Celebrating the Memory of D. Parke Gibson, Multicultural Public Relations Pioneer

Last month in this space, I paid tribute to Betsy Plank, the “first lady of public relations” whose passion for students, education, scholarships, ethics and leadership has had an indelible impact on the public relations profession.

Today, as we begin the celebration of Black History Month, I thought it appropriate to take a moment to honor D. Parke Gibson, another pioneering PRSA member, by re-visiting a profile of Gibson that originally appeared in the February, 2008 issue of Public Relations Tactics …

D. Parke Gibson began his career as an advertising representative for Interstate Newspapers. From 1956 to 1959, he served as manager of public relations for Johnson Publishing Co., before joining Sengstacke Publications as promotions director in 1960. Later that year, Gibson broke new ground in multicultural public relations by establishing the first Black-owned PR firm, D. Parke Gibson International, in New York.

Gibson also was a prolific writer. He published Race Relations and Industry, a periodic report on equal-opportunity compliance, and The Gibson Report, a marketing guide on the Black consumer market.

Through his publications and strategic counsel, Gibson was instrumental in getting corporate executives to better understand Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. He also used his publications to point out the economic advantages of corporations developing specific strategies and programs to tap into the influential African-American market.

In 1969, Gibson published “The $30 Billion Negro,” an examination of the strength of the African-American consumer. Divided into three sections — a history of the market, ways to predict the market and how to develop the market — the book explained that, to utilize the resources of the African-American population, large corporations must alter communications strategies to appeal to this increasingly affluent community.

Industry legend Ofield Dukes, APR, Fellow PRSA, president of Ofield Dukes & Associates in Washington, D.C., recalls the publications as being “invaluable” in their day.

“D. Parke was very generous in sharing information through his newsletters. They always included examples of successful and effective PR and marketing techniques,” says Dukes, who currently serves as senior counsel to the PRSA Board of Directors. “The corporations were in the process of discovering that the purchasing power of African-Americans was just tremendous. D. Parke was one of the first to provide the research.”

Gibson also was a passionate advocate for the integration of communications, marketing and advertising. For the November 1967 issue of the PR Journal, Gibson wrote an article titled, “Race Relations:  A Plan to Avoid Social Disasters,” which outlined how senior management could better communicate with the African-American community and, more important, why it was necessary. The article was written as a response to the race riots that took place in several cities, most notably Newark, N.J., and Detroit, during the summer of 1967.

Gibson was a PRSA member from 1966 to the time of his death from a heart attack in 1979. He was 49.

Eleven years after Gibson’s untimely death, PRSA established an award in his name: the D. Parke Gibson Pioneer Award. It is PRSA’s highest individual honor presented to a public relations professional who has contributed to increased awareness of public relations within multicultural communities and participated in promoting issues that meet the needs of these diverse communities.

After learning in 2000 that he would receive the award named for Gibson, Dukes says he “paused and looked at the sky to the heavens and said, ‘D. Parke, I wish you were here.’” Dukes goes on, “He opened so many doors in communications because of his excellence. It meant quite a bit for me to be thought of and recognized in the spirit, the context, of his pioneering success.”

Says Terrie Williams, president of the Terrie Williams Agency in New York and a 2001 recipient of the D. Parke Gibson Pioneer Award, “We cannot fully appreciate the significance of his risk, but it is because of his fearless drive and passion that I can stand here. I am able to do what I do and achieve what I have because D. Parke Gibson helped lead the way.”

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On the occasion of Black History Month, public relations counselors of all races and ethnicities can be grateful for the enormous contributions of D. Parke Gibson, and the great strides he took for the African American practitioners who follow behind him, several of whom we’ve invited to blog for us this month. We’ve asked if they would express their views on race and public relations and offer their ideas for achieving greater diversity in our industry, and we look forward to reading their perspectives.

I’m also pleased to say that, as 2010 Chair of PRSA, I’ve pledged not only to continue — but to enhance — the Society’s commitment to achieving greater industry diversity. We have given PRSA’s Diversity Committee a broader mandate and asked for a refocused plan to increase our activities and outreach in the critical areas of diversity and multicultural communications. We also have given this committee more stature inside PRSA, providing it with greater access to the PRSA board and additional staff resources. You can read more about PRSA’s diversity efforts on this blog, and on our Web site.

This is in no way meant to say that we have done enough to create a more diverse industry. Clearly, we have miles to go, and it will take all of us, not just the impacted few, to move us forward.

Still, we’re taking steps in the right direction … steps down the trail that D. Parke Gibson helped to blaze.

Gary McCormick, APR, is 2010 Chair and CEO of PRSA.

About the author

Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA

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