The BLACK paPR Report


PR from an African American Perspective

Image is Everything

I’m an image geek who can trace my addiction to mass-mediated images of African Americans back to my childhood. Television wasn’t just TV, the fun thing, it was a learning tool. I can recall questioning why Buckwheat didn’t comb his hair and why Stymie never went off on Alfafa or Spanky. I had issues like that.

With fondness I remember taking my Sunday evening bath early, just so I could sit on the floor in my PJs, with a snack and drink, to watch The Ed Sullivan Show when a black act was featured. And I can remember stopping play with friends to run into the house on Saturdays to watch The Dick Clark Show whenever one of my favorite R&B groups or singers was featured.

Those images meant a lot to me.

A few years ago, I went to a rural flea market and indulged my love for vintage Ebony magazines. I purchased about $20 worth of those magazines and continued looking on every table for things of interest. One table contained some items that made my blood curdle and my heart stop. On that table were old slave shackles and I was too scared to touch them. My eyes merely rested on them as I thought of the slave or slaves who wore those bracelets. Unfortunately, those weren’t the only things on that table to upset my equilibrium. The vendor had a number of souvenirs from the 1936 Olympics, which were held in Nazi Germany. Those were the Olympic games, where Hitler refused to shake gold medalist Jesse Owens’s hand.

I moved away from that table fast.

We can always put the past into a context somewhere back there. But once we have a tangible reminder of it, something shifts inside, and we realize the significance of those moments and how they shape the world we live in today. To paraphrase philosopher Franz Fanon, we never notice the absence of something until we see that one thing that challenges our senses and intellect. (Bless Fanon, I could never do him any real justice.)

My grandparents never questioned the absence of black faces on television until the first one appeared. And once they noticed, they made it a point to make me cognizant of them, thus my humble beginnings as a purveyor of the mass-mediated image of African Americans.

For years I studied these images from the earliest known stereotypes to the most recent in popular culture. (Yes, they still exist.) For years I taught and lectured about these images. But my greatest challenge would come in taking all of that book knowledge and applying it to my profession as a PR consultant and publicist.

Last night, I watched some of the most beautiful images of African Americans I’ve ever seen. These were real images, nothing contrived like a sit-com or movie. A wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend spoke to a crowd of millions, and she spoke eloquently and she appeared elegantly. Obviously, from the context of American history, we’ve never seen anything like it. So, from my perspective as a purveyor/consumer and negotiator of image, I was impressed and honestly wished we could see more of that — more of what I love about my people.

As a practitioner, I’m challenged everyday in how to present the images I love to a big world without appearing exploitive or careless. And I am challenged to care when others do not.

Do you care about the image of your African American clients? If so, how? If not, dang, and read these books:

(We will revisit this subject later.)
Best, Robin

Filed under: African Americans, Mass-Mediated Images, Public Relations, Stereotypes, , , , , , , , ,

One Response

  1. Shiva Kumar says:

    “”As a practitioner, I’m challenged everyday in how to present the images I love to a big world without appearing exploitive or careless. And I am challenged to care when others do not”.

    I would like to share some of my thoughts more focussed on the above lines. I guess it also comes naturally as I also have been in the Media & PR industry for about 9 years now. This also is because I happen to watch a great movie( Ofcourse Half of it), wherein a small african boy wants to jump into the pool where a lot of whites are swimming…He is not allowed, somehow he doesn;t give up and comes back with his friends again and tries to have a swim in the pool…Finally chased by the cops and so on..

    I guess Images are everything, true, A picture or image can make an impact and anyday better than pages of painful reading…

    In the age of the modern era, globalisation, how challenging is it for us PR practisioners to be more regional than Global. Understanding that most of us feel PR is connected to us with a lot of passion, its always a challenge to bring back past memories to use as a tool for communication or messaging. Sometimes a focussed audience is better, but how well can we bring that on to the table, an image from the past?

    Incidently i happen to read a nice article from Seth, “Organizations will work tirelessly to de-personalize every communication medium they encounter”. How companies and advertising agencies are bombarding marketing messages through various channels – Mobile, TV, Radio, Billboards etc Radio ads used to be live, personal and spoken by an individual.
    TV ads used to feature actual people, demonstrating something, usually live.
    Phone calls involved a live speaker, talking, with permission, to another person.
    Email used to be honest interactions between consenting adults.
    Facebook pages (and Wikipedia, too) were built by people, not staffs.
    Twits came from real people, and so did instant messages.

    But yes your right and if i do recall some of the very famous personalities from the past, Elvis, Marylyn Monroe, Mahatma Gandhi, i think the images can drive in us a lot of thoughts about these personalities, u know how powerful they were, or charming, or how charismatic, stylish or great they were…

    I enjoyed reading your article,


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