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Black History Month: An Opportunity For Expansion

Editor’s note: In celebration of Black History Month in February, PRSA invited prominent public relations professionals to offer their views and ideas for achieving greater racial and ethnic diversity in the profession as well as what Black History Month means to them.  A compilation of previous PRSA Black History Month blog posts can be found here.

When February nears many organizations develop an annual Black History Month outreach effort to show support for African-Americans and diversity. Many will offer a salute to the civil rights movement and those in it for bringing about change. While February does bring forth much information about African-American history, it is far too expansive to be captured in one month.

As an African-American and a public relations professional, I recognized that this rich history can greatly benefit from greater exposure.  Specifically, finding meaningful opportunities to insert historic African-American achievements into related campaigns or outreach efforts throughout the year. To permit the most positive of outcomes and ensure cultural sensitivities remain intact, most programs or events designed for any minority or ethnic group should include a member of that group in the planning stage.

Let’s examine some actual experiences and potential opportunities.  While working with our local airport I was assigned to develop their Black History Month print and radio advertising.  That year I decided to omit civil rights history and focus on the history of African-Americans in aviation. One person included in the print ad was Bessie Coleman (January, 1892—April, 1926) – the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license. Her license was earned in France.  While doing this research, I then discovered another little known fact: an Atlanta-based Delta Airlines connection regional carrier recently made aviation history when one of its flights from Atlanta to Nashville was operated by a crew comprised entirely of African-American women. A landmark event that actually happened by chance.

As would any good public relations person, I realized an opportunity to help a client earn some positive community and media exposure. I developed an outreach project that included this historic flight crew, proposed it to the client and it was accepted. Knowing that African-American women represent only two percent in the fields of science, technology and engineering, this program essentially would have members of this historic flight crew come speak to female high school students to encourage them to consider careers in science. These young ladies could see someone like themselves in this career and also have their questions answered.

The event would be sponsored by the airport but held in the aviation facility of a local university. The upside to the program: the airport would receive solid community support and press coverage; the school system and university received support in their efforts to encourage these young ladies to consider careers in the sciences. And the university’s aviation programs gains exposure and allows students to discuss aviation as a career.

Let’s extrapolate the Black History opportunities event further but also examine the complexities of the African-American demographic.  February is also Heart Month. No doubt heart organizations will be promoting heart health information. This presents an opportunity to find the proper place to insert the fact that Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the nation’s first African-American cardiologist was the first surgeon to perform a successful open-heart procedure in July 1893.

While the above examples are simplistic and straight forward, having diversity staffing in public relations becomes even more important as population growth and complexity increases among people of color. Organizations not including minority staff will encounter increased difficulty reaching these populations effectively.  An important report  articulates the problems and opportunities.

Known for its respected market surveys and analysis, the Nielsen Company released a report1  last year that shed light on both the economic potential of African-Americans and the inherent differences in that community. According to the Nielsen report, the African-American population growth outpaces that of the rest of the population by thirty percent. We are the second largest racial minority in the country. The demographic is increasingly younger, is more educated and has higher incomes than is commonly believed.  Between 2000 and 2009, the number of African-Americans attending some college or earning degrees has grown and households earning $75,000 or more grew by more than sixty percent, faster than the rest of the population.

Translation: It means African-Americans wield tremendous buying power, appreciate positive messages linked? to African-Americans.  The Nielsen study showed these households do more shopping annually, mostly for household, health and beauty, travel, smart phones and child related items.  They are trendsetters and leaders in popular culture, but to date, mainstream advertisers and organization are not very inclusive. They fail to include African-Americans in media and marketing plans and have underestimated the market size.

The bottom line is clear:  public relations firms and departments must seriously address ensuring meaningful diversity in staffing, planning, development and messaging to effectively penetrate this growing population.

1. “Understanding Black Consumer Power;” The Nielsen Company, 2012. Cheryl Pearson-McNeil


Peter Woolfolk, founder of Communications Strategies in Nashville, TN , is a 25 year veteran in public relations. His award-winning firm has provided services to some of Nashville’s largest organizations and to elected officials. Most recently he won the National 2nd Place Diversity Award for the Nashville Chapter, and two national Honorable Mention Awards in Diversity. Before founding his company he successfully served as vice president of public relations at a Nashville university. There he increased media placements by over 300 percent. Before relocating to Nashville the Washington, DC native won multiple awards while a Special Assistant for Communications/US Department of Education in the Clinton Administration; provided communications services to a former US Surgeon General; served as press secretary for a former chairman of US House of Representatives, Committee on Education and Labor and two other members of Congress. Woolfolk also has experience as a radio and television talk show host and producer. He is a frequent speaker in university undergraduate/graduate public relations classes, a member of the Public Relations Advisory Committee at Western Kentucky University and he has written numerous newspaper articles. He can be reached at:

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Peter C. Woolfolk

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