Where Public Relations Is Right On Race – And Where It’s Wrong

Showing some sensitivity toward the perpetuation of terribly racist branding, consumer products companies have recently chosen to re-brand themselves. The first to do so in September 2020 was the former Uncle Ben’s line of rice dishes marketed by Mars, Incorporated (see “Uncle Ben’s Changing Name To Ben’s Original After Criticism Of Racial Stereotyping”). Next it was Quaker Oats’s Aunt Jemima brand of baking mixes, syrups and prepared breakfast foods (see “Aunt Jemima finally has a new name”). Mars chose “Ben’s Original” for its new brand; Quaker Oats opted for “Pearl Milling Company” as a replacement for Aunt Jemima. While these moves should perhaps be applauded, both for their cultural awakening and as public relations victories, some PR professionals will say that their industry is in dire need of an awakening–particularly in the hidden hallways, offices and cubicles of PR offices.

Clearly, getting rid of racist branding is a positive step toward the sensitive treatment of race in commerce. In a statement, Mars said, “We understand the inequities that were associated with the name and face of the Uncle Ben’s brand … We have committed to change.” A Quaker Oats spokesperson struck a slightly different tone, saying in part “We are starting a new day with Pearl Milling Company. A new day rooted in the brand’s historic beginnings and its mission to create moments that matter at the breakfast table.” Interestingly, the comment seemed to focus on the “breakfast table” rather than openly acknowledging a break with the “ugly truth behind Aunt Jemima” (see “New Racism Museum Reveals the Ugly Truth Behind Aunt Jemima”). Of course, though it seems desirable to praise these kinds of changes, it might be good to bear in mind that sales of rice, pancakes and syrup might be the ultimate goal of such re-branding.

Although these may be seen as solid PR victories in the battle of vicious racial stereotypes, the same can’t be said for how race is managed inside PR shops. Some seem to be less than diverse. PR professional Jo Ogunleye points this out in a blog post on her experiences as a practitioner (see “Black Lives Matter: from one Black PR to the industry”). “Throughout my entire PR career, from my first internship to today, across in-house and agency, and in both public and private sectors, I have only ever had two jobs with another Black person in my team,” she says. “I have never had a Black boss.”

Statistics seem to back up her claim. A 2018 Harvard Business Review analysis of federal labor statistics found the industry is 87.9 percent White, 8.3 percent African-American, 2.6 percent Asian American, and 5.7 percent Hispanic or Latinx. Increasing diversity might start in the classroom. As Kelsey Landis, editor-in-chief of INSIGHT Into Diversity points out, more must be done to make university public relations programs more diverse, including making minorities more aware of public relations as a career path (see “The Public Relations Industry Is Too White and the Solution Starts with Higher Education”).

So it seems that when it comes to dealing with race, there are some issues that PR as an industry is getting right; on the other hand, there’s still room for much improvement, particularly among the ranks of PR professionals. That there is room for improvement begs the question: Does PR’s lack of diversity cast a shadow over how it has responded to the managing of brands? Moreover, what can be said about Landis’s claim when it comes to Creighton University; or, for that matter, our own Department of Computer Science, Design and Journalism?

When an Op-Ed Becomes a “White House Press Release”

President Donald J. Trump

Today the USA Today published an op-ed by President Donald Trump that some believe contains factual inaccuracies. In the piece, Trump asserts that Democrats “would end Medicare as we know it and take away benefits that seniors have paid for their entire lives.” Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker Columnist, said Trump’s claim about Medicare cuts was misleading if not downright false. “[Trump’s assertion that] ‘Democrats have already harmed seniors by slashing Medicare by more than $800 billion over 10 years to pay for Obamacare’ … is a tired 2012 talking point. Seniors were not ‘harmed.’ The solvency was extended and benefits were expanded,” he said in a tweet. Kessler went on to correct what he saw as other falsehoods in the op-ed.

Others were more direct, asserting the op-ed was full of lies and was nothing more than a partisan attack.  Dan Gillmor who runs the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University, reacted in a tweet saying, “Publishing this op-ed is journalistic malpractice. It is full of outright lies, easily demonstrated lies. Disgraceful.” Chip Stewart, professor of journalism at Texas Christian University said that the newspaper should have reined in Trump. “When you know the president is going to be using your pages for partisan purposes and is going to more than just stretch the truth in doing so, you really ought to go back and run a fact check on that or have an editor’s note in there saying that some of those things aren’t actually true,” he said. Journalists weighed in on the matter, too. “USA Today not only published a White House press release disguised as an ‘op-ed by Donald Trump,’ it is using its Twitter account to blast out the article’s lies to 3.6 million followers,” tweeted Daniel Dale, Washington correspondent for The Toronto Star.

As a general rule, journalists point out and correct inaccuracies that are stated by others in their reporting, particularly if what is said is known by journalists to be inaccurate. Doing so is simply a matter of accuracy, transparency and best practice. After all, journalists are to report the truth as they know it. But this isn’t an ordinary news story. It’s an op-ed. And in op-eds, writers ordinarily express their opinions which may or may not be proven true or false. However, this is an op-ed penned by the president of the United States, which as NBC News points out “comes as Trump has ramped up his efforts to campaign on the behalf of Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections, appearing at rallies and ratcheting up rhetoric directed at Democrats.” As a result, it’s easy to see how some view Trump’s op-ed as “a White House press release.”

Should USA Today have published Trump’s op-ed? Should they have published it alongside additional material explaining some of the alleged inaccuracies? Or, to use a popular phrase, is it simply that “all is fair in love and war” and op-eds?

Sources: Daniel Dale, Dan Gillmor, Glenn Kessler, NBC News, USA Today