The meeting was more than 25 years ago, yet I remember it like it was yesterday. It was in the lavish, corporate board room of one of the then three, big networks near Times Square in New York. I was excited about the possibilities and positive outcomes that could result from our scheduled discussions with TV executives to change things and portray people of color more accurately.
But then, the meeting happened.
I was there with two colleagues from Washington, D.C. to present a strategic public relations and marketing plan, initiated by the national Hispanic group, La Raza (now Unidos), to appeal to the television networks to start reflecting minorities in their programs as we were in real life: everyday, law-abiding, hard-working professional Americans. At the time, if you saw a character that was Latino, African-American or Asian-American on TV, the vast majority of time they were portrayed as a drug dealer, a housekeeper, or a cook in the kitchen. These outrageous stereotypes had been prevalent since the advent of TV, misrepresenting us, and perpetuating negative beliefs about our communities.
Tasked with the challenge of creating and executing a public relations campaign to promote who Latinos really are, I was part of a team that developed a strategic plan to present the real face of the Hispanic community to citizens and businesses using facts and figures. We prepared a deck that showed hard data and research that Latinos were the most-brand conscious and brand loyal market of any ethnic group in the U.S. We included facts from the U.S. Department of Defense that documented Latinos served in the Military at the highest percent rate of any population in America and figures from the Census Bureau that detailed Hispanic-Americans had youngest media age as well as the lowest divorce rates in the country, and consequently, birthrates were high and growing faster than any other group. We even provided numbers on the increasing disposable income and disproportionately higher rate of new businesses being opened and operated by Latinos. In brief, the market they were ignoring and insulting, were the “All-Americans” that networks crave and their advertisers covet.
It was obvious they didn’t know these facts. It was also logical that an easy way to change the misconceptions was to start with an simple fix: to portray Latinos correctly on broadcast TV, which reaches millions and shapes perceptions broadly. We thought the networks would agree, given the business information we gathered, to start appealing to this growing market and cater to our desire to see ourselves accurately reflected on TV. But what unfolded during the course of our meetings with ABC, NBC and CBS was pure ignorance, arrogance and resistance.
At the first meeting, one executive said their focus group research showed America didn’t want to see and wouldn’t understand a show about “different” people. I asked, “What was the ethnic makeup of that focus group and where was it conducted? He refused to answer, saying their research has always worked.
At the next meeting, another network exec said it was inconceivable that they could produce an ethnic show because no one wants to see the majority characters from one race. I pushed back and said, Hispanics watch shows that are all-White. There was silence. Then he said, “But that’s normal. What I mean is most won’t watch a show about an Hispanic family because they don’t understand who they are or what they do.” I told him, “That’s the point. We are all Americans. We work and live like all of you.”
Going for the low-hanging fruit, I said, “We’re not here to ask for one show about Hispanics. What we’re asking is for you to start integrating and including characters in your current shows who are Latinos.” One of the network men said, “But we don’t have Hispanic writers. We wouldn’t know how they speak or what their background story would be.” Ignoring the insult about vocabulary and controlling my desire to jump up and say, “Well you need to have more diverse writers!” I countered with, “You don’t have to know anything else. All you have to do is take a current character already planned but not cast, and just change their name from John to Juan or Mary to Maria. They would still have the same dialogue and role because Latinos today are just like everyone else. We are doctors and nurses. We’re lawyers and teachers. We’re peace officers and scientists.” They still didn’t get it.
Sadly, the third network meeting was a rerun of the first two. From those failed meetings that frustrating and infuriating day came another idea. If the networks refused to begin portraying characters of color in a positive light and didn’t do anything more on their own, then we would take a different tack to make the point glaringly obvious to the folks in New York and Hollywood.
We regrouped and decided to create and host our own annual Awards program, the ALMAs, which stands for the American Latino Media & Arts award. It would be an award to highlight the best American Latino contributions to music, television, and film that promoted fair and accurate portrayals of Latinos. To further prove that there was a void of such roles, we purposely left some key award categories, like “Best Lead Actor” without any nominations that first year.
A quarter of a century later, the award show goes on and the categories are full now. However, much work to change corporate attitudes toward Latinos and all underrepresented communities remains even today. In our own field of public relations, too many conglomerates think simply slapping a Spanish name on a marketing team will serve them in reaching today’s LatinX market. Nothing could be further from the truth.
That’s why I am proud to be one of the six principals who founded The Change Agencies, the first and only national network of independently owned public relations firms focused on inclusive marketing to multicultural and LGBTQ communities. We each have a proven track record of understanding our client and community needs. We have established relationships with national leaders and organizations. We know the importance of communicating with target audiences in a respectful manner.
Businesses shouldn’t claim to support Diversity and Inclusion because they have to, they should embrace it because it’s smart, sound business. If a company does not become diverse, it cannot cater and market to a diverse population. The face of America has changed, and so too should companies.
The world is changing, and companies need to change with it, or they will be left behind. If they cling to the past and the status quo, they will lose market share and audience just like the networks have in the decades since those meetings, and that’s the true bottom line.
Those network meetings in Manhattan started a new chapter for me where I re-dedicated my life and professional career to changing things for the better for myself, my community and my country. The ignorance and inertia I encountered in those boardrooms motivated me to become more active in advocating change. This is why I am proud to be one of The Change Agencies working to change business for the better.