Diversity Thought Leadership

A Salute to Public Relations’ African-American Pioneers

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In celebration of Black History Month, PRSA has invited prominent black leaders in the public relations profession to offer their views on race and public relations and their ideas for achieving greater racial and ethnic diversity in the industry. This is the third in that series.My grandmother use to say, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Today’s social, political and economic dilemmas are eerily similar to times past, when people were passionate about changing the world through social cause groups. Their strategies included using the newest, most powerful media to get their messages out, influence public opinion and change society.


As PRSA celebrates Black History Month 2010, we pause to reflect, examine and thank the African-American pioneers who enabled today’s practitioners to excel.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the educator and journalist, should also be praised for the social activism she demonstrated through campaigns designed to promote women’s suffrage and the abolition of lynching. The “Princess of the Press” used skillfully crafted rhetorical appeals to change public opinion in America and Europe, resulting in support for her campaigns.

The 1960’s  Civil Rights Movement was greatly influenced by Bayard Rustin, an international social-cause strategist who organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. According to biographer B.C. Bigelow, Rustin also briefed King prior to meetings, assisted with speech writing and handled press relations.

Inez Kaiser founded Inez Kaiser & Associates in 1957; it was the oldest African-American, female-owned public relations firm in the country. Kaiser also was the first African-American woman to head an agency with national clients and the first to join PRSA. A 1997 resolution read, “Kaiser’s public relations firm has earned a reputation that even few majority firms achieve. She … remains well-respected for her ability to lobby passionately for what she believes is right.”

Dr. Debra Miller became the first African-American president of PRSA in 1997; she was awarded the Gold Anvil Award in 2006. Dr. Miller has used her success in academia, business and the not-for profit sectors to mentor and inspire practitioners nationally. Today, diverse students are inspired to excel at the highest levels of the profession due to her landmark accomplishments.

A. Bruce Crawley is the president of Philadelphia-based Millenium 3 Management.  One fall, Crawley invited my public relations students to spend the morning at his firm. He personally conducted several workshops and provided lunch and a professional photographer to record the event. A release was sent to the students’ hometown newspapers regarding their emerging public relations careers. Today, Crawley continues to mentor young practitioners.

The late Pat Tobin was a founder and past president of the National Black Public Relations Society (NBPRS) launched in 1987. Through the NBPRS, a new generation of leaders has emerged to forge alliances across communications organizations and disciplines. According to its Web site, the NBPRS has chapters in the major media markets and offers peer-to-peer support, mentorship, networking, job opportunities, internships and career advancement strategies for professionals engaged in corporate, government, agency, non-profit and private practice.

Terrie Williams also has been a huge mentor and supporter of public relations education. Williams, who launched The Terrie Williams Agency with Eddie Murphy as a client, has equipped the next generation with agency experience through internships. She has inspired many to follow in her foot steps. One former intern, Dawn Roberts, is the past president of the Philadelphia Black Public Relations Society.

When asked about other African-American mentors for public relations professionals, Roberts, who is a co-founder and managing partner of  KD Communications Group, said, “Our advisory board member, George Beach, is one of our biggest supporters in Philly.” Beach is the founder and chairman of Beach Creative Communications, the second oldest African-American advertising agency in America. “If we need a meeting space, a speaker for an event or mentorship, we can always count on his assistance, leadership and encouragement,” said Roberts.

While serving as a vice president at Ketchum Public Relations Worldwide, Betsy Helgager Hughes, developed the Ketchum Bootcamp, which allowed students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities to compete for internships. Ketchum executives also participated in the Bootcamp. Hughes is currently president of BLH Consulting, a multicultural public relations and marketing firm.

Due to many social and political victories, today’s African-American public relations students benefit from mentoring relationships with diverse practitioners.

In 2009, Norfolk State University student, Crinesha Brooks was awarded a “Multicultural Scholarship” from PRSA. Without the support of the PRSA Hampton Roads Chapter, Brooks and two other students would not have attended the PRSA 2009 International Conference in San Diego. The chapter has established financial support for student professional development, in addition to providing internship and employment leads. The PRSA Hampton Roads Board members also engage the students through presentations and participation in Induction Ceremony activities.

Marcia A. Taylor, Ed. D., is public relations sequence coordinator and PRSSA advisor at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Va.

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Marcia Taylor

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