Look to the past to address America's most challenging issue

Two lessons from history: actions speak louder than words and authenticity counts.

If the president of the United States would fail an elementary-school test on the Civil War, according to Yale University’s David Blight, how can today’s public relations professional deal with America’s most challenging issue?

The centrality of the black experience in American life is a competitive advantage that any public relations professional should learn how to address with success.

The first step is to acknowledge ignorance. One of San Francisco Travel President and CEO Joe d'Alessandro's first steps when beginning the job was to take his entire executive team on a five-hour tour of African-American history in San Francisco. As author of a four-volume history of African-Americans in California, I had developed a map of sites throughout the state.

The relationship developed into the production of a joint meeting planners guide to the African-American Freedom Trail. Local real estate magnate Clinton Reilly used our research to create the inscription for a nine-foot statue in San Francisco’s financial district of the African-American millionaire who built San Francisco's first hotel in the 1840s.

D'Alessandro avoided the assumption that his bureau had the built-in expertise on how to change decades of disparities. In Los Angeles, we electrified the National Black Caucus of State Legislators by bringing them from their Century City hotel through the extensive black heritage in Beverly Hills, downtown Los Angeles, and Leimert Park. With 1 million African-Americans living in the city, where 26 of the original 44 settlers were Spanish-speaking blacks, it is a bonanza that Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board CEO Ernest Wooden knows can grow the number of black visitors to Los Angeles.

The second step is to understand the market. The trade press and business sections almost never look at the $1.2 trillion African-American market.

Our10Plan: The 14th State of Black Business report, coming out May 17 in New York City, describes how to advance that market from 6% of gross domestic product to 10% by 2020, by analyzing where the concentrations of expertise and innovation are and devoting capital and attention to them.

A third step is to solve problems. Cause-related marketing works best when there are tangible results. We used Reilly's statue of California pioneer Capt. William Alexander Leidesdorff in San Francisco and Wooden as a role model to launch a campaign to reduce chronic absenteeism among African-American students, emphasizing the fact that he had built the first public school in the state in 1848.

However, the most important step is respect. It is a trait that President Abraham Lincoln exhibited in 1865 after the congressional passage of the 13th Amendment. Lincoln didn't put himself forward and say, "Look what I did!" He didn't ask for the freedmen to give him an award for ending 250 years of slavery. With the passage of the amendment by 27 states, many of them still in rebellion, at stake, Lincoln gave the podium of the U.S. Capitol for the first time to an African-American, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet. Authenticity counts.

The recent San Francisco Chronicle story on the suicide of an African-American engineer who had been recruited to work at Uber indicates how seriously the shaping of ideas affects people. Action to address a climate of intolerance should have preceded the PR-driven effort to hire more black workers. Actions speaks louder than words.

Lincoln would be horrified by the tone being set more than a century and a half after he gave his life to change the course of American history and keep the nation together. Without the data tools of today, he took a chance on a one-legged former dockworker to carry the message. Today's influencers should heed his example.

John William Templeton is author of "Road to Ratification: How 27 States Tackled the Most Challenging Issue in American History" and cofounder of National Black Business Month each August. He re-enacted Rev. Henry Highland Garnet at his church, 15th Street Presbyterian in Washington, D.C. as part of its 175th anniversary.

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