FEAR: False. Evidence. Appearing. Real.
The world is undoubtedly in a time where people are permeated by fear. COVID-19 has caused fear for our physical lives. But its short existence pales in comparison to the fear that exists between people and institutions with a long history of racist and discriminatory behaviors. This has become exacerbated by the situation currently happening in the U.S., where millions of people have come together in a call for justice for the lives of Black people killed by law enforcement officers.
In response, organizations around the world have published statements decrying racism in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. But deceivingly, fear also permeates throughout all professions, including public relations. Despite decades of initiatives, PR still suffers from a lack of Black (and all non-White race/ethnic) professionals. And despite their best intentions, many of the same organizations who are releasing statements of solidarity will still offer excuses for why their own staffs don’t reflect society at large.
For organizations who are ready to demonstrate that #BlackLivesMatter, these are the things that must be stopped, and started, to overcome their fears.
1. STOP limiting your entry-level Black employees to admin work or “multicultural” projects. Most employers are often proud of themselves for hiring a handful of diverse professionals because they helped them get their foot in the door or “checked off the box.” However, this practice is often rooted in a Savior mentality—the idea that a professional at any level is lucky to be employed by you because no one else would hire them. With this mentality comes the belief that it’s okay to provide your Black employees with bottom of the barrel projects, because “it’s better than nothing.” But it’s often covert for the fear that Black employees will not produce the quality of work that is expected.
2. START making the commitment to actually coaching them on tangible skills that can benefit their careers in the long run. In fact, the goal for any employee that an organization hires should be that they someday leave as more competent professionals who could add further benefit to their next employer. Organizations must get over their fear of taking the time to develop talent and practice a degree of patience to let their Black employees grow into the responsibilities they’re hired to do.
3. STOP making arbitrary reasons to prevent your Black employees’ advancement. Organizations often hide behind the concept of being “polished” and “client ready” to describe professionals they prefer to keep in the background. But these terms are often coded for a construct of professionalism that’s steeped in White cultural norms.
In 2015 I co-published a white paper with Dr. Rochelle Ford, APR, on the state of Black professionals in PR. Based on a survey put together by the National Black Public Relations Society, we found in general that Black professionals often opt to become their own independent consultants rather than stay stuck in the corporate ladder.
4. START being forthright about advancement. As much as possible, organizations should adopt clear and measurable benchmarks for determining promotions, including for the intangible characteristics often required to build mutually beneficial relationships. Judging a professional’s behavior and character should not be compared to any race/ethnic cultural norms but should be rooted in organizational values that are defined in a way that promotes inclusion and equity.
5. STOP relying on your one or few Black employees to carry the torch. Black professionals often look at organizations to see if they will be the only person of their race/ethnicity once they’re hired. For some, the opportunity will come with added pressure to perform, whether it’s intrinsic or from organizational leadership. Either way, the pressure could become an added factor of discomfort, especially if Black professionals already feel alienated from the organization’s culture.
6. START accepting that Black professionals are not all the same. Understand that every Black professional brings their own uniqueness to the table. I’ve written before about the array of subcultures that exist for professionals of all races/ethnicities. Instead of treating Black professionals as a monolith, make an authentic effort to get to know them. Every professional deserves to have their performance measured based on their own merits, not the standards set by their one or few predecessors.
7. STOP dismissing your Black employees when they voice concerns over marginalized treatment. A common experience when any diverse professional enters a predominantly White environment is to take notice of the cultural norms happening around them. It is highly likely that your organization operates with some form of inherent racial bias. Marginalized treatment of Black employees doesn’t always take the blatant forms of derogatory name-calling or inappropriate jokes about a race/ethnic group. In fact, it’s often the pile up of micro-aggressions like cultural appropriation, colorblindness, self-appointed allyship, and claims of reverse racism that lead to distrust among professionals.
8. START making a commitment to truly listen to your Black employees’ concerns. One of the first steps towards developing a trustworthy relationship is to listen without being defensive. Black professionals who speak up candidly about their treatment are not asking you for a right or wrong answer. They’re speaking up with the intention of seeing concrete actions taken to correct the behaviors in question. The worst thing you can do is deny that their experience isn’t real. Organizations who are unsure how to listen fairly can consider hiring professional D&I consultants to help in restoring trust with employees.
What it really means for organizations to get over fear is to be bold in their hiring and development practices. Don’t just hire Black employees who you look to take advantage of. Instead, offer to become a safe space for Black professionals to be themselves without being penalized or criminalized.
Now more than ever, that’s what we need to ensure that our lives do matter.
Cedric F. Brown Bio
Cedric F. Brown, APR, is a digital strategist at the intersection of racial justice activism and public relations. He is a regular contributor for the Public Relations Society of America's Strategies & Tactics newsletter where he covers diversity and inclusion topics. Find Cedric being his most authentic self on Twitter @abrothanamedCed.