The Road to Diversity: An Interview with PRSA Foundation President Torod Neptune

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Torod Neptune, PRSA Foundation President and VP of Corporate Communications at Verizon Communications

PRSA Foundation President Torod Neptune sat down with IPR President & CEO Tina McCorkindale to discuss the future of diversity in the field of public relations.

What attracted you to the position of president with the PRSA Foundation?

Originally I was inspired about the opportunity to support expanding the pool of talented, equipped practitioners entering the communications field through the Foundation’s work, largely focused at the time on scholarships.

However, over the past two years, as we have evolved the Foundation’s mission to focus specifically on the issue of diversity in our industry, I have become an even more passionate advocate for the Foundation and this important cause. This new mission is really a natural extension of what I see as my role as a senior practitioner in the field.

What are some of the projects you would like to accomplish your first year?

Strategically, I’d really like to see the Foundation focus on a concept I’ve made a priority for my Verizon team, which is what we refer to as ‘impact at scale.’ It means focusing on fewer things, but ensuring the few things we do engage in or support are critical areas where we can meaningfully impact (at scale) the issue. In this case increasing the diverse talent pool employed by our profession.

It also means we’ll be thoughtful about what role we play – individual contributor, convener, or facilitator – for any given initiative. I’d like to see the Foundation spend more effort undertaking collaborative work with others who are doing great work, so that our collective efforts have a better chance at driving significant impact. Whether it’s the LAGRANT Foundation, Arthur W. Page Society, Institute for Public Relations, or the PR Council I don’t really care. I just want what we pursue to be impactful and meaningfully add to solving the problem, once and for all, not just contributing to the dialogue.

I wanted to ask you some specific questions about diversity. If you had to give a grade on a report card, what would you give the PR industry as a whole for diversity?

Across the public relations landscape, including corporate and agency, we are probably at a B- or C. There are also caveats. I believe corporate does a much better job than agencies here. Consistently, we have done better year-over-year in our efforts to recruit diverse talent, but where we clearly have work to do is in retention.

Recently the PRSA Foundation released several studies. One of these studies by Lynn Appelbaum and Frank Walton found that five out of six survey respondents think the PR industry has not demonstrated much success in recruiting a diverse workforce. Why do you think that is? What are the barriers?

That study was insightful. There are two things from the Appelbaum/Walton research that struck me as worth taking a step back and seriously considering. Overall, it’s clear that perceptions are really hard to change. On a micro level, practitioners may be in a small group, where they see only one, two, or three people who look like them in an organization. So in those instances what looks like progress at the leadership or manager level may actually not feel like progress at the practitioner level. But I believe there is still a truth here we all have to embrace. We need to see AND feel progress across the board.

On a macro level, you see progress in a different way. The research also clearly pointed toward some issues we need to address that go squarely to the retention challenge I referenced earlier. For example, we see that once we hire diverse talent there is a push toward what I refer to as cultural assimilation.  These are all unconscious things that are part of how the people and teams within our organizations operate and behave. The research hints at subtle socialization activities that happen as part of the work day that in some ways, makes diverse talent feel pressured to do the things that are popular for the organization but that may run counter to a particular individual’s value system.

We also see that we need to think differently, or maybe creatively, about the hiring process. We know that people are generally more comfortable hiring people who look like them, talk like them, and make them feel comfortable. Whether this is unconscious or not, it’s a critical need that we have to address, across the board.  It goes to how we ensure all the intellectual resources necessary to ensure we hiring the best and brightest within our organizations is not influences by things our hiring managers may not realize are contributing to unsuccessful experiences that turn off diverse talent – consciously and unconsciously. We also have to think hard about how they are managed in terms of training, development, mentoring and etc. In this arena, the hiring might have been the easiest part of the equation. Retention requires a full court press.

What are our next steps as a profession?

I firmly believe that this issue boils down to leadership and courage.

By and large we know what we need to do here. The research is there. There are also some unbelievable best practices across our profession. There are even more examples of companies and agencies that are doing some innovative things in terms of recruitment and retention.

But at the end of the day, more than anything, we need a collective bias for action.

If you could wave a magic wand, what would you like to see done?

I’d like to see action. What’s the saying – Don’t Tell Me. Show Me. We have conducted research. We know pieces and parts of what works. Now we just have to do it. Do something. So, with my magic wand, we would collectively make bold, aggressive decision and drive toward actions.

Torod Neptune is Corporate Vice President of Corporate Communications at Verizon Communications, Inc. and President of PRSA Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @torodneptune.

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