How the PR Industry Can Be Anti-Racist

Shauna Nuckles
Jun 2, 2020 · 5 min read

I own a PR agency. I run a training company for PR teams. I’ve been in an interracial relationship with a Black man for more than a decade. And I also grew up in the Aryan Nation capital of the world.

All of these things don’t normally go together. These experiences have put my white privilege at the forefront of my awareness for a very long time. For years, they’ve given me insight into the true power that PR professionals can have in combating racism. And they’re anchored by a front row seat to what a world without actively anti-racist people can (and does) look like.

When people hear that I grew up in the Aryan capital of the world (which is not an exaggeration — it was the actual birthplace of the movement), they are appalled. “It must be SO racist.” “OMG the people there must be horrible.” They are shocked to hear that they’re not — 99% of the people are good, kind and loving who want to do the right thing.

What I realized a long time ago, though, is the fact that the world isn’t the way it is from bad, overtly racist people. It is the way it is because good people who want to do the right thing never actually do it, or they don’t do enough.

Recently, I shared this story for the first time publicly on my personal social media accounts, highlighting my experience being an active ally against racism and the active, uncomfortable work it’s taken. In the days following, I received multiple messages from PR & marketing colleagues wondering what more they can do to speak up and take action beyond a social media post.

As PR professionals, I think we forget the power we have to influence opinions, inspire action and shift narratives. It’s powerful and transformative. It’s why I’ve committed my career to the practice of PR, and it’s why our agency clients hire us in the first place.

I also know that most PR pros are constantly focused on crafting the exact right message, being politically correct and avoiding crisis at all cost. Usually, these are good qualities. Right now, when it comes to showing up as actively anti-racist allies, they are not.

In addition to getting educated, speaking up and becoming more aware of our biases every day, there are many specific actions that white and non-Black PR professionals and agency owners can take. Given the several messages I have received, I thought it would be helpful to take this dialogue out of my private inbox and make it public.

Here are just a few ways we can go beyond an Instagram or Facebook post to consistently show up and make meaningful change.

  1. Take a hard and honest look at the diversity of your teams. During my career, I’ve served as a fractional COO inside multiple agencies, hiring, onboarding and training dozens of teams. I am privy to how several agencies actually find and hire their employees. In one instance, I gently asked an agency owner why they had never hired a person of color despite living in a very diverse city and sharing in those values. I was met with a defensive response and “Well what do you expect me to do when no one of color ever applies” type of answers. If you’re facing a similar issue inside your organization, this is not an excuse, but an opportunity to expand your network to broaden your pool of applicants. It’s a chance to support more diverse organizations. And a call to publicly vocalize how much you value diversity. This should also clearly show why speaking up for diversity needs to be the job of white allies. If this is how I was met, a white woman, by asking an open-minded agency owner to address the sensitive topic head on, imagine the risk our Black colleagues are taking to do the same. This burden should not be theirs.
  2. Encourage representation in your campaigns and collateral. Unlike the population at large, many PR professionals have direct power over the macro messages and images that the public consumes. If you’re creating a campaign with visuals or hiring influencers, ensure that diverse representation is a priority. As agency owners, our clients are looking to us for this counsel. I recall leading a marketing campaign for a client who pushed back on hiring a person of color to be the featured talent in a campaign video. Despite being the most talented person in our pool of actors, they were unsure if their audience would be able to relate to this person because of their skin color. We had several open and honest exchanges, and ultimately, were able to create the video with our talent and increased representation on their platforms. These conversations are uncomfortable, even when done with love, respect and professionalism, but we must have them.
  3. Lean into your persuasive capabilities. Teams I’ve led in the past have convinced the editors of Vogue to cover deodorant. They’ve gotten salad dressing into New York Fashion Week. They’ve created entirely new industries for clients through positioning and press. If we can do this as PR professionals, we can get the “racist uncles” in our lives to understand a new point of view. Perhaps if your agencies have unused volunteer days due to our current stay at home orders, use them to draft “anti-racist talking points” and execute a community campaign to arm individuals with what to say in our personal and business lives when we’re faced with racist remarks and situations.
  4. Use the power of your dollar. As PR professionals, we hire a lot of vendors, and we use a lot of paid tools. Moving forward, we will use renewing contracts as an opportunity to evaluate and openly ask our partners about their policies and actions taken on racism. Are the vendors you’re hiring and tools you’re paying for taking a stance that aligns with your values? In business, many say nothing for fear of losing clients. However, I feel it is our responsibility to remind them that saying nothing will have the same effect. If we as agency owners and professionals are putting our businesses and careers on the line to speak up, we should expect the vendors we’re paying to do the same.
  5. Advocate for diverse spaces — virtually and in-person. Remember industry events? Professional networking? Conferences? With COVID-19 and physical distancing, they seem like a lifetime ago, but they will be back. If you’re attending, sponsoring, paying for tickets or in any way participating in the meeting of PR minds, look at the faces around you. Before you purchase tickets, agree to speak on a panel or pay for sponsorships at conferences, ask to see the speaker lineup to ensure it represents diverse voices. If you attend an event and everyone looks like you (white), ask what can be done to increase diversity moving forward and speak up for those minority voices who aren’t at the table.

I am by no means an expert, and this is by no means a comprehensive list of everything that we can do. However, a lesson I’ve learned in business and in life is that action creates clarity. Sometimes, we need a few very clear ideas and a reminder of the power we have to simply get started.

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Shauna Nuckles

Written by

Austin, TX-based founder & PR expert. advocationsystem.com: onboarding & ongoing training for PR teams | advocationpr.com: PR for CPG & digital health brands

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

Shauna Nuckles

Written by

Austin, TX-based founder & PR expert. advocationsystem.com: onboarding & ongoing training for PR teams | advocationpr.com: PR for CPG & digital health brands

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

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