People who work in public relations spend most of their time making everyone else look good.
That is why it seems particularly peculiar that the public relations field--of all professions--has managed to so badly mangle its own image in one of the most sensitive areas of all: minority hiring.
“It is time, sisters and brothers, to face this unpleasant music. It is time for us to step up to the ‘unmentionable’ problem of minorities in public relations and do something about it.”
These words were not criticism from the outside. They were spoken by John Paluszek, president of the national trade group to which virtually every major public relations firm in American belongs, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). Paluszek, who is also president of public affairs of New York-based Ketchum Public Relations, was recently in Los Angeles, speaking to a gathering of minorities in public relations.
Since that speech, Paluszek has done more than talk. The trade group has made some real efforts to encourage more minorities to enter the public relations field. Among them are a modest scholarship fund for minority students and a program to place minority interns at PR firms. At his own firm, Paluszek said, two interns who are minorities were placed this spring.
“How you get this kind of thing to happen a hundred or a thousand times a year, I don’t know,” said Paluszek in a telephone interview. “But this is the right thing to do, and this is the smart thing to do. Besides being morally right, it is also good business.”
How good? So good that the August issue of the PR society’s monthly magazine, Public Relations Journal, devoted its cover story to the topic. The article points out that blacks, Latinos and Asians continue to find it extremely difficult to break into the public relations profession.
While minorities account for 21% of America’s work force, they make up a miserly 7% of public relations professionals, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Worse yet, only 35 of the estimated 4,000 professionals accredited by the PRSA are minorities, according to the association.
One of the top PR executives in the nation says PR firms aren’t entirely to blame for this. “None of us, I suspect, are doing the outreach we should be doing,” said Harold Burson, the 68-year-old chairman and co-founder of Burson-Marsteller, ranked as the second-largest public relations firm in America. “But I don’t know that we’re entirely at fault. I can’t just pull people off the street. We get relatively few applications from blacks.”
Of its U.S. work force of 967 employees, about 151 are black--about 15%, said Burson. But blacks hold only 7% of the professional jobs at the company. “That number has steadily increased over the last three or four years,” Burson said. “We’re improving, but maybe not fast enough.”
Those who closely follow the public relations field say the plight of minorities in public relations has never been worse--especially among blacks.
“When I was at the national convention last year, I didn’t see even a handful of blacks among the 2,000 people who attended,” said Jack O’Dwyer, who publishes a newsletter out of New York on the public relations industry. “The public relations field is 99.9% white. That’s terrible, but that’s the way it is.”
Recently, when the PRSA surveyed Atlanta public relations executives about hiring minorities, one-third of those responding said they believe that their white clients are “less comfortable working with minorities.” Is the situation in Atlanta unique? “Hardly,” replies Paluszek.
Of the nation’s top 50 public relations firms, not one has a chief executive who is a member of a minority group. And only a handful have minorities in senior management positions. As a result, growing numbers of those minorities who have worked at public relations firms or in corporate PR have left to work for--or even form their own--minority-owned agencies.
Among them is Pat Tobin.
“You can count on one hand the number of blacks with meaningful jobs at the major PR firms,” said Tobin, 46, who years ago left her job as media coordinator at CBS Television to form Hollywood-based Tobin & Associates. “I got tired of knocking on doors, so I opened my own door.”
Her agency specializes in getting her clients publicity with black consumers. Among her clients are Toyota and film maker Spike Lee. Her agency helped Universal Pictures compile a long list of blacks to invite to free screenings of Lee’s film, “Do The Right Thing.” Besides key politicians, the agency suggested large numbers of black psychologists and even black hair dressers who it felt were key opinion leaders in the black community.
And though her firm is among the largest minority-owned agencies in the country, she says she is still a veritable unknown among most of those who oversee the public relations purse strings at America’s biggest companies.
“The constant barrier is getting our foot in the door,” she said. “But once you help someone make a few million dollars, they forget all about the barrier.”
About five years ago, Tobin co-founded the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Public Relations Society. The organization arranges workshops and funds scholarships for minorities interested in public relations.
The current president of the group is Ron Carter, who was formerly a publicist for Michael Jackson and who is now the West Coast publicist for Polygram Records. Among the artists who record on that label are Kool and the Gang and Vanessa Williams.
Carter says one reason that black students are reluctant to go into PR is that they have very few role models. “They might think about the PR field in high school,” said Carter, “but by the time they get to college they choose another field because they figure they won’t be able to find jobs.” Although blacks have been virtually shut out of many PR jobs, Carter said the music field is a clear exception. “The music business is more informal and not as structured,” he said. But what’s the best way for a black to succeed at a PR agency? “Open your own,” he said.
That is precisely what Sheila Eldridge did in 1981 when she opened Orchid Communications in Los Angeles. Her firm generates publicity among blacks and Latinos for such clients as Coca-Cola and Adolph Coors Co.
“A lot of people don’t even know we exist,” said Eldridge, who has since opened a second office in Little Ferry, N.J., where she is now headquartered. “You put all of the minority PR firms together and we don’t represent even 5% of the revenues of the top three PR firms in America. People are afraid to hire us because so few of us have track records.”
The company regarded as the largest minority-owned public relations firm in America isn’t even 3 years old. But Chicago-based Burrell Public Relations, with annual billings exceeding $1 million, shares the same advantage that most of the biggest public relations firms in America enjoy--it is owned by a successful advertising agency.
Burrell Advertising--its parent company--has been creating minority ads for McDonald’s and Brown-Forman Corp. for years. James H. Hill, the president of Burrell Public Relations, said that a number of his employees came to his company because they were unable to advance at the large PR firms. “You don’t find many minorities as executive VPs at the big firms,” Hill said. “The big agencies are still asking the same question they asked years ago: ‘Where are the qualified minorities?’ To that, I say, ‘We’re out here. All you have to do is look.’ ”
No one knows that better than Wesley Poriotis, whose PR executive search firm is regarded as one of the largest and most successful in the county. His company, Wesley, Brown & Bartle, has placed top PR executives at agencies worldwide. And in an interview, he called for nothing less than a “public relations summit” to address the veritable exclusion of minorities from PR.
“People warn me I could lose my business by speaking out on this issue,” said Poriotis, who is not a minority but who is chief executive of the recruiting firm. “But without minorities being part of the policy-shaping bodies at both the corporate and agency levels, the thoughts, aspirations and concerns that should affect black America are being overlooked.
“So why am I risking my business by speaking out?” poses Poriotis. “I don’t know. I guess it just bothers me. What this industry--and what this country--is doing to itself is stupid.”
L.A. Agency Gets Playboy’s Account
Talk about a sexy piece of new business. On Monday, Playboy magazine handed its estimated $2-million advertising business to the New York office of the Los Angeles ad firm Keye/Donna/Pearlstein.
It marks the second new client that Keye/Donna/Pearlstein’s New York office has picked up in as many weeks. Last week, it won the Bridgestone Tire account.
How--and where--to advertise Playboy? Well, most of the ads will be aimed at attracting new advertisers and will appear in trade publications such as Adweek and Advertising Age, said Leonard Pearlstein, president of the ad agency. He said the ads will promote Playboy’s articles as well as its pinup photos. Said Pearlstein, “Things are hopping.”
A Logical Reaction to ‘Geo-logical’ Campaign
If you haven’t been able to make sense of those “Geo-logical” ads for Chevrolet’s small car line, Geo, don’t worry. Neither has Chevrolet.
So, last week, Chevrolet pulled most of Geo’s West Coast ad business away from the Los Angeles agency that had created the estimated $4-million campaign, Vic Olesen & Partners. The ads showed futurist Harlan Ellison walking among dinosaur bones and pitching the car as the intellectually right decision. “Some dealers felt our spots were too cerebral,” said Vic Olesen, president of the agency.
Most of Geo’s TV commercials will now be created by the agency that was already creating ads for Geo outside of the West Coast region, Lintas: Campbell Ewald. The new commercials will be much simpler and will be set to the Broadway show tune, “Getting to Know You.”
Olesen said his agency hasn’t really lost any business, because Chevrolet now plans to spend more money on the West Coast promoting its Camaro models. Said Olesen, “We didn’t lose a dime in billings.”
Reflecting Life on the Little Screen
One advertiser soon will be doing it with mirrors on the Sunset Strip.
On Wednesday, a giant 3-D billboard of a Zenith television set--with a huge mirror representing the TV screen--will be hoisted on the Sunset Strip. The mirror will reflect the street scene below.
The billboard was created by the Los Angeles firm Robert Elen Associates, which is the agency for Zenith Distributing Corp. of Southern California. And the advertised slogan on the billboard will reflect the same message that the mirror does: True to Life.