By now you’re likely aware of the conflict erupting in Ferguson, MO resulting from the shooting death of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown. The city has done an abysmal job responding to the situation overall (including from a public relations perspective), highlighted most recently by the hiring of an all-white public relations firm to handle the crushing national media response to the race-motivated crisis.
The perception problem created by the hiring of an all-white PR firm was further escalated when the firm failed to immediately respond to critics via social media after the announcement went public. In its defense, Common Ground has since partnered with a minority-owned firm (The Devin James Group) to complement its capabilities. We’re reminded again that a few hours is a lifetime in the age of social media.
Some have defended the decision, arguing that it’s racist to consider the racial makeup of the PR firm hired to assist with this crisis. They are wrong and here’s why:
It’s not the PR firm’s fault, but we should all care that the firm is all white because it’s another reminder (like the Ferguson crisis) that minorities continue to be underrepresented in positions of leadership across the US.
The city has defended its hiring of Common Ground PR on the basis that the scope of the firm’s work is to assist the city’s internal PR staff in responding to the deluge of national media requests that have come in – not to rebuild the city’s relationship with the minority communities. That’s a fair point – but it further reveals the extent to which racism is systemically integrated into American life; the vast majority of the national media are white and can be served by an all-white PR firm.
The origins of this tragedy are at least in part due to the fact that the Ferguson police department is 92 percent white, policing a population that is 67 percent black. The PR firm should have known from the start that the racial composition of their employees was going to be an issue – because the PR industry as a whole is well aware of the diversity problems across the US (and within our own profession – nearly 70 percent of PR practitioners are white). A PR firm dropped into this situation should have first prepared to tout its experience with (and connections to) the African American community even if they weren’t necessarily relevant to the work performed. Moreover, it should be aware that because the PR industry has championed diversity as an issue – it is held to a higher standard when it comes to internalizing diversity.
Experience matters, which is why all of us list it on our resumes – and why PR firms list it (as Common Ground does) on their websites. Unfortunately I see nothing on the firm’s website that would hint at experience working with the African American community, nor relationships therein (not on their Crisis Communications page, nor in their Accolades page, nor their Partners/Memberships page, nor listed among the causes they support on the “Giving Back” page). They absolutely may have it – but the only indicator we’re left with to judge them on their expertise with diversity is the racial makeup of their employees.
Understanding your audiences is one of the most basic components of public relations. It’s well-known in public relations (but rarely discussed) that to work with minority audiences, you need to have minority representation within your organization – it’s an important indicator that you’ve internalized the importance of diversity. That sounds racist, but it’s not – it’s a response to the legacy of racism which excluded minorities from professional positions (which is why they’re still underrepresented today).
That legacy of exclusion is why there are separate professional groups and news outlets for minorities today. The dominant white culture excluded minority professionals and failed to cover news in minority communities – so they had to create their own.
Here’s a thought exercise: if you had to reach a majority white audience, would you feel that you could be best represented by an all-black PR firm? How about your C-Suite? – You’re lying if you say yes. Yet we expect the opposite to be true for Ferguson.
What’s “racist” is pretending that race doesn’t matter – it does.
In his 1922 book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann noted:
“The incidence of policy determines the relation between leader and following. if those whom he needs in his plan are remote from the place where the action takes place, if the results are hidden or postponed, if the individual obligations are indirect or not yet due, above all if assent is an exercise of some pleasurable emotion, the leader is likely to have a free hand.”
I think about that in the context of the oil spill currently underway from the BP Deepwater Horizon rig and how different the crisis would have unfolded in decades past. Even in the past couple of years, technology (particularly social media) has stripped leaders of their ability to keep such phenomena remote and abstract, shielding them from the public.
Now, we can look in directly on the results and feast at an all-u-can-eat buffet of related information:
- A new Google Maps mashup lets one contextualize the size of the oil spill by overlaying maps of related geographical areas
- The Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming has a live video feed of the spill.
- The New York Times has an interactive map application that illustrates the timeline of the spill.
- TheSmokingGun.com has assembled a special gallery of past mug shots of BP employees in honor of the spill.
- Nature Magazine has been blogging regularly about the science behind the spill.
- Political groups like ClimateProgress have been rapidly aggregating the damning evidence that continues to be unearthed about the lack of oversight and safety protocols on the oil rig, in addition to debunking BP’s public relations efforts on-the-fly as they’re released.
- Cafepress.com is already teeming with clothing and accessories imprinted with anti-BP slogans and images related specifically to the Deepwater Horizon spill.
- Twitter is providing people with a platform to disseminate the second-by-second updates on the situation in the gulf.
- A fake BP Public Relations Twitter Account has been mocking the company (via Mashable.com)
In crisis situations, we tend to look to past crises for insight on how a new one will unfold. The problem is, all of the technology and the rapid adoption of social networking platforms has made those past comparisons obsolete. This is true for virtually all fields, but especially public relations which has borne the brunt of the upheaval from the communications revolution. Trying to downplay crises with euphemistic language is deadly, as BP CEO Tony Hayward found out after comments made in past days have come back to bite him.
Anything you can imagine could be a facet of the next crisis your organization faces (even a video game based on your crisis; just wait – some programmers are likely downing cases of Red Bull feverishly coding a BP-themed oil spill video game right now).
One would be hard pressed to make case studies older than a few years relevant today, and yet most PR textbooks still teach the Tylenol recall scare from 1982. If your playbook is older than 2007 – it’s time to get a new playbook.