New Course on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Reveals Steps to ‘A Better World’

When ComArtSci launched the new Public Relations major, the college offered students and professors a new lesson in inclusion

“We all want a better world that does not tolerate injustice and disparities based on one’s identity,” said Assistant Professor of Advertising Anastasia Kononova, Ph.D. “Through class conversations, we found that this desired better world is possible when we start recognizing how different we are from each other.”

Kononova taught a new course on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Public Relations and Advertising in the fall at Michigan State University. The course was built into the new Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations from the program’s inception in 2020.

PR 310 is required for all students who pursue the Public Relations major, a program that’s housed in the Department of Advertising + Public Relations at MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. Under the leadership of Department Chair Teresa Mastin, Ph.D., the course was developed with input from MSU faculty and insight from the college’s sustained dialogues.

With Power Comes Responsibility

Under the trend of ‘cancel culture,’ a company only has to make one big mistake to lose patronage or be labeled obsolete. That mistake can happen in a product launch, an advertising campaign, a public relations message, or even in the missteps of company leadership or spokespeople.

Mastin points to many examples of companies that have created campaigns that either resonated with diverse audiences or failed to effectively communicate a message. She also points to case studies and highlights mishaps where a brand struggled to recover from an unethical move, such as The Richards Group, which lost many clients in 2020.

“The power that we have in advertising and public relations to bring an image into someone’s home gives us a great responsibility,” said Mastin. “As professionals, it’s our responsibility to take the gamut of human experience into consideration.”

The PR 310 course not only teaches students how to navigate an increasingly complex society, but it also helps students to understand their own lived experience—including their privileges and biases and ways they may’ve been disenfranchised. The course also teaches students strategies that will prepare them to become successful leaders in communications.

“If we’re talking about reaching a population, we have to know how to relate to their perspective,” said Mastin. “What I’m trying to create is a space where we can have a knowledge-based conversation. I tell the students we’re not going to talk in sound bites. If they have a sound bite they would like to discuss, we can discuss that, but I would like the students to know where that soundbite is coming from.”

Discovering Our Differences

The interactive discussions allow students to share and discover as much they can about others who are different from them, without forcing the class too far outside of its comfort zone. Students bring a broad range of perspectives to the course, while the professors focus on facilitating a productive dialogue.

“This is not about changing anyone’s opinion. This is about offering another perspective,” said Mastin. “Because I am an African-American woman, I want students to know that this is not about my opinion. Instead, I want students to know me, know what makes me tick. In return, I hope they will allow me to know them, to know their experience.”

Despite launching when classes were restricted to remote learning, the course has inspired students to engage with one another and with their professors. Already, Kononova has experienced several uplifting moments.

“I discovered that our students are very aware of social inequalities and injustices, and they are not okay with that. This means that they are eager to learn about strategies to mitigate these social problems,” Kononova said. “I was worried about students’ perceptions of the course as something ‘required,’ ‘boring,’ ‘forced,’ and ‘to check the mark.’ They did not have such perceptions! They understood the value of the course right away and helped me make this educational experience meaningful!”

In the midst of the global pandemic, her students attended Zoom classes weekly, participated in discussions, wrote papers, and read and watched the assigned materials with interest and enthusiasm.

“I am very grateful for my students and their genuine response to the class,” said Kononova. “In the DEI class, we talk about multiple dimensions of social identity, including gender and sexual orientation, socioeconomic class and access to health services, race and ethnicity, religion, country of origin, age, having a disability, and others.”

She said ‘belongingness’ captures her goal for students better than the term ‘inclusion.’

“The idea of diversity, equity, and belongingness goes beyond mere representation,” said Kononova. “If your communications agency has employees with diverse backgrounds, do they feel like they truly belong? Are they treated in an equitable manner? Are they welcomed to speak up about their identities and experiences?”

‘A Better World’ in Advertising

One timely topic that comes up in the course is how students and their mentors might bring about positive change.

“We agree on the idea that the professional world of public relations and advertising should be improved to achieve equity,” said Kononova. “We may, of course, disagree on the ways of getting there.”

“It’s important to teach this course to keep up with the social change,” said Kononova. “This change did not start recently. It has been inspired by decades of developments in our culture, economy, and scientific-technological progress, among other areas. Today, greater numbers of people with different identities, backgrounds, and experiences enter educational institutions and the workplace as well as become leaders. The media environment allows for voices of those who used to be invisible and marginalized to be heard and accounted for.”

Educational and professional practices should reflect and adjust to such changes, Kononova said.

Two of the course’s learning outcomes include the realization that sometimes PR and advertising practitioners do not apply tailored strategies to appeal to specific audiences or, if they do, they do not do it properly; and the acknowledgment of the homogeneity of the PR and advertising professions.

“There are many reasons why it is important to offer the diversity, equity, and belongingness,” said Kononova. “It helps us learn how to accept and empathize with each other, acknowledge and respect our differences, be open to doing things new ways, and build a better future based on the diversity of identities and views. This learning outcome is not only about reaching diverse PR and advertising audiences; it is about building a better workplace and leadership.”

People of diverse backgrounds are underrepresented in many areas of the industry, though some efforts to build more diverse workplaces are gaining momentum. Notably, the 600 & Rising movement started in 2020, organizing a nonprofit to advocate and advance Black talent in U.S. advertising agencies. These efforts still have far to go.

“While the gender gap in the professional field of public relations and advertising continues to close, there is still a lack of diversity in other areas related to ethnicity/race, sexual orientation, disability, religion, country of origin, and other,” said Kononova. “Moreover, this lack of diversity is even more pronounced when we look at profession’s leadership positions.”

Kononova said it’s important to identify these gaps in the workplace and develop strategies to close them.

“The change does not start in the office; it starts with education.”

By Melissa Priebe