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Making Diversity in PR a Reality: Ellen Walthour, Executive Director of the BrandLab

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We’ve posted a few times on diversity in PR in recent weeks, and so far the most interesting conversation we had on the topic was with Ellen Walthour, executive director of Twin Cities-based project the BrandLab.

Could you give us a little history of the BrandLab?

We’re pretty young; we started in 2007 and launched as a 501(c) in 2008, so we’re a standard nonprofit. In 2009 we really began tracking students. We have kids graduating from college this spring who went through the program, and while those numbers are small, they’re going to grow.

Each year we’ve grown in terms of both participants and partners. PR firms are also involved, particularly PadillaCRT and Weber Shandwick.

How do you define your goal as an organization?

What we’ve tried to do is not just get one or two different agencies together to create a solution.

We’ve inspired more than 30 local agencies and corporate marketing departments (General Mills, 3M, Target, etc.) to step up and contribute financially to help young people who are creative and may have never heard of a career in public relations or account management or brand strategy.

In ad land, there are lots of awards for “best multicultural campaign” and other things that people have already produced, but we’re trying to create a pipeline. Over the past two summers we’ve had 65 interns go through the program, and the agencies that have agreed to take an intern really want to hire.

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[Pic via Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune]

Do you think a lack of awareness lies at the root of the problem?

When you talk to people in the business, there’s always a crazy story about how they got into it. Some of our research shows that 80% of high school students can’t name jobs in the industry, so we visit kids in the classroom in order to expose them to careers in communications. But there’s also a huge opportunity gap, and what we’re trying to do is match talent to local opportunities.

We start in high school classrooms and partner with teachers, and we come in and teach business, marketing or graphic design, but we don’t stop with learning—we give access. We also plan events where industry professionals can network with our students.

Can you elaborate on some of those events? 

I’m proud to say that our board has taken on what we call ‘fearless conversation’. Last year we organized a team of marketers who lead on the client side: Carla Vernon from General Mills, who directs the Yoplait brand; Alfredo Martel, who is on our board and also works as SVP at Caribou Coffee; and Mike Fernandez, who does PR for Cargill. They spoke to more than 200 attendees about race and age in advertising.

This year’s event will happen in Minneapolis on Thursday, April 17.

What did you think of Mike Paul’s points regarding his hunger strike protest?

Mr. Paul is not alone. One of the things I read in his statement expressed anger over the fact that there are people of color in the industry who haven’t been able to move up.

I know that Michael Lescarbeau, CEO of Carmichael Lynch, has had success in diverse hiring practices even in senior roles. But I run a youth program, so that question is one that I’m answering informally in my mind all the time while I try to create a quality program that will serve both the needs of the students and the needs of the industry.

Will this conversation have a positive effect on the industry as a whole?  

Yes. I think that Paul’s story got attention, and when you get people’s attention in that way it does inspire them to look in the mirror and ask, ‘What am I doing, and how can I be part of the solution?’

For example: maybe I’m an HR director and realize that I’ve been networking in the same old circles. Maybe I need to talk to the schools of communication and ask about bright, upcoming talent.

Who needs to take direct action?

We all do. What’s really exciting to me about BrandLab is that we have 20 agency CEOs who’ve written checks and signed their names because they believe in what we’re doing. Not only that, they’re taking on interns and mentoring.

I’ve done this since 2009, and while participants have their P&L and other things they have to focus on, they’ve decided to volunteer their time and to think deeply about why this needle still won’t move in 2014.

What do we think of the BrandLab? Have we witnessed or participated in similar initiatives?

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