How PR Firms Are Navigating Fashion’s Race Problem

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NEW YORK, United States -Public relations firms play a pivotal role in how the brands they work for are positioned to consumers. In fashion, they often choose which celebrities and magazines have access to the brands they represent, exerting significant control over who wears what on the red carpet and which labels get shot by which photographers and stylists for which media outlets.

They are much smaller than many of the corporate brands they represent, but fashion PR agencies have an outsized impact in the industry. And some argue that their role as gatekeepers keeps doors closed for people of colour, helping to craft what Kristen Turner, creative director and founder of Mae Jones magazine, a new digital publication focused on widening fashion’s narrow beauty ideals, calls the industry’s “false narrative.”

“To cultivate this image that’s only focused in one general direction is just a very narrow view of the world,” said Turner, who launched Mae Jones to bypass the system that boxes out Black people and their work. “Putting out your idea of, ‘This is our perfect celebrity, this is our perfect stylist list, this is our perfect magazine list,’ but not taking into consideration anything else means you are perpetuating the problem and playing into that narrative, one where beauty only looks a certain way or fashion is only meant for a certain type of person.”

Too often PR executives simply go along with what their clients want. And when publicists do try to steer clients in another direction, they are often left unsupported by their own teams or moved to new accounts altogether. At best, some of fashion’s leading PR firms are complicit in perpetuating a fashion system which excludes Black people and other people of colour. At worst, they have created hostile environments for Black professionals within their own agencies.

Overcoming Fashion’s Built-in Racial Bias

PR, first and foremost, is a service industry. While an expert publicist can advise a brand on strategy, much of what they do is ultimately dictated by what the client wants. Public relations professionals in fashion describe the pushback they often experience when loaning products to most Black celebrities, stylists and publications with little explanation from clients.

Vogue has like, four black celebrities that ever come into the rotation, and if [there was a request to borrow a garment] for any of those four it’s like ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ Lupita [Nyong’o]? Absolutely. Serena Williams? Absolutely. But anybody outside of that, it became a question of whether we could pull,” said a former employee at PR firm , speaking generally about the industry-wide difficulty publicists have in convincing brands to work with lesser-known publications, stylists and celebrities, one that can be exacerbated when the talent is Black. (A spokesperson for Vogue said that the magazine is proud of its “strong track record and bringing forward, featuring and working with diverse talent.”)

To cultivate this image that’s only focused in one general direction is just a very narrow view of the world.

Working with the usual list of brand-approved media and talent often makes it easier for publicists to prove a client’s return on investment rather than taking a “risk” on a lesser-known name. Publicists are responsible for putting together monthly reports for clients indicating where they have been mentioned in the media. To maximise attention, PRs typically target magazines that have established industry cachet and work with stylists with whom their firm already has a relationship, sources tell BoF. But too often this practice helps reinforce a limited cast of existing industry players and makes it harder for new talent to break in.

“There is a quantitative media value evaluation that clients rely upon and that we report on,” said Rachna Shah, a partner at PR firm . “However, our outreach is never limited by these valuations. Quality and creative thinking are valued by us and our clients and considered in our strategies. We are always looking to expand reach and audience in creative ways and therefore our targets are varied in our strategies.”

Still, Black talent in the industry has felt excluded, in many cases because Black stylists or editors have faced difficulty securing access to designer clothes.

“Our white counterparts have very different experiences from us, from how they get paid to how they have been treated, agents… their proximity to PR, management agencies – it’s a very different experience,” said stylist and Aliétte designer Jason Rembert, co-founder of The Black Fashion & Beauty Collective, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to supporting Black behind-the-scenes talent in fashion and entertainment, back in June.

Ultimately, the system often works against those who have yet to be anointed by the fashion establishment. “Fashion has always been about how many cool points you have in this industry,” said Traci Rhynie, who recently left Karla Otto after working as the company’s North American director of event production. “That’s how you get ahead. Not always by talent, just your network.” Those networks tend to be homogeneous if the low proportion of Black-owned businesses represented by top public relations firms is any indication.

To be sure, PR firms have an obligation to take direction from their clients and drive measurable results, whether that’s attracting eyeballs to a digital campaign rollout or getting product into the hands of influential tastemakers. But this way of doing business has made it normal for communications firms to uphold a status quo many see as biased and out of step with evolving consumer sentiment on racial representation.

“[Brands] don’t feel like they have to explain themselves to their external PR, but it’s about holding them accountable,” said Jummy Temidayo, a senior publicist at KCD, who is Black.

“Part of that means exposing them to different Black celebrities, working with Black creatives, working with Black publications to expand their scope,” added Turner.

Empowering Black Employees

In addition to pressure from clients, fashion PR agencies have faced internal issues of their own, which make advocating for greater diversity and inclusion challenging.

Among 73,000 people working as “public relations managers” in the US in 2019, 89 percent were white, 8 percent were Black, less than two percent were Hispanic or Latino, and less than one percent was Asian, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. (The data is similar for “public relations specialists,” of whom there were 137,000 in 2019.)

Fashion PR firms are often far more diverse. In the US offices of KCD, 18 percent of employees are Black, while 28 percent are people of colour, for example. And yet Black employees and other employees of colour can often be marginalised, while simultaneously being used as token ‘experts’ on topics assumed to be linked to their racial backgrounds, according to multiple PR professionals.

KCD’s Temidayo said she did not feel “tokenised” but that her coworkers frequently asked her questions about Black culture. “If you’re Black, you know every single rapper that you can invite to a party. If you’re Black, you know every single black influencer out there, you’re basically the encyclopedia for all-things Black because you’re Black, and it’s not true,” she said. “There’s an assumption that you know everything about Black culture and of course, yes being Black, I do know things about Black culture, but do I know everything, where I should be the point person for all things Black? No.”

We really have to re-examine how we as an agency are serving each of these communities.

In June, KCD held a small group conversation about diversity and inclusion with some of the company’s New York-based employees of colour. The agency said it is looking into how to improve its internship program (temporarily suspended due to cutbacks caused by the coronavirus pandemic) and expand its candidate pool for full-time hires as well freelancers. Additionally, KCD said it is also working with a diversity and inclusion consultant to workshop as a team how the company can implement diversity initiatives internally and externally.

“We really have to re-examine how we as an agency are serving each of these communities as well as the industry as a whole because we consider our voice within the fashion industry to be important and relevant and we want to be a part of the bigger dialogue,” said Shah. “As communication leaders, it really hits home… the area that really is our service, and [we must] make sure we’re using it to service our employees,” indicating the company will be doing more to have what might be uncomfortable conversations about inclusion.

“The standard diversity pack and inclusion playbook” – hiring more Black employees and employees of colour, for example – could be pushed further, said Sandrine Charles. Before she founded her own eponymous brand consulting agency, Charles spent a decade working in public relations. In June, Charles and Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner co-founded the Black in Fashion Coalition, a group that partners with companies to score and advance the inclusion of Black professionals.

“It would be great to highlight individuals who can become an asset for agencies long term,” Charles said. “By championing and investing in people, Black people, there will be added value in client retention, relationships and output, not only when [there] is a crisis to control based on cultural appropriation or a ‘Black’ specific assignment.”

Fixing the Human Resources Problem

Sometimes, racial bias at PR firms goes beyond a lack of empowerment and tokenism. In a competitive industry, toxic work culture, from long hours to mental abuse, has long been par for the course. If publicists are to feel supported by their supervisors in pushing clients to become more diverse, they must also feel that their own workplaces support and empower them too, which is not the case at many firms, according to PR professionals with whom BoF spoke.

Jerome Dalmeida, a freelance digital strategist and former employee at global firm PR Consulting (PRC), who worked in the New York branch of the international firm for a little over a year, recently published a letter on Medium outlining how he felt at the company.

“It reminded me of some episodes of ‘Mad Men’ and how people of colour were kept apart. I felt segregated just like they were,” Dalmeida wrote, describing how his coworkers made him feel purposefully excluded despite performing well. “The progressive realization that some racial patterns were unconsciously on full display made me sick.”

Kevin McIntosh Jr., now a director at Karla Otto, said that he had also worked at PRC briefly, before quitting after a three-week period after experiences he had with the firm’s co-founders, Pierre Rougier and Sylvie Picquet. McIntosh Jr. said that he returned late to the office one night during Fashion Week without his work badge only to be met by Picquet, who mistook him for a messenger. (McIntosh Jr. said he’d met Picquet earlier that day.) Later that week, McIntosh alleges that Rougier asked another person in the office, “Who was the Black one?” referring to McIntosh, after Rougier’s dog ran up to him. Soon after, McIntosh Jr. submitted his resignation.

“The largest heartbreak of this whole thing for me is that some young, talented people might have walked into my office, who works in my office, worked under our watch and felt that they were dismissed because of their race or gender or sexual orientation, that this feeling could have been pervasive now this is something that I find… heartbreaking,” Rougier told BoF when asked about the incident.

PRC – whose team is 50 percent people of colour, according to Picquet – held a company-wide call to discuss diversity and inclusion and hear employee feedback. It is also implementing a self-selected committee where employees can address their issues, as well as hiring an external consultant to come in and help them identify blind spots.

These companies think that they’re going to be able to do this overnight and that’s not possible.

Karla Otto had its own reckoning in recent weeks. At an in-office summer happy hour, which employees in the New York office frequently refer to as “Beer O’Clock,” an office manager at the company allegedly used a racial slur against Black people and a slur against gay people in a story she was telling another coworker, according to several people in the office.

“The disturbing incident alleged above was first conveyed to senior leadership of Karla Otto New York during a team call the afternoon of Friday, June 12, 2020,” said a spokesperson for the firm, adding that the company has a zero-tolerance policy for discriminatory and racist language and that the employee in question was no longer at the company.

Karla Otto – whose team is 32 percent people of colour, 15 percent of whom are Black – is creating a diversity-focused curriculum to educate team members and offer tools to address instances of racism and implicit bias in the workplace and in their own lives, the spokesperson said.

Employees say they did not approach the company’s human resources department about allegedly racist incidents at their firms either because it didn’t exist, was under-staffed or existed in another office.

Karla Otto said that the company has a global human resources team as well as market-specific support. “Open discussions with employees over the past few weeks compounded by allegations disclosed in the reporting of this story have led us to take a hard look at our organisation,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email to BoF. “In addition to strengthening the HR resources in the US, we are committed to ensuring that our staff members have a safe space to provide feedback and report any incidents of racist, homophobic or other inappropriate behaviour experienced in the workplace.”

Systemic Solutions

Though fashion PR tends to be significantly more diverse than PR firms in other sectors based on the data reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the agencies themselves, simply hiring employees of colour is not the same thing as real inclusion.

“The first thing that comes to mind for most organisations is talent acquisition, but that should be the very last step of the initiative,” Mason Donovan, managing partner at The Dagoba Group, a diversity consultancy that has worked with fashion clients such as PVH Corp., wrote in an email. “Organisations should take time up front to create a more inclusive culture so when they have a more diverse recruitment effort, it will be met with a culture that is ready and able to fully welcome the voice of a more diverse team.”

On this front, Donovan recommends firms focus on how senior team members may exhibit unconscious bias, and also how talent is developed in the company through quality and frequent feedback and a transparent promotion and advancement process.

We’re not going to be working with brands that aren’t willing to put in that work.

Some firms are also taking action in addressing their daily business practices. At Jennifer Bett Communications, Founder Jennifer Bett Meyer told BoF she has emailed clients asking how they are approaching diversity and inclusion internally beyond their communications strategy. “We’re just going to keep having these conversations with our clients and pushing them to do these things, and if they want to get on the phone and talk about what we would suggest we’re more than happy to do it,” Bett Meyer said. “But we’re not going to be working with brands that aren’t willing to put in that work.”

Bett Meyer, along with Managing Director and Partner Melissa Duren Conner (who is biracial), also oversee a robust thought leadership division within the company. JBC clients frequently appear on panels and at conferences, though Bett Meyer told BoF that they will no longer offer their clients up for speaking engagements if organisers do not assemble diverse panels.

HL Group, the communications firm that merged with KWT Global in June, noted in a June 8 Instagram post several initiatives it plans to implement to address broader racial inequalities as well as the company’s own shortcomings, as charged by employees. Since the company publicly outlined various parts of its “long-term plan to do better as an agency and as human beings,” it has also joined the Diversity Action Alliance, a coalition of public relations professionals that, among other initiatives, publishes an annual impact report including how member organisations have measured against diversity benchmarks; pledged to partner with organisations like the Posse Foundation to address recruiting and hiring practices; provided staff with active allyship training organised by industry association the PR Council; and pledged to offer pro-bono communications services to advocacy organisations aligned with Black Lives Matter.

Extending its commitment to enacting change beyond the firm’s own walls, it has also launched a website devoted specifically towards educational content about the Black Lives Matter movement, and has pledged that at least 15 percent of the company’s Brand on Purpose podcast, hosted by KWT Global and HL Group CEO Aaron Kwittken, will feature Black and other persons of colour as guests.

“The fashion industry just needs to take responsibility for what they’ve done and understand that [PR] has made a huge mistake in contributing to the microaggressions and the systemic racism,” Rhynie said. But real change takes sustained effort. “They need to sit down and create a plan… These companies think that they’re going to be able to do this overnight and that’s not possible.”

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