To mark Black History Month in the UK, we're sharing a special series dedicated to celebrating the community across October and beyond. First up: a look at Black history in the PR and Communications industry.
2020 has been a decisive year for the Black community. After protests took place around the world following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of US law enforcement, people and brands alike are looking with fresh eyes at the systemic issue of racial inequality.
This is where public relations can have such an important role in promoting change, as we have the power to craft how people think. But long before this year, there were pioneers who were driving positive change in our industry, with their influence still being felt today.
The first of these pioneers was Kansas-born Inez Y. Kaiser (below), an American educator, public relations expert, and entrepreneur. In 1957, she opened Inez Kaiser & Associates, the first public relations firm headed by a Black woman in the U.S. Her firm was also the first black-owned business to open in Kansas City, Missouri, and had national clients like 7-Up.
As a hobby, she became so interested in helping other Black women that she devoted several years to contacting publishers across the country, as well as promoting the use of pictures of Black models, giving them employment in areas where they had never been considered before.
When talking about Black history in PR, it would be remiss not to mention Moss Kendrix, also known as “the father of Black public relations.” He was also Coca-Cola’s first African American marketing specialist. He helped to change the perception of having Black people in the workplace.
In 1944, Kendrix 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 Black consumer base. His persistence paved the way to get large companies to recognise Black people’s potential revenue source.
Following the trend of working with global soft drink companies is Harvey C. Russell, labelled as being the pioneer of niche marketing. He was the first Black person 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 Black consumer market, and many credit him with making the company more socially responsible, at the time – this is an influence that the company embodies today through multiple philanthropic initiatives.
These three pioneers created many opportunities for Black people in our industry and beyond, and at a time when racial injustice in the world was extremely rife. However, despite their invaluable work there is clearly still a lot to be done today – especially in the communications sector. According to the PRCA’s PR and Communications Census 2019, only 10% of the industry is non-white. Recent efforts to tackle this imbalance have been highlighted by PRWeek in a piece announcing The PRCA’s Race and Ethnicity Equity Board (REEB). The board’s purpose is to ensure the PRCA, and the broader industry, adopts a best practice approach to racial and ethnic equity.
Looking beyond PR, firms and employees today need to be making active commitments to change by learning from these leaders of the past. For example, they should make a measurable commitment to improve Black representation at all levels and publish workforce diversity data on an annual basis. L&G made headlines this week with their commitment to pushing through change, setting out expectations for the organisations it is linked with to have representation at Board level.
This is just one example and there is still a long way that our industry needs to go to create equality, but the direction in which companies are going is certainly positive and I would like to think that Inez Y. Kaiser, Moss Kendrix and Harvey C. Russell would be pleased to see it finally happening.