A manifesto against racism in PR

A group of Black professionals created actions based on the duties of communicators, but they contain lessons for the rest of marcom too.


Code Black Communicator Network was founded three years ago as an online community resource for Black communications professionals and has included an events series and a podcast hosted by its co-founders.

Last week, the group released a manifesto outlining barriers that have prevented Black communications professionals from entering and succeeding in the field, as well as actions that can create a more equitable working environment.

Some of the points are similar to the ones other segments of the industry have been discussing since the end of May, such as reviewing hiring, recruitment and internship processes to see how they may exclude Black professionals. Or committing to improving representation in front of and behind the camera. Or mandating that HR be specifically trained in antiracist policies and help Black employees navigate the workplace.

But many of them are born out of the roles and duties PR serves, and have not yet been part of the broader conversation.

“Communicators are the storytellers in the industry,” says Maxine McDonald, senior director at Media Profile and one of the group’s three co-founders, including Bunmi Adeoye and Renee Weekes Duncan. “There is a unique responsibility for communicators to help brands understand and really be thoughtful about the story they’re telling, how they’re telling it and to who.”

For example, working with media as often as they do on both organic and paid placement of stories for clients, PR could support outlets that serve Black communities, and hold outlets to account for stereotyping, bias and microaggressions in reporting. McDonald says there has been a gap in this area  the same way PR and comms is mindful of how their clients are portrayed in the media, they have not been as aware of Black communities.

maxine_mcdonald“It might seem different but it is part of our job,” McDonald says. “We’re often advising our clients in terms of helping them ground their messages and helping them determine which media they work with. A history of negative content or anti-Black racism should be part of that conversation, as much as the size or makeup of their audience.”

“It’s not our decision where our clients spend their money. But we are their advisors, and part of being responsible in that duty is having that conversation. It should be on the table when we vet who we work with or where we send our dollars.”

Given the fact that PR agencies frequently take the lead with influencer campaigns, the manifesto also zeroes-in on supporting Black creators. They are frequently overlooked unless it is for a Black-focused campaign, and are typically under-compensated for their work – or, have their work “borrowed” without attribution. This is all despite the fact that they are the source of many cultural trends, from fashion and music to memes, online trends and viral content. Code Black calls for Black creators to be paid and making sure work is properly attributed, recognizing that traditional metrics might not capture the impact they have.

“A lot of brands are trying to show up as allies and advocates, but this is where the rubber hits the road,” McDonald says. “It’s not about putting out a statement and a one-time donation, it’s about practices.”

Even when it comes to some of the more familiar actions against systemic racism contained in the manifesto, PR and comms face some of their own challenges. There is not good data measuring diversity in Canada’s PR firms, but both McDonald and Duncan say that, anecdotally, they typically find themselves in meeting rooms where they are the only Black people.

renee_duncan“That’s the whole reason we started [Code Black],” says Duncan, who is also the senior account director at MSLGroup. “We had all been in the industry for more than a decade, but we weren’t really seeing anyone that looked like us.”

Duncan echoes something that has been heard from across marcom: many Black youth don’t see PR and communications as fields that would welcome them, and so they need to be shown at a young age that it is an option.

McDonald adds that, from students she has talked to, the diversity in PR programs has improved somewhat since she graduated, but internships create a barrier to the field.

“There are Black people in the schools, but they don’t have that informal network,” she says. “It’s really difficult to make the transition from school to professional without knowing somebody. Then, you have the issue with unpaid internships, which has both race and class implications, because if you’re already taking time off of work to be in school full-time, and then you need to add more unpaid time on top of that, that’s going to create a barrier.”

Another barrier to Black professionals advancing is “hiring for cultural fit.” Wanting to hire someone that works well with the existing team and having a similar perspective on the work might seem innocuous; but, if an agency or firm is already mostly white, “fitting in” can exclude people who look different or whose background resulted in different cultural definitions. Code Black’s manifesto calls for an end to hiring based on a cultural fit altogether.

“There are agencies where all of the people who work there look and feel a certain way,” McDonald says. “Are they thinking about how that affects who is a possible candidate? Even if they hire a Black person, are we creating cultures of inclusion where people feel like they are part of the conversations being had? I have talked to some young people who just entered the field, and are a bit discouraged in terms of acclimating to where they’ve landed. Because, sometimes, it is a very strict sort of typecast of what people need to feel and what they need to look like and be interested in so they can feel like part of the organization.”