By LaTricia Woods, APR, Owner, Mahogany Xan Communications
- A magazine’s staff snaps a group shot of the team making “slanty eye” faces
- The shooting of an African-American man by law enforcement makes national headlines and the local government hires an all-white public relations firm. Said firm is later replaced after being criticized for its lack of diversity
- A social media platform creates a blackface lens and then creates a yellowface lens, upsetting African-American and Asian-American consumers respectively
- College students dress up in Halloween costumes that feature various racial stereotypes and posts photos on social media
When situations like this develop, companies may instinctually turn to a public relations firm for guidance through difficult waters. But what happens if that firm is not fully equipped to grasp the situation at hand due to a lack of cultural fluency?
Cultural fluency is the understanding of what a culture is, how it works and the ways culture and communication are intertwined with and during conflicts. It provides a sense of familiarity and the ability to respond from that place.
Generally, before one can become fluent on a topic, they must have an understanding of what the topic encompasses. Donal Carbaugh, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, defines culture as "a learned set of shared interpretations about beliefs, values and norms, which affect the behaviors of a relatively large group of people."
From the dog whistle politics of our most recent election season and Black Lives Matter, to Standing Rock and the immigration debate, there has never been a greater need for seasoned practitioners who can help their clients understand the diverse cultural landscapes that exist today.
So the question is, can a firm that is not culturally diverse effectively counsel their clients on cultural issues?
The CyberAlert article, “The Need for Diversity in PR,” stated that, “African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans will make up 36.5 percent of the US population and will have an estimated combined spending power of $3.6 trillion by 2020. An all-white marketing or PR firm cannot, in good faith, claim it is adequately staffed to service global brands whose consumers are increasingly diverse.”
However, a differing view was presented in the article, “The Effective, Multicultural Practice of Public Relations,” authored by Natalie T.J. Tindall, Ph.D., for the February 2012 issue of Tactics. The article featured Virginia Sheng who provided the following conclusion from her University of Maryland thesis regarding multicultural communications:
"Membership in a specific group does not — by itself — determine the effectiveness of one communicator over others.” She offered that cultural sensitivity can be learned through education and experience."
Many agencies work diligently to create a diverse workforce. While efforts are increasing in some areas of diversity, racial diversity is still notably lacking. If your agency does not have the capacity to provide cultural sensitivity training for your staff, a partnership with another agency could be instrumental in filling your cultural voids. In addition, partnering with multicultural agencies can help you properly advise your clients and enhance the services that you provide, making your agency more marketable.
There lies the dollars and sense of the matter. While from a crisis standpoint, partnering with a multicultural firm seems appropriate; there is also a compelling financial case that can be made for creating these collaborations.
As companies continue to increase their relationships with diverse and emerging markets, a proven track record of success with those markets will be instrumental in obtaining and retaining business.
- The spending power of African Americans is projected to reach $1.4 trillion by 2020. *1
- From 2004 - 2014, the number of African-American households with annual incomes of $50,000-$75,000 increased 18 percent compared to 2 percent for the entire country. For households earning $100,000+ annually, the increase from 2004 to 2014 was 95 percent, compared with 66 percent for the total population. *1
- African-American consumers are digitally empowered and well-versed in social media, helping to shape and shift the national discourse. In fact, 73 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 67 percent of Hispanic Americans believe African Americans influence the mainstream culture, especially African-American Millennials. *2
- The buying power of Hispanic Americans is projected to reach $1.7 trillion by 2020. *3
- Income levels for U.S.-born Hispanic-American households have increased. Households exceeding $50,000 increased to 48 percent in 2014 from 33 percent in 2000, according to US Census Data. *3
- Still the nation’s fastest-growing population segment, Asian Americans are about 20.5 million strong and are projected to outnumber Hispanic Americans by 2055. *4
- T he buying power of Asian Americans is expected to reach $1.1 trillion by 2020. *4
- Young, Connected and Black: African-American Millennials Are Driving Social Change and Leading Digital Advancement
- 2016 Nielsen Report: Black Buying Power Has Reached Tipping Point, But How Will Black America Leverage it to Create Wealth?
- From the Ballot Box to the Grocery Store: A 2016 Perspective on Growing Hispanic Influence in America
- Asian-Americans Are Expanding Their Footprint in the U.S. and Making an Impact
Partnerships with multicultural public relations firm create avenues that foster open communication with your clients’ target markets. That open communication fosters trust and loyalty, as consumers desire to do business with companies that understand them. That same trust and understanding is also invaluable when a crisis emerges and authentic, effective messaging is vital.
How diverse is your agency? Does the diversity of your agency match that of your client base? If not, consider a partnership with a multicultural agency. It’s a business decision that makes a lot of sense… and a lot of dollars!
I will be speaking on a panel on creating partnerships with multicultural agencies at the upcoming Counselors Academy Spring Conference in Seattle. Join us at the 3 p.m. General Session on Tuesday, May 9, when we will explore this and much more at “The PR Agency Case for Diversity: People, Partners and Clients.”
LaTricia Woods is an award winning, accredited public relations professional with more than 21 years of experience in public relations. After 16 years of working in state and local government, LaTricia created Mahogany Xan Communications, LLC and became a full-time agency owner and entrepreneur. She is the co-author of “A Girlfriend’s Guide to Social Media” and is an adjunct professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix.