‘They don’t really want me to have a voice’: Black women in PR say they feel isolated, held to different standards from their colleagues

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Lisa (her name has been changed for this story to protect her anonymity) has dealt with “a degree of toxicity” at every agency she’s ever worked. As a Black public relations executive who has worked at major PR firms as well as inside ad agencies, Lisa has felt isolated and taken note of how she’s often held to different standards than that of her white colleagues. 

“It’s really hard to thrive in those environments when there’s no one who will take you under their wing, show you the ropes and mentor you,” said Lisa of the isolation she’s felt throughout her career, adding that she’s witnessed executives mentor and befriend her white coworkers, inviting them over for the weekend or on vacation. “I’ve never had those experiences and it is hard.” 

Without that mentorship, Lisa has felt isolated throughout her career in PR and believes she has not been given the same opportunities as her white colleagues even when she’s performing at the same level or better. She’s not alone in that feeling and observation. Digiday spoke with five Black women in public relations — one interview was previously published as part of our Confessions series — who say they’ve felt the same throughout their careers and believe that PR agencies need to reexamine internal culture as well as their hiring practices to become more inclusive. 

“Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are happening in advertising but it has not really been addressed at the PR level,” said a Black PR exec who requested anonymity. Throughout her career, the exec has dealt with biases and prejudices about who she is as a person as well as her ability to work on specific accounts based on her race. 

“Working at PR agencies, I got a major education in code switching and I got a major education in being a ‘token,’” said the exec. “I don’t think I realized that I was a ‘token’ until I got deeper into my career. Then it was like, ‘Oh, they want me to have a seat at the table because it makes the table look better, but they don’t really want me to have a voice.’ And when they do want me to have a voice it’s only related to Black initiative, or for Black brands, Black companies, Black products, because I think the perception was, ‘Oh, she’s Black. She must know this stuff.’” 

The exec also noted that when working on Black brands for PR agencies, she has often been left to handle a major account with little to no help from her white colleagues. Without the resources necessary for the size of the account, she’s felt overwhelmed, left to manage an unreasonable workload and realized she’s held to different standards than her white colleagues. When that’s been the case, finding a way to ask for the resources and help needed has also been a difficult task. 

“[Sometimes you’re] not able to stand up for yourself because you don’t want to be seen as a trope,” said the exec. “You don’t want to be the angry Black woman.” 

Being aware of tone and how it may be perceived differently by coworkers, bosses or clients who may have biases and prejudices about Black women is a common issue for Black women in PR who say they often think about how they word what they say and that it can be exhausting to do so. 

A PR director at a PR agency who requested anonymity recalled an incident while she was training an employee during which she used similar language to that of her manager. Even so, a coworker pulled her aside and told her she was being aggressive in the training, which gave her pause. 

“This was everything my manager has said to me and more and in the same environment,” said the director, who added that she’s often one of the only Black women in her workplace. “So why is it when she says it to me, as a white woman trying to build me up, it’s different from what is being said to [the trainee]?”

The exec believes PR agency leaders need to grapple with the biases and prejudices they have about Black women that have been prevalent throughout her career to make it a better career path for other Black women in PR now. Unless they do so, Black people in PR may leave for competitors and win over clients — as she has done as owner of her own shop now.

Making sure there is a clear path forward is crucial, according to the women. The director noted that when there’s no one in leadership that’s a person of color — often they are support staff, entry or mid-level employees — it can be difficult to see a future at major PR agencies. To break it, it starts with putting people of color in leadership positions where they have support and can make a difference, she said.

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Recognizing the work Black women in PR are doing to build brands is also crucial in the push to make the field more inclusive, explained Latasha DeVeaux, principal and PR strategist for DeVeaux Enterprises and president of Black Public Relations Society in Los Angeles.

“Black PR professionals have been told to stay behind the scenes, stay quiet because it is about the client or it’s about the work,” said DeVeaux, adding that because of that Black PR professionals are not recognized to the same degree as their colleagues. “You see our counterparts in photos or stories about the work that they’ve done.”

To begin to change the culture inside PR agencies and to make it a better space for Black women, Lisa believes colleagues should speak up when they notice Black women being treated differently or held to different standards.

“It’s obvious, it’s clear when someone’s not getting put on a big account and they’ve worked there just as long as you have, do just as much work as you have and you get rewarded and they don’t,” said Lisa. “You know that’s unfair, but you sit there quietly and don’t say anything. Speak up and be aware.”

Kimeko McCoy contributed reporting to this piece.

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