What Would D. Parke Gibson Say?

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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 seventh and last in the series.

If D. Parke Gibson were alive today, what would he say about race and public relations? Would he be proud of what we have accomplished so far? Would he feel disappointed because we have not achieved enough?

D. Parke Gibson was a pioneer in the field of public relations, and his legacy paved the way for generations of African-Americans and other people of color who aspired to succeed in this profession. His accomplishments have inspired us to pursue a profession that did not initially welcome us with open arms, and he made it possible for many of us to have successful careers. In turn, the profession has benefited greatly from our contributions. In 2006, I received the coveted D. Parke Gibson Award honoring multicultural achievement in public relations. Only then did I begin to think about Gibson’s view of where we’ve come to date.

I do believe that he would be honored that an award for multiculturalism has been named for him. I think he would be proud that the ranks of professionals of color have grown over the past 30 years, as well as the number of public relations firms owned by people of color and of public relations undergraduate programs at colleges and universities with vibrant minority representation. I think he also would celebrate the fact that PRSA has had two African-Americans as national chair & CEO and one — soon to be two — of Hispanic heritage. Two winners of the Gold Anvil, our profession’s highest individual award, are persons of color. And the list goes on and on.

I know he also would view with esteem the presidency of Barack Obama and the fact that senior administration officials and White House communicators hail from diverse backgrounds. He would probably express gleeful surprise that the buying power of African-Americans has grown from the 30 billion he spoke of in his seminal work to 70 billion in his second book to nearly a trillion dollars today. That figure becomes several trillion dollars when you include all people of color.

With all of this progress, I think he’d give us a big fist bump, but then ask us what we plan to do next. Despite all of the milestones we have achieved as a nation, a profession and a people, there is still more that can be done. In fact, our work will never be done as long as we sustain the topic of race as an integral part of human discourse.

Finally, let me close with a forward-looking thought. If we want to increase the number of public relations professionals of color, we need to make sure young professionals are confident that the profession is a viable career option. Exposure and education, after all, are the great equalizers.

We need to take our message to the classrooms of graduate schools, as well as junior high schools across the country. If each of us commits to participating in one career day, or inviting one student to shadow us in the workplace, or mentoring a young professional who has a passion for writing, we could really make a difference. We also can engage social media and other new communications technologies to help us tell our story about what a public relations professional really does, the types of organizations we work for and what it takes to have a successful and lucrative career. We could even create a Bateman Case Study or Chapter project around it. Or, let’s think about creating a national Public Relations Day when we all commit to visit schools across the country and talk about the profession and what is has to offer. These are just a few ideas, and there are many others we can think of. Bottom line — we just need to get it done.

I know Mr. Gibson would approve of my giving a hearty shout out to my colleagues who have enriched our profession with diversity.  If you happen to be one of those folks who benefited from doors kicked open by others in the past, please remember to hold the door open for the next person. Our survival as a dynamic and diverse profession depends on it.

Mr. Gibson, thank you for all you did for us. We will continue to make you proud.

About the author

Debra Miller, Ed.D., APR, Fellow PRSA

Debra A. Miller, Ed.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, is the director of public relations and marketing at Quarles & Brady LLP. She is the recipient of both the Gold Anvil and the D. Parke Gibson Awards and became the first African-American president of PRSA in 1997.

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