Rachel Noerdlinger is a Managing Director at Mercury, a leading national, bipartisan strategy firm that she joined in January 2015. Most recently she was the Chief of Staff for New York City’s First Lady, Chirlane McCray. In 2008, she was featured in Essence Magazine as one of the top 10 females in the country making strides in her respective field. Noerdlinger has led successful public relations campaigns around key social justice issues and has brought visibility for clients on such issues as education, employment, women’s equality, voter education, criminal justice and much more. education, employment, women’s equality, voter education, and criminal justice. Originally appeared in Fall 2016.
Not long ago I was in a meeting with a company worth millions. In the middle of a crisis management issue, the company looked to me for my perspective as a young black woman who was in touch with an audience the company could not reach. The crisis involved customers who were predominantly people of color. As I gazed across the table at the high-level, white, male executives, I thought to myself that the solution was not as complex as the company leaders were making it out to be.
The problem was that the business was operating on an antiquated model that didn’t factor in one of the most important ideologies in modern day communication strategy: to authentically survive, a company needs to diversify. Diversity impacts a company’s innovation and the only way this company could continue to out-perform and drive market growth was to embrace the diversity of its consumers. Yet, the leadership had nothing in common with their users. The marketplace had changed, but the marketers had not. So, I helped this company manage its crisis, but the most important take-away from that meeting was the imperative of diversity.
In the aforementioned meeting with the white male executives, they had come to me to help them understand their market base and solve a problem that had warranted news coverage but my hypothesis after the meeting is one that has been a reoccurring theme with all of my clients no matter who they are. Diversity in the marketplace is no different than diversity in our everyday cultural landscape and you have to be able to recognize the commonalities and differences among people that make up society in order to succeed. Additionally, diversity extends beyond just the consumers; within our own work we must incorporate the diversifying forms of media in order to stay afloat in today’s culture. The world is engrossed in scenarios where people are at war simply because they won’t look beyond differences to recognize commonalities. Media must work to recognize diversified platforms to truly appeal to the widest base.
A Lack of Diversity Can Spawn Political Apathy
The standards involved in encompassing diversity, cultural or technological, must be practiced in government to maintain voter confidence. However, this can prove quite the challenge. With so many varying styles of leadership across the world, a lack of diversity can spawn political apathy. And while it is necessary to remain diverse, it is equally as important to keep up with new media and technology. These two prongs — diversity and media — hold strong in the world of communications.
In the United States, the 2016 political election comes down to two presidential nominees, both of whom should seek to attract the most varied body of voters. Voter turnout will be important in this presidential contest and diversity will be the key for nominees’ success.
These presidential candidates not only need to seek out diversity in votes, but they should use it as a tool in their campaigns. A diverse use of messages spanning various media platforms is key to attracting voters to the polls. Both nominees are engaging with each other regularly on social media — more so than in any previous election. This is thanks to the evolution of today’s media, where it is faster to send out a tweet than it is to print a press release in the a newspaper or book an appearance on television. Not only is this method of social media accepted for its convenience, it is also utilized for its diverse audience.
Whether or not the new world of media is perceived as an improvement to society or a detriment, the reality is that it’s here to stay and everyone else must learn to adapt and work with it. The media and today’s youth are not going to put down their phones or say no to the latest trends because it will undermine capitalism or prove to be inefficient for the future markets. Instead, the markets must learn to adjust to the media.
The Growing Power of the International Marketplace Means an Increased Need for Diversity in Public Relations
The growing power of the national and international marketplace means there is an increased need for diversity inside the world of public relations and public affairs, nationally and internationally. It is beyond time to fill the industry with people who know and can speak to communities that are no longer minorities, including African Americans, Hispanics and Asians. Furthermore, the industry of public relations needs to be open to varying new mediums to transmit the news in order to stay up to date on trends.
In the 23 years I have been working in communications, the field has undergone an amazing transformation. With the advent of social media, the industry has begun to crack away at powerful mediums, like newspapers and television. Along with the changing user demographics in communications, the world itself has undergone a massive shift in becoming more diverse. Reaching the public now requires communications experts to change their approach to appeal to more people by embracing this realization.
I had no theoretical public relations background, and was in fact pursuing a graduate degree in education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, when I heard about an internship at The Terrie Williams Agency for public relations. Almost immediately, my time at one of the top public relations (PR) firms in the United States gave me the confidence to leave graduate school and pursue communications. While I had no legitimate PR experience, I had traveled the world as a child with my family and my exposure to a variety of cultures was a good guide for looking at public relations.
Flash forward to today. I am working at Mercury, a global public affairs firm with 16 offices in the United States, as well as offices in London and Mexico City. Mercury is a high-stakes public strategy firm. We provide results for the world’s most successful companies, leading advocacy groups, governments, political parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and prominent public and political figures. It is bipartisan and has staff from various religious denominations and nationalities. We are successful because we realize that diversity is the key to success and limited thinking in communications is a recipe for disaster. At this firm, I have thought long and hard about how we need to change communications to reflect the new reality where groups that were once considered minorities are now the majority. On an international level, we must learn to communicate with people whose religions and beliefs are as varied in origin as they are in habits and customs.
Traditional Media Still Exists
This is not to say the traditional mediums of media are dead. There is a recent case in Gambia (where I formerly taught English in Banjul as part of the international program Teachers for Africa) where a woman named Fanta Darboe Jawara, a US citizen, had returned to her homeland for a family reunion in April this year. She was caught in a sweep of arrests at a government protest in Banjul as a bystander and she remains in prison to this day. There were several efforts launched by her family in the United States to get her released and a colleague of mine was asked to assist with the case by former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson, who now runs a foundation that works to free political prisoners. Mercury secured an article in the Washington Post. We focused our efforts on getting Fanta freed from the Gambian jail. We got high level national and international thought leaders to tweet about the case so we could further our reach. We hope that publicizing her plight and igniting an international outcry will lead to Fanta’s release.
Use of Media Activism
Media activism is also a relevant practice that is influencing government around the world. One of my clients, Rev. Al Sharpton, is an expert at using the media to influence legislation and popular culture. Sharpton, a humanitarian minister, civil rights activist, and the head of National Action Network, and I began working together when I was at the Terrie Williams Agency, and we remain a team to this day through my work at Mercury. There are groups around the continent, including National Action Network, that use mass protests and demonstrations to influence governance. Sharpton refers to this highly effective strategy as turning demonstration into legislation. Simply put, you have to dramatize your ideas to get the attention of the news media, politicians, and popular culture.
When thinking about my career, one event in particular stands out in my mind: a mass silent march down Fifth Avenue in New York City. On Father’s Day in 2012, I worked to rally hundreds of individuals to protest the New York police department’s stop and frisk policy, which singled out people of color and created tension between these groups and the police. The Public advocate at the time and now Mayor Bill de Blasio marched with us and helped lead our efforts, which led to the passing of legislation that banned the practice.
Recently, more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers staged a day-long sit-in on the floor of Congress over the epdemic of gun violence in America. The Senate had voted down gun control proposals, triggering a 48-hour news cycle specifically devoted to this issue. It was the first time that news media turned entirely to social media to get their news from Periscope on Twitter and Facebook Live since C-SPAN television was shut down on the house floor. This exemplified the shift towards a social media news cycle.
The Future of Public Relations
The future will encompass new types of public relations involving virtual and augmented reality. Some companies believe this is the platform of the future and are investing billions into entities that build virtual reality versions of apps that allow users to share their environments with their friends. Mercury has even hired a specialist who believes virtual reality is the wave of the future — it is fully immersive and high tech.
The world is quickly dividing into two ways of thinking. There are the people who understand that storytelling is about to fundamentally change because of virtual reality and then there are the people who have yet to grasp the evolving concept. Facebook and YouTube are rapidly expanding their 360 degree video library and making it easier for users to upload their own. 360 degree videos are the most popular content for virtual reality, according to Facebook’s Oculus. Any modern smartphone can be turned into a virtual reality or augmented reality device. Price point is not a major consideration in this category like it was for the 3DTV, whose time never came. Storytellers should be very excited. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine how we tell stories, share information, and connect with each other.
All in all, we are at a turning point in the world of communications and messaging and those that want to thrive need to get with the times and embrace modernization or get left behind. Diversity is the key to success by any measure and this means not just embracing cultural diversity but technological diversity. And technology companies better get more diverse instead of being male and white particularly in leadership positions. Companies must strive to make diversity a priority and a reality and companies and workplaces must become more integrated.
The United States is winding down on a political administration that witnessed the first black president and we are on the verge of having the first female president, thus inclusion and fairness must be present in the economy and within the businesses that operate nationally and internationally. Just like the market has to adjust to the new wave of social media, businesses have to adjust to the new world of faces.
One of America’s great civil rights heroes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sought a more perfect union and the virtue of equality in our everyday lives. As we shift to a more technologically influenced society, let us remember Dr. King’s words that people are more important than things. He once said: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives, and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”