When did Diversity become the same as Multicultural?

When I began working in PR in 1993, the terms “multicultural” and “diversity” were rarely used. I was aware of their meanings of course, but the words themselves did not come up in conversation often – if ever. It wasn’t until I left the smaller PR firm scene and entered the big agency world in the late 90’s that I was exposed to these terms more frequently, specifically in the business realm.   Melissa Smith - RLPR

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, I clearly knew what multicultural meant, but it was my everyday life – something you lived without thinking … it wasn’t an “initiative” or a target market, or even a word in your vocabulary. In fact it was not until I went to college in the Midwest that I realized how culturally diverse my life was. I can still recall missing the energy, restlessness and variety that I took for granted in New York, after I landed in St. Louis (at Washington University) where all three of those characteristics were alarmingly absent.

Once I began working at GCI Group (now Cohn & Wolfe), I learned simultaneously about the practice of multicultural marketing, and the lack of diversity in the PR industry. Those two concepts were etched into my mind as distinct and not interchangeable: multicultural marketing was reaching out to different ethnic groups, and diversity was what was (or wasn’t) going on internally – in our industry and in our company. I believe it was back then – pre 9/11 – that HR departments began their official diversity initiatives, and big agencies began putting out their “diversity reports” – all aimed at raising awareness of the obvious lack of diversity in our industry in an effort to show that they were doing something about it.

Now that I specialize in multicultural public relations and proudly work at a company that many would call “diverse” given it is owned by an Argentine woman and staffed by brilliant folks from all over the world, these two terms live comfortably together. However, these terms still mean to me what they meant before. I am simply uniquely positioned to be living within both. I am one of the lucky ones.

The unlucky ones in my opinion are still working at companies that have to have diversity taskforces. These companies may offer multicultural marketing services, or they may still focus on the (shrinking) general market. But they will most likely all tell you that they have an interest in and commitment to representing and reflecting the changing make-up of our country. Just look at PR Week’s annual Diversity Study and see what our industry leaders are saying.

But what seems to be confusing me of late is that these two terms, used distinctly in our business, are becoming increasingly diluted – slowly melding into one. PR executives and company decision makers are patting themselves on the back for their increase in diverse hirings, which, they will also say in the same breath, allows them to tap more effectively into the multicultural communities. Does that mean they are becoming more conscientious in their hirings in order to excel in new business practices? Now that wouldn’t be very PC, would it?

This all really came to head a couple weeks ago when PRSA decided to consolidate its Diversity Committee and Multicultural Section. It had been my understanding that the Diversity Committee focused on helping promote the hiring and growth of “multicultural” PR professionals, while the Multicultural Section was a community of people who specialized in that discipline. These two segments are not the same, and yet now it seems in the mind of PRSA, they are.

I find this unfortunate and frustrating, but I suppose I am not too surprised. For those of us who specialize in reaching different ethnic populations, it has always been difficult to explain the importance of having awareness, sensitivity and insight when working with niche audiences. PRSA’s decision may simply be showcasing that they still don’t get that. If our industry’s most prominent national organization can’t figure it out, is their hope that the hundreds of public relations agencies (and other marketing businesses for that matter) will? I’ll be an optimist for once and hope that the 2010 Census will be a wake-up call for the surprising many who are still sound asleep. Rise and shine folks and take a look around: things are changing.

Melissa Smith is Executive Vice President at RL Public Relations + Marketing.  She can be reached at melissa.smith@rlpublicrelations.com.