003: Prof Dustin Supa on The Dude Deficit in Public Relations

Prof Dustin Supa - Don’t assume people know what you do in Public Relations

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Prof. Dustin Supa’s key points:

  • 80%-90% of Public Relations undergraduate students are women.
  • Most of the male undergraduate PR students had a prior exposure to PR.
  • Teachers are uncomfortable teaching PR, because they don’t know what it is.
  • Public Relations is a field with a PR problem.
  • Public Relations is not diverse enough, either demographically or in diversity of thought.

Transcript:

Mark:               Hey, welcome back to Better PR Now. This is Episode three. I recently caught up with Prof. Dustin Supa of Boston’s University College of Communication. He was presenting the findings from a pilot research project that explored ‘The Dude Deficit’ in undergraduate public relations classrooms; why are so few young men choosing to major in public relations, as opposed to related fields like marketing and journalism? Dustin’s research points to an explanation and suggests some ways to address this issue.

                            I’m here at the International Public Relations Research Conference in Miami Florida, and I’m joined by Dr. Dustin Supa, from Boston University. We’re going to dive into a study that he presented here with his research partner Liza Moskowitz, who was a 2015 undergraduate alumni at Boston University’s Public Relations Program.

                            The title of the study was An Examination of Undergraduate Males’ Reticence to Study Public Relations. Dustin welcome.

Dr. Dustin Supa:       Thank you very much.

Mark:               Okay, let’s jump on this study, because I think there’s a lot of really interesting things to unpack out of it. So, tell me about the study; how did you do it and what did you find?

Dustin:               Well, the study originally came from the concept that you keep reading all these non-empirical studies or anecdotal information, particularly in a lot of trade pubs about how we need more men in public relations. Why do we have so few men? And, you know, this kind of concept of the PR girl, right? Everybody has the picture in their mind when we use that. And that’s really become, at least at the entry level, the kind of dominant paradigm.

If you have a public relations entry level job open, you might have one male apply, but you might have 200 females apply.

Mark:               And your experience in the classroom?

Dustin:               And the experience in the classroom is that, if you have more than one male student in your classroom, depending on the size of class, you’re impressed because you just don’t see that very often.

So that’s why I wanted to kind look at it and say, “Okay, maybe we should take an empirical look at this; is there something there?”

We know that 60% of students going to college are women. But that doesn’t account for why 80% or 90% of students in public relations are female. So there’s the deficit, ‘the dude deficit,’ if you will.

Working with Liza, we did a lot of background research. And first of all, there’s not an issue with too many women in public relations; the issue is not enough men in public relations. So we’ve got to be clear on that, because women traditionally had not been in roles of leadership and I think that’ll change over time, given our numbers right now.

We wanted to see if there were any systemic reasons why we were not seeing men. So we looked at 262 undergraduate males representing 62 institutions, so it was a fairly broad spectrum.

Mark:               So this was not limited to Boston?

Dustin:               No, this was nationwide. There were Boston University students, and there were other Boston-area schools, but it was all across the country.

We wanted to see and we wanted to find male undergraduate public relations majors. Male undergraduate communication majors, not public relations, so maybe in advertising or journalism, or even to some degree marketing, and then undergraduate males who were not in communication, not in public relations, so we kind of had three groups set up.

And what we found was that the males who were undergraduate public relations majors really seemed to have a solid grasp of the field. They seemed to understand what public relations did. The understood the upward mobility, they understood the job openings pretty well. So, the males who are doing public relations seem to get in it and they seem to have a high opinion of the field. The issue was not that they’re being driven out of public relations, because the ones who were in public relations really seemed to like the field.

Mark:               So it’s not that they’re leaving; they’re just never coming in.

Dustin:               They’re just never coming in. We did find that the other communication majors, non-public relations, also seemed to have – not to the same degree, but also seemed to have a pretty strong understanding of the public relations industry, had a fairly high perception, not as high as those in the field. But it doesn’t really surprise us that a journalism major may not think as highly of public relations as a public relations major, so again not super surprising because they had some knowledge.

But really the non-communication, the non-public relations majors, the evaluation of the field was significantly lower of those in the field. They did not perceive public relations as something that they wanted to do. They did not perceive public relations as a field that had financial stability.

They basically looked at public relations through the lens of shows like Scandal or Sex and the City, or saw public relations as mostly as event planners, social media stuff and just media relations, so they see the tactics of public relations and they’re not interested in those tactics.

But one of the things that we found that was really interesting was that most of the students who were in public relations came to it because they had a prior exposure.

Mark:               Did you get any sense for what what that prior exposure might be?

Dustin:               Usually it was a family member or a family friend or somebody that they knew was in public relations. And that’s where most of the people said, “Yeah, that’s interesting.” The other thing was they had found it after they had been another major. I mean the average undergraduate changes majors seven times.

Eventually public relations may or may not have been one of them. One of the questions we had was, “Have you ever been a public relations major?” The non-communications majors, no, but some of the communications majors had been public relations at one point. So some of them were leaving, but I don’t think that’s really one of the issues, because they tend to move around a lot. And some of them had been other majors before they were in public relations.

So they’re finding out about public relations usually in the first communication class. Well, if a student comes in and doesn’t take communication classes or doesn’t take an intro-level communication class, they’re probably not being exposed to public relations. When we started digging into it like, “Why don’t you want to be in public relations?” and more than 70% of them never heard of it.

One of the things that we think potentially could be, not the solution, but a solution is to see what we can do about increasing exposure and getting factual information out there. Not just the cultural perception of public relations, but factual information about public relations, because a lot of our students were in marketing. And marketing aligns perfectly with what I want to do. Well, great, but there are enough elements of public relations that you shouldn’t be saying, I’m in marketing because it aligns perfectly with what I want to do, and then strongly disagreeing about public relations aligns with what I want to do.

There may still be a discrepancy there, but there should be that much of a discrepancy. Obviously, they’re different fields but they’re not so entirely different that they should be at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

One of the things that we looked at is, could we offer some exposure programs either at the high school level, most people were taking journalism in high school. And most people maybe even get some kind of principles of marketing or some business level type of course in high schools, but there are no public relations.

And in fact, one of the comments that I heard during the discussion was that teachers are uncomfortable teaching public relations, because they don’t know what it is. And we have a hard enough time finding our own field just to our friends and family, but how do we then try to educate others on public relations? It’s not just talking to the media. It’s not just planning events. It’s not these things, but we need to be able to say here’s what it is. And that’s one of the solution that we think might help start addressing.

I don’t think we’re ever going to have equality and we may or may not be on the tipping point. I don’t ever think we’re going to have a 50/50 split of males versus females, but 80/20, 90/10 that’s not healthy for the field either.

Mark:               So, if you put on your prescriptive hat and you look at the academy, and you look at the world of professionals who are out practicing, do you have recommendations for things that they can do, either on the academic side or on the professional side, to start to mitigate this? To make the profession more widely known and to make it more attractive to a truly diverse audience of folks who are potential students and future practitioners or professionals?

Dustin:               I think one of the things that all practitioners should do is understand that they are in a field that has a public relations problem. And what are they doing as individuals to help that situation? I think if we can recognise that, “Hey, I’m in public relations and public relations may not have the best perception. What can I do to change that?”

Could I go to my kid’s career day? Could I offer to speak to a class, or is my company involved with something that is a pro bono client or charity organization that deals with children? Is there something that I come in and say, “Hey, here’s what we are helping with, and here’s what we do.”

So it’s not even a matter of doing stuff that’s so outlandish. I don’t think that we should necessarily be trying to weasel our way into high schools to find people. But if there are opportunities where I have some younger people or high school students, I’ll take the 30 seconds to say here’s what I do.

Or if I’m out doing something and someone asks, “What do you do?” “I’m in public relations.” Well maybe you add a sentence. So, instead of saying “I’m in public relations,” maybe at the end of the sentence saying, “I’m in public relations and here’s what I do on a regular basis …” to help explain to people what it is that you do.

So, I’m in public relations and I help manage the relationship between this organization and this group of people. Or I am involved with promoting the work that is done by this non-profit organization, or something like that.

And I think that if we can just add that second sentence and not assume that people know what you do when you say, “I’m in public relations.” I think even that starts the ball rolling in a simple way; those are some simple steps.

Mark:               Brilliant. Is there anything else you would like to add about the study, or the next steps on the research side, or the next steps to address the issue?

Dustin:               Well, I think the important thing is to recognise with this particular study, is it’s totally a pilot. Right? We didn’t look at comparing men and women. We just wanted to start seeing some empirical data. So what we hope to do is to take this pilot study and then use that to get a grant to help us understand what are the bigger issues?

We have 262 responses; that’s great, but what happens when you get 5,000 responses? How do we really start winnowing down? Are there scales or are there things that we need to know that would make the difference? So, we’re at a starting point.

Mark:               What would your next questions be as you start to dive into this deeper?

Dustin:               I think what we want to do is look at the factors that went into them deciding there are other majors? What were those factors? I think if we can start seeing why people chose the major they’re in, then we can start saying, “Okay, what can we now do about that?” But, we are going to need bigger samples. And there are existing scales that do that.

We are just going to come at it from, “Okay, how do we address this lack of diversity?” And diversity is obviously an issue in public relations anyway. But diversity comes in many styles. Because we are primarily a female field, that doesn’t make us diverse; that actually makes us less diverse. We do have a severe lack of African Americans and Hispanics in public relations. If we were 100% African Americans, we would not be diverse then. So we’re looking at this from [the perspective of] “How do we make public relations truly a diverse field?”

Mark:               You have diversity when your profession or your group mirrors the same diversity in the larger society, and we’re not there.

Dustin:               We’re not there, and one of the bigger challenges though, I think, is not only mirroring the diversity in society at large, but also understanding that diversity is not necessarily a category you can see. True diversity means that eventually you have diversity of thought, and that’s really where we need to head towards.

Mark:               Great. Thank you so much for this opportunity. I love this topic.                       

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Thanks for joining us for this conversation about a topic that really is so important to our profession. I think Dustin really is onto something here, and I can’t wait to hear what he finds out in the larger study.

As public relation professionals, whether we’re on the academic side, the practitioner side, or have a foot in both worlds, we all have a stake in this issue. And we can take action to make a difference right now.

I’m going to take Dustin’s advice to help more young people understand what public relations really is about. The more people understand our profession the more it will be seen as a viable career choice for both men and women from every background.

The diversity of perspectives is really important to the future of our profession. Will you join me in this effort?

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