I recently returned from the 2011 conference for the Public Relations Society of America, which was held in Orlando, Fl. The allure of all things Disney was potent, but I found myself absolutely entranced by the meetings, conversations and networking at this powerhouse conference. Over 3,000 people aligned with the public relations profession—as practitioners, educators or college students—attended this meeting and the energy was palpable.
As is the custom at such meetings, there was a dizzying selection of workshops and special presentations, and I attended as many as I could squeeze into the two-and-a-half days I was there. For me, though, one of the highlights was the keynote presentation by CNN reporter, Soledad O’Brien.
Soledad gave a very impassioned call for communicators to enliven the facts of a story with more narrative storytelling approaches, and implored the PRSA audience to embrace the conference theme of “imagine, create and inspire.”
But, there was more to her story, as she elegantly wove her personal story into the narrative of her speech. Soledad recounted her family heritage as the daughter of a Cuban mother and an Irish father, recounting some stories about how here parents came to form their bond. As she told it, her father approached her mother repeatedly for a date, and was routinely turned down by this proper, Catholic young woman. When she finally relented, they attempted to go out to restaurants that routinely refused to serve them. Estella ended up inviting Edward for a home-cooked meal, and the romance blossomed from there. When this couple decided to marry, interracial unions were still illegal in some states, including they one in which they lived. So they traveled to Washington, D.C. where such marriages were legal, but returned home to resume a life that was for a long time afterwards, was not legally recognized.
History tells us that interracial marriages became universally legal in the United States with the Supreme Court decision in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case – settled the year after Soledad was born. Sharing her family story smartly allowed Soledad to teach by example. She could have railed against the injustices of an unfair law. Instead, she told us stories that in their uniqueness reminded us simultaneously of their connections to us all, through the shared human experiences of love, commitment, and triumphs over adversity.
One can see the influence of Soledad’s personal story over her current work with the In America series. These documentaries explore underrepresented communities through the prism of race and other differences. What Soledad illustrates through her work so brilliantly is how communicators can intelligently tell stories that report on racial identity as a part of what animates people’s lives, decisions and social standing in the United States. This is the future of diversity: complex, compelling, and integral to how we communicate about, and to, each other.
This is the theme of transactional public relations and this blog—that there are relevant stories all around us where we negotiate identity along racial lines. Our challenge is to recognize these stories, to share them, and to empower our communication with these narratives. We discuss a lot about the need for “relationship-building” and “dialogue,” but without a protocol for accounting for race, our exchanges can be, at times, counter-productive. I’ll say more about this later.
Something Soledad did not mention—and in front of an audience of potential publicists—was her newly formed foundation to provide scholarships for girls between the ages of 15 to 21. A project that she and her husband initiated, this effort is raising funds and hopes to solicit applications from girls in 2012, according to an Essence Magazine article. Making opportunities for young women striving to find their identities through education sounds like a grand project, indeed.
What is your story? What opportunities exist out there for more transactional communication?