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  • Writer's pictureTrinity Hunter, The University of Alabama

PR, DE&I and the Work That Still Remains

With diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) continuing to take center stage among large corporations, the focus has been on communicating this push with external priority publics. A quick Google search will elicit numerous websites outlining examples of diversity statements, as well as tips on how a company could create its own.

However, within the past few months, there have been two instances of workplace discrimination shared in the media. The first comes from Kiki Layne, a Black actress on the set of “Don’t Worry Darling,” a movie already notorious for its chaotic press tour and leaks of tension between actors on set. Layne alleges that most of her scenes from the movie were cut with little to no explanation.

Second, Kim Alsup, a Black crew member for Netflix series “Dahmer,” tweeted that working on the show was one of the worst experiences she has had. Alsup, whose tweets are now private to the general public, elaborated by saying that, although she was one of two Black women working on the set as crew members, co-workers and executives routinely confused the two, regardless of obvious differences. Like “Don’t Worry Darling,” this revelation comes after a series of frustrations toward the project, particularly from the Black and Brown LGBQTIA+ community. With most of Jeffery Dahmer’s victims holding these intersecting identities, families of the victims and others have expressed their anguish at the continued push to highlight Dahmer in true crime reenactments.

Though not necessarily in the public relations world, companies should take notes on the examples above.

Building strong organizational culture must be a priority for executives, preferably sitting at the same level of importance as externally positioned DE&I initiatives; after all, a body is only as structurally sound as its skeleton.

When it comes to internal accessibility and inclusivity, where can companies improve?

Kennedy Studdard works as a program manager for the 4A’s Foundation, an organization created to “advocate for and connect diverse talent in the marketing industry.” Studdard, a graduate of the public relations program at The University of Alabama, is also an alum of the Multicultural Advertising Intern Program (MAIP), a fellowship program designed to introduce students to the worlds of advertising and public relations.

Studdard said she saw the need for intentional diversity, equity and inclusion during her time in college. She remembers having few other Black students in her public relations courses, with most of them going in the direction of news media for their course of study. This trend continued once she reached the workplace, and Studdard even noted that, from time to time, entire leadership teams were white. Her observations are corroborated by recently released demographic statistics, with over 70% of the industry identifying as white.

As MAIP introduced her to more racial minorities, Studdard utilized her public relations background to move to human resources while employed at Ogilvy. She worked on equitable and inclusive recruitment tactics for the intern classes that would be entering the agency. Studdard acknowledged that one of the most difficult aspects of crafting a more equitable environment is convincing other people to care. Even through this, she decided to take on the responsibility herself.

“I want to create the diversity that everyone is trying to see,” Studdard said.

Jennifer West serves as an executive communications manager at HP, a global technology conglomerate responsible for laptops and other devices. Another alum of the UA public relations program, West graduated from the university in 2007. She interned with several agencies during her time in undergrad, and even moved on to working in the Georgia Senate, working in the press office and garnering an understanding for social media. After leaving her position in the Georgia General Assembly, West worked for Dow, a chemical manufacturing plant. In this position, she delved into the world of sustainability and media relations.

Within her role at HP, West supports the executive officer and her efforts to communicate with a global team of over 1,000 individuals. With each member of her team coming from different nationalities, primary languages and other identities, West acknowledged that intentional internal communication strategies are imperative to the success of an organization in the long term.

When asked where she saw a need for DE&I within her field, West pointed out that, in her opinion, the field is not where it needs to be in its efforts to move forward. Like Studdard, West is taking steps to improve diversity in the industry. To accomplish this goal, she has created an annual scholarship award at her alma mater, the College of Communication & Information Sciences at The University of Alabama.

“One of the most impactful things that we can do as professionals is to be the change we would like to see,” West said. “Instituting programs that will make it a point to seek out diverse talent is crucial to the growth of our field.”

So, what can employers glean from the information provided by Studdard and West?

According to West, executives have numerous areas that they can improve. One of these comes from the work done before marginalized students reach the workplace. She pointed out The LAGRANT Foundation, an organization founded by Kim Hunter to address the lack of diversity in advertising, public relations and marketing. Since 1998, the foundation has worked to provide scholarships, professional development opportunities, mentors and more to minority students. West uplifted the program as an example of what a deliberate focus on DE&I can do.

“I really like programs that are connectors,” West explained.

She expanded on her point by stating that public relations agencies must be bold in their search for talent; looking within the usual pool of larger universities is creating a blind spot to other talented students.

Another exclusionary practice of organizations is unpaid internships. According to West, this portion of the job description creates a divide within the potential employee pool. A student may be more than capable of completing the requirements of an internship, but the hiring process for an unpaid internship will immediately favor those who can afford to not be financially compensated.

Like West, Studdard had a list of necessary steps for executives if they wish to create an accessible and inclusive culture for their employees. First, she stated that the most successful DE&I practitioners are those who “understand the makeup of the organization.”

Achieving an inclusive workplace begins in the hiring process. Companies must hire a diverse team, one with an array of backgrounds and identities, if they want to reach a pinnacle of open-minded, dynamic collaboration. Second, Studdard stated that “accepting feedback and doing something with it” is critical to the success of an organization. As the world of DE&I continues to change, there must be people within the organization who are keeping tabs on the current events around them.

“If you don’t know these things, or you can’t turn to your organization to ask, then that is a problem that those perspectives are not there,” Studdard said.

Last, Studdard credits the emergence of the pandemic with showing employers that the lack of accessibility in workplace culture is no longer an option. Remote work has opened the door for people with compromised immune systems to work in more roles than before. It also helps other people who might want to work at a company without initiating the expensive process of moving. Remote work remaining an option only increases the pool of eligible applicants for an organization.

With all this information, what should college students just starting out know when searching for a job?

For Studdard, mentorship and research are two of the most critical steps an individual can take when beginning their career. She heavily credits her mentors with helping her reach the spaces she was aiming for, especially those who recognized how her identity as a Black woman could hinder her. Particularly during the summer of 2020, one marred by racial unrest within the United States, Studdard attributes her ability to navigate her personal and professional life to her support system.

Additionally, she highlighted the importance of asking questions and researching to find information about the companies before interviewing. Though no job experience is perfect, asking questions about client bases, salary expectations, organizational culture, work-life balance and more help to identify preferred job opportunities. Finally, Studdard made it clear that no person should shy away from applying for a position due to one of their identities.

“Don’t let your gender, skin color or ability keep you from applying for these jobs,” Studdard said. “Don’t stop yourself from applying because of imposter syndrome, ability and experience.”

West echoed the message of Studdard while also adding how meaningful connections can provide direction in a career. As she stated, connections help with understanding the craft and how it changes over time. Furthermore, companies are searching for more than a 4.0 GPA. College students will benefit from getting involved on campus by joining organizations that help them grow their creative portfolios.

Where do you think we will go from here?

In 2021, the Diversity Action Alliance found that only 21% of public relations professionals are racially or ethnically diverse. In addition, companies must grapple with other internal concerns such as ageism, power disparities and gender-based wage gaps.

To summarize, it is up to corporations and companies to recognize that structural change must be prioritized to the same, or even higher level, as externally facing adjustments.


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