Rachel Coffman, President PRSA West Virginia chapter and VP TS Consulting LLC presented the Best Practice segment for the Aug. 26 ECD Board call.

The PRSA- West Virginia Chapter selected diversity and inclusion professional development as its focus in 2020. The chapter worked with a local economic development group, the Charleston Chamber of Commerce, and YWCA to create a partnership for the event. Due to COVID-19, the event was cancelled. With quick adaption, the event was transformed into a virtual two-day conference.

The event was one of the chapter’s largest professional development events in recent years and had attendance from PR professionals across the country.

“Our plans got hijacked by COVID-19 in March,” said Rachel. “We converted to virtual and we were glad we did. We were planning this about two weeks before George Floyd’s death and the riots that followed.

Prior to 2020, our chapter had low minority membership. We wanted it to grow. We had a D&I committee, but we hadn’t done the best job of growing engagement.  We had no programming; it was not a welcoming environment. We went to ICON and realized we had so many gaps in delivery of programming.  We were having the same speakers over and over – no wonder we had a drop in engagement. 

Going into my presidency, I looked at diversity as a need.  The area around West Virginia is a very white community. Maybe we aren’t doing the best job of picking topics. Audit yourself, why have we not done this? Is non-minority membership an excuse? No. We had to ask ourselves the hard questions.

First Steps: We wrote down realistic goals. 60 percent of members pay dues, but we never see them.  We have been working with about 25 people who are speaker engaged.  We had new professionals come in who stepped up with professional development focused on diversity. 

We wanted a two-day conference. We wanted to be honest with ourselves. We reached out to minority groups for help framing out a program that answers the right questions and provides the right information.

We built relationships. We knew it would be a better event if we did it together as a community. We reached out to the City of Charleston as part of diversity and equity week. We cross-promoted with our memberships. They ended up cancelling their event. The Charleston Area Alliance partnered with us with their women-based event on Thursday and our event Friday. Saturday would be the YWCA End Racism 5k Race.  Everything got resituated because of COVID-19 but we were able to have engagement virtually.

Planning – We each took a time slot. I planned morning and afternoon speakers to build out the program. We had a good mix of panels, sessions and speakers. I reached out to sponsors – focusing on businesses making diversity a priority in their company. Dow Chemical prioritizes diversity in the company and community, and they were a perfect fit. (With additional sponsors) we brought 500 percent more sponsorship dollars than we usually do.

Content – The corporate-employee relations panel included a representative from Dow. That gave them an opportunity to talk about what they’re doing.

We decided to do it in a two-day period in same week (May 19 and May 21) to avoid “computer burnout.” Had about 65 attendees. We usually have about 24, and it’s been rare to have more than 40 in the past five years, so it was higher than normal.  The participating organizations sent out nationwide invitations, so we gained perspective from across the nation, not just our pocket community.

Program: On Tuesday, May 19 the YWCA did Implicit Bias training, part one – a good eye opener, and D&I in a virtual world.  Thursday, May 21 was part two of Implicit Bias training, and Decoding Diversity in PR. We are now looking ahead to programs on special needs inclusion.

Jared Meade asked about response. Rachel said, “We were glad we did this virtually because we had great feedback.”

Jennifer Flowers-Kolf asked if the chapter had gained membership. Rachel said not yet.  “We need to do more work to get minority engagement. The state has a conference for minority businesses and would like to do a presentation at that event.”

Rachel welcomed members to email her with questions about the event: [email protected].

Thanks Rachel!