This piece was originally published in PRSay.
As the daughter of working-class immigrants bound for college, my career options were pretty straightforward: lawyer, accountant, doctor. I had never heard of, much less seriously considered, public relations until my supervisor at a nonprofit organization where I was working part-time suggested it. I was studying finance at The George Washington University; he saw something else in my skill sets.
He connected me with the opportunity to explore communications and public relations, which led to an internship at a PR agency. That internship changed my life and led me to where I am today: co-founder in 1987, and now sole owner of Vanguard Communications, an award-winning PR and social marketing firm whose work is powered by and for people.
However, that transformational internship almost didn’t happen. Because it wasn’t paid.
For my parents, unpaid work of any kind was a foreign concept. From their perspective, life required working hard but you should be paid for that work to provide your family with food, shelter, security and most of all, opportunity. If I hadn’t been able to obtain academic credit for the internship, I would never have convinced them to let me accept it.
For many young or career-transitioning PR professionals who represent under-resourced identity communities, an unpaid internship — even for academic credit or experience — is a non-starter. It’s simply a privilege they can’t afford.
The financial burdens experienced by these communities — due to centuries of discrimination, prejudice and bias shaping our institutions and systems — often are significant barriers for internship experiences that launch ambitious PR careers. Less experience on a résumé makes a candidate less appealing for a hiring manager.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2020, the U.S. PR industry is made up of 83.6% of professionals identifying as white, 9.9% identifying as African American or Black, 5.8% identifying as Asian American or Pacific Islander and 13.6% identifying as Hispanic or Latinx. Compared to the general U.S. population, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that one in three Americans will be a race other than white by 2060. And yet, our profession looks much the way it has for decades.
Some of us have been addressing this issue in our organizations by developing diversity hiring programs. Last summer’s racial justice protests encouraged more companies to do the same. However, we aren’t seeing enough action to create sustainable representation among our peers.
We need to remove the obstacles to inviting and supporting PR professionals from diverse identity communities and instead help jumpstart their careers through meaningful, paid internships.
We will begin to level the field, attract more diversity to our profession and hopefully create a pipeline of Latinx and other diverse talent that will lead the public relations workforce of the future. We can expand representation from communities shaped or defined by such identities as race/ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, national origin, socioeconomic status, language, ability, age and more.
In 2017, Vanguard partnered with my alma mater The George Washington University and its Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute to fund a special paid internship program that gives Latinx students opportunities like what I wish I had.
The Comunicadores for the Future program funds six- to nine-week paid communications internships with nonprofit organizations in the D.C. region. Selected Comunicadores are paired with nonprofit organizations who are working on equity issues such as health, education, civil rights and economic justice. Vanguard staff provide one-on-one mentorship to each student participant and develop a series of professional development trainings for the mentees. Collectively, this support builds understanding and skills regarding important issues in public relations, strategic communications and leadership development. Since living in the D.C. area over the summer can be a financial burden, our investment includes housing assistance during their internship. To date, 21 students have participated in the Comunicadores program.
As we near the end of Hispanic Heritage Month and mark PRSA Diversity Month in October, we need to ask ourselves what we are willing to do as professionals and organizations to bring more representation, experiences and diverse perspectives into our profession.
We should consider the potential of paid internships to invest in the future of our profession and launch communication professionals who will inspire, guide and innovate our industry.
Maria J. Rodriguez is president and CEO of Vanguard Communications, a public relations and social marketing firm in Washington, D.C., working with nonprofit organizations, foundations, associations and government agencies for nearly 35 years to open hearts and minds about issues and individuals, and realize a more inclusive and equitable world. She was inducted into the National Capital Public Relations Hall of Fame in 2016.