Combatting implicit bias in Public Relations

On February 17, CPRS Vancouver hosted another thought-provoking Awkward Conversation event on unconscious bias and Black History Month in honour of February being Black History Month. Close to 20 participants heard from our presenter, Silvia Mangue Alene, President of the BC Black History Awareness Society and Co-Founder and President of Kulea Culture Society, on this topic. 

Understanding Black History Month
In the first part of the presentation, Silvia provided a brief overview of why we celebrate Black History Month in February and the contributions of B.C.’s Black and African diasporic communities to our province. She points to the fact that their contributions are firmly part of our province’s history, dating back to 1858.

Why focus on the role of bias in Public Relations?  
As communicators, it’s essential to understand how bias forms, the role unconscious bias play in our daily lives, and strategies to overcome them.

What is bias?
Silvia first unpacked the concept of bias to help us understand how it influences the workplace, public policy or your daily decision-making process. 

There are two types of bias — explicit and implicit. She said that implicit bias acts as an “... an unintentional preference for a particular group based on social identity, race, gender and sexual orientation.”  

Bias doesn’t have to be a bad word
Bias helps us to make sense of the world. The most intriguing thing she shared with participants is that bias does have some positive aspects, and no one is immune from them. 

The brain on a bias
Bias is a natural by-product of the way our brains work. From an evolutionary perspective, biases form by using prior knowledge and experiences to inform the decisions and actions of the present. The brain relies on filters and associations to shape our thinking and create biases.

Lens and filters
Filters act like mental shortcuts that help us focus on relevant information. When we rely on these unconscious shortcuts, they can lead to stereotypes and prejudices, which is one form of implicit bias. 

Silvia uses the example of ice cream being sweet while snakes are dangerous to help us understand the concept of association. Essentially, this is how our brains make meaningful connections between different groups and pairings. The stronger the association, the more these neural pathways influence our thinking and likely lead to people forming an implicit bias. 

Associations are often learnt in childhood through the stated and unstated norms of family, friends and the environment in which we live.

What happens when implicit bias goes unchecked
Unfortunately, not all biases benefit us. When left unchecked implicit biases can lead to a whole host of problems; it can lead to racial profiling and seep into the workplace, influencing how people receive healthcare or are educated.  

The ramifications of implicit bias in the workplace
Silvia points to research on how implicit bias influences the recruitment process. Candidates with English-sounding names had a 40% higher chance of getting an interview than those with Indian, Chinese, Pakistani or Black-sounding characters, despite having almost identical educational and work experiences on their resumes.  

Strategies to combat biases
Stereotypes are essentially neurological imprints. Once those brain pathways are sufficiently reinforced, they are resistant to change. The good news — it is possible to overcome, but it requires conscious awareness and using the strategies listed below to retrain our brains.

  • Role models

  • Inner motivation 

  • Noticing personal contradiction

  • Exposure to other people will help curb the impacts of implicit prejudice

  • Counter-stereotypic imaging

  • Education and training

Resources and tools to combat implicit bias

Silvia recommends using self-regulation strategies to combat implicit bias: breathing and relaxing consciously, exercising and eating well, noticing different body sensations and self-expression (i.e. art, dance, music, etc.). She gives examples of positive strategies such as laughing or telling jokes, positive self-talk, curiosity to ask questions, learning and moving towards a relationship rather than away from it.  

For further learning, here are 19 other suggestions for overcoming it and promoting inclusivity in the workplace from Asana.