On Oct. 10, Ketchum’s Washington, D.C. office hosted a student-targeted panel discussion on diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the field of public relations. The featured speakers were Sharon V. Jones, senior vice president, director of human resources and director of diversity and inclusion at Ketchum; Dianne R. Johnson, MPH, vice president of marketing and communications at Providence Hospital; Stella-Monica N. Mpande, Ph.D., faculty program coordinator at Johns Hopkins University; and moderator Alix Montes, account executive at Ketchum. The event discussed the significance of diversity in public relations and how to communicate with diverse audiences. The panel forced attendees not to think about D&I as a tangent from the greater industry of public relations, but as part of public relations. The discussion addressed many questions, with some key themes and responses highlighted below:
Why is diversity important?
In short, diversity does not apply to a singular individual. It is not a concept that should only be considered by the designated diversity and inclusion director. Johnson stresses that “diversity is all of us,” and it is the job of any public relations professional to know how to make the uniqueness of audiences relevant and important without falling into stereotypes. It is important to embrace diversity and inclusion inside the office, too. Jones reminds us that we all have unconscious bias, but it is how we handle that bias that can make or break our attempts to diversify our perspectives and be actively inclusive.
Diversity and Inclusion
The phrase “diversity and inclusion” includes both words intentionally. While diversity can be achieved through hiring or targeting a variety of demographics or types of individuals, inclusion is a separate action altogether. According to Mpande, inclusion is a “deliberate, conscious” action. Both parts are necessary for a holistic approach to working with audiences and employees. While diversity initiatives guarantee that an adequate number of people from varying backgrounds are invited to the table for discussion, inclusion guarantees that those voices are heard, and those opinions considered and acted upon when making company and decisions.
So how can D&I be applied to public relations? Johnson asks, “How do we take this message and make sure that audience gets it?” As mentioned above, inclusion is intentional so professionals must actively research and engage with a variety of communities to learn how to best serve them. Otherwise, the targeted community may not only be missed entirely, but also offended and insulted by the advertisement’s insinuations.
For example, the panelists reflected on an old Pillsbury advertisement in which the doughboy began doing the “running man” and other dance movements associated with black culture in an attempt to reach African American audiences. However, the panelists note that this attempt was poorly researched because not only did it stereotype African Americans and assume all enjoy a certain type of dance, but it also did not address factors that may actually appeal to African Americans, such as including actors of color in the advertisement.
The panelists also discussed a Southwest Airlines advertisement in which provocatively dressed women acted as bullfighters but interacted with an airplane instead of an animal. Perhaps this ad wasn’t meant to appease men — or diminish a woman’s role in the airplane industry — but the panelists recognized it as sexist and insulting to women. Before releasing the advertisement, the agency should have discussed it with a variety of people, or even tested it with a small group to garner reactions. Instead, the agency assumed that all audiences would enjoy the advertisement, when this was not the case.
How can we diversify our experiences?
What if public relations professionals have not experienced people and cultures unlike their own? What can they do to keep their unconscious biases in check? All panelists offered many ways that anyone can diversity his or her experiences.
Johnson emphasized the importance of travel. “See, learn and hear from someone else’s lens,” she said. Mpande suggested intentionally meeting and connecting with new people as a way to diversity our perspectives.
Jones suggested considering the SEEDS model as a way to unmask some unconscious biases: S (similarities. “If it’s similar to me, it’s better”), E (expedience. “Jumping to conclusions is easier and faster”), E (experience. “If I haven’t done it, it’s not legitimate”), D (distance. “Closer is better than farther away”) and S (safety. “I feel less safe around__”). By thinking through each concept in the SEEDS acronym, we can force ourselves to acknowledge what behaviors cause bias, and then work to train ourselves to adjust.
Diversity and inclusion is about engaging with, communicating and learning about other people. Ketchum’s panel discussion provided attendees the opportunity to do just that by hearing the panelists’ perspectives towards the industry and their own experiences and by networking with other students in attendance. The panelists emphasized the importance of togetherness, especially between public relations practitioners and communities they target.
Mpande described diversity as a “collective goal of productivity,” pointing out that while an individual can research, engage and learn about other people, diversity and inclusion is a community effort. Together, professionals can teach each other by pulling from their own experiences. To close with words from Mpande, we must “celebrate what all of you can do together.”
This event was held at Ketchum Washington, the Washington, D.C. office of the international public relations agency, and was organized by Fran Bernhards, senior content manager at Ketchum and professor at Georgetown University.
Channing Gatewood is a junior at American University pursuing a double major in music and public relations. She currently holds the position as diversity and inclusion director for American University’s Chapter of PRSSA. Aside from her communications work, Channing is a classically trained pianist who has performed in various venues throughout her childhood. In the future, Channing hopes to combine her interests into a career path that allows her to promote and uplift arts and entertainment organizations, while also being a champion for diversity and inclusion initiatives in the workplace.