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.