Ask most public relations professionals what the top priority facing the profession today is and an overwhelming number of answers will involve the need for greater diversity. However, as we look to create greater diversity for the future, we as a profession must do a much better job of honoring the diversity in our field’s history.
We must remember and share the stories of those PR pioneers from minority backgrounds who have surmounted great obstacles to become leaders within our profession and their communities. By sharing these stories we honor their work and ensure that they will forever serve as role models to young professionals and an inspiration to our industry.
Two of those professionals are Joseph V. Baker and Inez Y. Kaiser, both prominent African-American PR professionals who will be honored Thursday, Jan. 30 at The Museum of Public Relations 5th Annual Black PR History Event.
Joseph Varney Baker: The first African-American to Found a PR Agency
Joseph Varney Baker was born August 20, 1908, in Abbeville, South Carolina where he attended the Abbeville State Teachers Training School. In the 1920s, a teenage Baker moved to Philadelphia, graduated from Central High School and eventually studied journalism at Temple University. At the time, he was one of just a handful of journalism students studying at the school.
His storied career began as a reporter at the Philadelphia Tribune, an African American newspaper that is still published today, eventually working his way up to became city editor. He was also the first African-American journalist to write for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which is now the third-oldest surviving daily newspaper in the United States.
After leaving his position as the city editor at the Philadelphia Tribune, he worked as a public relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Railroad. This move led him to start his own firm in New York City, Joseph V. Baker and Associates, in 1934. The firm, the first African-American owned PR firm, specialized in PR, marketing and advertising aimed at African-American audiences.
Over the years, Joseph V. Baker and Associates’ client list would include some of the biggest corporations including the Pennsylvania Railroad, American Tobacco Company, Carrier Corporation, Hamilton Watch Company, the Gillette Corporation, Scott Paper Company, RCA, Procter & Gamble, Chrysler, DuPont, U.S. Steel, Western Union, NBC, the Association of American Railroads, and major African-American entertainers.
Long active in politics, Baker was chosen in 1960 to serve as an assistant to then Vice President Richard Nixon’s campaign staff when he ran for president against John F. Kennedy, by campaign director, Robert H. Finch.
During his career, Baker also worked as the director of the Division of Negro Research and Planning for the Pennsylvania State Department of Labor and Industry, then as the director of Negro Work for the Republican State Committee.
Baker retired from Joseph V. Baker and Associates in the early 1980s. The man once described as the “dean of Negro public relations men,” died at the age of 84 years old in his Germantown, Pennsylvania home on May 7, 1993.
Inez Y. Kaiser, First African-American Woman to Head a National PR Firm
Inez Yeargan Kaiser was born April 22, 1918, in Kansas City, Missouri. She came into the world only 53 years after the end of slavery, as the great war was coming to its conclusion, a time when women had yet to win the right to vote and Jim Crow ran rampant. Not exactly the most auspicious of times for a young ambitious African-American woman to begin her life.
Kaiser, standing at a small but powerful 5-foot-tall, would not allow circumstances to hold her back and always lived her life by the words of author Napoleon Hill, “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”
In the 1930s, a time when most African-American’s weren’t allowed to pursue higher education, she applied and was accepted to Pittsburg State University and received a bachelor’s degree in education in 1941. She would later earn a master’s degree from Columbia University and an honorary doctorate from Lincoln University.
In the mid-1950s, as a hobby, she began writing a column called “Fashionwise and Otherwise” that was published in African-American newspapers across the country. The column covered fashion shows in New York, California and the House of Dior in Paris.
She also wrote a column in The Kansas City Star titled, “As I See It,” and a cookbook, “Soul Food Cookery,” it was the first such book.
One morning in 1957, Kaiser decided she didn’t want to teach anymore and typed up a one-line letter of resignation. Now unemployed and $13,000 in debt due to a long illness suffered by her father, she decided to go into public relations – a field she had never heard of – on the suggestion of an editor of an African-American newspaper.
That was the start of Inez Kaiser and Associates, Inc. The first public relations firm headed by an African-American woman in the United States and the first African-American owned business in Kansas City.
Her first big account was 7-Up, an account she won, Kaiser admitted, because a 7-Up executive liked the way she admitted she didn’t know the answer to one of his questions but promised to get back to him with an answer within a day. By the early 1960s, after securing 7-Up and other accounts such as Sterling Drug, Sears & Roebuck, Lever Brothers and others she became the first African-American woman to run a public relations firm with national clients.
She advised U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. The Nixon administration sent her to represent the U.S. during an economic conference in Africa and she served as an advisor on minorities in business during the Ford administration.
Kaiser passed away on July 31, 2016, she was 98 years old.