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.
[Warning: Spoilers. Obvi.]
One of the most dynamic and compelling characters in the “Game of Thrones” universe created by George R.R. Martin is Daenerys Targaryen. Born in exile after her father Aerys II was killed as Robert Baratheon assumed the throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros (the mythical world in which GOT takes place), she
She may not carry a smartphone or an insulated Starbucks mug, but Dany has been teaching a master class in public relations over the past few seasons. Here’s what she’s reminded us so far:
Never Forget Who You Are
Throughout the series, Danaerys recalls the strength of her birthright as a Targaryen to forge on against adversity. She trusts her heritage when she sets herself and her stone dragon eggs ablaze, and is rewarded when she emerges unscathed (though covered in soot like a Looney Toons character after an explosion) with her three dragons freed from their shells.
Play to Your Strengths
One advantage frequently used by Daenerys is her underestimation by her adversaries. When securing the army of the Unsullied (slaves trained in combat from birth) in Astapor, she allows their master Kraznys mo Nakloz to assume she does not understand Valyrien (an ancient language of Westeros) because she is Dothraki. While she barters with him for the slave army, he hurls a number of insults at her in Low Valyrian knowing his slave translator will clean up what he has said in the Common Tongue for his prospective customer. In theatrical fashion, she later reveals that she has understood every insult he’s made and orders her dragon to burn him alive in front of all – reminding all of the peril of underestimation (and securing the respect of her new army of freed slaves).
Understand Your Stakeholders
The portrayal of Daenerys in Game of Thrones is one of a woman who spends a great deal of time getting to know the people around her on the show. Like most good leaders, she spends more time listening than she does talking. Her ability to learn and embrace the culture of the Dothraki is crucial to her rise to power. Unlike many who sit on thrones elsewhere in Westeros, she walks among her people without fear – inspiring loyalty and admiration.
Unlike the other rulers of Westeros, Dany takes an interest in her subjects – investing to learn their cultures, motivations, and needs. The latest season contained a scene in which she heard and responded to the grievances of her newly-conquered subjects and responded generously to their petitions.
When she fails, she takes each misstep as an opportunity to learn something never to repeat (like when her misplaced trust in “the Thirteen” in Qarth results in the death of her men at the hands of the warlocks of the city). She uses her wit and presence to win the support of the mercenary army “the Second Sons,” by impressing Daario Naharis who rejects his fellow sellswords’ demands to assassinate her and beheads them instead as an act of fealty to Daenerys.
Wield the Power of Imagery
It’s hard to top the visual of Daenerys Targaryen emerging from a bath of flames on a funeral pyre to become the “Mother of Dragons.” This sets the stage for a series of stunning visuals that mark Dany’s rise to power, from the incineration of the House of the Undying to the incineration of Kraznys mo Nakloz, owner of the army of the Unsullied (the Mother of Dragons does a lot of incinerating). Nakloz’s death is particularly instructive.
One of the best uses of imagery comes when Daenerys and her armies begin their seige of the city of Meereen. In a dramatic appeal to the slaves of the city to take up arms against their masters, Daenerys orders catapaults to fling the broken chains and yokes of the other slaves she has freed over the citys’ walls. As the slaves pick up the broken symbols of subjugation, both they and their dramatically-outnumbered masters realize perception is the only thing keeping them enslaved.
Women: Stand Strong in a Male-Dominated World
Dany is the lone female contender for the throne of Westeros, a world which mirrors the patriarchal bend of ours. Public Relations is unique among other professions in that it is populated largely by women (by some studies, a ratio as high as 75-85 percent). The respect she commands and influence she exerts reminds me of many of the women in the world of PR.
Forced into an arranged marriage with Khal Drogo (a warlord who commands 40,000 riders of a race called the Dothraki) to serve her brother Viserys’ desire to raise an army to reconquer the Iron Throne for House Targaryen, Dany wills herself to be respected as an equal by her new husband. She endures abuse, rape, and both physical and psychological violence to overcome the subjugation of her cruel brother and the circumstances of her early life in exile. She asserts an equal status to her husband and eventually takes over the leadership of his tribe when he falls ill and dies.
In point of fact, the fantasy world created by Martin has been the subject of analysis by gender studies academics because it’s strong female characters (like Cersei Lannister, Catelyn and Arya Stark, Olenna and Magaery Tyrell, Brienne of Tarth, Ygritte, and Osha to name a few) buck the traditional depictions of the fantasy genre.
To Achieve Your Goals, Stick to a Strategy
Once the city of Meereen is conquered, availing Daenerys of its 93 ships, she wisely puts off her quest to retake the throne of Westeros by sailing to Kings Landing even though she now has the ships she’s so desperately needed throughout the past few seasons. The cities she has conquered have slipped back into disarray without her direct oversight, so she invests in her future empire by pausing to refortify her rule (an important gesture that demonstrates her loyalty to the subjects she has just freed).
The public relations analogy extends far and wide through the Game of Thrones series; the importance of communication and intellectual brinksmanship are felt more heavily in this fantasy series than in others which are content to coast on magic, mythical creatures and hewing swords. As a result, I’ve doubtless missed many other correlaries between GoT and the worlds of advertising, marketing and PR.
I’d love to hear what lessons or analogies you’ve picked up on in the series.
As ArtPrize opens in Grand Rapids, an actual controversy has finally broken out.
It’s not the usual controversy (ie art snobs being upset that “commoners” are allowed to express opinions on what constitutes “good art). It’s actually controversy over work considered to be obscene. Read more…