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raceAhead: Why Is Public Relations So White?

February 8, 2018, 6:34 PM UTC


I linked to a powerful PR Week video about the lack of racial diversity in public relations yesterday, and it evidently hit a nerve.

The eight-minute film hands the microphone to current PR people of color who candidly describe how difficult their experiences have been while offering some prescriptions for change. “The only people who…really understand how big the diversity problem is in P.R. are the people of color,” said Andrew McCaskill, the senior vice president, global communications at Nielsen, who is featured in the video and makes some of the more direct observations.

Since we published yesterday, I’ve been inundated with mail and social media pings, consisting almost entirely of head-nodding, much of which was from white raceAhead’s readers. (We have a very diverse audience, for which we’re extremely grateful.)

“I’ve been at this twenty-plus years and only once was I at a shop that wasn’t completely white,” wrote media strategist Mike Spinney. “One of the frustrating things I’ve experienced as a practitioner is the collective struggle to come up with truly new ideas and approaches. That takes people with new perspective and new experiences. Why are we so afraid of bringing in people who can add new and exciting ways to tell stories?”

I asked McCaskill to respond. He says the issue has become a business imperative. “The US consumer market is changing. Multicultural Americans are not only driving culture, but we’re driving markets. If your teams don’t reflect or understand your customer base, it’s not just bad optics; it’s strategy malpractice.” And don’t come to him with your pipeline woes, there is not a lack. “There are too many senior level black folks on the corporate side of the business for that to be true,” he says.

One white woman, a junior PR practitioner for a tech company (and who preferred not to share her name or title) said the situation seems intractable. “We gravitate to people who (senior) leaders are comfortable with,” she said. The result is an echo chamber rather than a creativity or an accountability engine. “And so much of what we do happens internally – we’re not just pitching stories – we’re identifying potential problems in products, we’re making sure our messaging really reflects who we are, we’re internal storytellers who help drive culture change. You don’t think diversity would help that?”

Everyone said we all needed to keep talking, not only about diversity but about the broader relationship between communications and the media.

And most said it’s time to get the gatekeepers of homogeneity on the record. “I was actually thinking that this could be a compelling topic for a live roundtable,” said Spinney. “What was shared on that video must have only scratched the surface. Having some of those people talking with folks who lead un-diverse teams would be fun,” he said.

Fun, indeed. I’ll volunteer to moderate. Now, which leaders of all-white enterprises would like to join the conversation?

On Point

Dropbox released its latest diversity report card yesterday While the company continues to be a leader in transparency and candor, the news was mixed. The company made good progress in gender, with upticks in overall representation, hires, and in technical, managerial and senior leadership roles. But progress in ethnic diversity – about 45% of the company identifies as non-white --remained mostly flat. “Although we’ve seen progress in some areas, we know that to make sustainable progress we have to be more purposeful and deliberate in how we recruit, retain and advance diverse talent.”Dropbox

An economic conflict between Millennials and Baby Boomers is looming
Axios is reporting on new research from Bain, which describes a coming intergenerational battle for jobs and government resources which is poised to wreak havoc on markets and economies. At issue is the coming automation revolution, which will eliminate 20-25% of all jobs in the coming years, mostly held by debt-saddled millennials. Expect deep divides as younger citizens are pitted against older ones for political solutions and government assistance – job retraining and universal basic income for the youngs, Social Security and health care for the olds. Good luck Gen Xers.

What the new tax law will do to public education
In a system where inequality prevails, blaming inadequate teachers, unfocused students and uninvolved parents are convenient tropes. But funding mechanisms matter more, says Clint Smith. The new tax law passed in December will allow families to dip into their 529 savings plans to pay for K-12 private schools – up to $10,000 tax-free every year. It’s an unofficial voucher program that will benefit only the wealthy, funneling students and resources away from public schools and into private ones. There's more: The new cap on state and local taxes is estimated to take $150 billion out of elementary and secondary schools budgets around the country, and puts some 130,000 education jobs at risk.
The Atlantic


The Woke Leader

A cartoonist help focus attention on black excellence in World War II
Everyone remembers Rosie the Riveter, the cartoon icon designed to spur women into munitions manufacturing work while men were deployed overseas. But few people remember the war-time propaganda created to celebrate the contributions of African American soldiers during World War II. The Office of War Information hired a black artist named Charles Alston to create a series of images to be distributed through black-owned newspapers to boost African American contributions to the war effort. It was a heavy lift in the Jim Crow era – the army was segregated and many black communities were skeptical of aligning with their hostile government. But Alston highlighted black trailblazers in biographical cartoons and made sure that people knew the names of people like Willa Brown, the first African American woman pilot.
Smithsonian Magazine

Remembering the founder of the Lavender Panthers
In 1973, Reverend Raymond Broshears, a gay preacher ministering to marginalized LGBTQ youth and men in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, was targeted by a gang and nearly beaten to death. Back then, homophobic violence against drag queens, gay men, and poor trans people was a daily reality. After his near-death experience, he decided to fight back. Newsweek tells his story and it’s a doozy. Here’s only one of his great ideas: The Lavender Panthers, an all-volunteer safety patrol, armed and trained in martial arts and ready to take back the streets. He also performed gay weddings and threw an annual drag queen ball at the Veteran’s Administration to thank gay servicemen for their service. Broshears needs a biopic, stat.

To be indigenous and in love is to make difficult choices
Love is complicated, says this young Wampanoag woman. In an anonymous, first-person account, she talks about the pressure she feels to have fully Native children. Partly, she says, it’s  because of blood quantum laws, the rules determining who is legally part of a tribe. But it’s also deeply rooted in identity. The man she loves now is wonderful in every way but one: He doesn’t have a drop of Indian blood in him. “The prospect of having kids even more mixed than I am makes me anxious. If, in a century, the Wampanoag tribe no longer exists—if we lose our land, our traditions, our language—will it be my fault?”


The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ...We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ...In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
Edward L. Bernays, founder of modern public relations