Q/A: PRSA Launches Major Diversity Initiative

Rosanna Fiske, a principal with Rise Strategies (Coral Gables, Fla.), has been touring the college circuit for the last 12 years, educating students who are studying communications on the particulars of PR. In the late 1990s, however, she started to see a change in the complexion of her audiences. As opposed to more homogenized crowds, "I would see in the front rows Asians, Hispanics, African-Americans and people of Indian background," said Fiske, chair of PRSA's National Diversity Committee. "I started to think, 'Whoa! they're going to be our next generation of PR professionals, as well as our audiences, and we better start to do something about it.'" For the next several years Fisk pushed the PRSA to tackle diversity, one of the foremost - and nettlesome - problems facing corporate America. The result: a comprehensive new plan called "Advancing Diversity," which is designed to bring together various elements that promote multiculturalism in both the PR industry and the larger business community. The idea is to help PRSA's 20,000 professional members and 8,000 student members -- as well as nonmembers -- get a leg up on diversity. Dramatic shifts in U.S. demographics are changing the dynamics of both the workplace and marketing tools. The numbers help tell the story. Between 1990 and 2000, for example, the U.S.-Hispanic market (35 million people) grew by 58%, while the projected disposable income among Hispanics will reach $1 trillion by 2010, according to Fiske. (Hispanics will be the largest ethnic group in the U.S. by 2015.) In addition, 12% of Asian-Americans earn $75,000 or more annually (compared with 10% of the Caucasian market), while 40% of Asians are employed as managers. Indeed, the window for advancing diversity is getting smaller. Similar to corporate social responsibility (CSR), companies ignore advancing diversity at their own peril. They can sit back, do nothing and watch their companies gradually become irrelevant (in their respective markets) or start to make the kinds of changes that will better reflect the changing face of America - and keep their companies profitable. PR NEWS recently chatted with Fiske about the Diversity plan, which rolls out this week. PRN: The PRSA's diversity plan has lots of moving parts. What do you see as the two or three essential elements that will serve to advance diversity throughout the PR profession? Fiske: There are three main components. One is the commitment from leadership and that's a highly important element. We've talked around the issue a lot, but in the last two years there's been a real commitment of resources and an admittance that maybe we haven't been so savvy [on diversity] and need to provide more knowledge. The second and third elements are the information and expertise provided to PRSA chapters through the Diversity Tool Kit, Web site and Diversity Experts (see sidebar). PRN: What are the dangers for companies that fail to embrace diversity, particularly firms that have global services, and what can senior PR execs do at a practical level to fuel diversity? Fiske: A lot of companies are 'afraid' of diversity because there is so much out there and they don't know how to get started. It's not that they don't want to, but they may have very little budget to deal with it. Still, we're not moving backward, but forward. As PR executives, your CEOs and clients look to you as forecasters on what needs to be done today to communicate more effectively tomorrow. If you're not thinking about who you're going to be communicating with tomorrow you're going to have a problem because these groups are going to become your audiences. PRN: Do companies and PR execs get tripped up between "diversity" versus "affirmative action?" Fiske: Absolutely. Affirmative action was initiated by the government and is really a human resource issue and a numbers game whereas diversity is multifunctional: knowledge, sales, communications, new products. It encompasses an entire organization regardless of the industry you're in. The changes have to be market-driven and the stats say that if you don't do anything today you will fail tomorrow...Changes in ethnic markets will be deciding so many things in the years ahead, in terms of political elections, legislation and new product development. PRN: At a recent Counselors Academy meeting, one member of a diversity panel said the complexion of the luncheon he had just attended reminded him of 1954 America and not 2004, suggesting that the PR industry is well behind the 8-ball when it comes to diversity. Do you agree? Fiske: I don't believe PRSA is 1954 America but maybe it resembles 1984 America. We do have some diversity but we're way behind...We need to be better at this. Good issues management is says, 'We know we have these issues and what can we do to deal with them.' But you have to change the very fabric -- and very core -- of the organization. PRN: What are some of the ways that PR execs can outreach to ethnic communities? Fiske: You need in-house expertise, whether corporate, agency or nonprofit. Executives can also reach out by speaking at traditionally diverse colleges and universities that are looking to enhance their media programs. There are also now more ethnic media products on the market than ever. I saw a magazine recently for the Polish-Jewish-African- American market! These products are readily available so it just depends on what market you're in. It's also a matter of getting out there. My husband recently went to a soccer game in Florida where he saw eight different flags from various groups. That speaks volumes to where we're going as a country. PRN: PR executives on both the corporate and agency sides of the business are in the business of creating PR campaigns. What would be your advice to companies that are thinking about developing their own diversity initiatives? What should be the focal point? Fiske: You can't fit diversity into an existing business model. It has to be a new model with new flexibilities. When you try to reproduce the New York [PR] agency model, sometimes it won't work because you're operating in a different market. It's the same thing with diversity, in that you can't apply your crisis plan to diversity. You need to allow for flexibility because so much of diversity is learn as you go. [By not creating organic diversity plans] companies are missing a huge opportunity to enhance their credibility with audiences that are thirsting for information and knowledge. Contact: Rosanna Fiske, 305.740.3200, rfiske@prmiami.com. Key Elements of PRSA's 'Advancing Diversity' Plan: Enhanced Online Career Web site: Diversity PRos was created in response to the need and demand in communication employment for a pool of candidates with diversity experience. The Job Center helps employers identify individuals who have PR experience, special training or personal interest and skills in the areas of multicultural communications and diversity and vice versa ( http://www.diversity.prsa.org) Diversity Tool Kit: Resource contains diversity-related research, materials, applicable tools, professional development opportunities, as well as links to key organizations More Diverse News Services: PRSA has signed agreements with HispanicPRWire and BlackPRWire to provide news feeds directly onto the PRSA home page Diversity Experts: A network of experts who are available to speak about the increasingly important role diversity plays in corporate America

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