08 Feb Remembering African-American founders of PR
By Joe McLeod
John F. Kennedy once said, “A nation reveals itself not only by the people it produces but also by those it honors and remembers.” As the field of public relations began to take shape in the early 20th century, many trailblazers made their mark on the development of this profession. In honor of Black History Month, we want to recognize a few of the African-American PR pioneers and share how their experiences can inspire us to achieve success.Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) was a journalist and articulate public speaker. In 1884, Wells was ordered by a train conductor to give up her seat in the first-class car and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with other passengers. After refusing to give up her seat, Wells was forcibly removed by the conductor and two other men. She wrote about the experience in an article for a local newspaper, helping her gain publicity as she traveled throughout the South gathering information and writing about social injustice. In 1898, she led a protest in Washington, D.C., which brought her anti-lynching campaign to the White House.
Joseph Varney Baker (1908-1995) studied journalism at Temple University and then was a journalist and editor for the Philadelphia Tribune. In 1934, he left his job as a writer and began doing public relations consulting for the Pennsylvania railroad. He later opened his own agency in New York City and became the first African-American to receive national notoriety as a public relations practitioner. Varney also was the first African-American to become president of a chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and the first to become accredited by PRSA.
Inez Kaiser (1918-2016) didn’t have her sights set on being a PR mogul. Kaiser was a home economics teacher for 20 years before entering the world of public relations after an editor suggested she “try it.” She founded Inez Kaiser & Associates in 1957, becoming the first African-American woman to head an agency with national clients that included Sears, Lever Brothers and Seven-Up. She landed her first PR client after admitting to an executive that she “didn’t know the answer” to one of his questions but would get back to him the next day. She worked with the Nixon administration as a U.S. representative at the economic conference in Africa and served as an adviser on minorities in business during the Ford administration. She would tell young professionals, “Always be thorough and honest with your clients, and try your best to develop personal relationships with them.”
Working in PR has its challenges. Yet, these men and women took those challenges head on while navigating the racial barriers and social constraints that made success in the industry difficult. We all can learn from their skill, tenacity and courage to follow our convictions and passions despite the obstacles we encounter along the way.
Joe McLeod is the managing partner of McLeod Communications.