ANALYSIS: Minority PR Alliance stakes claim to minority business - NAACP leaders endorsed the new African-American Public Relations Alliance with charges of tokenism by mainstream agencies. Kimberly Krautter examines the Alliance’s economic benefi

A decade ago, the most popular T-shirt in urban America shouted, ’It’s a black thing ... you wouldn’t understand.’ African-Americans of all ages and backgrounds wore the shirt proudly. It seemed to symbolize the growing economic importance of Black America, and, like the rainbow flags and stickers of the gay community, it was a banner signifying the undeniable presence of African-Americans in formerly lily-white neighborhoods.

A decade ago, the most popular T-shirt in urban America shouted, ’It’s a black thing ... you wouldn’t understand.’ African-Americans of all ages and backgrounds wore the shirt proudly. It seemed to symbolize the growing economic importance of Black America, and, like the rainbow flags and stickers of the gay community, it was a banner signifying the undeniable presence of African-Americans in formerly lily-white neighborhoods.

A decade ago, the most popular T-shirt in urban America shouted,

’It’s a black thing ... you wouldn’t understand.’ African-Americans of

all ages and backgrounds wore the shirt proudly. It seemed to symbolize

the growing economic importance of Black America, and, like the rainbow

flags and stickers of the gay community, it was a banner signifying the

undeniable presence of African-Americans in formerly lily-white

neighborhoods.



Marketers seemed to wake up. Around the same time, Pepsi, McDonald’s and

other major corporations began to run campaigns exclusively featuring

African-Americans alongside traditional ads that had integrated

casts.



The concept of ’diversity marketing’ has been a hallmark of the 1990’s;

a growing drumbeat that the most savvy marketers and agencies have begun

to heed. They joined with great pride and satisfaction. And therein lies

the controversy.



Fanfare launch



At end of the 30th Annual Convention of the National Association for the

Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in New York this month, the

African American Public Relations Alliance was launched with much

fanfare and rhetoric. NAACP president and CEO Kweisi Mfume and the Rev.

Al Sharpton lauded the Alliance and charged mainstream agencies with

tokenism and ’invading’ the client turf that should rightfully go to

minority-owned agencies.



Alliance co-founder and chairman Lon Walls, president of Walls

Communications in Washington, DC, says that he and fellow Alliance

member agencies do feel a certain amount of entitlement to account work

targeted to African-American audiences. ’We applaud the fact that

(mainstream agencies) are setting up minority practices, but in many

ways that’s business we feel we should be getting.’



Issues of entitlement do not usually impress clients, however. Large

marketers, who recognize the rich economic opportunities in minority

targets, want their agencies to have the reach and capability to address

the new markets on a national scale. The reality is that most

minority-owned firms do not, as yet, have a national presence. For this

reason marketers have turned to mainstream agencies, demanding that they

address minority targets.



Large nationals such as Edelman, Fleishman-Hillard and Ketchum have

instituted minority practice groups led by recognized professionals from

the African-American and Hispanic communities.



The issue for the Alliance and the NAACP is that since these agencies

are not minority-owned, it renders them incapable of truly reaching the

psyche of their audiences.



’I’m not surprised to hear that type of critique or assessment from

those in African American-owned agencies,’ says Pam Davis, VP of

diversity marketing at Edelman Worldwide. A black woman raised on the

South side of Chicago, Davis knows the struggles of a community desirous

to build direct relationships with marketers who have only just begun to

recognize it as part of the American landscape. ’I am from that

community, and I speak to that community,’ says Davis. ’Not anyone can

go knocking at that door.’



Davis once owned and operated a small regional shop in Chicago and

understands the pressures to compete on a higher plane. ’As a small guy,

I did not have the resources to compete with the big guys,’ says Davis.

’I hit my own glass ceiling.’



Walls contends that with the Alliance, excellence and national reach are

no longer valid reasons to bypass minority-owned agencies. ’Our primary

business imperative is to level the playing field,’ he says. ’It’s not

because we’re black that we should get the business. We’re the best

qualified.’



Minority network



Walls calls the Alliance a ’super agency’ of networked minority-owned

agencies in the top 15 African-American markets. Each has demonstrated

proficiencies in specific market categories, and will seek national

account opportunities in its area of expertise. Accounts will be

supervised by a lead member agency and implemented through the

Alliance’s other geographic offices. Taken together, the Alliance

outweighs the top agencies more than three-to-one in minority PR

billings and staff. The Alliance estimates its total billings at dollars

16.8 million with a staff of 112.



Maria Pis-Dudot, SVP at Fleishman-Hillard Miami and a leader in Hispanic

American marketing, questions whether the Alliance can offer clients a

cohesive corporate culture. ’If you go to F-H Dallas, Miami, Atlanta,

wherever, the culture is consistent and every office and every manager

follows a standard of operation and communication.’ She is concerned

that clients will not be able to navigate the different corporate

cultures in a loosely formed alliance.



Walls dismisses this notion. ’By nature we all arrived at the same place

at the same time. We come from the same background and have been in

business for about the same time,’ he says. ’We’re in sync.’



Though the rhetoric associated with the launch of the Alliance was

inflammatory, affiliated and non-affiliated professionals agree that the

organization will only improve the marketplace. Alliance member Patricia

Tobin, president and CEO of Tobin & Associates in Hollywood says, ’I’m

big on networking. As a group when we unite there’s more

opportunity.’



Tobin notes the triumph of women in the marketplace and in top

management as a result of 20 years of networking. ’Women have always

done that, if you think about it,’ says Tobin. ’There are women now that

are stepping up and making a major impact.’



Kent Matlock, president of Matlock & Associates, a minority-owned

Atlanta PR firm, says, ’The New York Ad Club has a women in advertising

group that is a wonderful platform for women to come together and

discuss the challenges they face. The Alliance provides that same kind

of forum.’



Matlock opted not to join the Alliance because the strict PR focus did

not fit his business model, but he applauds the organization’s

charter.



He does offer one note of caution: ’The challenge isn’t the

partnership.



The challenge is giving meaningful opportunities to an untapped talent

pool that will ultimately raise their standards of excellence.’ Matlock

hopes that the Alliance and mainstream agencies alike look at diversity

marketing as a chance to change the face of the industry.



’Bad parity hurts the industry of the mind, but it also hurts the

clients’ view of the value of the market,’ says Matlock.



Walls agrees and says that the platform of opportunity is the intent

behind the Alliance. ’We’ve been impeded in getting into mainstream

business all along, so we might as well do something and then hopefully

be recognized as top strategic marketers.’



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