Bridging the Divide: A Multidisciplinary Analysis of Diversity Research and the Implications for Public Relations

Dean E. Mundy, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon | dmundy@uoregon.edu

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Executive Summary
This paper reviews diversity-focused research in public relations to identify the key findings, trends, remaining gaps, and best practices regarding how public relations theory and practice can better reflect a diversity focus. To that end, the analysis also pulls in findings from diversity-focused organizational management and organizational psychology literature, in order to understand the business climate and organizational context that public relations practitioners must navigate. The key findings from the two areas of literature parallel each other in important ways and provide specific diversity-focused communication mandates and best practices for public relations.

Public relations diversity-focused literature falls into three main categories: diversity in the public relations workplace; how organizations are leveraging public relations to reach and engage diverse stakeholders; and the growing call for better connection between diversity and daily public relations practice through a multicultural perspective. Among the key takeaways, scholars emphasized that racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace has improved, but much work is needed, particularly regarding access to management positions. Success with diversity efforts begins with leadership itself; leadership must reflect and be directly involved with diversity initiatives. That said, more research is needed regarding markers of diversity beyond race, ethnicity, and gender, as well as the intersections of diversity. In exploring how various types of organizations apply public relations best practices to reach and engage diverse external audiences, scholars increasingly are calling for public relations to drive dialogue with key publics in a way that helps organizations move beyond viewing diversity as important simply because it provides a competitive advantage. In other words, public relations must help build the true value of diversity to organizational culture and convey that value to key publics, while reflecting and addressing broader cultural expectations. Diversity cannot be something distinct from the daily life of a practitioner, yet that connection remains lacking.

The organizational management literature reviewed reflects many of the findings in public relations and falls into three key categories: the traditional business case for diversity and inclusion (D&I), how to improve diverse representation in organizations, and how to move beyond the business case into a more culturally driven focus on “valuing diversity.” This research has explained that the original rationale for D&I leveraged the equality paradigm, which emphasized organizations’ legal and moral imperative to drive diversity. The business case for diversity then emerged as a more effective, tangible rationale for forging a diverse and inclusive organization. It argues that a more diverse organization leads to more creative and inclusive thinking, provides a competitive edge, heightens an organization’s social license to operate, and creates more success in the marketplace. Increasingly, however, scholars have revealed the shortcomings of the business case paradigm. They have called for diversity to become a more substantial driver of an organization’s culture and for organizations to take up the mantle of social justice. Simply put, while much of the literature has focused on the benefits of a diverse workforce and the importance of accountability and action by leadership, there are increasing calls for D&I to go further. Organizations must understand that the business case for D&I risks reducing diversity to a commodity, where diverse groups can be exploited. These scholars emphasized the organization’s responsibility to the individual, and the individual experience, not just to the positive contribution that perspective has in the marketplace.

The research across public relations and organizational management indicates several, consistent key takeaways that inform public relations theory and practice. Taking up the specific public relations call for theory and practice to better reflect a multicultural perspective, this paper ultimately proposes an actionable model to operationalize how the public relations function can navigate and help champion diversity-specific mandates. It posits that public relations’ diversity-specific mandates include addressing structural dynamics (communicating the policies and programs that aid individuals professionally while conveying the benefits of recruiting and retaining diverse employees) as well as cultural dynamics (exploring individual difference as a way to help organizations evolve while responding to external cultural mandates from the communities an organization serves). Public relations’ diversity-specific mandates simultaneously include responding to the needs of internal and external publics. Thus, the mandates facing public relations fall into four categories: Internal-structural, internal-cultural, external-structural, external-cultural. As explained, however, more research is needed. Important studies have provided key insight and important benchmarks, but questions remain.

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Download Full Paper (PDF): Bridging the Divide: A Multidisciplinary Analysis of Diversity Research and the Implications for Public Relations

Posted in [Research Journal], IPR Signature Studies.

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