Survey: Organizations value diversity, inclusion but need to convey it better

July 14, 2015

Dean Mundy

Anyone who has worked for a large organization at any point in the last decade or so has heard leadership talk about the importance of diversity. For a generation, we’ve heard companies claim, “Our organization is committed to diversity” or “Our organization wants to be seen as the industry’s champion of diversity and inclusion.” In fact, ten years ago, a coalition of leading public relations professional organizations issued a “call to arms” of sorts, for public relations to take the lead on organizational diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts, arguing, “Public relations and communications professionals have an important role to play in seeing that there is a sustained focus on diversity in American life. They can integrate the communications strategies that will produce positive outcomes in making their organizations more diverse. They can become advocates for diversity and influence others to follow. They can make a difference” (PR Coalition, 2005, p. 11).

So, after a decade in the corporate world hearing these calls for diversity, followed by several years in higher education hearing the same calls, I wondered, “To what extent (and how) has the public relations function responded?” With the support of the Arthur W. Page Center and help from the Public Relations Society of America, I distributed a 30-question survey to 5,000 public relations professionals (PRSA members) gauging their perspectives regarding (1) the general value of diversity to organizations, (2) the specific types of policies and programs that organizations have implemented and (3) the role public relations has played in conveying those values and policies to key stakeholders.

The first set of findings supports what we’ve heard from a decade of research, and the practical implications are four-fold: (1) Valuing diversity and inclusion reflects the principles of a good citizen. (2) Diversity allows organizations to hear from varied perspectives, which leads to creative thinking, cutting edge decision-making and a more nimble company. (3) The more your organization reflects the diversity of your marketplace, the more effectively you can anticipate and respond to that marketplace. (4) It starts with leadership, but it requires more than just saying the right words. Your top leaders—not just your employee base—must reflect the diversity of your key stakeholders; leaders also must set the tone.

There’s a major disconnect, however, when it comes to the role of the public relations function. In short, 74% of respondents said that conveying organizational diversity values externally is important. That said, when asked, “how” this external communication happens, responses were limited (beyond inclusion in employee recruitment material). In fact, “not applicable” ranked third among 11 options (select all that apply), receiving more responses than “social media,” “product launches,” and “B2B pitches,” combined.

So, what are the practical implications here? Simply put, we need to determine a way to better convey D&I values externally. It needs to become part of the public relations process, or at least a discussion point during the planning stage. If organizations value D&I, if they’re committing resources to D&I policies and programs, and if quality D&I initiatives are good for business, then why the heck limit an organization’s D&I efforts to employee recruitment materials and perhaps an obscure page on the organization’s website? Of course, organizations must do so ethically—first and foremost. But ask yourself, if you’re doing the tough, good work of making D&I a fundamental part of your organization’s culture, are you leveraging all possible organization-public touchpoints in your communication outreach?

  • Dean Mundy, assistant professor at the University of Oregon, presented his research at the International Communication Association’s preconference titled Ethical Stakeholder Engagement: A Showcase of Projects from the Arthur W. Page Center.