If you didn’t know before, the public relations industry is the world’s saving grace. Now let’s think for a second: What would become of society if we didn’t have publicists? More specifically, how would life look without Black publicists?
During Black History Month, we’re exposed to the achievements and impacts African Americans have made on life as we know it. From Annie Malone and Madame CJ Walker, to Huey P. Newton and Malcolm X, and even our forever president, Barack Obama, it’s a month to celebrate and understand what Black history is. With that comes an understanding that Black history is U.S. history. What I find most shocking during Black History Month is that we rarely hear of the contributions of Black publicists, who have been key to moving our culture forward with notable figures.
If you’re outside the sphere of the communications and public relations industry, it can be hard to actually define what a publicist is. Are we celebrities ourselves? Not quite. I mean, it is true that you’ll likely catch us hanging out and partying with our celebrity clients at times. You may even catch us on the red carpet fielding press for these same clients. That being said, we are so much more. Many of us are strategists, creative advisors, innovators and sometimes even sit-in therapists. Oftentimes, these many hats encompass all of these roles at the same time for many organizations and some of today’s best curated ideas, careers and social media brands/influencers. We are paid to think, and our thinking has created movements that have helped to shape the world as we know it.
I sometimes joke that if we were to be compared to any animal, it’d be an octopus. Why? It’s because we are pulled in so many different directions with competing priorities. One thing is for certain, though — we always manage to get things done, like Olivia Pope when she says, “It’s handled.”
Do you know how instrumental Black people have been to public relations and its impact in our society? When I ask where would the world be without the Black publicist, I mean it. For any publicist, new or seasoned, who may be feeling discouraged or like your work isn’t being noticed, understand that there are people before you who worked hard to make an impact. Many of these individuals may not have known at that time that their contributions would lead to such monumental changes in history.
Did you know that Ida B. Wells was a publicist? She used strategies and executed pioneering campaigns during the women’s suffrage march for equality and the abolishment of lynching. Bayard Rustin, a strategist who organized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s March on Washington, where he delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech, used publicity strategies, too.
We all love the MLK holiday, but who is really to thank for that? It’s a PR pioneer by the name of Ofield Dukes. Who would have known such hard work would leave such a tremendous impact as Terry Edmonds, strategist and first African American speech writer under President Bill Clinton's two governing administration, discovered. Our existence and influence in this society has undoubtedly shaped the lives of Black people both in and outside of communications.
What is Black public relations? It honestly isn’t anything different outside of the traditional PR industry. However, it’s the way PR has been executed in our society by our people that has impacted where we are today.
The public relations industry has been around for well over a century, but for a while it was dominated or controlled by caucasian people. There was a time where it was hard for any person of color to break into the industry, and diversity and inclusion is still an issue today. Just like many industries, the public relations industry is very diverse with growing opportunity, although with too few people of color, especially in high ranking positions.
Being the only, and sometimes first, in the room is a tough pill to swallow. In this industry, on several occasions, unfortunately, it’s the norm; a constant reminder for many Black publicists, junior or senior in their professional ranks. If you’ve ever worked in corporate America or a major firm, then you may have an idea of how it is being Black in these workplaces. But in our industry the numbers are even smaller. When I think of myself, a publicist for over four years and current vice president of the Black Public Relations Society here in the nation’s capitol, I’ve recognized the need for more representation. On the other hand, I have a sense of pride in knowing that we are truly the pulse that keeps the culture beating and alive in today’s era and time.
This is evident through the last couple of years, where it is clear that we’ve made such monumental strides. When we think of today's biggest artists, like Beyonce’ and Cardi B, it’s monumental to think that their publicists, Yvette Noelle-Schure and Patience Foster, are Black women setting a precedent for other artists and publicist teams to follow.
I remember a while back I saw Ernest Dukes’ “Beyonce’s Publicist is Black” jacket. This jacket was a huge statement, in my opinion! It stemmed from stereotypes that many Black publicists face, such as not being hired by big artists/athletes due to our white counterparts being seen as more reliable, trustworthy or making them more marketable. While it may have been a small gesture, for me as a young Black publicist, it made me proud to be in this career. It made me proud to understand how much value I have as a publicist and the possibilities I have to potentially one day work with someone that can influence and change the world.
There are many that think PR is a thankless job. I would say it’s a job that really isn’t for the weak-hearted and one that requires skill and talent. For me, I can’t help but think about legacy and the concept of “building your own table.” I believe it’s imperative to not only understand the importance of PR, but to teach other African Americans value and importance of our careers and how vital we are, and have been, to society. What better lesson is there to teach than continuing a legacy from the examples of publicists who paved the way?
Right now, there are so many up-and-coming Black publicists in our field who are changing the game and influencing the culture. It may have been hard for us to be represented, but Black publicists are truly here and thriving. We aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and I’m sure that table that’s being built will have room for other up-and-coming PR professionals, like myself, who are dreaming of the opportunity to make an impact just like those who came before us.