Diversity Action Alliance: Q&A with Josette Thompson
Josette Thompson is the Managing Director and D&I leader at Prosek Partners.
There’s a new administration coming on board; a woman of color has been named Vice President, thus making history, and recent events have shone a brighter light on the amount of work we all need to do around DE&I, and broader systemic social issues. Amid these developments, what do you think the communications industry is uniquely positioned to do to create a tangible impact?
Events that have taken place during the four years of the previous administration, over the past 8 months, and even at the start of this year have shown us just how powerful and influential communications can be whether used for good or bad. If leveraged for good, there’s huge opportunity for comms to fuel monumental change. To that effect, communications leaders can go beyond creating thoughtful narratives and storylines and really put an emphasis on the execution of those narratives – the time is long gone for performative statements. Stakeholders - employees, investors, and others are looking for companies to show real, authentic actions when it comes to DE&I and broader systemic social issues. By truly understanding what stakeholders want, and what they represent and being able to go into the communities where they live and work to facilitate meaningful conversations, communications leaders can help bridge any gaps in understanding between a company and its varied audiences.
In honor of Black History Month, we want to recognize formidable leaders throughout the history of PR and communications. As a person of color yourself, and a recognized leader in your field, which Black leader did you draw inspiration from growing up and in your career and why?
Growing up, I’ve always admired Madam C.J. Walker who was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and social activist known as the first female, self-made millionaire in America for her development of a hair care and cosmetics line for Black women. She was a strong woman who was born into adversity and emerged as a boss.
There are quite a few Black leaders and leaders of color in general that I admire in our industry and look to draw inspiration from. I remember seeing Kimberley Goode speak several years ago at a session for the Page Future Leaders program and her command of the room, warm personality and expertise really drew me in, and as an introvert, made me want to emulate her style. When I first met her, she was at Northwestern Mutual but has since continued her strong career as the Senior Vice President of External Affairs at Blue Cross Blue Shield of California. Others include Rosemary Mercedes, CCO at Univision who has been a great friend and mentor to me over the years, as well as industry veteran Patrice Tanaka, now the owner of Joyful Planet, who shares my love for philanthropy, has an energy that’s infectious, and as a successful entrepreneur and leader in the field for so many years, continues to be a source of inspiration with her authentic style.
What advice do you have for diverse communications professionals on how they can make a difference during this historic time?
I’d say find your voice if you haven’t already done so, and make sure it’s heard in whichever way you feel the most comfortable. The stress of living during these times of turmoil, where the issues of race and social justice are so in your face (because they’ve always existed), can definitely take a toll on communicators of color, but if you have a seat at the table, you can help drive impact at your organizations. I recently co-wrote a blog post with a colleague that touches on this as well.
We can’t simply turn off the news or choose not to engage, because being informed and providing sound counsel is how we make our living. But I’ve found by speaking passionately, and being candid about my experiences (some resonate and some may fall flat), and being okay with the fact that even if I can’t fully change a client’s mind on an approach, I’ve voiced a smart and thoughtful opinion makes a difference.
What can Black communications professionals in leadership roles do to enhance representation in the industry?
Reach back. It’s so important to reach back and pull others up when you’re in a position of leadership or power. Be a sponsor for young talent, make sure they’re getting opportunities to grow and shine and give them that inside view that can help them navigate their careers in a smart way. I’m always very candid with more junior colleagues of color who have asked for my advice. I share what has worked for me and landmines to avoid that can help them grow as strong communicators and counselors and hopefully gives them the tools they need to thrive in the industry. I’ve always said that while I’ve had some great role models to look up to growing up in PR, it wasn’t until I became more senior that I was exposed to role models of color in the field who could sometimes more directly understand certain issues that one might come across as a diverse professional in the industry. While I believe it’s important to have a diverse mix of mentors and sponsors, for me, having that understanding and recognition from others who look like me was really powerful.
Can you share an example of how you have personally helped someone with a diverse background find and make the most of the right opportunities?
I’ve tried my best to really be honest about my challenges and triumphs in order to help other diverse professionals. For example, I have encouraged one of my colleagues to really push out of his comfort zone to be more vocal whether that’s internally at the firm or externally in the industry. He has great insights and is super smart, but like me when I was at his stage in my career, can sometimes lack confidence, especially when you don’t see others that look like you in the room. I always say that you can’t be what you can’t see (though there can be exceptions to the rule) and having access is so important, so even though we have a great relationship and I’ve been able to provide guidance and support to him on a variety of things, I’ve also pushed him to be more involved in the industry so he can have exposure to other Black men (and women) who are simply killing it in communications. And now, I watch with admiration as he sits on panels and so eloquently shares his perspective. It’s a small thing, but giving him access to some of the networks and spaces where I have some exposure will undoubtedly lead to even more opportunities in the future.
This Q&A was originally published by the Diversity Action Alliance on February 17, 2021, and can be read here.