Photo by Krista Coriaty/CSULB Bateman team

Making the Effort

Working to fix Public Relations’ lack of diversity

By Rachel Wilson, Contributor

Panelist Christopher Cathcart (leftmost) listens to a student. Photo by Krista Coriaty/CSULB Bateman team

Remaining two steps ahead of the curve is essential for public relations professionals, but when it comes to diversity and inclusion within the workforce, it seems as though the industry has fallen far behind.  

This concept was the main focus of the CSULB Bateman team’s campaign this year, and on March 1, 2019, they partnered with CSULA’s PRSSA chapter to host a panel on diversity to discuss the current state of inclusion in the public relations industry. Students from CSULB and CSULA were invited to attend the panel, where public relations professionals spoke about their personal experiences and opinions regarding diversity in the workplace.

“Making diversity intentional is the first step to boosting inclusion efforts,” said Welela Makonnen, social impact coordinator at 21st Century Fox. “To do so, we must practice mindfulness and examine current systems to see if these solutions are in fact equitable and sustainable.”

The ethnic breakdown of the public relations industry in the U.S. is 87.9 percent white. Even though it’s a profession focused on strategic communication amongst a variety of publics without a diverse and inclusive workforce, the industry is missing integral communication opportunities that can help spread a message beyond one audience.

"Making diversity intentional is the first step to boosting inclusion efforts."

There's too much tribalism in today's world,” said Tirris Gates, communications manager at FinchFactor. “Agencies need to take a look at themselves and make sure they're doing everything they can do if they publicly call for more diversity and inclusion in the industry.” 

Analyzing current hiring practices made by agencies and in-house departments and altering them to be more inclusive seemed to be the agreeable starting point for companies to create a more diverse workplace.

The biggest excuse I’ve heard is that people of color aren’t applying, but I think that’s just a way to ignore the conversation,” said Sarem Berhanu, CSULB alumni and public relations specialist. “There are plenty of talented, creative minds out there that want to do public relations. If they aren’t applying like agencies have said, then companies should make an extra effort to expand their hiring pool.”

A woman with a scarf speaks to students
Panelist Welela Makonnen (leftmost) is a social impact coordinator at 21st Century Fox. Photo by Krista Coriaty/CSULB Bateman team

When asked what the industry as a whole could do to make a stronger effort to increase diversity, the answers focused on the impact of internships.

“There shouldn’t be a reason to have pipeline programs, such as internships and/or fellowships, that are not resulting in full-time employment opportunities or internal candidates of color being overlooked for promotions by their [white] counterparts,” explained Makonnen. “As a result, no genuine progress can be made in having our workspaces reflect the world around us if we are not able to bring our authentic selves to the table.”

“It’s great that this is an issue that people want to talk about, but it’s also somewhat disheartening that we still have to discuss it at all."

The relaxed atmosphere allowed students to freely discuss issues and ideas they felt influence the expansion of diversity.  The conversation of unpaid internships explored the idea that minority groups may not be able to afford to work an unpaid internship. Therefore, they miss out on experience opportunities that would otherwise help set them apart from other candidates.

“The industry, as broadly defined, must work with college public relations programs, extend mentoring opportunities and expand internships to encourage young people of all backgrounds to consider the profession,” said Christopher Cathcart, public relations expert. “These things can happen on the national, regional and local levels by companies of all sizes.”

A man in a green hat speaks to sutdents
Panelist Tirris Gates (rightmost) is the communications manager at FinchFactor. Photo by Krista Coriaty/CSULB Bateman team.

The students that attended the panel agreed that the industry should make greater efforts to welcome people of diverse backgrounds if they want the industry to continue to grow and succeed.

“It’s great that this is an issue that people want to talk about, but it’s also somewhat disheartening that we still have to discuss it at all,” said Cathcart. “I am, however, very pleased in how many young students of all backgrounds are talking about this now and in an organized manner. This bodes well for the future.”

The workplace should reflect the diversity that makes up every community, and this panel allowed students to gain a deeper understanding of how impactful increasing diversity can be in the public relations profession. Increasing the conversation about inclusivity is just the first step to change the actions of an entire industry, but it is the most important step in creating a workplace that reflects the publics it serves.