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October 20, 2015

CCNY Study Reveals Obstacles to PR Industry Diversity Efforts

Retention, Mentoring and Perceived Bias Key Challenges
NEW YORK, Oct. 20, 2015 – A new study of young Black and Hispanic public relations (PR) practitioners in the U.S. has identified key obstacles to overcome to ensure the success of diversity efforts in the public relations profession, according to Louis Capozzi, president of the PRSA Foundation, which funded the study.

“Retention, lack of mentoring and perceived workplace biases are key challenges, especially for Black practitioners,” said City College of New York Professor Lynn Appelbaum who, with Franklin Walton, Ph.D., was a co-principal of the study. Professor Appelbaum is Professor, Department Media & Communication Arts and Director of the CCNY Ad/PR Program.  She said, “Our key focus was to probe the attitudes, experiences and concerns of young multicultural professionals to help us better understand and address these challenges.”

The study, which examines the experiences of young multicultural professionals who have graduated since 2008 and are now working in the agency, corporate, not-for-profit and government/NGO sectors, was commissioned by the PRSA Foundation with support from agency and corporate sponsors. In addition to the survey of young multicultural PR professionals, a companion survey addressed the perceptions of PR employers regarding multicultural diversity. Two focus groups of young PR professionals in the same demographic group were conducted to provide additional insights into their experiences, and are included in the report.

 “The subject of diversity has been front and center in the PR profession for a long time,” said Capozzi, “but not enough progress has been made.  This study provides a research-based perspective on the obstacles, and provides guideposts for what we can do to improve performance of our Foundation’s, and the industry’s efforts on the issue.”

 “The encouraging news,” Appelbaum added, “is that both employees and young professionals believe our industry has taken steps improve inclusion in the workplace, particularly in recruiting a more diverse workforce. However, once diverse practitioners enter the workplace, they express concerns over a lack of support, compounded by biases they perceive that they feel can negatively impact their success.”

Findings from the study indicate that PR leaders could be more effective bolstering their diversity initiatives in the following areas:
  • Continue to be proactive in recruiting competitive multicultural practitioners;
  • Focus on retention in the workplace, especially in the group environment, to be more inclusive and to build a sense of community that ensures all employees are supported, and are given the tools to succeed on an even playing field;
  • Educate employees about inadvertent bias signals and double standards in the workplace and how this affects professionals with diverse backgrounds;
  • Facilitate one-on-one relationships with either peers or direct supervisors at the team level, especially important for young multicultural professionals, to enable them to feel more included and supported professionally.
Value in the workplace Most respondents feel they can pursue success in their public relations career without making race or ethnicity an issue. More than one third report feeling very satisfied with their career choice, and more than half say they are somewhat satisfied. Significantly, only seven percent describe their career as somewhat unsatisfying. A large majority of respondents say that they have opportunities to work on projects that have no direct relation to their ethnicity, and most feel that they have opportunity for recognition in the broader PR community. Respondents also feel that their ethnic backgrounds and culture are valued in the workplace as a genuine asset.  Only one in 10 described their racial or ethnic identity as a liability in being successful.

Recruitment – Nearly two thirds of young pros and employers report that the PR industry is either successful (17%) or somewhat successful (42%) in recruiting a diverse workforce, while 41% say the industry is not successful. Employer perceptions closely mirror those of the young professionals’ impressions about industry success in recruitment.
In focus groups, young pros expressed the belief that the industry has taken steps to be more inclusive, especially in recruitment. Survey findings indicate that young professionals who work in not-for-profit and government sectors are more positive about recruitment than those in corporate and agency settings. Young professionals who work for smaller agencies report more success than those who work for mid-size or large firms.

Retention – A meaningful gap in perception exists between employers and young professionals regarding industry efforts to retain a diverse workforce. 79% of employers say the industry is very to somewhat successful, compared to only 67% of young professionals. One third of young professionals say the industry is not successful in retaining a diverse workforce, compared to only one fifth of employers. Only 6% of young pros and 7% of employers think the PR industry is very successful in retention. Both young pros and employers felt that human resource professionals provided little value to addressing the professional development needs of young multicultural professionals, an area which may suggest further exploration.

Perceived Racial Bias and  Double Standards – In the survey, both Black and Hispanic young practitioners report incidents of perceived discrimination. Focus group participants also detailed examples of daily workplace biases, inadvertent or not. Findings include:  
  • Believing they have not been afforded the same opportunities in the PR field as their Caucasian counterparts (56%)
  • Not feeling genuinely respected by colleagues (43%)
  • Believing they have to be more qualified than a Caucasian employee in the same situation (45%)
  • Believing that multicultural practitioners are put on “a slow moving track” (44% say frequently or often, 43% say sometimes)
  • Believing they are not treated with genuine respect by colleagues (43%), and anecdotally report experiencing racial bias in the workplace
In focus group discussions, participants mentioned experiencing instances of verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate derogatory or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.  These situations may be undermining efforts to create an environment of inclusion.  The study showed this seems to be more of a concern for African American professionals than Hispanics.

Recommending the Profession to Others – While the young Hispanic and Black public relations professionals are committed to their career in PR, (91% say they hope to be in their PR career five years from now)  just over half (54%) say they would recommend PR, but with the caveat that they would provide advice and share concerns about being Black or Hispanic in the PR field. Less than half (44%) say they would, with no caveats, recommend PR as a career path to other Black and Hispanic college students. “This is particularly significant,” Appelbaum noted, “given that today’s young adults are in constant contact with their peers. Their social media ‘word of mouth’ feedback can impact perceptions of PR as a career for multicultural professionals, and could thus affect the future talent pool for industry recruitment efforts.”

Mentoring Matters – Survey respondents emphasize the importance of having a great mentor who is either a supervisor or peer to support their professional development in their immediate workplace group. While mentors of any race can be important, respondents placed a higher value of mentorship by a senior executive of the same race and a peer of the same race. Good supervisor/mentors who were the same race or another race were found to be equally important.  Focus group findings indicate that formal diversity programs are often less effective for young multicultural pros, compared with a great mentor who is a supervisor or peer, or even another professional outside the organization.  Many respondents also cite the value of affinity professional organizations, such as The Hispanic Public Relations Association, the Black Public Relations Society, or Color Comm in helping young professionals build their network for mentors and professional support.

“This survey is part of the PRSA Foundation’s initiative to drive diversity in the PR industry,” said Capozzi. “Employers and organizations like ours have been active on their own in addressing diversity issues. Now it’s time for us to work together to accelerate progress – to create tools and approaches that can be used by all -- and make an industry-wide impact.  The Foundation is happy to be a catalyst for identifying, developing and providing access to those tools.

“Our next step is making sure that employers are aware of the findings and consider what they mean to their organizations,” he added.  “We’re holding small group briefings, webinars, and presentations at professional association meetings to do just that.  Later this year we will undertake a comprehensive effort to aggregate existing industry research into a focused set of options drawing on learnings from other industries as well as from PR companies and leaders.  Then in 2016 we will partner with major industry groups to convene a think tank to laser in on specific actions we can take as an industry to meaningfully address this issue and to continue to monitor and focus on progress toward an industry-wide goal,” he added.

The survey was supported by a grant from Wells Fargo, research sponsor and a Founding Sponsor for the Foundation’s PRIME program, as well as the Foundation’s other PRIME Founding Sponsors:  American Express, The Coca Cola Company, Cox Enterprises, Edelman, Fleishman Hillard. GE,  Hill+Knowlton Strategies, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Ketchum, Ogilvy Public Relations. Prudential, Univision and Weber Shandwick.
A full report is posted on the PRSA Foundation website.
About the PRSA Foundation
The PRSA Foundation, an independent, 501 (c)(3) charity, supports outreach to diverse students to attract them to PR and make them better prepared to contribute to the profession, and to society, when they enter the workforce through partnerships with leading universities and professional organizations. For more information regarding the PRSA Foundation,visit

About The City College of New York
Since 1847, The City College of New York has provided low-cost, high-quality education for New Yorkers in a wide variety of disciplines. More than 16,000 students pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in: the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture; the School of Education; the Grove School of Engineering; the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education, and the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. U.S. News, Princeton Review and Forbes all rank City College among the best colleges and universities in the United States.
Wendy Gallo, PRSA Foundation


Syd Steinhardt, CCNY
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