Then and now: LGBTQ comms pros share their experience in the PR industry

Highlights from the Museum of PR's event on Thursday.

(L-R) Dr. Erica Ciszek, Troy Blackwell, Dr. Brenda Wrigley, Jim Joseph, Andrew McCaskill
(L-R) Dr. Erica Ciszek, Troy Blackwell, Dr. Brenda Wrigley, Jim Joseph, Andrew McCaskill

NEW YORK: The PR industry’s biggest diversity problems exist at agencies, according to Andrew McCaskill, former SVP of global communications and multicultural marketing at Nielson.

"The problem I feel sits and burns in agency life," he said on Thursday at a Museum of PR event. "That is, I really do believe, where our problem with diversity is the biggest."

McCaskill was one of nine speakers at the event, called The LGBTQ Experience in Public Relations: Stories that Shaped Our Profession, Our Values and Our Future, which was held in New York.

He noted that PR still needs to address the basics of diversity.

"I can't stand hearing people say the whole diversity of thought thing," he said. "That's diversity 4.0. Most organizations are still trying to get diversity 1.0 right, which is the diversity you can actually see. So then, I [would] not have to speak for all black Americans today, all of gay America tomorrow and for all southerners the next day."

McCaskill was asked what the next frontier of the LGBTQ struggle might be in the wake of successes like the legalization of same sex marriage. He said that because of the current administration, the new challenges will be much like old ones, where the LGBTQ community had to fight for basic rights.

However, he added, the LGBTQ community also needs to take stock of its own diversity efforts.

"With 48% of Generation Z and 48% of millennials being multicultural [and] being diverse, it's not a fight that can happen with just gay, cisgender white men," he said. "And that's what the fight looks like to many of us still today. We don't know if we're not invited to the table or if we're just not showing up at the table, many of us."

That’s not just an issue at certain levels of socio economics, he added.

"I’m a top 10 graduate of a top ten business school black guy who's been gay his whole life who does not necessarily always know that we're invited to the table or not," said McCaskill.

Jim Joseph, BCW’s global president, added that progress for the LGBTQ community often comes from the private sector.

"The new frontier is not [coming] from the expected and institutions," Joseph said. "We cannot rely on governments [or] the institutions we thought would protect us. And to tie it back into our industry, we have to rely on businesses, brands and corporations. They are taking a stand on our behalf, making statements, legislating policies and affecting activism."

Joseph said he doesn’t share the concerns some have about corporate involvement in the LGBTQ movement.

"While some people see it as sort of taking advantage of the market, I don't see it that way at all," he said. "I see that we have to rely on their resources and their funding and their employee base to make the changes that we once thought should come from government. They don't anymore. They come from us and they come from those who support us."

Speakers on another panel shared their history as LGBTQ people in the comms business. And while everyone on the panel came out early in their careers, it was harder for some than others.

Del Galloway, VP of communications for Wells Fargo, hit an early LGBTQ professional speedbump when he was invited to a strip club by the owners of the Mad Men-style ad agency where he formerly worked.

"They kept after me to go to this thing and finally I went," he said. "And it was, you know, that horrible feeling of trying to fit in. I finally acknowledged that it wasn't my cup of tea and said I'm gay and you could feel the seismic shift after that in my time [at that job]."

Chiqui Cartagena, former SVP of Univision’s political and advocacy group, said her willingness to be open about her sexuality did once cost her a job. The general manager of a TV station she was working at asked her to take down the photo of her girlfriend she had posted in her workspace. At first, Cartagena was incredulous, having spent time socially with her boss, who was also a lesbian.

"She said, ‘No, I'm serious. You got to take it down.’ And I said, ‘Well, what if I don’t?’ She said, ‘Well, we'll see,’" said Cartagena. "Two weeks later, I was fired."

Since then, Cartagena said, the LGBTQ community has made obvious progress. But its gains are still not reflected in other communities.

She explained that, when it comes to representation on TV, she feels more invisible as a Latina than as a gay person.

"As a Latina and, and yeah, especially under this environment, the Trump administration burn, it feels really oppressive because I don't think the media is getting our story right at all," Cartagena said.

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