Marsha R. Pitts-Phillips on Proactive D&I Efforts
By Amy Jacques
Name: Marsha R. Pitts-Phillips
Title: President & Founder, MRPP & Associates Communications
Location: Twin Cities, Minn.
Highlights: Media Relations team for NFL Sanctioned Super Bowl LVII Gospel Celebration broadcast on BET; Twin Cities Black Journalists; NABJ Media Related Members Task Force; University of Minn. Hubbard School of Journalism & Mass Comms. Distinguished D&I Fellow
Downtime activity: Gardening, walking, listening to old-school R&B
Dinner guests, past or present: My family (husband, children, grandchildren, mom, late dad and siblings), and my “sister circle of friends” from college and present
Favorite books: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama, “Faith in the Fire: Wisdom for Life” by Gardner C. Taylor, “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou
Favorite quote: “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” — Maya Angelou
You wrote a heartfelt post for the Minnesota Chapter blog after George Floyd’s death. Was it hard to share grief while discussing what communicators should do?
Writing the commentary was critical for my personal grief and as a professional. I felt a deep sense of responsibility as an African-American woman, as the diversity and inclusion officer for the Minnesota Chapter of PRSA and as a community member to use my voice and platform to speak to members.
It was important to remind readers of what we are charged with and our responsibility as communicators. Who knew, that as I am [writing this], three weeks after George Floyd’s death, we would be dealing with another police-related fatal shooting of Atlanta native Rayshard Brooks?
Many times, I wrote through tears but believed [it] was an important message. I did not think about how it would be used or where it would be shared.
What are best practices for leadership in having difficult conversations with staff on racism?
If a long-term vision and strategy are in place, that serves as the foundation for difficult conversations. Acknowledgement and openness are also key.
I just listened to a rebroadcast on Minnesota Public Radio of the 2014 Westminster Town Hall Forum that featured the address by famed attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy,” for whom the movie was based — in marking the 100th anniversary of the horrible lynching of three Black men in Duluth, Minn. He spoke about being willing to go into uncomfortable places and spaces. That resonated with me because discussing racism in the workplace — from the C-Suite to line staff — can mean moving into uncomfortable spaces. It means pivoting and working harder and smarter by conducting research that is necessary to produce content that is thoughtful, provocative and empathetic.
What can communicators and leadership teams do to make sure conversations about race and racism lead to sustainable action?
Change starts at the top and with a company or organization’s mission and values.
If diversity, equity and inclusion are incorporated into the mission or values statements, then the actions and steps should mirror what is stated. Additionally, benchmarks and performance metrics must be tied to the president’s review and compensation.
As colleagues, how can we continue to support our fellow employees of color?
Be proactive. Educate yourself. As PR practitioners, our first step is always to research.Don’t wait for a crisis such as what happened with Mr. Floyd. And don’t expect African-Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Indigenous Peoples, Latinx and other persons of color, those in the LGBTQ+ community, or women to do the work for you and provide answers to your every question.
Does your company have affinity groups? Read the employee intranet and explore their activities and attend events.
If you do not quite understand terms such as “systemic racism” or “unconscious bias” and how that applies to workplace or social interactions, then Google them. White papers, universities, think tanks and news articles will provide context and help inform conversations.
As diversity and inclusion officer for the Minnesota Chapter, what advice do you have for other PRSA Chapters for putting together programming around race?
I am the first diversity and inclusion officer for the Chapter, which means that I serve on the board and the executive committee. The Minnesota Chapter has an extraordinary board of directors who have supported me as we explore various ways to partner with other organizations in the community. When I was approached about becoming the diversity and inclusion officer, it was because the board recognized that we wanted to move beyond having an annual program to recognize a month, and instead [wanted to] change the paradigm to having professional development and programming woven into the fabric of who we are as a Chapter.
What advice do you have for the next generation of PR pros and communicators?
Secure a mentor. Remain intellectually curious. Our work is a marathon, not a sprint — although sometimes it may feel like we are running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace! Expand your knowledge and skills of the profession. Develop relationships outside of the profession. Volunteer.