Black History Month is a time to reflect, recognize, and celebrate the contributions of African Americans that have helped define the United States and, for us here at BAERING, the public relations industry.
Making it in any industry, specifically, the communication industry, is significantly more complicated when an entire race of people is commonly not recognized for being innovative or creative. Even more detrimental, without the leadership and representation of African Americans in the industry, we miss out on perspectives and voices that make communicators better storytellers for varying audiences.
Intuitively, we know that diversity matters. A more diverse workforce will produce work that resonates with a broader range of targets due to the broader perspective. This type of diversity is critical. Yet, the statistics are not ideal. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2021 report (for the United States), only 9.4% of PR practitioners are African American women (even though 49.6% of the industry is female).
Thankfully, these types of statistics are heard and acknowledged in the industry. In 2020, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) launched its first-ever diversity and inclusion strategic plan. The overarching goal is to position PRSA as a model for diversity and inclusion in the communications profession. The Diversity and Inclusion committee for PRSA commends firms and organizations that have established more diverse workplace environments and established management programs to help minority groups move up the corporate ladder.
While the industry works to continue to diversify, let’s take a moment to step back and recognize some African American public relations professionals who advanced the industry into what it is today, despite the many obstacles they had to face.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, widely known as an activist and suffragist, began her career as a journalist in the late 1800s. Most would not consider her a public relations professional, but the tactics and strategies she used in her campaigns are integral to shaping the approaches we employ in the field today.
In 1892, Wells-Barnett launched an anti-lynching campaign and began writing news columns about white mob violence. This campaign had significant public relations strategies that others later used in the civil rights movement. She led several other civil rights initiatives, including forming the National Association of Colored Women and serving as a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Ida B. Wells-Barnett had a significant impact on the industry through her use of the press to expose wrongdoing and promote civil rights – we could rightfully call her “the mother of media relations.”
Joseph Varney Baker
Joseph Varney Baker started his career as a journalist for the Philadelphia Tribune. In 1934, he left his job to become a PR consultant with the Pennsylvania railroad. He went on to open his agency in New York City, Joseph V. Baker and Associates’, making him the first African American to own a PR firm.
Over the years, Joseph V. Baker and Associates’ client list included major corporations like the American Tobacco Company, Proctor & Gamble, U.S. Steel, NBC, and more. In 1958, the Philadelphia chapter of PRSA unanimously elected Baker as president, making him its first African American chief.
Baker headed his firm for 40 years, focusing on public relations, marketing, and advertising aimed at African American audiences. They helped develop and place ads, identified prominent African American organizations and their leaders, helped and encouraged organizations to hire African Americans, and developed marketing surveys to study African American consumers’ habits and preferences. Finally, there was a voice to represent the community.
Dr. Jesse J. Lewis, Sr.
When Jesse Lewis was a college student at Miles College, he started a small marketing firm where students would advertise different company’s products on campus – much like a modern-day “campus representative.” His firm’s success allowed him to grow the business, extending the program to six surrounding college campuses.
Once graduating in 1954, Dr. Lewis founded Jesse J. Lewis and Associates – one of America’s first African American-owned public relations firms. His expertise attracted clients like Coca-Cola, R.J. Reynolds, Golden Flakes, and others.
In 1995, Dr. Lewis established The Lewis Group, a public policy consulting firm, while Jesse J. Lewis and Associates continued operations under “Elements Communications.” He merged Elements Communications with The Lewis Group in 2013, and in 2016, the firm re-branded as Agency54, a global communications firm. As his firm’s legacy continues, Agency54 has worked in the areas of robust communications, strategic public affairs, creative concepts, dynamic public engagement, and overall client satisfaction.
Today, Dr. Lewis serves as a chairman of Agency54, where the agency has evolved into communications, public affairs, creative concepts, dynamic public engagement, and client satisfaction.
These are only three of many African American public relations professionals who have paved the way for future communication practitioners like us. As the industry grows and diversifies, we hope to see individuals like those above receive their long over-due spotlight. We encourage you to learn more about diverse, impactful pioneers of the PR Industry by visiting: https://www.prmuseum.org/black-pr-pioneers.
Black history month provides an important opportunity to reflect on inclusion. International Women’s Day. (2022, February 1). Retrieved February 23, 2022, from https://www.internationalwomensday.com/Missions/17206/Black-History-Month-provides-an-important-opportunity-to-reflect-on-inclusion
Payés, N. (2021, February 1). Black history month: “A time to reflect on the past, assess the present, and plan for the future”: Haas News: Berkeley Haas. Haas News | Berkeley Haas. Retrieved February 23, 2022, from https://newsroom.haas.berkeley.edu/black-history-month-a-time-to-reflect-on-the-past-assess-the-present-and-plan-for-the-future/