How can you advance diversity? Break the silence. Start the conversation.

Contributed by, Tara Deering-Hansen

Principal, Sonder Public Relations

When I was asked to contribute an article highlighting PRSA National Diversity & Inclusion Month, I considered keeping it strictly professional and talking only about public relations tactics related to multicultural engagement. But as an African-American woman born and raised here in Des Moines, I thought there’s more I can personally contribute to this topic.

I believe one of the biggest roles we fill as PR professionals is to be storytellers. We tell the stories of our companies, customers and clients. The only way we can do that authentically is by having empathy and placing ourselves in their shoes. When it comes to telling stories that represent our rich diversity, we must go a step beyond adding diverse people to our marketing and communication materials. Instead of just faces on a page, we need to hear their voices.

How do you get authentic diverse voices in today’s highly divisive environment? You have to help make it comfortable for people to share their feelings and perspectives on uncomfortable topics, like race, politics, sexual orientation and immigration. Diversity is about creating an environment where everyone feels welcome and is encouraged to be heard.

When there’s silence, diversity suffers.

For me, a vivid example of this was in July 2016 following the deaths of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, by police officers, and the subsequent sniper shootings that killed five Dallas police officers. When Sterling and Castile were killed within 48 hours of each other, several minority friends on social media commented about a noticeable silence. There was no chatter about the incidents in their workplaces, at the grocery store or while waiting to pick up their kids at school. A stark contrast to the many conversations they heard later in the week after Dallas police officers were gunned down. I was deeply saddened by all of the events. But what also saddened me was the avoidance to talk about the whole story. So, what did I do? I started the conversation. When talking about the Dallas police shootings, I also expressed the pit I had in my stomach about Sterling and Castile losing their lives.

We need to get uncomfortable and have these conversations. The discomfort that comes with hearing someone’s differing viewpoint is what breeds empathy and understanding.

And who better to champion this than us? Whether you sit in the C-suite as a chief communications officer or you’re a beginning communications specialist, you have the ability to advance diversity with your work. Granted, having a diverse workforce creates a higher likelihood that these conversations will take place, but advancing diversity is more than just filling quotas. All of us can play a role.

We chose public relations for a reason. And I believe we have the innate ability to start the conversations, empathize with our diverse subjects and tell their stories. Let’s get to work!

Tara Deering-Hansen is principal of Sonder Public Relations in Des Moines, Iowa. Sonder Public Relations helps its clients tell their stories through crisis management strategy, media relations and effective corporate communication messaging.

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