-related content and experiences for
students as they prepare for a diverse workforce. The current study focused on
students’ perspectives to understand how they perceive race/ethnicity issues in
the public relations field and the extent of their exposure to diversity, which
is important in determining gaps in the curriculum and other forms of diversity
exposure. As one of the most popular mass communication disciplines (DiStaso et
al., 2009), public relations attracts students from a variety of academic
backgrounds (e.g., agriculture, marketing, fashion and design, tourism, public
health), given its relevance and applicability across disciplines. Although
they are likely to be exposed to diversity from other disciplines, it is
equally important for them to understand the critical role it plays and the
diversity-related issues in the public relations field prior to joining the
Despite the emphasis on diversity in the field,
results from the current study did not find diversity exposure to significantly
influence how students perceived race/ethnicity issues in public relations.
Overall, students had moderate exposure to diversity and a low level of
perceptions about race/ethnicity-related issues in public relations practice.
This is possibly due to the lack of focus on discipline-specific diversity
issues in the courses taken or informally through participation in
diversity-related events and activities during their academic career. The
current study found about 48% of all participants had not taken a mass
communication course that focused on diversity, 35% had not participated in
multicultural or diversity-related events, and about 28% had not worked an
internship or other projects outside of class that included people with diverse
backgrounds, all missed opportunities for experiencing diversity.
There was an association between the number of courses taken in mass
communication and students’ perceived knowledge about public relations
practice. Previous research has associated the lack of knowledge about public
relations with misconceptions about the profession (Bowen, 2009). As current
results have shown, public relations students were more knowledgeable about the
practice, as expected, and more exposed to diversity-related issues. They were
also more likely to learn about the profession, including diversity-related
topics. About 64% of public relations students had taken a course where the
instructor addressed some aspect of diversity. They were also likely to learn
about diversity issues through interacting with professionals and guest
speakers, as well as participating in student activities and clubs, including
Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) and internship programs
that are likely to expose them to diversity issues.
This study has several implications for public relations education and,
consequently, practices. First, there is a need to expose students to
discipline-related diversity, focusing more on various elements organizations
face in the diversification of the profession. Although institutions have made
efforts to diversify through offering diversity-related courses, recruitment,
and retention of culturally diverse students and faculty, it is also important
not only to sensitize students about cultural diversity issues but also
challenge them to develop workable solutions and strategies that they may apply
once they join the workforce.
Second, diversity is a broad term with multiple meanings, and public
relations education could focus on various aspects in a separate class to
provide a clear understanding of various issues in the field. For instance, in
addition to introducing a stand-alone course on diversity, which ACEJMC (2018)
recommends, it is important to introduce discipline-related content at various
academic levels and to focus on different aspects (race, gender, ethnicity,
sexual orientation, disability and so on), so students are more sensitized
throughout their curriculum. For example, CPRE recommends an ethics course for
public relations programs (Bortree, Bowen, Silverman, & Sriramesh, 2018)
and building a discipline-specific diversity unit into that course and other
required courses would enhance exposure and understanding of how to ethically
work with a diverse population.
Third, recruiting students from diverse backgrounds, retaining students,
providing academic and career mentoring, and creating supportive environments
where they can thrive would enhance diversity in public relations education.
However, addressing diversity within the curriculum is not a walk-in-the-park
for all instructors. To some, it can be a rather sensitive issue that requires
a concerted effort and skill to incorporate effectively into existing
curricula. This implies the need for policies and resources to support
diversification not only at the institutional level but also within specific
units to support faculty to develop skills for a diversity-focused education.
In addition to using textbooks and other professional materials as
recommended in previous research (Ki & Khang, 2008), it is important to
also provide opportunities for professionals from diverse backgrounds to contribute
to public relations education within and outside the curriculum. With
institutional support, this may take the form of guest speakers, job shadowing,
career mentoring programs, internships, and getting involved in student clubs
(e.g., PRSSA) and other organizations that attract a diverse group of students,
all of which are likely to enhance students’ understanding of diversity while
sensitizing them to discipline-specific issues.
This study had a
few limitations that need to be taken into consideration in future studies.
First, it was conducted in one school and, therefore, not generalizable to
other public relations programs nationally. Second, the make-up of respondents
who were predominantly Caucasian also affects generalizability. However, as
CPRE (2015) indicated, ethnic and racial diversity is an issue on some campuses
but not all, and a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. It is, therefore,
important to examine different situations from each institution or similar
institutions, especially in developing policies and strategies that apply to
each situation. Furthermore, the study may have issues of external validity due
to self-reporting, although reliable internal consistency was attained in all
scales (α > .70). The study also relied only on associations and, therefore,
cannot assume any causal linkages. Despite these limitations, the study
provides insights that may be useful in curriculum revisions as mass communication
programs seek to incorporate diversity much better to meet accreditation
requirements while preparing students for successful careers in a diverse
The need for
organizations to cater to diverse publics becomes more evident as the U.S.
population continues to diversify, and academic programs play a key role in
meeting that need. With an emphasis on diversity, communication and public
relations programs focus on strategies to reach and build strong relationships
with a diverse customer more effectively. A lack of diversity within an
organization and among key stakeholders may, therefore, be viewed as a public
relations problem and may demonstrate gaps in training for public relations
incorporating diversity within organizations is one of the key principles of
excellence in public relations practice (Dozier et al., 1995; J. Grunig &
L. Grunig, 1992). Excellence, however,
can only occur when practitioners are well prepared to address all the
necessary aspects, and diversity plays a significant role in creating it. This
starts with understanding the existing gaps and addressing them using a
multi-dimensional approach––research, education, and practice. The current
study examined the issue from students’ perspectives to provide insights for
public relations education.
to validate the survey used in the current study in different diversity
contexts (cultural, geographical, socioeconomic), replicate it in racially
diverse institutions, or conduct a comparative study in institutions across the
country could provide useful insights for public relations education.
Additionally, research that places focus on other aspects of diversity and
different stakeholders is recommended. For instance, investigations into public
relations managers’ perceptions of diversity and the challenges they face in
diversifying the workplace would be a valuable contribution. Given that
diversifying the workforce is viewed as a public relations responsibility, it
would be important to examine how employers view diversity, their likelihood of
supporting it, and the role of public relations within organizations.
From an education perspective, mass communication faculty play a vital role in influencing perceptions about the public relations field. Understanding their perspectives about diversity in the discipline and how they incorporate it into their courses and the overall curriculum is an area that requires research. Other areas of diversity that require more empirical studies include ageism, classism, disability, sexual orientation, and other socio-cultural and ideological differences in public relations practice. As programs strive towards diversity as part of excellence in public relations, it is important to document success in diversification, such as job satisfaction, empowerment efforts, and the potential for career progression in the practice among ethnic minorities and other diverse groups.
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Editorial Record: Original draft submitted on November 22, 2017. Accepted July 29, 2018. Final edits completed January 19, 2019. First published online January 31, 2019.
This study was funded by the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, but the Center did not have a role in the research process.
The current study contributes to the public relations scholarly literature that addresses issues related to the diversity pipeline into the public relations profession. Specifically, the authors seek to determine if public relations students believe that race and gender affected their educational experiences and social development during their collegiate careers. The findings suggest that both race and gender appear to play a significant role in students’ undergraduate public relations experiences, with White respondents and female respondents expressing more positive experiences educationally and socially than underrepresented racial and ethnic persons (UREP) and male counterparts, respectively. Practical recommendations for recruiting and retaining underrepresented students within the major are provided based on the findings.
Keywords: diversity, public relations professional pipeline, race, gender, public relations education
Racial and Gender-Based Differences
in the Collegiate Development of Public Relations Majors: Implications for
Underrepresented Recruitment and Retention
More than a decade ago, the Public Relations Coalition, an alliance of 23 industry-related organizations, conducted its first diversity benchmark survey. That survey of senior communication managers revealed that the industry needs improvements in recruiting and retaining women and underrepresented racial and ethnic persons (UREPs) (Grupp, 2006). In the early part of this decade, public relations leaders listed diversity recruitment and top-talent employee acquisition as their top priorities (Berger, 2012), and nearly a decade later, Fortune magazine senior editor Ellen McGirt (2018) is trying to answer the same question: Why is public relations so white? Contemporary public relations practitioners see the advantages of creating a diverse workforce, and as such, these leaders have lamented the lack of diversity and have prioritized diversity in public relations (O’Dwyer, 2018). However, progress in the area of increasing the number of underrepresented racial and ethnic persons (UREPs) working in the profession of public relations has been slow—despite the fact that agencies have attempted to build a pipeline of diverse practitioners. Some would argue that the issue begins in college (underrepresentation in the student body), only to be magnified in practice (see Brown, Waymer, Fears, Baker, & Zhou, 2016; Brown, White, & Waymer, 2011).
With this position in mind, the authors designed this study to examine the collegiate experience of public relations students from an educational and social perspective to uncover any differences students might experience based on their race or gender. The study helps identify areas of need, concern, and opportunity that could improve the academic, professional, and social development of members from underrepresented groups. Such an effort could potentially increase the chances of members from the underrepresented groups entering the profession and advancing to management positions. The authors hope that this study’s findings help facilitate more underrepresented practitioners entering the field of public relations by honing in on recruiting and retaining these groups into the undergraduate major.
The Impact of Racial Diversity in Public Relations
racial diversity recruitment and retention efforts seem well-intentioned,
finding examples of ways that the industry has put into practice measurable
objectives for increasing UREPs is far more challenging. As indicated
previously, the majority of senior communications managers articulated that the
industry needs improvement in UREP representation at all levels (Berger, 2012;
McGirt, 2018; O’Dwyer, 2018). In fact, the some board members of the LAGRANT
Foundation, a nonprofit established (in part) to increase the number of UREPs
in the fields of advertising, public relations, and marketing, highlight their
frustration with the current state of affairs stating that the lack of diversity
is “completely intolerable” (Vallee-Smith, 2014, p. 3).
the fact that the people representing these UREP groups constitute around 36%
of more than 300 million people in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau,
2011), the number of people in public relations from these underrepresented
groups falls considerably short of reflecting demographics of the general
population. For example, a 2010 census of the Public Relations Society of
America’s (PRSA) 22,000 professional members showed that only 14% of the
organization’s membership self-identified as Hispanic, Black, and/or
Asian/Asian American (Nguyen, 2015). The aforementioned 14% statistic
represents a 100% increase (doubling) of the percentage of PRSA members from
underrepresented groups since 2005 Nguyen, 2015). In short, racial representation in the public
relations industry remains skewed; the Harvard
Business Review recently reported that the racial/ethnic composition of the
public relations industry in the United States is 87.9% white, 8.3% African
American, 2.6% Asian American, and 5.7% Hispanic American (Chitkara, 2018).
sum, the profession of public relations continues to be a “lily-white” field of
women (Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017). This can be deemed a problem of the
profession for various reasons. First, research shows that some
underrepresented publics, Latinx populations, during times of risk or crisis
(e.g., hurricanes, chemical plant explosions, acts of terror), prefer to hear
such news from people similar to them (Heath, Lee, & Ni, 2009). Therefore,
a practitioner’s diversity might be the difference in underrepresented publics
receiving and accepting vital safety alerts and messages intended for them in
times of risk and crisis. Second, practitioners’ social-cultural identities
likely affect how they perform as public relations practitioners and the
messages they create for vast groups of people (Curtin & Gaither, 2007;
Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017; Waymer, 2012b), so it is imperative that
organizations continue to prioritize a diverse public relations workforce and
make it a visible, high-level, organizational objective. To address these
diversity issues, it is equally important that the public relations industry,
like other professions, such as engineering, intentionally work with K-12 and
higher education institutions to increase diversity in schools in hopes of
increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the profession (Waymer & Brown,
Diversity in Public Relations: The Underrepresentation of
Men in the Profession and Classroom
While women attend college more overall than men at rates of about 57% to 43% respectively (Kena et al., 2015), an even greater gap exists when comparing the percentage of women and men majoring in the communication subspecialty of public relations. Reports have indicated that for more than two decades there are more women than men pursuing a public relations major—whereby women constitute more than 80% of the students in many PR programs (Bardaro, 2009; Daughtery, 2014); the gap is even greater for the public relations profession with a difference of 85% to 15%, women to men respectively (see Khazan, 2014; Sebastian, 2011). Yet, when considering the imbalance in the distribution of men and the positions they hold in the profession, a paradoxical state becomes apparent. Men dominate top spots, while women are clustered at the bottom (see Pompper & Jung, 2013; Yaxley, 2012). Furthermore, men in the field continue to earn about $6,000 more than women (even when tenure, job type, education, field of study, location, and ethnicity are held constant) (Chitkara, 2018). Indeed, despite their underrepresentation in the field of public relations, men still represent 80% of upper management positions (Sebastian, 2011) and earn more money.
Scholars argue that the paradox of men constituting the numerical minority in the profession of public relations yet holding the majority of power positions in the industry can be explained by (mis)perceptions (Choi & Hon, 2002; Grunig, Toth, & Hon, 2001). Men are perceived as being more apt to self-promote, to be assertive, and to network with other power players, compared to women who are perceived to be more suited for micro-managing duties, efficiency, and sensitivity (Grunig, Toth, & Hon, 2001). These misconceptions have dire consequences as Dozier, Sha, and Shen (2013) found that participation in management decision-making was a key factor contributing to pay inequity between women and men in public relations. Despite these prevailing misconceptions and pay disparity, women are making strides in the profession and experiencing positive change in opportunities for senior-level advancement. For example, “Barri Rafferty of Ketchum was appointed the first woman global CEO among the top 10 public relations agencies. Edelman made Lisa Ross, who is black, president of the company’s Washington, DC office,” and in April 2018, “WPP, the parent of Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe, named Donna Imperato the CEO of the newly merged agencies, Burson Cohn & Wolfe” (Chitkara, 2018, para 5).
with these recent noteworthy promotions of women to top leadership roles in the
public relations industry, men still constitute a numerical minority in the
profession. Moreover, when students have been asked about positives and
negatives of their undergraduate, pre-professional socialization experiences,
many women have lamented the fact that their classmates were almost exclusively
women (Waymer, Brown, Fears, & Baker, 2018). To address these diversity
issues, it is equally important that the public relations industry, like other
professions, intentionally work with K-12 and higher education institutions to
increase the representation of men studying the subject in school in hopes of
increasing men’s representation and diversity in the profession, a suggestion
consistent with insights gleaned from previously presented public relations
education scholarship (Rawlins, VanSlyke Turk, & Stoker, 2012).
The Importance of Educational Experience for Career
it is important to increase the racial and ethnic diversity and number of men
in the public relations field, all of these efforts would be futile if students
were not prepared academically, socially, and professionally to enter the
industry. To pinpoint the overall skills that students entering college are
expected to master across programs, Conley, Drummond, DeGonzalez, Rooseboom,
and Stout (2011) conducted a national survey of more than 1,800 faculty members
representing 944 courses at 1,897 institutions. The researchers found that
top-ranked skills, regardless of subject area, included speaking and listening,
reading comprehension, writing, and problem-solving. Other important factors
the researchers noted related to developing an overall comprehension of life
skills and a mature persona. These can be measured in the form of students
adopting effective study habits, managing time efficiently, taking ownership of
learning, and demonstrating a variety of cognitive strategies, such as
collecting, analyzing, and interpreting information, formulating and relaying
ideas, and developing the ability to become more accurate, precise,
open-minded, and creative.
The Key to Employability model (Pool & Sewell, 2007) has provided additional insight into the importance of the educational experience of college students and students’ preparation for entering entry-level positions. The model builds from five components that provide a foundation for students to adequately reflect and evaluate their readiness for becoming hired within their chosen career fields, which in turn affects their self-efficacy, self-confidence, and self-esteem: (1) career development learning, (2) experience related to work and life, (3) degree-subject knowledge, understanding, and skills, (4) generic skills, and (5) emotional intelligence. While knowledge about the career field is obviously an important part of any academic program, the hard skills included in this area are suggested as only one part of academic preparation (Pool & Sewell, 2007). Pool, Qualter, and Sewell (2014) discuss that a lack of employment opportunities after graduation can be influenced by a deficiency in competencies related to the remaining areas (i.e., “soft” skills and work-based knowledge), which includes a lack of skills that are more likely to be learned in a controlled professional setting (i.e., internships, practicums). These include demonstrating competency and professionalism, demonstrating abilities to cope with uncertainty and pressure situations, developing self-monitoring and time-management skills, and becoming self-confident, responsible, and adaptable.
of the importance of gaining skills through educational experiences, whether it
is in the classroom or through professional settings, examining the racial and
gender differences in these experiences can help provide insight into areas of
needed improvement in order to increase diversity through increasing collegiate
success for underrepresented groups. Therefore, the following research
questions are posed:
RQ1: Are there differences in public relations students’ educational experiences as they progress in the major based on their racial background?
RQ2: Are there differences in public relations students’ educational experiences as they progress in the major based on their gender?
The Importance of Social Development for Career Preparation
Research has been conducted regarding the social development and involvement of students who participate in extracurricular activities on a college or university campus. Previous research examined the correlation of student involvement and its direct effect on students’ social development and future career success. For example, Wenger (1998) developed and expanded the Communities of Practice Theory, and this is a useful theoretical framework for people studying the importance of developing social skills (Farnsworth, Kleanthous, & Wenger-Trayner, 2016; Wenger, 1998). Simply stated, communities of practice are groups of people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor. Typically, this group shares a common concern or passion for something the group does and learns to do better through interacting regularly. This would presume that the social learning process is more effective when people are like-minded individuals and share common interests or passions. In sum, socially engaging with a community of members sharing similar interests is beneficial to the individual’s social learning and development, which can enhance the potential of future career success (Farnsworth et al., 2016; Wenger, 1998). This is directly applicable to enrichment activities for students that are sponsored by organizations such as Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA).
scholars in various disciplines explore social development and career
preparedness for learners (see Bronfenbrenner, 2009; Kolb, 2015; Stahl, Dobson,
& Redillas, 2018; Wenger, 1998). Most of these works draw from and extend
the seminal work of Vygotsky (1978), who found that social interaction,
especially with those who are more knowledgeable about a subject matter, plays
an integral role in the process of development—both socially and academically.
Whether it be experiential learning (Kolb, 2015) or studying the importance of
“demonstration schools,” which are
communities of learning and applied research inquiry that exist in an
integrative designed space (Stahl et al., 2018), they all relate to and extend
Vygotsky’s (1978) notion of the “more knowledgeable other” (MKO).
theorized that interactions with and exposure to such MKO individuals is vital
to one’s social development. The MKO concept has clear implications for
professional student organizations, such as PRSSA or social organizations like
fraternities and sororities that provide students with invaluable leadership
experiences. The fact that many departments require students to participate in
internships (a form of experiential learning from an MKO) is a testament to the
continued applicability of these concepts.
By drawing from diverse theoretical traditions of involvement and social development, one can infer that an important part of college or university students’ success is contingent upon their participation in extracurricular activities that are relevant to their career choice or interests. In sum, research supports the premise that being involved in extracurricular activities is a positive investment for students.
benefits of such participation enable students to gain higher levels of
self-esteem, self-confidence, and leadership abilities, which are all essential
skills to master before entering the professional working world (Astin &
Sax, 1998; Maruyama, Furco, & Song, 2018). Extracurricular activities also
provide college and university students with a network of peers and
professionals who share common interests and goals. Students that are involved
have the opportunity to gain real-world experiences, which essentially serve as
a form of preparation for their futures (Hardin, Pate, & Bemiller, 2013). Students
also have the opportunity to work in team settings and foster the ideas of
commitment and responsibility while ultimately developing a work ethic. Several
research studies in journalism, mass communication, and public relations
support this line of research, suggesting the essential nature of
extracurricular activities to student development and success (Nadler, 1997;
Todd, 2009; Waymer, 2014).
of the importance of developing social skills through interactions with peers,
educators, and current professionals, examining the racial and gender
differences in these experiences can also provide insight into areas of needed
improvement at the collegiate level to increase diversity. Therefore, the
following research questions are posed:
RQ3: Are there differences in public relations students’ social development as they progress in the major based on their racial background?
RQ4: Are there differences in public relations students’ social development as they progress in the major based on their gender?
This study extends the work of Waymer, Brown, Fears, and Baker (2018); those authors used interviews and other qualitative approaches to uncover themes related to a diverse sample of young professionals and their collegiate experiences, specifically their educational experiences and social development. Based on those findings, the current authors designed this survey for current public relations majors to uncover racial and gender differences in public relations majors’ collegiate experiences. To measure these differences, an online questionnaire was distributed through the use of Qualtrics, a web-based survey research company.
A convenience sample of 294 current public relations majors was collected from eight colleges and universities: 48 males (16.3%) and 246 females (83.7%). Table 1 provides a description of the eight colleges and universities and the number of participants from each one.
The majority of the sample was white (196 participants, 66.7%), with 28 African-American participants (9.5%), 49 Hispanic or Latinx participants (16.7%) and 21 participants of other races (7.1%). The average age of the participants was 22.3 (SD = 3.57). All students were of at least junior standing and had completed a Public Relations Writing course, or the equivalent, in their curriculum.
Four-Year Public University
Four-Year Private University
Four-Year Private Liberal Arts
Four-Year Private Liberal Arts
Four-Year Public University
Four-Year Public University
Four-Year Public University
Four-Year Private Liberal Arts
Researchers created a seven-point Likert scale to measure aspects of students’ collegiate experiences based on qualitative research conducted previously by the authors (Waymer, Brown, Fears, & Baker, 2018). The scale items (provided in Appendix A) measured the degree to which the participant agreed with the statements provided. An exploratory factor analysis with a Varimax rotation was conducted to group the scale items, and three factors were extracted: (a) classroom educational experiences, (b) on-the-job educational experiences, and (c) social experiences. Appendix B provides the factor loadings for each scale item, with 51.07% of the variance explained by the three scales. Because the depth of the study relied on specific aspects of students’ collegiate experiences, not a composite satisfaction score for students’ educational and social experience, scale items were analyzed as individual variables. Cronbach’s (1951) alpha was used to measure the reliability of the scales, and all scales were considered reliable (Classroom α = 0.828, On-the-Job α = 0.864, Social α = 0.872).
Questionnaire and Procedure
Once IRB approval was granted, the questionnaire was uploaded to Qualtrics. The researchers contacted representatives from a national sample of universities that offer public relations as a major. Representatives interested in participating in the study were given a web address to distribute to their students. Participants that completed the questionnaire were entered into a drawing to win either a $50 or $100 VISA gift card.
Students that visited the distinct web address were directed to a five-part questionnaire. Section A provided the informed consent form and screening questions. Participants that were not of at least junior standing and participants that had not completed the Public Relations Writing course or its equivalent did not proceed to the questionnaire. Sections B and C provided the collegiate experience scale items. Scale items in each section were randomized to prevent priming effects. Section D provided a thank-you statement and demographic questions. Section E prompted students to provide an email address for the VISA gift card, as well as any additional information for contacts that are providing extra credit for participating in the study.
Once it was designed, the questionnaire was reviewed by a panel of public relations professionals and scholars. Once revisions were made, the survey was pretested among 30 students. The pretest data was used to edit question order and language, as well as make any functional changes. Statistical analyses of the data were computed using IBM SPSS Statistics, version 21.
A multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was used to analyze the research questions. RQ1 asked if there were differences in public relations students’ educational experiences based on their racial backgrounds. The MANOVA revealed significant differences among the 18 statements addressing classroom and on-the-job educational experience between white respondents and UREP respondents (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.872, F (1, 292) = 2.25, p = 0.003, ηp2 = 0.13). Further analysis revealed significant differences in 6 of the 18 statements addressing educational experience:
courses I have taken in college prepared me for my professional goals [MW = 5.95 (SDW = 0.97); MU = 5.68 (SDU = 1.24)] [F (1, 292) = 4.18, p = .042].
I have been able to find
multiple internship opportunities [MW
= 4.95 (SDW = 1.7); MU = 4.48 (SDU = 1.82)] [F (1, 292) = 4.86, p = .028].
I am actively involved
in student organizations that have helped my professional development (i.e.
PRSSA, Ad Team, Bateman, etc.) [MW
= 4.57 (SDW = 2.21); MU = 4.01 (SDU = 1.86)] [F (1, 292) = 4.66, p = .032].
I have been provided
opportunities to gain leadership experience from the organizations I joined [MW = 5.52 (SDW = 1.68); MU = 5.09 (SDU = 1.67)] [F (1, 292) = 4.17, p = .042].
The professionals I have
met in college gave me valuable insight into the PR profession [MW = 5.66 (SDW = 1.38); MU = 4.91 (SDU = 1.64)] [F (1, 292) = 17.21, p < .001].
I regularly seek career
advice from a public relations professional [MW = 4.73 (SDW
= 1.67); MU = 4.26 (SDU = 1.8)] [F (1, 292) = 5, p = .026].
RQ2 asked if there were differences in
public relations students’ educational development based on their gender. The
MANOVA revealed significant differences among the six statements addressing
social development for males and females (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.873, F (1, 292) = 2.23, p = 0.003, ηp2 = 0.13). Further analysis
revealed significant differences in 11 of the 18 statements, with females
having a higher level of agreement than males in all 11 statements:
courses I have taken in college prepared me for my professional goals. [MM = 5.21 (SDM = 1.50); MF = 5.76 (SDF = 1.04)] [F (1, 292) = 9.74, p < .01].
courses I have taken in college prepared me for my professional goals [MM = 5.44 (SDM = 1.44); MF = 5.95 (SDF = .97)] [F (1, 292) = 9.28, p < .01].
My previous courses
helped me understand the importance of ethics and codes of conduct for my
profession [MM = 5.42 (SDM = 1.37); MF = 6.04 (SDF = .96)] [F (1, 292) = 14.67, p < .001].
My previous courses
taught me how to effectively manage communication on social and digital media
platforms [MM = 4.90 (SDM = 1.78); MF = 5.44 (SDF = 1.35)] [F (1, 292) = 5.84, p < .05].
I have been able to find
multiple internship opportunities [MM
= 4.06 (SDM = 1.69); MF = 4.94 (SDF = 1.73)] [F (1, 292) = 10.39, p < .01].
besides PR and communication-related organizations, have provided me
opportunities to practice my professional skills [MM = 4.54 (SDM
= 1.77); MF = 5.34 (SDF = 1.64)] [F (1, 292) = 9.23, p < .01].
I have been provided
opportunities to gain leadership experience from the organizations I joined [MM = 4.88 (SDM = 1.65); MF = 5.47 (SDF = 1.68)] [F (1, 292) = 5.1, p < .05].
I have been able to
build a professional network of PR and communication professionals [MM = 4.00 (SDM = 1.89); MF = 4.87 (SDF= 1.63)] [F (1, 292) = 10.8, p < .01].
The professional network
I am developing in college will be beneficial for my career [MM = 5.02 (SDM = 1.55); MF = 5.54 (SDF = 1.38)] [F (1, 292) = 5.57, p < .05].
The professionals I have
met in college gave me valuable insight into the PR profession [MM = 4.65 (SDM = 1.85); MF = 5.56 (SDF= 1.39)] [F (1, 292) = 15.45, p < .001].
I regularly seek career
advice from a public relations professional [MM = 4.10 (SDM
= 1.68); MF= 4.66 (SDF= 1.73)] [F (1, 292) = 4.25, p < .05].
RQ3 asked if there were differences in
public relations students’ social development based on their racial
backgrounds. The MANOVA revealed significant differences among the six
statements addressing the social development of White respondents compared to UREP
respondents (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.816, F
(1, 292) = 3.7, p = 0.001, ηp2
= 0.07). Further analysis revealed significant differences in five of the six
statements addressing social development.
I have been comfortable
interacting with other students in the classroom [MW = 6.2 (SDW
= 1); MU = 5.9 (SDU = 1.37)] [F (1, 292) = 4.74, p = .03].
I have been comfortable
interacting with other students in PR and communication-related student
organizations [MW = 5.94 (SDW = 1.27); MU = 5.58 (SDU = 1.46)] [F (1, 292) = 4.67, p = .032].
I have built a strong
support group of fellow PR students (i.e. study group, social group, etc.) [MW = 5.4 (SDW = 1.71); MU = 4.84 (SDU = 1.84)] [F (1, 292) = 6.83, p = .009].
Interacting with other students in PR classes is important to me [MW = 5.81 (SDW = 1.3); MU = 5.46 (SDU = 1.53)] [F (1, 292) = 4.25, p = .04].
Other students seemed to value my contributions in a PR setting (classes, student organizations, group projects, etc.) [MW = 5.82 (SDW = 1.13); MU = 5.44 (SDU = 1.47)] [F (1, 292) = 6.11, p = .014].
RQ4 asked if there were differences in
public relations students’ social development based on their gender. The MANOVA
revealed significant differences among the six statements addressing social
development for males and females (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.954, F (3, 290) = 2.320, p =
0.033, ηp2 = 0.05) Further analysis revealed significant
differences for four of the six statements, with females having a higher level
of agreement than males in all four statements:
I have built a strong
support group of fellow PR students (i.e. study group, social group, etc.) [MM= 4.71 (SDM = 1.85); MF = 5.31 (SDF = 1.74)] [F (1, 292) = 4.75, p < .05].
Interacting with other
students in PR classes is important to me [MM
= 5.23 (SDM = 1.69); MF = 5.78 (SDF = 1.31)] [F (1, 292) = 6.553, p < .05].
Interacting with other
students in PR and communication-related student organizations is important to
me [MM = 5.19 (SDM = 1.83); MF= 5.65 (SDF = 1.42)] [F (1, 292) = 3.929, p< .05].
Other students seemed to
value my contributions in a PR setting (classes, student organizations, group
projects, etc.) [MM = 5.19
(SDM = 1.63); MF = 5.79 (SDF = 1.15)] [F (1, 292) = 9.508, p< .01].
authors surveyed 294 current undergraduate public relations students. The
authors sought to determine if race, gender, or both constructs affected public
relations students’ educational and social experiences during their collegiate
career. The findings suggest that both race and gender play a significant role
in students’ undergraduate public relations experiences.
showed that UREPs were less likely to build a professional network of 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. These findings have implications for increasing the presence of
UREPs in the public relations profession—especially if access to a professional
network (or even a social network of peers) is a means for students to gain
entry into the profession.
differences between men and women were also found. Women were more likely than
males to experience greater satisfaction in both their educational and social
experiences, with results showing that females typically get more out of
classroom experiences, have more opportunities to network and intern, and gain
more valuable leadership experiences. Perhaps the most telling finding is that
UREP respondents and male respondents felt that their peers valued their
contributions in a PR setting less than their white respondents and female
counterparts. These findings along racial and gender lines have implications
for UREP recruitment and retention into the discipline of public relations. If
targeted strategies are developed to help increase social development for males
(an underrepresented group in the major), as well as UREPs, then their
satisfaction with the major increases.
taking the findings on gender into account and coupling them with the preceding
findings on race, these findings continue to support the fact that that
majority status (white students and female students, in this case) plays a
significant role in students’ ability to build social and professional networks
and find greater success in the curriculum. The silver lining and key finding,
however, is that the negative effects associated with numerical minority status
appear to be mitigated if students are able to find and take advantage of
adequate means of social development. With that said, greater efforts should be
made by public relations education administrators and faculty to ensure that
men and UREPs are provided and encouraged to pursue key social development
activities. We recognize that this recommendation is idealistic for the
following reasons: (1) PR professors are likely taxed with teaching, service,
and research obligations; therefore, asking them to inform men and UREPs of
specific opportunities might be an unrealistic request. (2) PR professors also
have very little say over who registers for their classes, making control over
the composition of their classes difficult. Thus, a more feasible strategy
might be to talk to men and UREPs who are already in PR classes, and then
incentivize them to then encourage peers in these demographic groups—through
word-of-mouth—to join them in the public relations courses. The gender and
racial/ethnic diversity of the public relations profession depend on such
proactive strategies and tactics. The discipline needs to practice what it
teaches. Setting clear, definable, and measurable goals and objectives is a
cornerstone of public relations campaigns courses, and that knowledge should be
transferred to address diversity issues in the student body, which is the
pipeline to the discipline.
Recommendations for Public Relations Educators
Based on the findings, the researchers provide six practical recommendations for educators to help progress racial and gender diversity in the field. First, males and UREPs, once in the major, must be informed of the opportunities available to gain professional experience and guidance. Based on the responses to the survey, White students overall (regardless of gender) indicated higher success levels in professional network building. Similarly, female students (regardless of their race or ethnicity) indicated higher success levels in professional network building. White students and female students constitute a numerical majority in the public relations major. Because of this disparity, males and UREP students must be better informed of their opportunities for professional growth.
Second, diversity must start at the classroom level in order for emerging practitioners to embrace diversity at the professional level. Based on the responses to the survey, students in the aforementioned racial and gender numerical majority groups indicated that they have strong peer support groups. Moreover, these students also indicated higher levels of comfort interacting with other peers and students in comparison to UREP and male students. Finally, when compared to UREP and male students, students in the racial and gender numerical majority also indicated that other students are more likely to value their contributions in class and in service. There is an obvious disconnect here, and professors, instructors, and advisors must work to increase diversity in the classroom composition and more holistically embrace diversity education via the curriculum, classroom content, and discussions. This could work by weaving difficult discussions about identity and diversity into mainstream public relations courses, by recruiting males and UREP students to join extracurricular groups, as well as by making groups for classroom projects more diverse.
Third, communities of practice and experiential learning are powerful ways to reinforce learning and for students to develop a sense of belonging as they learn. Programs could create Bateman case study competition teams or host PRSSA activities that might be attractive for men and equally attractive for UREPs. In this way, having students wrestle with the public relations challenges that might resonate with them, such as the recent protest cookout case in Oakland, CA (see Holson, 2018), could attract students because they can learn strategies and tactics to address potential issues of interest.
diverse professionals must be more visible to all public relations majors, and
they should be asked to proactively mentor and network with male and UREP
students. Males and UREP students scored lower in “agreement that they have
built a network of professionals” and “seek career advice regularly from
professionals” compared to their counterparts. These differences illustrate a
need for a more visible presence of UREP and male professionals, as well as a
need for these professionals to be more willing to mentor and network with male
and UREP students.
Fifth, colleges and universities should help proactively
encourage socialization among students of different genders and racial
backgrounds. Results showed that male students, compared to their female
counterparts, and UREP students, compared to their white counterparts, not only
felt less comfortable interacting with other students, but also did not see the
importance of interacting with other students. Providing subtle opportunities
to have students of diverse backgrounds interact could help combat these
issues, such as creating diverse groups for group projects and leadership
committees for extracurricular groups.
Finally, professors and instructors must proactively discuss racial and gender differences related to the public relations industry in the classroom (see Waymer, 2012a; Waymer & Dyson, 2011). Both UREP and male students scored less in agreement than their counterparts in the dimension of “Other students seem to value my contributions in a PR setting.” Part of this could stem from a lack of substantial focus in the classroom on the racial and gender disparities in the industry. Discussing these differences in major courses could help to balance classrooms and remove this stigma of disrespect.
Limitations and Future Research
This study only considered race and gender as factors for increasing diversity. Obviously, there are other cultural and social factors that play a part in building a diverse profession. Studies that look at other forms of diversity (e.g. disabilities, sexual orientation, international origins) could offer more insight into this need. In addition, this survey treated all non-White races and ethnicities as one group. Future studies should attempt to gather a larger sample size and a more racially/ethnically representative sample in order to examine specific differences among races and ethnicities and pinpoint specific challenges and issues facing these groups as well—as opposed to grouping them into one category.
This study only looked at students that were advanced in the public relations major, targeting students that have taken at least PR Writing. It would be helpful to interview or survey incoming students to see if there are initial challenges that they face while adjusting both to college and to the public relations major.
This study also gathered respondents from predominantly White institutions (PWIs). Future research should compare the underrepresented populations at these institutions to similar populations at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). There could be potential differences in the educational and social development among students at these two types of institutions. In addition, it would be interesting to see the educational and social development among White students at HBCUs to see if they experience the same issues that underrepresented students experience at PWIs.
Despite these limitations, this study uncovers substantial racial and gender differences in the development of public relations students and helped identify areas of growth to improve the diversity of the profession’s workforce. It is the hope of the researchers that these findings will help provide insight into the best ways to recruit and retain a more diverse group of majors, which would proactively increase diversity in the public relations field
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A1: The writing-intensive courses I have taken in college prepared me for my professional goals.
A2: The project-based courses I have taken in college prepared me for my professional goals.
A3: My previous courses helped me
understand the importance of ethics and codes of conduct for my professional.
A4: My previous courses taught me
how to conduct research properly.
A5: My previous courses taught me
how to effectively manage communication on social and digital media platforms.
A6: My previous courses taught me to
honor the uniqueness of each individual.
A7: My previous courses taught me
the importance of cultural sensitivity and inclusion.
A8: My previous courses taught me
the basics of business and financial literacy.
On-the-Job Educational Experience
P1: I have been able to find
multiple internship opportunities.
P2: I am actively involved in
student organizations that have helped my professional development (i.e. PRSSA,
Ad Team, Bateman, etc.)
P3: Other organizations, besides PR
and communication-related organizations, have provided me opportunities to
practice my professional skills.
P4: I have been provided
opportunities to gain leadership experience from the organizations I joined.
P5: I have taken advantage of the
professional development opportunities that my school or department provided
(i.e. workshops, resume and portfolio help, etc.)
P6: I’ve had exposure to
professionals in the public relations field through visits to agencies or
corporations, or interactions during campus visits.
P7: I have been able to build a
professional network of PR and communication professionals.
P8: The professional network I am
developing in college will be beneficial for my career.
P9: The professionals I have met in
college gave me valuable insight into the PR profession.
P10: I regularly seek career advice
from a public relations professional.
S1: I have been comfortable
interacting with other students in the classroom.
S2: I have been comfortable
interacting with other students in PR and communication-related student
S3: I have built a strong support
group of fellow PR students (i.e. study group, social group, etc.)
S4: Interacting with other students
in PR classes is important to me.
S5: Interacting with other students
in PR and communication-related student organizations is important to me.
S6: Other students seem to value my
contributions in a PR setting (classes, student organizations, group projects,
Factor Loadings for Collegiate
A Factor B Factor C
Classroom On-the-Job Social
Eigenvalue 2.029 7.469 2.758
% Variance 8.46 31.12 11.49
Universities Used in the Study
 For a discussion of why “UREP” is used as opposed
which is a term under attack in various disciplines, or even the more
politically correct “African American,
Hispanic, Asian, Native American” (AHANA),
which does not account for persons that are the by-product of interracial UREP unions or other UREP groups that might encounter
racism in the United States such as Arab Americans, see Waymer (2013).