Honoring Black History Month


As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s important to honor groundbreaking African-American public relations leaders, remember their contributions, and learn from their examples. Beginning before the civil rights movement and continuing to this day, African-American communicators have had a deep impact on how we communicate with each other and change hearts and minds.

From Dorothy Height to Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr. to Shirley Chisholm, each pivotal leader spoke with a purpose, often using personal narratives, and asked tough questions that other people did not want to ask. Groundbreaking leaders in the public relations field continued on the path those visionaries paved. People such as: Inez Kaiser, the first African-American woman to own a public relations firm with nationally recognized clients; Ofield Dukes, a groundbreaking DC public relations professional who owned a firm, founded the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and had an important part in planning the March on Washington; Moss Kendrix, a founder of his own public relations firm which advocated for positive images of African-Americans in corporate communications and advertising; and  Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first African-American woman to be a Capitol Hill news correspondent.

What all of these communicators and leaders had in common was that they spoke with an authentic voice, brought hard questions to the surface, and found ways to advance equality through their work.

The success achieved by these communicators makes it all the more disheartening to see today’s diversity gap in public relations – because we know the positive impact diversity has had on our society and what it can offer to the public discourse. The U.S. Department of Labor cites that only 8.3 percent of public relations specialists are African-American and only 7.8 percent of public relations managers are African-American – compared to the 87.9 percent of Caucasian specialists and managers. This gap impacts not just the people who work in the industry, but the substance of the messages conveyed and stories that are told to audiences everywhere. It’s important to both acknowledge the diversity gap in the field and to find ways to fix it.

America’s population is changing. According to Pew Research, by 2060 African-Americans and Latinos will make up 45 percent of the overall American population. As demographics continue to shift so do the audiences that corporations, political campaigns, the government, and non-profits are trying to reach. It’s important for the public relations industry to acknowledge this change and prepare for it. The industry could meet the changing demand by learning from historic African-American communicators and public relations professionals and hiring a diverse staff who embrace their best practices.

Not only will this help the industry meet a changing landscape and promote inclusion, but it will also help avoid public relations crises. When companies and firms have a diverse staff and listen to and act on their input, it helps promote inclusive messaging and advertising. A few examples come to mind of how some companies can do better – and in what ways other industry professionals should be mindful when planning their communications strategies. Some major companies have paid a public price for running advertising campaigns that alienated diverse and open minded audiences. Moments like these can create serious, long-lasting cultural and brand-damaging effects.

So how do we address the problem? Closing the diversity gap in the public relations field starts with companies and firms prioritizing diversity at all levels – junior, mid-level, and senior management. But, it doesn’t stop there. It’s critical that firms, companies, non-profits, and government leaders cultivate mentorship programs and an understanding of the diversity gap. In order to do that, companies and firms could partner with African-American and multicultural organizations to host networking and thought leader events – not just in Black History Month, but throughout the year. This allows for a collaborative partnership on various business issues, and also shows a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

As Shirley Chisholm once said, “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.” There’s a rich history of compelling communications by generations of African-Americans. The public relations industry should heed this history and take steps to address diversity and inclusion on a permanent basis.