Filling the Diversity Pipeline: Q-and-A With Michael Lomax of the United Negro College Fund

December 1, 2014

Michael Lomax
Michael Lomax

During his General Session keynote at the 2014 PRSA International Conference on Oct. 12 in Washington D.C., Dr. Michael L. Lomax, Ph.D., president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), discussed the new PRIME Scholars program. This collaboration between UNCF and the PRSA Foundation aims to create a clear conduit for African-Americans to enter the PR profession at all levels through student recruitment and support, institutional capacity building and employer engagement.

Lomax sat down with Tactics to further discuss how to achieve diversity in the PR workforce as well as his role at UNCF.

Why did you decide to get involved with PRSA and the PR profession?

I have a personal interest. My own background beyond the academic level is literature. My family owned a newspaper, and I was a reporter at The Washington Post. I’ve always felt that the PR profession is such an important one for the nation. But it’s also one where we need to see more African-American professionals.

In one sense, the PR profession is telling stories, but it can’t tell good stories unless it has a diverse pipeline of stories to tell. And you don’t tell good stories unless you know the communities that you’re telling the stories about and telling stories to. I just feel that this is an area where more people of color need to understand that there are professional opportunities and that there’s a real importance for them to be at the table.

What are some of the long-term strategies for fixing the lack of diversity in the workforce?

It’s interesting because I’ve had this conversation with a number of very senior executives at major American corporations. Not all of them are looking for PR professionals; some of them are looking in the technology arena or for computer scientists. They’re trying to close the diversity gap, and we’re trying to close the education attainment gap. The two are directly related.

For these businesses to find the professionals that they need, there has to be a pipeline of highly qualified people of diverse backgrounds. And that means that we’re all going to have to invest in education. I try and say to them, you can go out there and compete for the small pool of professionals who are there today, but you can also go out there and help build a bigger pipeline.

You have to have a dual strategy, and that’s the one I think that PRSA and the PRSA Foundation are pursuing. There are going to be companies that will go higher and find the people that they are looking for and compete for that small pool, but then what we’re going to be doing is helping to get talented young people to say, “This is a great professional opportunity, let me learn how to do this work, let me get some experience doing it and let me get a job.”

More Silicon Valley-based technology executives are acknowledging a diversity gap in their workforce. What needs to happen there?

I’ve been in this job at UNCF for 10 years and I’ve been going out to Silicon Valley and knocking on their door and not getting a response. But there’s a response today.

The problem is that they need to help us create that pool of highly qualified professionals. I’ve got a 21-year-old daughter who is a computer science undergraduate at Howard University. She’s killing it and getting a lot of attention, but it took 21 years to produce that! It’s about making sure kids are getting the math and science they need, and in the case of public relations, making sure kids are getting the communications that they need.

We’re fighting big battles right now about what kids should learn in school, and one of the things we’re fighting about is what kind of English they should be learning and how they should learn to communicate. You’re not going to be a communications or PR professional unless you can communicate and persuade and make a great argument, and that’s not something you learn overnight.

Comments

Dwight Bachman says:

Excellent exchange with Dr. Lomax and right on point. Another challenge is that African American students often experience what African Americans experience when they went to the polls to vote; they are denied the opportunity, even when they have a skill set superior to their counterparts in the larger society. If they are not denied the opportunity to work in a PR setting, they are steered elsewhere to position that may provide them work, but not the BEST position to enhance that skill set. We all need to work on this together because some of this behavior may be a result of people enthusiasticallyhiring a minority just to fit their own concern, but putting them in a position that is not in the highly-skilled AFrican American student's best interest.

Jan. 8, 2015

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