While many public relations campaigns classes focus on creating programs for corporate or non-profit clients, Dr. Karen Russell’s course this semester tackled a much larger topic: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the public relations industry.
“Like many people, I was pretty appalled at the responses I was seeing as the result of the social unrest last summer,” Russell explained. “I felt like public relations was part of the problem with inadequate responses from companies and celebrities.”
She knew as public relations professionals, they couldn’t sit back and do nothing, so she challenged her students to focus on changing structures to raise awareness and address solutions.
The students worked with dozens of PR professionals and organizations including the Diversity Action Alliance, PR Council, Institute for Public Relations, Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State, National Black Public Relations Society and the Museum of Public Relations.
During initial research, the students found that there is a general lack of knowledge about public relations among young diverse students, and those who were aware of the field found barriers to entry.
To address the issues, the students set out to tackle three goals:
- Establish DEI as a core value
- Foster a culture of allyship
- Increase industry accessibility
They produced videos, infographics, toolkits, a podcast and sponsored a webinar, Religion in Public Relations, with the Museum of Public Relations featuring a panel discussion on religion in PR.
“One of the most fulfilling parts of this course and campaign was the chance we were given to implement tactics that were not only of immediate importance, but which also may contribute to long-term impact and success in the industry,” said Eilis Sullivan, a fourth-year public relations and women’s studies student. “Almost all of the resources we developed this semester are accessible online, so it’s rewarding to know there’s unlimited potential in the work we’ve done.”
Classmate Laura Burr, a fourth-year public relations student who is also studying fashion merchandising and Spanish, added that the impact is deeper than just recognizing the importance of hiring people from all backgrounds.
“Many only know about public relations because they have a family member in the industry, meaning industry members are a cycle of people from similar backgrounds,” Burr said. “Additionally, the PR industry hasn’t done a great job of offering paid internships, and unpaid internships are likely only a viable option for students from well-off families that can financially support them during their internship. There are changes that have to be made in and outside of the industry in order to create effective change.”
The students also hosted a panel discussion, ‘Moving the Needle: Making DEI a core value within PR’ panel, with the Diversity Action Alliance. During the session, panelist Krystle Cobran urged PR practitioners to change the narrative and reshape the way we deliver our messages, suggesting “stories stick, lectures don’t.”
Sullivan continued: “This campaign has helped me tremendously to better understand my responsibility as a PR practitioner, which is to tell stories that not only suit my clients, but which reflect and represent the larger world around me – including the uncomfortable or unspoken.”
The Diversity Conversation Toolkit, hosted on the PR Council’s website, provides ways to begin difficult conversations about diversity at work, while the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit provides background vocabulary, tactics for implementation and suggestions of media to learn more.
The students are grateful to the many industry professionals who helped them with the project, including Grady alumna Erica Holland Smith (ABJ ’10) who was working with the team when she died unexpectedly.
In addition to the accomplishments of the Campaigns class, the Department of Advertising and Public Relations co-sponsors the annual AdPR Academy, a week-long program for diverse students from HBCUs and other higher-education institutions to introduce them to the fields of advertising and public relations.