As communicators operating in the most diverse marketplace in the history of commerce, we are responsible for managing conversations and relationships with a wide array of stakeholders. The Arthur W. Page Society's New CCO report identifies the growing need to embrace and engage diversity as one of the key trends impacting business today. Organizations that seek to deliver greater value must increasingly listen, understand and reflect the diversity of global markets, clients, shareholders, talent, policy makers, and communities.
I'm proud to be Co-Chair of The Page Society's Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) subcommittee as we work to advance the diversity of our membership, our members' communications teams and the industry at large.
We know that storytelling is one of the most memorable and powerful forms of communications. We asked several diverse public relations (PR) and communications leaders to share their stories and offer advice to young professionals of color in our industry. Our hope is that the personal narratives of these Page members can provide insights to young professionals seeking role models, as well as organizations looking to recruit, develop and retain diverse talent.
Along with my own story of making a career choice which differed from my academic training, you will find the interviews of Mike Fernandez of Burson-Marsteller (formerly of Cargill), Kimberley Goode of Northwestern Mutual, and Barry Caldwell of Waste Management below. Though each of us takes a different path, the common threads include taking chances, continuous learning, networking, and the importance of role models, mentors and sponsors.
We encourage you to share these stories with your peers, team members and students to help foster greater understanding of the power of different voices, paths and experiences to help your organization be more responsive and successful. Use them as a catalyst for conversation and action within your own organization and within our industry. I have experienced the ways that the richness of differences fosters better problem solving, more innovation and increased engagement. The Role Model series is one of several initiatives that our committee is working on to provide you with resources that help you actively recruit, hire, grow and retain diverse professionals.
What attracted me to a career in PR…
It is funny because first, I had to start by explaining that to my parents -- since after I graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Human Biology I decided to work in communications. My area of concentration after taking the Biology core was using media/communications to support health care systems. I had different experiences like writing a radio soap opera around cardiovascular health. I also teamed with some of the graduate students of psychology at Stanford on a cable TV show to help people stop smoking, where I acted as producer and writer. My father watched that show and he used it to stop smoking! So I was very much into using communication as a tool to inform and shape behaviors in a very positive way. I was really fascinated about it at that time and I still am.
The professional challenges I faced as my career progressed…
It is very difficult to get into communications and it was really challenging to get in the door for the next position. It was especially challenging to start over when I left San Francisco and moved back to Texas. As a young woman with less experience, you always have to prove your ability or your right to be in the room, which could be a challenge but I see it as an opportunity. It just means that you always have to be on your A game and make sure you know what you are talking about and really pay close attention to details. It is a lot of work creating a network and what makes a difference is your emotional intelligence and your ability to navigate and gain resources for ideas.
Tell us a little about your personal journey. Where do you come from?
I like to say that I'm an American nomad. I was born in Long Beach, California. My background is Puerto Rican and Cuban. My father had lots of odd jobs when I was young and I ended up moving quite a bit and living in various communities in four states around the country. I attended eight different public schools. It was a challenge at the beginning, but it ended up being a good thing for the career that I found myself doing today. It gave me more understanding of different environments and cultures and helped me to adapt to new situations.
Where did you go to school and what did you study?
I went to Georgetown University. It was a combination of scholarship and work-study. I went there initially to the School of Foreign Service. Most of what I studied was government, international relations and economics. I'm the first Fernandez in the family to get a college degree.
What attracted you to a career in public relations?
I expected that I would be a broadcast journalist, and while at college I worked for a newspaper and a magazine until I realized that I Iove to tell stories, but I didn't love the fact that, as journalist, I had tell a story and move to the next one. So I got exposed to corporate communications, which uses some of the same skill sets but allows you to have more continuity in telling the story of an organization or cause. That really appealed to me and that's why I made this transition.
How did you reach the position you now hold?
I had the opportunity to be a freelance writer for Allstate, and from there I moved to a number of companies through relationships. I worked for a lot of great firms like American Express and Prudential by building a network and doing what I loved to do and growing as a communicator in a variety of industries. At my second company, a small one, I was around 27 years old when I reached a director position. I moved to Prudential in my early 30's, when I reached the VP level. I was fortunate to move pretty quickly in the profession. Now I am VP - Communications & Corporate Affairs at Northwestern Mutual.
What do you think are the biggest challenges in attracting more people of color to careers in public relations and corporate communications?
Honestly, I reject the notion of "challenges" of hiring more people of color in this space. Those of us with hiring authority – and there are plenty of us – we just need to do it. There are plenty of high quality, capable candidates of color and different ethnicities available. I have hired them, and some I haven't. The thing is I've been purposeful in working with my hiring partner to provide me a rich diverse slate of candidates, and I've pressed my direct reports with hiring authority to make sure they have the same. Over the years, I've taken great pride in having diverse teams of communicators, lobbyists, lawyers, and other professionals to lead and drive value for the organization. On the retention side, I just think it's less about the diversity of their look or thought – that's table stakes – and much more about the value my teammates drive plus their own development, growth and sense of achievement within the organization. As managers, we have all that responsibility to our people if we want to keep them.
If you could give one piece of advice to a young professional today what would it be?
Don't be afraid to make a mistake, otherwise you won't be able to perform. I learned that from my high school basketball coach, Cleveland Buckner, who played against Wilt Chamberlain the night Wilt scored 100 points, and I've tried to live by it ever since. Look, I never want to fail, none of us do. But if I'm afraid to fail, then I won't be able to perform; I won't be able to drive value for my organization; and I certainly won't be able to grow. That's what's worked for me and that's how I try to lead teams. So far so good.
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