As PR Week noted in 2018, like many other industries and professions, “the communications sector has a diversity problem, with too few people of color – and far too few diverse individuals in high-ranking positions.” PR Week also created a video that underscores what it’s like to be Black in public relations.

I discussed this situation with Dr. K. Dawn Rutledge, who, during a long and distinguished career in communication and PR, was often the first and only person of color in the room.

Dawn, who graduated from our program in 2012, is one of six members of the International Association of Business Communicators’ (IABC) Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, which is exploring ways that our profession can bring about change.

Here’s what Dawn had to say.


The business case for diversity in communication


Why is diversity so important in any communication discipline? A recent example comes to mind. The clothing retailer H&M had to apologize for an image appearing in its online store that showed a Black child model wearing a sweatshirt that said ‘coolest monkey in the jungle.’ The ad justifiably caused an uproar on social media. The company responded by removing the online image and the sweatshirt from its stores worldwide. A major PR blunder!

How did this happen? Was there anyone in the room paying attention and saying ‘this image is culturally insensitive to people of color and we shouldn’t be doing this.’ Mistakes like this one happen all too often. That’s why you need diverse voices around the table, voices that can express a wide range of life experiences and cultural perspectives.

Quite honestly, a problem is that the decision makers in many organizations are white males. They are not going to think like I am because they haven’t walked in my shoes. And it’s not enough to have a token Black person or Asian person at the table. The members of your communication team need to feel like they can speak freely about their experiences and why they’re bringing up a certain issue. You need a multiplicity of voices at the table!

Diversity in your communication department, in short, makes business sense. You reduce the kind of reputation risk that H&M experienced. You reduce the risk of lawsuits and alienating customers. Because we know that our customers, our stakeholders, in most cases, are also becoming more diverse. Oh, and it’s the right thing to do.


Bringing about change in the communication field


I was asked to participate on IABC’s diversity and inclusion task force. One of the things that the task force is working on is how do we genuinely engage in this conversation around equity and inclusion; not only as it relates to IABC’s membership, but also to the communications field in general. There are no more excuses!

We also must do a better job of attracting and retaining minority talent. We’ve got to practice what we preach. Students – and not just students of color – should see role models in the profession, people who will be able to mentor them as they progress in their careers. The communication curriculum should emphasize what it takes to understand stakeholder groups with a wide range of cultural backgrounds and expectations and to equip all students with the cross-cultural skills and knowledge that they will need to grow and excel in the field.

I’m very hopeful that we can and will bring more voices to the table!

Editor’s note: In June 2020, President Joseph Aoun announced several significant steps to demonstrate Northeastern’s commitment to advance justice and cultural literacy and to help eradicate systemic racism.

Posted by Carl Zangerl, Faculty


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