Diversity driving Bellisario College graduate student’s research

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At a young age, Erica Hilton was destined for a career in communications. She worked behind-the-scenes for a number of school organizations. She predicted her “job in public relations” in her high school yearbook. And today, as a doctoral candidate at Penn State, she is aiming a critical eye at the communication industry’s grasp of social issues.

Hilton’s research interests are based on media representation and diversity in public relations. All of her research has had a racial/ethnic or gender component. After working for nearly three years as the online activism manager for the Laborer’s International Union of North America (LiUNA), a union group consisting of more than a half million construction workers, Hilton found new ways to incorporate her research with issues in the public relations industry. 

“I’ve always been in the digital part of communications and PR,” Hilton said. “At LiUNA, I organized digital media trainings and managed the website and social media. I loved it.”

Research-wise, Hilton initially targeted media representation — examining reality TV and news on how certain groups of people were represented. While she continues that work, her focus changed after working at LiUNA.

“I had the opportunity to participate in social movements when I worked for the labor union,” she said. That experience opened doors to new research ideas.

Hilton has studied media representation on television and YouTube, diversity in public relations, and diversity in corporate social responsibility at companies. While her research areas cover a lot of ground, they all circle back to public relations’ understanding and ability to effectively communicate those issues.

Originally from Fayetteville, North Carolina, Hilton graduated from Johnson C. Smith University and earned her master’s degree from American University. She began her doctoral candidacy at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications in 2015, positioning herself to graduate in 2018 with the skills to research and work in the industry, as well as teach. 

“It’s important in this field to have both [industry experience and education] so you’re able to introduce students to real-life experiences, but also real-life people and opportunities in the industry.”

— Erica Hilton, Bellisario College doctoral student 

“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, and some of my favorite professors very clearly placed value on both industry experience and education — so I hope to do both,” she said. “It’s important in this field to have both so you’re able to introduce students to real-life experiences, but also real-life people and opportunities in the industry.”

This semester, Hilton is teaching COMM 471: Public Relations Media and Methods. Her experiences with LiUNA, as well as graduate internships with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other organizations, offer rich anecdotes to classroom discussions. She said her students are passionate about creating effective public relations campaigns and use what they learn in developing their own campaigns throughout the semester.

“Erica is interested in this area of ‘critical PR,’ which includes being critical of PR,” said Michelle Rodino-Colocino, associate professor of film-video and media studies and Hilton’s adviser. “How diverse is the industry? How can we make it more diverse? By the way she teaches public relations, I feel she has the answer.”

For example, communications students are familiar with getting quizzed on Associated Press editorial style (for example, where does the comma go or when do you spell out a number?). In Hilton’s COMM 471 class, she puts a twist on these tests. By pulling press releases regarding social issues from the web, she asks her students to mark mistakes that go beyond simple punctuation issues.

“She uses real-world examples that were relevant to college students,” Rodino-Colocino said. “She included a release from the Obama Administration’s ‘It’s On Us’ campaign, which combatted sexual assault, as well as press releases on LGBT issues.”

A popular topic in the COMM 471 course is “campaigns that have gone horribly wrong.” She is able to tie those all-too-common gaffes to her research on social justice issues. She believes campaigns like Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner advertisement and Krispy Kreme’s “KKK (Krispy Kreme Klub) Day” are due to a company’s unfamiliarity with social issues and social movements.

“PR is not just avoiding crisis,” Hilton said. “It’s also gaining a better understanding of the way the world works and how different people live their lives. When you put it all together in a public relations campaign, people from all sides benefit.”

As Hilton turns her attention to her dissertation, she is looking to pull from previous research on diversity in public relations and examine natural-hair video-bloggers (vloggers), who cover the beauty industry and discuss the needs and styles of natural African-American hair. Hilton hopes to study the reach of the online publications, the work that goes into producing the vlogs and the advertising revenue that comes with it.

Within this budding industry is a number of areas that fit into Hilton’s “critical PR” mindset. The range of videos include all levels of quality and the vloggers themselves are a group ranging from hobbyists to skilled experts. Issues like pay gaps, exploitation and free labor exist and need to be addressed, according to Hilton.

“The natural-hair movement is a billion dollar industry right now,” she said. “It’s based on identity, and I think it would be interesting to come from the perspective of advertising and labor discrimination.”

After graduation, Hilton hopes to continue working in the industry after graduation in some facet, but she knows research and teaching will come first. She hopes to identify programs that emphasize culture in communications, where she can continue her work building an understanding of how digital media can help or hinder social movements.

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Last Updated November 15, 2017