Black History Month: Black Communications Trailblazers and the Importance of Representation
Journalism Public Relations

Black History Month: Black Communications Trailblazers and the Importance of Representation

By Gerald Nelson

While Black history is not confined to only February, it is important to recognize and commemorate the historical contributions of African Americans who helped shape the United States during Black History Month. Historically, African Americans were either underrepresented, misrepresented, or not represented at all in the workforce, media, or, PR and communications.

My mom instilled in me that I could achieve anything I set my mind to with discipline, resilience, and a good education. While I believed this, another reinforcement was seeing people who looked like me in the media, whether an ad on a billboard or commercial, actors in television and film, or the workforce. Studies have shown how representation can significantly impact a child’s aspirations and self-esteem. We can apply this to the Public Relations field, where 14.4% of the U.S. population self-identifies as Black, yet only make up 11.2% of Advertising/PR roles and 10.9% of professional business services roles. When African Americans are not represented appropriately, this can lead to their perspective and experiences being devalued and overlooked by a marketing campaign or outlet, which leads to a significant loss of revenue.

So, as the country celebrates Black History Month, I wanted to tell the stories of a few Black communication and PR pioneers who broke down barriers and made significant strides in the field I hope that these stories will inspire others like me to follow careers in media, advertising and PR.

Black Public Relations Pioneers

Joseph Varney Baker 

Headshot of Joseph Varney Baker

Photo: The Museum of Public Relations

According to The Museum of Public Relations, Baker, is believed to be the first Black owner of a PR firm in the U.S. He was born on August 20, 1908, in Abbeville, South Carolina. He grew up and developed his skills here in Philadelphia, where he studied journalism at Temple University and started out as a reporter, then editor, at the Philadelphia Tribune. He then became the first African American to write for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He eventually became a PR consultant for the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1934, at age 26, he founded his PR agency, Joseph V. Baker and Associates, in New York. His firm did public relations, marketing, and advertising for Black audiences. Varney and his associates helped identify prominent Black organizations and their leaders, helped and encouraged corporations to hire Blacks, and developed marketing surveys to study Black consumers’ habits and preferences. He became the first Black president of the Philadelphia Public Relations Society of America (PPRSA) in 1958. Some of his clients included Chrysler, DuPont, U.S Steel, and NBC. He died on May 7, 1993.

Inez Yeargan Kaiser

Headshot of Inez Kaiser

Photo: WSJ/Kaiser Family

Like Baker, Kaiser was an innovator. Born on April 22, 1918, in Kansas City, Missouri, she was the first Black woman to own a PR agency in the U.S. She graduated from Pittsburg State Teachers College of Kansas and earned a bachelor’s degree. Later in life, she earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. After college, she would become a teacher for 26 years. On the side, she was writing popular columns in African American newspapers nationwide. It wasn’t until she decided to change careers at the recommendation of an African American newspaper editor who suggested she go into PR. In 1957, she founded Inez Kaiser and Associates, Inc. Her first major account was 7-Up, and from there, she had other clients such as Sterling Drug, Sears & Roebuck, and Lever Brothers. She was the first African American to join PRSA. She died on July 31, 2016.

Jesse J. Lewis

Headshot of Jesse J. Lewis

Photo: The Museum of Public Relations

Lewis was born on January 3, 1925, in Northport, Alabama. He dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Army, but after returning from World War II, he earned his diploma. He enrolled at Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama. He later earned a master’s degree from Troy State and a doctorate from Atlanta University. As a college student, Lewis started a small marketing firm, utilizing students to get companies to advertise products on campus and in print. In 1954, Lewis founded Jesse J. Lewis and Associates, pushing corporations to focus on the African American market and the potential revenue. In 1955, his agency worked with Coca-Cola to launch their first marketing campaign focusing on Black consumers.

Patricia Tobin

Headshot of Patricia Tobin

Photo: The Museum of Public Relations

Tobin was born on February 28, 1943, in White Plains, New York. Like Baker, Tobin grew up and attended school in Philadelphia, earning an associate’s degree from Charles Morris Price School of Journalism. In 1977, she moved to Los Angeles to work for local news station KCBS-TV. Because of the lack of opportunities in public relations for African Americans at the time, she left her job to start Tobin and Associates in 1983. Through her networking and entrepreneurial drive in LA, she secured big clients such as Toyota Motor Corporation, Spike Lee, Wells Fargo, and Walt Disney Feature Animation. She died of colon cancer in 2008. After her passing, The LA Times quoted Representative Maxine Water, “She’s a pioneer who opened up opportunities for African Americans to take on major corporate accounts in ways that had not been done before.”

While progress has been made in the PR field which was largely segregated for many years, more work remains. PR is important because it is an industry essential to the prosperity of businesses and organizations, and it helps build connections through different forms of communication. I highlighted a few pioneers to not only commemorate their trailblazing efforts but to remind us of the positive impact of inclusive marketing and PR. Their accomplishments and determination have allowed people like me to build on their groundwork.

Source: The Museum of Public Relations –

Gerald Nelson

Gerald Nelson

In his role as Content Producer, Gerald works with the team developing content for multiple client accounts. With experience in journalism and communications, Gerald has a passion for storytelling and giving insight and life to a story.