February’s Black History Month is an important time to remember, recognize and celebrate the historical contributions of black Americans that have helped define the United States today.
Still, there’s a systematic and ongoing lack of awareness of contributions by black Americans, a challenge that Black History Month founder Carter G. Woodson sought to overcome.
When an entire race of people is not widely recognized for being innovative, creative, smart, resilient change agents, it can diminish their relevance and self-esteem. Woodson’s effort was important back in 1926, and still is today.
But what about black history in public relations? There are also many untold stories of triumph over adversity for black professionals in communications. The good news is that we’re unearthing many of our stories. I am so thankful to the Museum of Public Relations, and to its co-founders Shelly and Barry Spector for the work they have done to compile stories and historical references that highlight the champions of yesteryear.
For example, black PR history-maker Joseph Varney Baker is featured in the museum. We should all know and acknowledge his contributions to the profession.
Mr. Baker was a first. In 1934, he left his job as city editor with the Philadelphia Tribune to become a PR consultant with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He then went on to open his own agency in New York City, becoming the first African American to gain national prominence as a PR practitioner.
Other African Americans, such as Rochelle Ford, Ph.D., APR, Debra A. Miller, Ed. D. APR Fellow PRSA, and the late Ofield Dukes, also make us proud for their groundbreaking contributions to the profession. And yes, yours truly is also a first; I am the first black female president of PRSA’s Hampton Roads (Virginia) Chapter.
Areas to improve
We have come far in a PR community that was once mostly segregated. But we still have a long way to go in terms of inclusion and equity.
The statistics are not great. To understand the lack of diversity in our profession, we need only review the numbers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2019 report, although women hold nearly 73 percent of all PR management jobs, only 10.7 of those roles are held by black or African Americans (who represent 13.4 percent of the overall population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), 3 percent by Asians (who represent 5.9 percent of the U.S. population), and 3 percent by Hispanics or Latinos (who represent 18.3 percent of the U.S. population).
What does society lose from this gap in leadership diversity? It means the perspectives of various groups are not being heard — resulting in ongoing, image-damaging slipups that have the potential to wound, offend and upset.
It is against this backdrop that I share the news that for 2020, PRSA is launching its first-ever diversity and inclusion strategic plan. The plan’s overarching goal is to position PRSA as a model for D&I in the communications profession. This new sense of determination will help bridge the gap in diverse representation for the PR profession.
PRSA’s greater focus on D&I, through efforts to engage the many cultures and groups within our association, will inspire us to share the histories of more people in communications.
Black history is American history, after all. This month is a great opportunity to spotlight the major contributions of black Americans to the PR profession, association and the country as a whole.
I look forward to the day when any recognition month is unnecessary and all history will be connected and understood.
Felicia Blow, APR, is the co-chair of PRSA’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. She serves as associate vice president for development at Hampton University, Hampton, Va. In 2018, she was featured as one of 40 individuals in the PRSA Foundation’s “Diverse Voices” book that catalogues career successes and challenges faced by leaders of color. Blow is also a former national PRSA Board of Directors member and Senior Counsel.
Image courtesy of the Museum of Public Relations