The Importance of Diversity in Education, Public Relations and Corporations, with David Brown of Temple University
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with David Brown, Diversity Advisor to the Office of the Dean of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication. The first Diversity Advisor, David also serves as an Assistant Professor of Instruction, directs the Public Relations Field Experience and Internship Program, and serves as Faculty Advisor to Temple’s Black Public Relations Society chapter. He is the Diversity Liaison on PRSA’s Educator’s Academy Board, and a frequent columnist.
David owned or managed five advertising/public relations firms throughout his 30+ career in Philadelphia. His most successful venture was when BrownPartners became one of the most decorated minority-owned ad agencies in the history of Philadelphia. The company won almost every award in the field, including three Pepperpots from the Philadelphia Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA); a Gold Addy from the Philadelphia Advertising Club; and a Mosaic Award from the American Advertising Federation.
The only person to have served as both the President of PRSA’s Philadelphia chapter and the Philadelphia Advertising Club, David also is the only living African American inducted into the Philadelphia Public Relations Association (PPRA) Hall of Fame. In 2019, he received the Pinnacle Award from the Ad Club, which serves as the Hall of Fame equivalent for the organization, making him the only African American inducted into the Philadelphia’s two Halls of Fame. David also is the first African American to receive PRSA’s national David Ferguson Award for Outstanding Contributions in Education and the Ofield Dukes Educator Award from the National Black Public Relations Society (NBPRS).
Brown was named a “Champion of Change” by the Obama Administration for his communications work around empowering non-profits to make a difference in the communities they serve. In addition, David is a United Methodist Pastor. His church is in West Philadelphia, only five blocks away from where Walter Wallace was killed.
Gina considers David a friend and someone she looks up to, noting that they have “walked these streets together.”
It’s December 2020 — a time when the world is changing. We’re looking forward to 2021, but in looking back over this year, the events of 2020 have had a lot of impacts. 2020 has changed the work you do as a professor, as a pastor, and as a strategic marketing advisor to Temple’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership. How have things changed? What changed in 2020?
That’s a great question. It’s such an enormous thing to consider because obviously, the world has changed for all of us in so many ways. In particular, had we not had the virus pandemic, many of us would not have been sequestered in our homes to watch the unfortunate killing of George Floyd. That became the impetus for the racial reckoning that we find ourselves in, while at the same time having a presidential election.
There was a confluence of a lot of different things. At least for me, the work that I’m now doing is in diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism. It’s not something that’s new to me. It’s something I’ve been doing all my life, all my career, but I’ve found this year amplified things and accelerated a lot of things that we’ve been trying to make happen
While we anticipate that we’ll have a vaccine soon, we still won’t be inoculated from racism and other things; the work in that area will continue. Part of what I see, both in our profession, as well as in the communities that we share, is we still have a lot of work to do because what it’s done is laid bare some of the fissures that we’ve had – some of the chasms. We need to start trying to continue to find ways to build bridges. That changed in terms of being able to build those bridges to a more willing community, quite honestly, because we figured we can do a lot more together than we can separately.
Before we started recording, I asked you, “How are you?” And I meant, “How are you from the perspective of you as a Black man, as a leader in the Black and brown communities, and as one who is highly affected by the civil unrest?
In my clergy in pastoral circles, we asked the question, “How is it with your soul?” You can’t just say fine or it’s okay. I appreciate that because knowing how you are depends on the day, it depends on the circumstances. I still feel very hopeful optimally as we go into 2021. I can’t deny that I’m a little bit exhausted and not just because of the work that we do, but emotionally it takes a lot out of you.
As an African American male, I grew up with these things and now to be at the age that I am and know what I know … I have nephews and younger folks in my life who I fear for all the time.
I’m afraid for them but also recognize, at least for me and for a lot of the people that I interact within African American, Black and brown communities, that our investment in education, is the new frontier for civil rights. And I think if we can provide greater education, we can provide greater opportunities. We can start to continue to not only lift up our communities, but at the same time, lift up our families and so forth. It gives me a lot of hope. That’s probably what drew me to do the work that I do at Temple while still keeping my foot in the community as a pastor. They are very much one and the same and connected in that very meaningful way.
You are there for your clergy, you’re there for the students, you’re there for your family, and you’re there for members of the PR industry. What do you do to keep your soul healthy?
I admit that I’m still working on it. Getting a better balance is critical. I don’t mind sharing that every year, October 31 is significant for me. That’s the day I collapsed at a meeting. I was literally in the middle of making a point about something and I wound up just collapsing during the meeting. I had people who were around me, who gathered me up and got me to the hospital. It was exhaustion. I tend to push myself beyond that point, which I knew intuitively that’s not what you should do, but you and I are both very hard chargers.
We do a lot of work. We assume many roles as parents, as professionals, as all the parts that we play. I’ve learned to use October 31 as my touchpoint and say, “Am I doing better at my self-care? Am I trying to say ‘no’ better, more articulately?” That’s what I call the “defensible no.” I’ve been doing better. I’ve found though, that when I made up my mind, back in August of 2020, that I could get the community activated around voting education, regardless of what candidates they supported. The only way to effectuate change is to get in the game.
I knew I had to take care of myself. I knew that win, lose, or draw. Who knew that the election day would be a week-long? A renewed and refreshed David is going to be way more effective than worn out, exhausted and depleted David. We need to know what we can and can’t do and try to build that balance in the process.
What does your role at Temple University look like in diversity, equity, advocacy, and leadership?
Since I’m the first one that they’ve had, I’ve started to be very intentional about defining what that role means. As a diversity advisor to the dean, I’m responsible for 8,000 or so students and faculty, particularly in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. I have responsibility to the office of the president.
I was looking at the university’s diversity, equity, and inclusion, and two years ago, we had a plan to move these things forward. In 2020, it got amplified and accelerated. It emphasized that a lot of us who are first in different positions want to make sure that we’re not the last. I’ve always approached this position as a position. Not that David Brown has to be in a position, but I recognize that I’m building a foundation so someone else can come along and build on that foundation because Temple has great influence and leverage to do great things. Even we folks who many consider high performers recognize that this isn’t just a marathon, it’s a relay race within a marathon. The legacy is not about me – it’s about the work – which is critical. It enables us to make change, particularly in this time of racial reckoning.
What can leaders of universities, or even corporations or agencies do to better bring in diverse candidates and to retain those diverse candidates?
You and I were both talking about how easy it is to talk the talk and how hard it is to walk the walk. It’s about being able to find different ways and being strategic about it, so that we’re not trying to do things that are merely transactional in nature but are transformational. It’s not just about hiring certain people for checking boxes off. If we’re not finding ways to develop a more inclusive environment or finding ways to develop the talent we have, however, they may identify as diverse. That could be diversity, ethnicity, or gender or sexual identity. There are so many different things, but then making that veritable part of the fabric of any organization, whether it’s a public relations agency or an institution like Temple, you’ve got to find ways to bake it into the infrastructure.
Major props to you because it starts with the leader. If the leader of the organization is not down with it, it’s not going to happen, or it won’t be sustained. That type of connection and commitment is critical, but also, I think it must be strategic to impact the bottom line. Is it going to make us better? Is it going to make us more competitive? This makes sense because we’re going to expand our offerings and we’re expanding our curriculum and faculty.
We’ve got to be more competitive to be viable, looking toward what we want the world to be and what the market conditions will dictate, not to where the world is now. Today we find ourselves in much more of a global environment. The people that we’re attracting are looking for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive environment in which they work. And if they don’t find it, they’ll invest in it to make it better, or they’ll leave and then invest in it to make wherever they land better. It becomes something that we have to do for the right reasons and the reasons have always been right, but we now have the wherewithal and the resources to make it happen.
It’s inherent that when we try to recruit people, they don’t look like me. They’re not going to look like me. I must build a team around us that looks like others. That’s not easy to do in small business. Before going completely virtual in March 2020, people would drive to our office, which is not accessible by public transportation, which meant we couldn’t pull from the metropolitan areas. We’re virtual now, so we can broaden our recruitment and find talent who can offer us both expertise and diversity.
If we’re only investing in trying to find more diverse teams when it’s time to hire, then it’s too late. How do we work together as allies and advocates for each other? Who do you know? Not just who do you know by name, but your firm. You’re looking for competence, then complexion? You want people to stick and stay and help you build the firm.
At a certain point, you must ask, “What does the future of this firm look like?” Then you start looking at what the future of the industry looks like. What’s the future of the client landscape that I’m trying to go after? All those things are things that you plan for, not for just a moment, but looking forward. So even how we recruit is critical. It’s not just going to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), which I strongly recommend, but also searching within the virtual environment because many of the connections that are happening are happening virtually. Either through LinkedIn or other social media, you know someone who I may want to know. Do you know anything about them? Not that my recommendation is golden, but you would take that into consideration.
We all must find ways to constantly expand our own network, because if we only stay within our silo, that’s all we’re going to ever get. We need to find ways to branch out, to be able to say, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.” It’s not just a way I hired somebody. Well done, we’re fulfilling our diversity mandate. That ain’t enough, cause that’s not going to be sustainable.
When I first went on Facebook many years ago, almost every one of my friends’ last names ended in a vowel. I grew up in a white, Italian American community in South Philadelphia. They’re the people I knew. I regularly take time to look at my Facebook and LinkedIn friends and make sure that I’m not just being influenced by one story.
There’s great work and training in this area and something called the affinity bias. There’s a test that you can take to see whether your circle is too close. It asks you to name five people you know and have them go into your house to get something. How many of those people are of the same gender, the same ethnicity, the same age, or the same generation? And you start checking off the boxes. You start saying they’re all kind of like me, their last names end with a vowel, they’re the same age, or gender. It’s not something you consciously do, but you start to think about how you can start to branch out beyond that. It requires a degree of intentionality to start the development. This happens over time, not overnight.
It also requires awareness and choice — taking time to get to know people outside of those who look like you. No matter what that means, it takes a concerted effort. It’s knowing that the more diverse our audiences and our networks are, the less affinity bias we’re going to have.
In a degree of intentionality, sometimes it’s having these conversations or sharing a book that you read and saying, “Oh, let’s have some conversation about that.” There does need to be a more deliberate action around that. Now I’ve got the five friends that I need. I’m good. But that’s only going to reinforce whatever side you’re living in. And some people are comfortable with that. I’m not. I want to make sure that my group is as diverse, equitable and inclusive as I purport myself.
What is this distinction you’ve been honored with, Institute of Diverse Leadership Fellow?
It’s a program through the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), which also was the organization that conferred the diversity, equity and inclusion award on Temple. They are looking for individuals in higher education, particularly those who identify from diverse communities to help share best practices, different research, what’s working, what’s not, and move some things forward. I heard about it from my Dean actually, David Boardman, at Temple. He said, “You need to apply for this.” It’s one of those things when your boss says, you ought to go ahead and you do it. The more I explored, the more I saw how it could impact the work we’re doing, not just at Temple, but across the academic universe.
I didn’t know I would be the first person from Temple or the first person from Philly. Nor did I know I’d be the first African American. I thought it would be interesting, and it has been. They admit about 10 to 15 people a year. We go through as a cohort, and I have yet to meet my other cohort members because of the pandemic. We would be doing everything virtually, but these are connections that will really last us throughout our lifetimes. We can share ideas and best practices and go back to reaching beyond our comfort level because these folks will be from different universities, different ethnicities, and different levels of academic achievement. To me, that provides the best way to be intentional about taking the best of the best and applying it to the work that you’re trying to pursue.
You and I are both members of the Diversity Action Alliance. Could you tell our listeners what that is and why people should get involved?
I got introduced to the Diversity Action Alliance when it was part of PRSA national. I got involved because it didn’t have enough teeth. I saw that it was asking people to sign up, but it needed to go deeper in doing some data analysis as to how many people of color were in PR organizations.
The executive director, Carmella Glover, is someone who I met when I was at one of the PRSA conferences. I could help them go into a much more deliberate direction. When the Diversity Action Alliance moved to the Arthur Page Society, that was a big move. That was before all this racial unrest happened. What I saw that attracted me was that “action” was the organization’s middle name. Being able to do the work that I do, and not let it just be platitudes, is great. Our industry is still overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly certain genders, and people of color are still a marginalized voice. It is a perfect organization to try to change that narrative when the spotlight is so glaring that unless we do some things to change our industry, it may not survive.
The Diversity Action Alliance is a coalition of PR and communications leaders joining forces to accelerate progress in the achievement of meaningful and tangible results in diversity, equity, and inclusion across the profession. The Diversity Action Alliance brings together leaders of the world’s top public relations organizations to pursue an urgent and critically essential goal: to achieve continuous improvement for under-represented groups as measured by recruitment, retention and representation in management.
Gina Rubel: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the co-chairs Patrice Tanaka and Patrick Ford, who have been steadfast in their leadership. To our listeners and transcript readers, if you’re interested in getting involved in something that’s making a real difference, look at the Diversity Action Alliance. If you’re in the legal community, I suggest you take a look at Diversity Lab, which has been looking at the numbers behind diversity and accountability for some time. Their founder, Caren Ulrich Stacy, is a leader in the legal community.
What are one or two books for business or personal inspiration that you would recommend?
There are two books. One is, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, by Beverly Daniel Tatum — an excellent book. Also, Temple grad Ibram X. Kendi wrote How to be an Anti-Racist. And once you read or listen to that book, the whole idea is how to get beyond just diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s how to dismantle racist practices or systemic racism actively. It’s a very good book, and a very personal book, because he talks about how you look at racism just as you would a disease. You must diagnose it, treat it, and you’ve got to stay vigilant that it doesn’t come back. Those are the two books that I would highly recommend.
Do you have any questions for me, David?
What do you hope to accomplish from this podcast?
Gina Rubel: I want people to know that there are resources available and that we can all do things, no matter our complexion. I liked the way you put that — so that we can be more competent. As my friend, I know you as a leader in the community, in a communications agency. Whether you want to call it advertising, marketing, or PR, they’re all mixed today. I want people to know that we not only can be the difference; we need to be the difference.
Prior to the podcast recording, David was asked about the achievements he is most proud of. He said:
Having the distinction of being the only person to have served over his career as both the President of PRSA’s Philadelphia chapter and the Philadelphia Advertising Club.
I’m proud to be the only living African American inducted into the Philadelphia Public Relations Association (PPRA) Hall of Fame and having received the Pinnacle Award from the Ad Club, which serves as the Hall of Fame equivalent for the organization, making me the only African American inducted into both of Philadelphia’s two Halls of Fame.
In 2018, I was recognized for my service to the community in being selected for the Harris Wofford Active Citizenship Award, which is given to one Philadelphian or organization a year by the Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service Committee, which operates the largest single day of service in the country.
Finally, being named a “Champion of Change” by the Obama Administration for my communications work around empowering non-profits to make a difference in the communities they serve was truly a proud accomplishment.
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David W. Brown
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