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It’s Our Time to Lead the Change

By Neil Foote
President, National Black Public Relations Society

EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of the Diversity Committee’s “Real Talk” Initiative, OCPRSA will be featuring monthly blogs where leading communications professionals will be speaking candidly about issues that affect diversity and inclusion in the public relations profession. In honor of Black History Month, Neil Foote, president of the National Black Public Relations Society, will be kicking off the series.

Neil Foote

Neil Foote

We are living in a very sensitive time. Race, ethnicity, culture, religion and image are at the center of every issue in the nation’s headlines.  We can’t get away from it, but we know we can’t run away from it because we are at a crossroads in history. We must do everything we can to protect the freedoms we have. As an African-American media professional for the past 35 years, I have seen a great deal of change, but I also have acquiesced that race and prejudice remain at the heart of everything we do; defining who we are and how we exist in a world.

I grew up in Bed-Stuy, a.k.a Bedford-Stuyvesant. It wasn’t the trendy place it is now. It was the place in New York that became known as ‘that neighborhood’ that was crime-ridden and dangerous. Over the years, I have been often asked, until recently, particularly by whites, “How did you get out of there?” I chuckled to myself, wanted to give a smart aleck answer, something like, “My father drove me.” Or “I took the subway.”  Instead, I have the political correct answer: Supportive parents who wanted to make sure I got a solid education and an opportunity to see the world.

What I learned over the years is my education has created opportunities for me, but it has not changed to fundamentals: I am an African-American male – 365/24/7. I have constantly been reminded of that. Like the time I got accepted as an intern at the Miami Herald when a college classmate said, “I guess you got that as part of a minority hiring program?” Then there the time I was interviewed at the New York Times and was asked, “Are you a black journalist? Or a journalist who is black?” Maybe it was the time as a young reporter in Miami, I wrote a memo to editors on behalf of the other black reporters when we released we were sent out to cover a riot in Overtown and the white reporters got the bylines.

So, let’s fast forward nearly 35 years. Has the world changed? Well, newspapers, television, radio stations and public relations agencies are all struggling with diversity. Executives at these firms are still at a lost. The reasons have not changed much:  “We can’t find any.” “They don’t stay when we hire them.” “We can’t find any one who is qualified.” “They’re just not ready to take on the extra responsibility.”

As president of the National Black Public Relations Society, I am laser-focused on changing this narrative. What I have learned is that I cannot do it alone; that I need other professionals and the industry with whom to collaborate—such as colleagues within the Orange County Public Relations Society of America and PRSA.  I have sat in meetings with industry executives; I have organized seminars and conferences; I have read study after study about what we need to do to diversify the industry.  I realize this is a process. I also realize now is the time.  It’s time for all of us to work together and do all we can to prepare the next generation of image makers and storytellers to counter the wave of negativity that is trying to frame anyone of a difference race, culture, religion or ethnicity in a negative light.  It is up to us to take control of diversifying this industry. We must create the programs to prepare, educate, train and push ourselves to get in this business and rise through the ranks.  It is up to us to lead the change – not follow those who are asking us to help them change.

Neil Foote is a veteran journalist and media executive. He draws from his experience at the Miami Herald, Washington Post, Belo Corporation and Tom Joyner’s Reach Media. He also teaches digital and social media for journalists, media management and business journalism at the University of North Texas’ Frank W. & Sue Mayborn School of Journalism and runs Foote Communications, a media consulting firm. The native of Brooklyn, NY also is president of the board for the National Black Public Relations Society and founder of PoliticsInColor.com.

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