Earned media plays a powerful role in helping to shape public opinion, break down stereotypes and get voices and stories heard. But Black stories and perspectives are vastly underrepresented, and mostly singular and skewed when they are presented, say Black PR pros.
That has to change for the U.S. to move forward from racist deadly attacks against African Americans over the past few months.
Alexis Davis Smith, president and CEO of PRecise Communications, says “newsrooms are still more likely to show Black mugshots than white” – reinforcing the stereotype that Black people engage in criminal acts and should be feared – “or tell stories from a white perspective. The problem is, just as it is in every industry, they don’t have enough diversity in the newsrooms.”
Plenty of studies highlight the extent of the problem. One from Pew Research Center analyzed 2012-2016 American Community Survey data and found more than three-quarters (77%) of newspaper, broadcast and online newsroom staff – including reporters, photographers, videographers and editors – are white.
“Media essentially fuels the machine of systemic racism,” says Claudine Moore, managing director and founder of C. Moore Media and adjunct professor at New York University. “Nowhere is this more apparent than in the media representation of Africa and Black Africans.”
She points to the results of The Africa Narrative, a project from the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center, which analyzed almost 700,000 hours of U.S. TV on more than 900 TV stations and found an overwhelming lack of visibility of Africa and Africans. “Juxtapose this against news headlines about Africa that show only war, famine, disease, corruption, terrorism — your perception is skewed creating space for mystery, distrust, suspicion, etc., all the results of a single story/theme,” says Moore.
In her record-breaking 2009 TED talk, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie outlined “the danger of a single story” in creating misunderstanding and perpetuating stereotypes of Black people.
But if media fuels the machine, Moore points out it can also help break it.
“Media has a crucial role in breaking down racial stereotypes and presenting a range of sentiments in stories, features, experiences and images of Black people,” she says. “Newsrooms should increase the number and range of stories and present it to general audiences.”
Some high-profile media executives have recently admitted to failing when it comes to diversity hiring and their coverage.
In an internal memo to staff, artistic director and global content advisor at Conde Nast and editor-in-chief of Vogue Anna Wintour said the company does not have enough Black people on staff. She also stated: “Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators. We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I take full responsibility for those mistakes.”
However, the onus can’t be on media alone to affect change. Comms leaders say media relations people also have a crucial role to play in helping to bring forth more multi-faceted and accurate stories of Black lives in their earned and owned media outreach.
“It is incumbent upon PR practitioners, agencies and in-house, to recognize, appreciate and leverage the power we have to influence the storytelling of media and brands,” says Davis-Smith. “Every one of us has a responsibility to make sure that our work accurately reflects and includes the customer bases we serve; and more often than not, that base is not monolithic. No strategy should be either.”
When it comes to influencer marketing, Davis Smith says “it is imperative PR teams align their brands with individuals and organizations that are reflective of their consumer base.”
“Brands expect one person, or influencer, to speak to their entire customer base. That is ineffective. Multicultural consumers want to see and hear from people that look like them,” she says. “The easy solve for this dilemma is to hire more people of color, with diverse backgrounds. They are likely to know of an influencer, organization or spokesperson that may be unknown or not top-of-mind to others.”
Moore recommends that brands do an “audit of imagery used at every touchpoint of the brand” and “the influencers you currently work with. Mandate with your influencer marketing teams that, moving forward, they must present a range of influencers including Black influencers or their marketing plans will be rejected.”
As for PR agencies, she says “they need to ensure they train and mandate that their media relations teams present a range of commentators, influencers and thought leaders to the media with key attention given to including Black voices. This will invariably result in the range of diverse stories.”
Moore advises that brands “again, avoid the single story. Present a range of Black voices to mirror the nuances and full scope of Black stories. Brands should also work with diverse networks and not just the obvious choices. As an example, The Africa Channel connects brands to a broader range of Black audiences.”
Maisha Pearson, VP, group director of PR at marketing and communications agency Burrell, agrees PR pros need to work with media in tandem to “break down stereotypes and give people a fair, positive portrayal of what is going on.”
But that requires both sides being accountable to hiring diverse candidates, and just as importantly, grooming them into roles of decision-making influence. Because it they don’t hold themselves accountable, consumers will.
“Given the state of the nation right now, consumers are watching the types of campaigns brands are launching and the influencers they are using,” says Pearson. “Consumers are very smart. They are calling brands to the table and asking questions now more than ever about their diversity.”