In celebration of Black History Month in February, PRSA 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 fifth in the series.
In our dynamic professional environment, it is crucial for African-American women to understand the history and heritage of their journey as they emerge as leaders in the public relations profession. Not only has this history shaped my personal career choice, but it also has propelled African-American women whose actions and ideas have made significant contributions to the industry.
African-American women have pioneered the way for others in the industry for more than 60 years. The Reverend Barbara Harris was the first African-American woman to practice public relations, working for Joseph Varney Baker, in turn the first African-American male public relations practitioner and first PRSA Chapter president of color. More recently, phenomenal leaders in the industry like Cheryl Procter-Rogers and Debra Miller have blazed a path for aspiring leaders.
In 2009, PRSA’s Public Relations Journal featured an article about the history of women in public relations. The article identified two prominent African-American women, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, as pioneers who engaged messaging and positioning skills to promote their cause — in effect, making them the first public relations practitioners. The article depicts Truth as a great orator who spoke openly and lectured about human rights, and Tubman as a thought leader who positioned slavery as a moral issue. These women not only shaped black history as we know it but also demonstrated public relations skills before the term was even hatched.
A 1978 Business Week article captured the social impact of these pioneering women on our profession. Calling public relations the “Velvet Ghetto,” the piece characterized the profession as a “safe place” from which women could promote causes and launch careers. The hypothesis was that the public relations industry enabled women to become part of the work force without posing a threat to men as they vied for top management jobs.
Today, diversity awareness is bounding in all sectors of our profession. Diversity and inclusion strategies help employees understand work force and marketplace trends, and turn them into a rich tapestry of resources and value. Tying diversity and inclusion to their business strategies helps organizations enhance performance, productivity and customer satisfaction.
Of course, ethnic diversity still remains a challenge. As the communications landscape continues to change, so do perspectives on race and diversity. Does that mean the “velvet ghetto” is obsolete? Possibly. However, African-American women are still underrepresented in senior-level management. I think only the next generation of emerging leaders can fundamentally change the face of the profession – and we must.
As the first African-American woman to serve as national president of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), I realized just how far the profession’s perspectives and attitudes toward diversity have evolved. PRSSA provided me the opportunity to serve as a pioneer for future leaders among African-American women. As I make my transition from public relations student to public relations professional, I’d like to project my experience as a model for other students, and share my knowledge by mentoring entry-level professionals going forward.
With the explosion of social media, Generation Y and African-American women have a ripe new opportunity to shape the future of public relations by embracing technology as “digital natives.” These opportunities can engage our unique perspectives to infuse public relations practice with diversity of thought and talent, as well as culture and community. I look forward to watching a new generation of professionals blossom as pioneers to continue to drive excellence and progress in our chosen profession.
Brandi Boatner is Immediate Past President of the Public Relations Student Society of America and member of its 2009-2010 National Committee.