18 Powerful Quotes from Diverse Voices


Recently, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Foundation announced its latest effort in its mission to promote diversity among PR professionals and companies. In its new book, Diverse Voices: Profiles in Leadership, the PRSA Foundation offers a collection of perspectives from 40 senior PR leaders representing diversity across gender, racial/ethnic, and orientation backgrounds. The PRSA Foundation plans to use the book to facilitate discussion events at colleges nationwide throughout the year.

I finished Diverse Voices for myself a couple of weeks ago and was enlightened to read about the problems PR faces in becoming a more diverse profession. However, I also came across some powerful advice that could be beneficial for any professional’s career development.

I’ve picked out 18 of my favorite quotes from the leaders profiled in Diverse Voices that best capture the essence of what it means to be a diverse professional—although I could easily include several more:

1. “When I was trying to break into the profession, there seemed to be a lot of opportunities that were of the “minority fellowship” variety. I rejected those opportunities because I didn’t want to be known as the minority candidate in the office. I wanted to be seen as a qualified individual. Organizations need to find a way to unearth those candidates without labeling them to check off that box.”

—Brenden Lee, Sports Partnership Communications, Twitter

2. “…just a few years ago, I received a phone call from the CEO of a top PR firm. ‘Hey, Mike, I just thought of something great, and I wanted you to know about it right away,’ he said. ‘We’re going to give a thousand-dollar scholarship to one of the HBCUs!’ A thousand dollars! They thought a thousand dollars was going to solve the whole diversity problem. I told him that won’t even pay for a meal plan for one semester… I even talked to some of the kids who received those scholarships. Many of them don’t even work in the profession anymore. They felt abandoned. They believed the rhetoric. And few people even followed up with them after they received the check. It was all about the person who wrote the laughably small check. Sadly, donations like these are not about the students. It was spin, a four-letter word for a reason.’

—Mike Paul, Reputation Doctor, LLC

3. “Diverse students tend to start out at a disadvantage immediately out of the gate. They don’t have the resources to spend their summers working at big city agencies and renting apartments in places like New York or Chicago. So instead of graduating with three or four agency internships under their belts, they’ll have three to four summers working at a fast-food restaurant or coffee shop—just to help pay their school tuition and living expenses. Even before they get started in their professional careers, the diverse kids have to struggle to catch up. They don’t get the advantages of having the real-world experience of an agency, and also miss out on the chance to make connections and begin building their professional networks.”

—Neil Foote, President and Chief Executive Officer, Foote Communications, LLC
Principal Lecturer, University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism

4. “As a professor, I often take my classes on field trips to agencies. We went to one large agency…(whose) people kept trying to engage with the one African-American student in the group. They seemed interested in talking to him about a job there. He pulled me aside during the tour and said, ‘…I would never work in a place like this. There’s nobody that looks like me here.’ And he didn’t want to be that sort of poster child, which was how they were making him feel.”

—Pallavi Kumar, Assistant Professor, American University School of Communication

5. “At every corporate or agency job I’ve had, I’ve always been the only one… So that ‘only’ aspect of it is a thing. When people interact with you as an ‘only,’ you can’t help but observe that being an ‘only’ makes you very noticeable. However, there’s another way of looking at the many times I was the ‘only.’ I also was the ‘first.’ If there’s a first, there can be a second and a third until we don’t need to count. But the ‘only’ aspect may be one of the reasons we have a retention issue. Also, having to be twice as good to get to the same place as a non-minority can be tiring.”

—Denise Hill, Assistant Professor of Communications, Elon University School of Communications

6. “When I first started the agency, I found that a lot of the organizations we were approaching, particularly in certain geographic areas, were not open to working with us. It was very challenging to convince people that we could offer something of value… During this period, there were a number of times when I strongly considered not making it known that I was the owner of the agency. I often wondered what would happen if, while I was out on a sales call, I represented myself working for the company versus being the owner. Would the conversations have gone differently?”

—Vanessa Wakeman, Founder an Chief Executive Officer, The Wakeman Agency

7. “More and more companies are mandating diverse representation on their account teams. And increasingly, request for proposals (RFPs) are requiring that information. It’s a business driven by billable hours, and sometimes the diversity piece, the multicultural piece of the RFP, is not the lion’s share of the assignment…and when it’s not…they bring out the ‘multicultural person.’ But then when it comes time to doing the assignment and having the hours assigned to that person, they don’t get it. It behooves clients to hold agencies responsible for that.”

—Helen Shelton, Senior Partner, Finn Partners

8. If you’re a Caucasian person, and want to understand what it feels like to be the only white person, show up at a Black church one day. Go to a soul food restaurant in a part of town you would normally never travel to. See how people look at you and see how you feel to be the only white person. And just try to authentically be yourself. And see if some of the things that happen to minorities end up happening to you.”

—Rochelle Ford, Dean, Elon University School of Communications

9. “Early in my career, I made sure I didn’t get stereotyped and pigeonholed into things that are just about diversity. I had to establish credibility on everyone else’s terms.”

—Michael Sneed, Executive Vice President – Global Corporate Affairs and Chief Communications Officer, Johnson & Johnson

10. “When people find out that you’re good at something, sometimes projects will find you. But you have to be able to articulate what it is that you bring to the table, and then seek to match that up. But don’t use labels like, ‘Well, I only do this or I do that,’ rather than, ‘Here are the skills I have. How can I apply those skills to different challenges that businesses or organizations might have?'”

—Damon Jones, Global Communications Executive and Reputation Strategist, P&G

11. “I’ve long believed that every hiring decision is a leap of faith. It doesn’t matter how many interviews you conduct or how much due diligence you put in or how many references you rely on. At the end of the day there is a gut call you’re making on an individual, diverse or otherwise. And you’re saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to go with this person because somehow I think it’s going to work.’ And sometimes that decision will work out fabulously well; sometimes maybe not so much. But there’s no getting around that.”

—Oscar Suris III, Former Executive Vice President of Corporate Communications, Wells Fargo

12. “Sometimes I remind myself of this parable when I’m dealing with my own employees: A mouse and an elephant are in the same room, and the mouse quickly learns that it has to understand how the elephant eats, when it eats, what it eats, when it sleeps, what happens to it when it gets upset. Does it move around? Does it stay still? The mouse needs to know everything about the elephant just to survive. On the other hand, the elephant is completely unaware—blithely unaware—that the mouse is even there, that the mouse is under all this pressure to survive or what is even important to the mouse and its survival in the room they share.”

—Andrew McCaskill, Senior Vice President of Global Communications, Nielsen

13. “…we need to be strategic, creative and intentional about nurturing mid-level and senior diverse talent. We must be vigilant about preventing vaguely defined notions of ‘cultural fit,’ unaligned with business goals, to impede embracing and developing multicultural professionals. We need to create equitable, inclusive environments that encourage people to bring their full selves to work and support the sense of belonging critical to retaining this essential cohort.”

—Judith Harrison, Senior Vice President, Diversity & Inclusion, Weber Shandwick

14. “… you create an environment, a culture, that brings out there best, not only from women and minorities, but from the quiet people, the loud people, the people who work and think and express themselves differently. This is the difference between representation and inclusion, and that’s another mountain we have yet to scale. But if you want to win, you have to be relentless about it, all of it.”

—Jon Iwata, Executive-in-Residence, Yale School of Management
Senior Advisor and Former Chief Brand Officer, IBM

15. “The moment that you feel like you’re welcome, contributing and creating value, that’s when the magic starts. That’s when we feel like we can make a career out of our job or a specific company. When we bring our whole self to work it benefits shareholders, leaders, colleagues and ourselves. It’s a win-win for everyone…”

—Lisa Chen, Head of Internal Communications, Distribution and Go-to-Market, Google Cloud, Google

16. “So I think if you’re a person of color and you’re trying to remain purely professional on the job, that is not a good strategy. We have to bring our whole selves into the workplace and be known for all of that richness and strength. That is our superpower!”

—Patrice Tanaka, Founder and Chief Joy Officer, Joyful Planet

17. “…when it comes to young diverse talent, we need them to be the owners of their career and not the victims. We need them to find mentors, not wait for someone in HR to assign one. And we need them to become masters of their craft. After that it comes back to my grandfather: Keep learning and never forget who you are and where you came from.”

—Mike Fernandez, Chief Executive Officer, Llorente y Cuence
Professor, Boston University

18. “If I could go back and tell my younger self what to say to the woman who implied I was more desirable on paper, I would answer, ‘That’s nothing compared to how much better I am in person!'”

—Sheryl Battles, Vice President, Communications and Diversity Strategy, Pitney Bowes

Diverse Voices is available through its website in paperback or digital form. You can also purchase it through Amazon in all formats. I’m looking forward to seeing how this book and the PRSA Foundation move the needle in creating a more diverse and inclusive profession.

How Nonprofits and Associations Can Thrive in Times of Disruption

The following was originally authored for Hager Sharp’s agency blog. You can read it here.

Every four or eight years, the United States officially swears in a new president—oftentimes bringing a new set of challenges. That’s why as a social-change communicator, I felt it would be beneficial to attend the PRSA National Capital Chapter’s most recent Breakfast Breakthrough titled, “What the (Donald) Trump Administration Means for Associations and Nonprofits.” Attendees kept the discussion lively and came away with expectations, takeaways, and tools for news monitoring.

While observing and listening to attendees’ different perspectives, I discovered some helpful tips based on the presentation and my own experience with nonprofits:

  1. Social media is key: now more than ever—From the campaign trail to now, President Trump has never been one to shy away from voicing his opinions on Twitter. Nonprofits and organizations can adapt that same boldness on social media to advocate for their own causes. This may require a change in procedures for some organizations, where the clearance process can slow down their ability to seize the moment. In fact, a key thing about today’s social media is how quickly organizations can get their message out. The Pew Research Center found that Facebook was the third most popular source of news among all voters this past year. Being authentic on your networks is a great way to engage and gain public trust.
  2. Study the media habits of your audience—If you are trying to influence elected officials and their policies, it’s always helpful to understand their media habits. One suggestion for doing this is to utilize Twitter to follow their accounts and the accounts that they follow. Know which media outlets matter to them. For example, this Axios article provides information on President Trump’s daily media diet. For members of Congress, their hometown paper may carry more weight than The Washington Post. Once you understand the “media diet” of your elected official, you can understand how best to target your media messages towards getting his or her attention.
  3. Value insiders’ and outsiders’ opinions—When the breakfast attendees were asked about the last time we analyzed who our audiences are, not many of us raised our hands. Before your organization adapts boldness on social media, it’s important to know who your supporters are—on and offline—and assess how they feel. At the same time, organizations need to assess the sentiment of those outside of their base of supporters to get a sense of what they’re up against and whether there’s an opening to change hearts and minds.
  4. Embrace partnerships with like-minded organizations—Everyone knows the old saying, “There’s strength in numbers.” History has shown this to be true, from the early movements in the 1900s for women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Both events were the result of individuals and organizations with similar beliefs coming together to advocate for the same cause. Even after those events, organizations benefitted by combining their efforts and becoming stronger advocates in the process.
  5. Facts matter, but emotions do too—Many of the great leaders for social change all share one thing in common: each of them successfully gained followers by incorporating facts into their messages along with relentless passion. As organizations seek to become thought leaders for their causes, the importance of using data and emotion to tell a compelling story will be crucial for inspiring current supporters and gaining new advocates.

Nonprofits and associations don’t have to fear the impending changes. Instead, by studying their new landscape and adapting boldness on social media, organizations can take advantage of opportunities to make sure their issues are at the forefront. It’s also important that organizations assess their own supporters and detractors, unite with like-minded groups, and combine emotion with facts to tell a compelling story aimed at securing more advocates. Attending this PRSA Breakfast Breakthrough gave me more confidence that the effective use of communications will serve nonprofits well—even in times of disruption.

The Sweet Sciences: Boxing & Communications

This post was originally shared for McKinney & Associates’ blog and newsletter, where I was employed at the time. You can find it here.

Before I left Detroit for graduate school in Syracuse University I took the opportunity to work with a professional trainer for over a year. During that time I learned the sport of boxing, which is a great way to get in shape thanks to the levels of cardio involved.

Most people see boxing as a brute sport where opponents fight each other until the (sometimes bloody) end. But those who really follow and participate in the sport know the true level of strategy involved.

Similarly, communications is more than just the tactics you see carried out through social media, press releases and other forms of content. It also involves a strategy that helps you determine who your audience is and how best to attack (or reach) them.

Here are some ways you can consider boxing to be helpful for communications strategies:

  1. Preparation–Boxing is a sport that took me about 7-8 months to prepare for. It requires months of healthy eating, a routine of calisthenics, and practice of proper techniques. Meanwhile, communications campaigns also require preparation. After all, it’s important to ensure your team has the capacity to handle the work you’ve agreed to take on and the goals you’re looking to achieve.
  2. Scouting–In boxing, it’s important to take time out to get a scouting report on your opponent, whether by watching him/her against other people, or by getting “the scoop” from other trainers and observers. Similarly, communications efforts should have a clear idea of their audience’s preferences before they’re carried out.
  3. Defense–Whether you’re sparring or in an actual competition, most boxers are ill-advised against throwing a constant barrage of punches without considering how their opponent might attack. It’s the same concept in communications: if you go on the offensive all the time without anticipating your audience’s needs, they will likely grow weary of your message and you’ll lose out on opportunities.
  4. Stamina–Another drawback of throwing a constant barrage of punches is that it ultimately wears you down, making you vulnerable to attacks from your opponent. In communications, it’s also important to make sure your efforts are spread out through a timeline which is reasonable for you to execute and realistic for engaging your target audience.
  5. Reflection–In between boxing rounds and even after sessions or competitions, you have to take time to reflect on what you did right and what you did wrong in the ring. The same is true for communications efforts—high levels of activity are not enough to justify a campaigns success. Rather, emphasis should be placed on other measures, such as how many placements you’ve secured and how large their audiences extend.

Boxing isn’t just a great way to get in shape; it also helps you to consider communications strategies. Having a good balance of offense and defense is the same as having a good balance of listening and disseminating. Ultimately, the best way to be successful in either is to have a winning strategy.

Learned Lessons and Discovered Ideas: My Week in Education PR

Earlier this week I got my first taste of education PR at the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District (BPCSD). Through the Newhouse Alumni Partnership Program, I volunteered for two days to work on PR related projects for the district located a little more than an hour away from Albany, New York. Under Michele Kelley, who works for Northeast Regional Information Center (NERIC) through the Capitol Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), I authored a feature story for the high school and provided my insights for the district’s social media communications. In addition, Michele introduced me to some resources for me to consider in the educations communications space.

Meanwhile back home, the big story this week was a district-wide teacher sick-out which closed schools throughout Detroit Public Schools (DPS). The sick-out is reported to be a protest by the teachers’ union against the conditions their schools are in, as well as compensation and benefits. Overall, DPS has been dealing with a number of issues for nearly a decade, mainly due to a sharp decline in student enrollment and the district’s nearly billion-dollar budget deficit.

The night and day differences between BPCSD and DPS are part of the reason for my interest in education PR, so that I can be a part of changing the conversation to highlight the positive things going on in the latter. Based on some of the things I’ve learned volunteering for BPCSD, here are some ways I’d attempt to do for DPS:

  • Highlight students, teachers and staff – As a former student of DPS, I can attest to part of the reason for the perceived lack of motivation from those in the trenches: and it stems from their lack of appreciation. Deep down, there are students, teachers and staff who truly desire to do the right thing; however, their efforts for doing so are often under-appreciated. Many schools have programs in place where teachers and students work to keep students out of trouble and are successful at doing so. Highlighting these individuals and groups would be a good way to keep them motivated to influence change in their schools in spite of external situations. Everyone loves recognition, and few people could use it more than teachers in inner-city schools.
  • Use social media to stir up friendly competition – What’s potentially an underestimated method of engaging students is social media. Specifically at the high school level, most students use smartphones and are on many, if not all, of the most popular social media networks. But what would make them interested in following their school district or school on social media? Contests. Opportunities. Recognition. Interaction. Prizes. Ultimately it’s using social media as a tool to listen to and show concern for what they have to say.
  • Create micro-fundraising campaigns – Another one of the key things I learned at BPCSD was that school districts are a lot like nonprofit organizations in the way that they rely heavily on outside funding aside from tax-payer funds from both the city and state; unfortunately, those only go so far in keeping schools and their districts solvent. Using the right messaging, DPS could appeal to its parents and alums to do the little bit they can to contribute to improving their school’s conditions and resources. Although most parents of students in the district seemingly struggle with their own finances, the use of research and analytics to find the most affluent parents and reaching out to them might be worth it.

In spite of these ideas, it’s important to note that there are other factors beyond a communications professional’s control that might limit the ability to put forth new ideas in place. Ultimately, it’s up to the management and board of directors above any communications professional to do their part in repairing DPS’s myriad of issues. While that goes on, one can do the little bit they can to show appreciation to those who are directly impacted by management’s decisions.

After all, a little appreciation (and friendly competition) can go a long way.

5 Reasons Why PR Pros Should Embrace Digital Analytics

Digital analytics has become somewhat of a dirty buzzword for those in the communications industry lately. Ironically though, it has been the theme of my third week into the fall semester at Newhouse. From Sysomos training for my research course, to my continued work as Dr. Ford’s research assistant, I’ve found myself regaining my appreciation for the science behind gathering meaningful analysis.

Whether you like it or not, public relations and analytics are becoming synonymous with each other. It’s not just enough for PR professionals to communicate their clients’ message, but they also have to prove that those messages are effective. Best of all, you don’t have to spend a ton of money to have decent analytics in place as social media tools like Facebook and Twitter offer dashboards for you to see how your content is performing.

Here are some ways that analytics can be a beneficial tool for public relations professionals:

  1. Finding your biggest advocates – One of the best things you could have in PR is a loyal fan who’s willing to go to bat for you. They’re the ones who are always sharing your content and are usually the first to leave comments. The frequency with which your biggest fans share your content is a metric you could utilize in addition to recognizing them for their free promotion.
  2. Following the process – If you have a registration process for attracting donations or purchases, you can use analytics to determine the likelihood of visitors to complete the process, also known as the conversion rate. High-end tools like ForeSee, and easy-to-use tools like Google Analytics, allow you to set up tracking codes to determine where visitors might be losing interest and leaving your site, especially if it’s in the middle of a process.
  3. Timing your visitors’ stay – If you’re putting out content that features multiple elements, you’ll want to find out how much visitors are engaging with it. With tracking codes on your website, you can find out just how much time the average user is interacting with your site’s pages. For instance, if you embed a five minute video on a webpage, you might be concerned if visitors are spending listen than five minutes on that page.
  4. What you’re doing right – If you’re putting out a steady stream of content you eventually want to know what type of messaging works for your audience. By keeping track of metrics such as likes, visits and page views, you can notice trends that are more effective than others.
  5. What you’re doing wrong – Of course if you find that engagement with your posts are low you can use analytics to figure out why your messaging isn’t resonating with audiences. You could also use sites like justunfollow.com to see if you’re losing your audience on social media.

With this in mind, I’d hope that more PR professionals will come to recognize digital analytics not as a niche area, but as part of the overall strategy. Just as PR has become integrated with advertising and marketing, digital analytics will continue to make its way into the mix for years to come.