Cultural Competency Is a Must for All

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In November, I was happy to attend PRSA’s ICON 2022 conference in Grapevine, Texas. The three-day event offered many rewarding experiences, but some situations there surprised me. 

I was excited to speak to hundreds of students and professionals at ICON 2022 about my new book, “Smart Talk: Public Relations Essentials All Pros Should Know.” As a communicator and agency owner, I am invested in PRSA. My team and I prepared for months for this milestone moment.

What I wasn’t prepared for, however, were some uncomfortable moments that my team member Julia and I would endure at the conference. Several colleagues in the audience made comments that for me as a Latina seemed uninformed or even patronizing.

Younger and more diverse audiences appeared to embrace me as the author of a book about public relations. But at the conference and elsewhere since my book was published this past October, people have said some things that made me cringe. Is it because I’m a Latina? 

At my ICON booth, some people asked my assistant whether I was the author of the book. A picture of me could clearly be seen on a standup banner nearby. Did they think my assistant and I looked alike?

Others asked which Native American tribe I came from, which bore no relation to my book about public relations that I was discussing at the time.

Some people congratulated me in Spanish, although the book is written in English and we were speaking in English. At times, I had to explain why my parents didn’t teach me Spanish. Others asked or commented about my age.

Integrate diversity

In public relations, we need to include diverse practitioners — and authors — into the profession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 24 percent of PR professionals are people of color. The majority of our practitioners could be out-of-tune with today’s more multicultural U.S. population. 

As professional communicators, we grow by continuously educating ourselves. PR work can make a positive societal impact if we, the stewards of the profession, are equipped to empower others. Learning new concepts isn’t just for new professionals. Otherwise, we become part of the issues that we usually manage. 

Yes, being a Latina influenced my point of view on the PR essentials that I wrote about in my book. Just like any writer’s, my lived experience influenced my perspective and my book. 

However, my book isn’t about Hispanic heritage. It’s about public relations. That so many tenured pros would appear to quickly categorize my book as Hispanic, rather than see it as an important new book for our profession, tells me something. 

While learning to respect and include people from other cultures and walks of life, we should also remember not to emphasize differences that divide rather than unite us. The idea is to grow together. 

I wrote my book to prepare more aspiring professionals, particularly those of color, to understand how public relations really works and to invite them into our world. For those already working in the communications profession, I wrote it to offer them fresh ideas, tactics and models for how to integrate cultural strategy and diversity, equity and inclusion into our everyday PR work. 

My recent — and sometimes unsettling — experiences as an author have made that mission more important to me than ever. When it comes to making public relations more inclusive, we still have a way to go. 

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[melissa vela-williamson]

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