Inez Kaiser, Ofield Dukes, Moss Kendrix—these aren’t names found in any textbook or spoken of in classrooms. However, these are the names of change agents, who are credited with breaking down barriers for people of color in the public relations industry. The Museum of Public Relations highlighted these and other past black pioneers who made significant contributions to the communications field, at the event “Celebrating Black PR History,” on Wednesday, May 3, at Baruch College in New York City.
The Museum of Public Relations celebrated hidden black history makers in PR. From left to right: Judith Harrison, president of PRSA Foundation; Donald Singletary, president The Singletary Group; Terry Edmonds, strategic communications leader, IBM and first African American presidential speechwriter; David Albritton, executive director, global product communications, General Motors. (Image: Lisa Fraser)
“These are stories that have never been told, but we needed them to be told because they’re not in any textbook,” says Shelley Spector, founder of the Museum of Public Relations and president of Spector Corporate Communications and Public Relations.
Spector, an adjunct professor at Baruch College and NYU, says the aim of the event and the museum’s exhibit on the pioneers is to inform students and PR professionals of color of the role models that look like they do and who share some of the same life experiences, in hopes of attracting and retaining more diverse millennials into the field.
The event included two panels; one showcased past PR pioneers, and the other discussed the experiences of young black PR professionals, including how they handle challenges and provide a voice for a more dynamic and inclusive public relations industry.
Terry Edmonds, strategic communications leader at IBM and the first African American presidential speechwriter, discusses his history as a communications professional. (Image: The Museum of Public Relations)
Speakers Terry Edmonds, the first African American presidential speechwriter under Bill Clinton; David Albritton, executive director of global product development communications at General Motors; Judith Harrison, president of the PRSA Foundation and senior vice president of diversity and inclusion at Weber Shandwick; and Donald Singletary, president of the Singletary Group and adjunct professor at Baruch College and Syracuse University; all discussed the vital role that the black trailblazers played, and the powerful imprint they left on the field.
Trisch Smith, executive vice president at Edelman, a public relations firm, moderated the second panel of young professionals in the industry. Together they shared a candid conversation about what it means to be black in a mostly white field. This panel resonated with many of the event’s young attendees.
5 Key Takeaways From the Event:
1. Black PR Is Rooted in Activism
“What is black PR?” Donald Singleton asks the crowd. It was a question, asked by a white student, that got him thinking about this. “There may not be something you can label distinctly as black public relations, but there is something very unique about the way public relations has been practiced by African Americans,” he says.
“The roots of it lie in many different aspects. For example, advocacy, rights for freedom, and fighting against segregation and exclusion from society and the workplace, which involved active participation from different aspects of the community,” he continues. “The black church, black colleges and universities, black press, and black athletes, and entertainers have all come together to play a role in producing an effort to include our voice in public relations, to move forward African Americans and empower them as a community and consumers.”
He stresses to the younger generation that, though it’s commonplace now to see a lot of wealthy black entertainers and athletes with powerful influence, there was a time when this wasn’t true.
2. Inez Kaiser Founded the First African American, Female-Owned PR Firm
This Kansas-born “hidden figure” in PR started out as an economics teacher. After deciding to embark on a career in public relations, she quickly realized where her life’s work would be. In 1957, this pioneer opened Inez Kaiser & Associates, the first public relations firm headed by an African American woman in the U.S. Her firm was also the first African American-owned business to open in Kansas City, Missouri, according to the Museum of PR, and her first big client was 7-Up. She passed away in 2016.
3. Early PR Practitioners Fought Hard to Showcase the Power of Black Consumers in the U.S.
A huge problem faced by black previous public relations practitioners is that mainstream organizations and media outlets simply did not believe there was any value to the base of African Americans. Who helped to change this? Among others, Moss Kendrix, also known as “the father of black public relations.” He was also Coca-Cola’s first African American marketing specialist.
In 1944, the Morehouse alum started his own public relations firm in Washington, D.C., The Moss Kendrix Organization. There, he landed a list of clients that targeted black consumers, including Ford Motor Company and Carnation. The Coca-Cola Company hired Kendrix after he consistently reached out to executives, detailing how to target the African American consumer base. His persistence paved the way to get large companies to recognize African Americans’ potential revenue source for corporate America.
Judith Harrison of PRSA briefly spoke of Harvey C. Russell, citing him as the pioneer of niche marketing. He was the first African American to be made vice president at a major corporation, PepsiCola, in 1962, after beginning as a field representative in 1952. During his 33-year stay with the company, he played a pivotal role in Pepsi’s reach toward the African American market, and many credit him with making the company more socially responsible, at the time.
Another revered PR pioneer is Ofield Dukes, who is also known for getting mainstream companies to understand the value of blacks as a consumer market and as an emerging power. He worked with clients like AT&T and Anheuser-Busch at his D.C.-based firm, Ofield Dukes & Associates.
4. Young PR Practitioners: Don’t Stress Over Titles and Be Business Savvy
David Albritton told the story of his choice to move from a defense company, where he was vice president of communications and reported to the CEO, to General Motors, where he ended up working in a position two levels down from his prior position, noting that it’s not so much about titles as it is about what you can learn, and where you can contribute most.
“I looked at it as a growth opportunity,” he says. “It’s what you relate to, what access do you have, who do you influence, and how much decision-making authority do you have that will allow you to learn, be an influence, and have a seat at the table.”
Another key tip he offered, was to learn the business side of your company.
David Albritton, exec. director, global product communications at GM, dropping valuable career gems at Celebrating Black PR History. pic.twitter.com/W5jSbwAtqL
— Black Enterprise (@blackenterprise) May 3, 2017
“If you’re going to be considered for the more senior roles later on, you’ve got to become a business partner, and stop being just a PR practitioner,” Albritton says. “You need to understand how money is made at your organization, whether it’s a corporation or nonprofit. How do you attach public relations to how an organization is making money?”
5. Make Sure You Have Something to Say, Especially If You’re the Only Person of Color
The “Diversity on the Front Lines” panel discussed how young PR professionals can make an impact. Speakers from left to right are: Trisch Smith, executive vice president at Edelman; Vernon James of Ruder Finn; Danielle Richards of the Arthur W. Page Society; Cameron French of Burson-Marsteller; Fred Garcia, The LAGRANT Foundation, and Troy Thompson of PRSA. (Image: The Museum of Public Relations)
At the event’s second panel, “Diversity on the Front Lines,” Danielle C. Richards, the diversity and inclusion lead at Arthur W. Page Society, notes the importance of speaking up. “It’s important to understand that your voice is so important, and that your opinion and perspective could be the one thing that changes your company’s trajectory,” she says.
Albritton also stresses that it’s important for young professionals to have the courage to be heard. “If you are the expert and have the courage to speak up on behalf of your profession, then you will get looked upon as that expert,” Albritton says. “You will be invited into the conversation more often, if you’re going to [do more than just] sit there as a notetaker. Have something to say.”
More Info on The Museum of Public Relations
The Museum of Public Relations was founded in 1997. Today, it resides at Baruch College, CUNY, in New York City. A special exhibit about these black PR pioneers is on permanent display at the Newman Library in Baruch.
An appointment is required to visit the museum. Those interested can check their website.