Neil Foote, President, National Black Public Relations Society
Tracey Wood Mendelsohn, CEO, Black Public Relations Society-NY
Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatch™
Enough talking. We need doing. If measured in terms of volume, talk about diversity is at 11.
Where would we rate action? Maybe five or lower.
Despite all the well-meaning efforts in the PR and communications industry, the appointment of diversity officers, diversity surveys and efforts to hire diverse professionals, there’s a big gap between the talk and action. Progress has been made, but there’s a long way to go.
To put it bluntly, for far too many, diversity is still an after-thought or add-on to business practices, about helping women get to the top, or a paternalistic exercise in helping “diverse” people get jobs in the industry.
The arguments for the value and opportunity from diverse workforces are now well understood, but a quick look at agencies or their leadership reveals that when it comes to the representation of African American PR professionals, the industry is far short of where it needs to be.
We repeatedly hear the same reasons cited for this – sometimes even by black PR leaders. The most common of which is there simply aren’t enough qualified candidates. Another is that black PR professionals are less likely to stay in the industry. And, as a result, fewer rise to senior management.
The industry needs to seek to understand and address the reasons for this. Since we’re willing here to state what is usually unspoken, the perception of cultural differences and approaches that may get in the way of a cozy fit within a white dominated industry are part of the problem. And, when it comes to hiring “African American-owned” PR agencies there’s another insidious issue at play – many client companies only think about hiring them to reach “black” audiences.
Let’s be clear. There are many highly-successful African American communications professionals in public relations. The recent release of the PRSA Foundation’s Diverse Voices book is a testimony to the exceptional talent in the industry. The color of someone’s skin has nothing to do with their ability to communicate.
Black PR pros don’t need the paternal helping hand of white professionals to develop communications skills. The limited number of African American PR professionals in the industry has everything to do with the industry, the people in it, the unique challenges they face and the perceived lack of opportunity.
Think about this. Why would anyone invest their time in building a career in an industry where there is a glass ceiling and you are consistently seen as the “other”?
It’s here that the focus on diversity – particularly when structured around professional development or hiring to meet “quotas” – is a double-edged sword. When you reinforce differences between communicators, the industry risks creating an “us” and “them” environment that is as toxic as the problem we are trying to address.
There is a path forward. Here are very simple steps that, taken together, have the potential to increase diversity and bring more African American communicators into the industry – and keep them in it.
Communications is a human activity. Humans are diverse. To communicate effectively, companies need diverse perspectives and to seek out the best mix of “humans” to communicate with other humans. When difference and diversity are celebrated and based on respect, rather than imposed, the dynamics are very different.
One of the keys to embracing diversity is to not wait until there’s a job opening or the launch of a company initiative to start outreach to communicators from different backgrounds. It’s important on an ongoing basis to seek out and build relationships with black and diverse PR professionals at agencies or companies. Participating at events hosted by diverse media, PR and marketing associations, and taking the time to network over coffee, breakfasts, lunch or drinks, are paths to forging professional and personal friendships that pay dividends over the long run.
We Are All PR Professionals
We need to celebrate the talents of inspiring communicators from all backgrounds. The same attention and recognition need to be applied across the industry. But, if we fail to recognize black, Hispanic or other diverse professionals among the industry’s leading “communicators”, the industry is not looking hard enough at the talent within it. Recognizing African American communicators for diversity awards is not the answer.
Understand Your Unconscious Bias
The path to changing behaviors starts with self-awareness. Understanding unconscious bias needs to start with each of us. No matter how progressive, we all bring behavioral biases to the table. Recognizing them, talking about them, and overcoming them is not something for others to do, but a personal journey.
Engage With Historically Black Colleges & Diverse Educational Institutions
This should not just be when you are recruiting, but for internships and ongoing programs at both high schools and colleges. Checking the recruiting box once a year by attending an HBC recruiting fair isn’t the way you’ll move the dial. Long-term engagement with colleges by people at every level should occur wherever talented future professionals are, including: Harvard, Baruch, City College in New York, Howard University in D.C., Spelman and Morehouse in Atlanta, as well as private or state universities. All have talented students seeking to build communications careers. Diversity must include place and educational backgrounds.
When Hiring Professionals: Increase the Number of Diverse Candidates
If only one or two of your interview candidates are from diverse backgrounds, you are not trying hard enough. If we use the population as a guide, 40% of candidate should be non-white. The more candidates you have, the more likely you are to hire diverse people. Organizations like the National Black Public Relations Society (NBPRS) or Hispanic Public Relations Association have extensive networks of professional members to tap into.
Support NBPRS & Local Chapters
Ask how you can help NBPRS, The Black Public Relations Society-New York (BPRS-NY), and the Hispanic Public Relations Association or others, achieve their missions. Support their speaker programs, professional development, and networking opportunities for young professionals. Engage with these industry associations and groups in the same way companies underwrite business resource groups. These are spaces where people with shared experiences, connect and help each other navigate their way to success.
If You Are A Company Hiring Agencies: Add Diverse Firms Into The Mix
The partnership between NBPRS/BPRS-NY and CommunicationsMatch™ reflects a commitment to help companies looking for agencies find qualified diverse and women-owned agencies. We’re encouraging our members and diverse agencies to take the time to create searchable profiles on the CommunicationsMatch platform and recommending companies use it to ensure diverse agencies and professionals are included in searches for communications partners.
There are steps here everyone in the industry can take today to increase diversity. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s time for a little less talk, and a lot more doing.
We’re in this together and are committed to partnering with the industry on this important journey.
About the Authors…
Neil Foote is a veteran journalist and media executive. He draws from his experience at the Miami Herald, Washington Post, Belo Corporation and Tom Joyner’s Reach Media. He also teaches digital and social media for journalists, media management and business journalism at the University of North Texas’ Frank W. & Sue Mayborn School of Journalism and runs Foote Communications, a media consulting firm. The native of Brooklyn, NY also is president of the board for the National Black Public Relations Society and founder of PoliticsInColor.com
Tracey Wood Mendelsohn is a C-Level, marketing communications, brand management, business strategist and non-profit development executive. Ms. Mendelsohn is also a serial entrepreneur, educator (New York University, The New School University) and social justice activist. Her 30+ years of experience encompass various sectors, including; arts & entertainment, politics, luxury consumer goods, caviar and gourmet food and travel.
Currently, she serves as the President and CEO of Black Public Relations Society-New York, Inc., a legacy organization she is proudly helping to strengthen and grow for the future; is a principal of a full-service entertainment, media and talent management company and is the executive producer for several media properties. Additionally, she is a stakeholder and the Chief Marketing Officer of a tech startup.
CommunicationsMatch offers communications & PR agency search tools and resources that help companies find, shortlist, and engage communications, digital marketing and branding agencies, consultants and freelancers by industry and communications expertise, location and size. The site has 5,000 agency and professional profiles in areas including: crisis communications, public relations, internal communications, government affairs, investor relations, content marketing, social media, SEO, website development, photography and video. Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior corporate communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies.