If you’ve ever watched Mad Men, you should be familiar with the world of agencies that convey their clients’ message to drive masses to action (usually to buy a product). Most people often refer to them as advertising agencies. Besides these agencies that help corporations sell products for profit, there are agencies whose mission is to shape public opinion to drive social change. These agencies integrate strategic public relations, advertising, social media and more to drive issue-driven campaigns that make the world a better place. These agencies usually call themselves social change communications agencies.
The two types of agencies I mentioned above have very different missions, but they have something in common.
They’re very white.
If you do a Google Search of “social change communications agencies”, the top searches will lead you to agencies that pride themselves in making the world a better place: Ripple Strategies, Fenton, Metropolitan Group, Communications4Good, Movement Media, Rescue Agency, The Incite Agency, Rally, and M+R Strategies.
I browsed through their websites and felt inspired as I saw photos and messages that scream: “We do social justice work!” I felt excited to see companies that are truly passionate about being agents of social justice. But stumbling upon their team pages, I realized that little or none of these agents looked like me.
To be fair, some social change communications agencies exhibit some diversity: a few notable ones from the list above are Fenton, Metropolitan Group, Rescue Agency, and Rally. However, a closer look at the breakdown of their staff shows that their racial diversity is adequate in rank-and-file positions but close to nonexistent in their leadership positions including directors and vice presidents.
What does this mean for these agencies?
There is little to no representation of people of color in strategic-planning and decision-making spaces.
As these agencies communicate stories and messages in issue-driven campaigns, it is critical they recognize that all social justice issues intersect with race. Without people of color’s experience and knowledge in decision-making spaces, agencies leave out people of color from their process and impact; they miss out on valuable perspectives that can transform a campaign from good to great. Sure, some agencies have a collaborative culture and allow their rank-and-file employees’ voices be heard. However, that poses another problem wherein agencies profit off of people of color’s talent and stories without professionally and financially benefiting them. Don’t just use them; promote them.
Agencies aim to speak to people affected most by social justice issues but not letting those same people be at the frontline of creating the message.
Historically, communities of color’s stories have been erased in mainstream education and media. If not erased, they’re misrepresented. People of color must reclaim ownership of the narration of our communities’ stories. As much as many white allies can uplift our experiences through what they’ve learned, there is nothing more empowering and liberating than a person of color telling their own raw story and experience being a person of color, then using that power to create social change. An agency’s effectiveness in communication relies on messaging that resonates with their audience. They can only do this by conveying the right rhetoric and message to touch the hearts of people affected by racism. That right message comes best from the people affected by racism themselves.
This doesn’t mean non-people of color aren’t effective in social change communications. I work with two talented white men on my team and it has been a fruitful experience. I’ve also worked at Fenton, meeting good-hearted and passionate communications professionals who want to make this world a better place for everyone. But we can do even better. It would benefit all organizations and maximize their missions to reevaluate the diversity (or lack thereof) of their staff across all position levels. We need more people of color in communications, especially in social change communications. Equally as important, we need people of color as leaders in communications. As people of color become the majority in the United States, communications agencies and organizations with communications teams must be equipped to drive campaigns that include and empower communities of color. For social change agencies to truly reflect their mission, they must prioritize social change not just in their work but also in their practice.
Conrad is The Greenlining Institute’s Communications Manager. Follow Conrad on Twitter.