How a guy with a 'z' at the end of his name ascended to the top in PR

Cargill's Mike Fernandez used his acceptance speech at the PRSA Paladin Award Ceremony to send out a call to action to the industry on diversity.

It was a pleasure to attend the PRSA Foundation Paladin Award Ceremony in New York City last night to honor one of the PR profession’s finest — Cargill’s corporate VP, corporate affairs Mike Fernandez.

Mike’s stellar career has spanned stints at Eastman Kodak, US West, Cigna, ConAgra, and State Farm, before he headed for Minnesota five years ago to take on the top comms role at the world’s largest private company.

At the Paladin event, Fernandez’s fellow Georgetown alumnus and Weber Shandwick leader Jack Leslie introduced him and recalled their time together at school but also as sparring partners while working as aides for two high-profile Senators on the Hill: Edward Kennedy in Leslie’s case, and Fritz Hollings in Fernandez’s.

Fernandez was the youngest person to ever serve as a press secretary to a senator when he took the role with Hollings in 1980 at the tender age of 23.

He noted and thanked his own mentors in his acceptance speech last night, but it is also clear that Mike is a supreme mentor in his own right to so many people in the PR industry, many of whom were present to celebrate his achievements.

But, in typical fashion, Mike decided to use last night’s occasion to have a real go at moving the debate about diversity in the PR industry forward, rather than engaging in self-aggrandizement.

He did start by recalling his humble family background as a product of a mixed marriage between a white mother and a father with Puerto Rican and Cuban roots.

His family faced racism from people who didn’t like the thought of a mixed heritage couple living in their property and made that very clear to their faces. It was a world where a ‘z’ on the end of your name meant it was much harder to secure rental accommodation. But his father reacted in sanguine manner and counseled: "You remember that son — in America everyone’s free… free to be an idiot."

Fernandez’s father served his country in the Korean War, and his five brothers also served in various different ways — even when as Mike put it, "America didn’t always serve them."

Because his father was in love with the American Dream. Like countless others, he and his wife made supreme sacrifices to ensure the best for their children — and young Mike prospered and ended up at one of the country’s top schools, which set him on the road to his stellar career in communications.

The theme of his talk last night was that it is time to turn the debate around the diversity challenge in PR into real actions - otherwise the practice of PR will suffer.

Fernandez said it is no longer acceptable to have a profession with a leadership that is just 6.5% diverse, when the general US population is 35% diverse. That it is time to implement variations of The Rooney Rule, favored by the NFL, to boost the number of diverse candidates up for top jobs in PR — something he insists on at Cargill.

"If we do not move more quickly to provide a hand up to our diverse candidates, our very remit as communicators might be compromised due to our inability to relate to the very publics we are serving," he added.

He remembered turning down multiple opportunities early in his career to take on multicultural communications jobs, because he wanted to be considered for the top mainstream roles, just like his white peers. "I did not want to be pigeonholed," he said.

He accepts the solution to greater diversity in PR is not easy. It encompasses how you talk to people in the workplace, how you answer the phone, how you treat individuals, and how you hire — all of these things communicate norms and messages. What we think we are communicating can be perceived totally differently by the subjects of that communication.

Fernandez says we need to focus less on the words, and more on how those words are understood – or often misunderstood. This is especially the case when executives do not see people who look like themselves in leadership positions.

He then noted that, as a manager, he wanted to hire the best people, with the best skills, but that you mustn’t always adopt the same criteria to the process when considering candidates. "If we ask for 15 years’ experience then we’re totally ruling out a whole generation of millennials," he said. "We tend to hire people based on our own, narrow experiences."

If it worked for us, the theory goes, then it must work for others — and we become more inclined to hire people with shared experiences like our own, who went to the same schools (as Fernandez admitted, he himself had the advantage of going to Georgetown).

He recounted an anecdote from an African-American CMO acquaintance whose agency sent in an intern to do a pitch, because the intern was the only person of color working in the agency.

Fernandez counseled diverse individuals to always step up to the plate, even in difficult circumstances — "make life happen as opposed to saying ‘it happens to me.’" He noted that diverse practitioners still have to punch above their weight to get the same opportunities as their white counterparts.

He advised them to find a senior mentor in their organization, "don’t wait for HR to assign someone to you." And network with people and peers you can learn from, which he added doesn’t just mean showing up and having a drink, it means engaging in ways that enhance your understanding of the profession and build real relationships.

Understand the business and politics of your organization and how decisions affect the bottom line. Be a master of your craft — you still may have to work harder than others to progress. And finally, turn your experience and special circumstances into a competitive advantage: "Speak up, provide a point of view, provide unique perspectives only someone like you can share – those kinds of insights matter, and will get rewarded."

Fernandez advised employers and senior PR executives to reduce the cost of entry to the industry and create a more welcoming environment, to produce teams that are comfortable working together, and where people demonstrate good listening behaviors — "treat each other with respect."

Employers should continue with sponsorships, internships, and mentorships, and continue to hire more diverse candidates. And industry bodies need to better coordinate their activities and not duplicate or stumble over each other.

The industry must also seriously address the retention and development of diverse candidates, challenging them to bring their experience to the table. Encourage them to contribute those unique perspectives. Provide them with skills and sensibilities to better navigate their own careers, and pay special attention to their development.

In echoes of diversity targets introduced in the UK by the IPA that I have talked about in this blog before, he exhorted employers to set real goals and hold themselves accountable. As previously stated, at Cargill Fernandez insists on two diverse finalists for every vacant role.

Job descriptions must be readjusted to broaden our criteria and make them more achievable for diverse candidates.

Finally: "Just do it," concluded Fernandez — "We don’t need many more studies; we just need to hire more diverse people and move toward a scenario where diverse individuals realize that reaching for the top is not just theoretical — it is achievable."

Diversity should, ultimately, be a cause for celebration, not soul searching. It should be a celebration of clear thinking to transform the conversation into action.

If the industry moves forward on these goals, Fernandez can envisage a time when having a ‘z’ on the end of your name will be a selling point, not a disadvantage.

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