Diversity Thought Leadership

Advice From Black Comms Pros on How to Advance in the Profession

Diverse Dialogues

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Whether from a marketing, PR, communications or social perspective, “Our voices are needed at the table,” said Thomas Bennett. “Many of us can give examples of brands that have made mistakes in large cultural and heritage moments. It’s critically important to have diverse individuals reviewing the creative, reviewing the content” before it goes out.

Bennett, senior vice president at FleishmanHillard, serves on PRSA’s Board of Directors and co-leads PRSA’s Black Voices Affinity Group along with Sabrina Browne. Bennett and Browne served as co-moderators during PRSA’s Diverse Dialogues livestream on Feb. 21 titled “Black Voices Defining the Industry in 2024.”

Panelist Myron King, chief integration officer at the branding agency VML, said “the conversation is moving from DEI to belonging and then to backlash. That’s what we’re really talking about today: the backlash against all of the things that were done to help create a more level playing field and more accessible set of pathways into these careers.”

For King, the question has become “how the industry at large can become a more active and consistent partner in advancing cultural inclusion in our careers and professions. The communications industry needs to do a better job of amplifying those careers, showing us in those non-traditional, non-stereotypical roles and making sure that when we get into these buildings that we’re actually seen, heard and valued on par” with other employees.

“But you have to demonstrate mastery,” King said. “You can’t just be average. You gotta be good. And you have to gain sponsorship.”

Panelist Jerrin Strayhorn said that “being able to provide those opportunities was one of the things that the communications industry and a lot of industries have done well since 2020.” Strayhorn is a program director at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which solely supports students who attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Elevating Black leaders in PR

“I think we elevate emerging Black leaders by giving them access first and then visibility,” said panelist Fatou B. Barry, a communications entrepreneur whose clients have included Samsung and Gopuff. “We have to put them at the helm of opportunity. We also have to make sure that we equip Black leaders for success, by giving them the resources, the support and the guidance that they need to fully demonstrate the excellence that we know Black talent is capable of when they don’t have obstacles in front of them.”

Besides working for clients, Barry advocates for diversity in the communications industry through her nonprofit the PR Girl Manifesto and a group called Hold The PRess. “Advocacy plays a huge role,” she said. “I come from a collectivist background. There is no ‘you.’ It is ‘we.’”

As a Black woman in communications, “One of the key lessons that I learned early on was that, if I was going to wait for people to give me opportunity, I was going to be waiting forever,” she said. Sometimes, “you have to go and dictate your career on your own terms.”

“A big part of the PR Girl Manifesto is that we’re not only giving voices and perspectives — we’re also giving the platform and the access that we believe people should have,” said Barry. “I’m only as strong as the person who doesn’t have the most access in this space. So how can I use my network? How can I leverage my resources to help someone that I know needs support?”

Panelist Jordan Folkes, director in the inclusion and health-equity practice at Real Chemistry, said, “We need to elevate our voices and use our social platforms to have the conversations and create moments of advocacy to allow for that to happen. Mentorship provides an opportunity for guidance and advice” and to help develop skills.

Bennett also urged Black PR professionals to help others get ahead in their own communications careers. “If you’re the first,” he said, “then make sure you’re not the last.”

When it comes to building your career, “know that you’re enough,” King said. “Don’t have that self-doubt. There’s enough people doubting you that you don’t need to put that on yourself, too.”

[Photo credit: alfa27]

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