From Brittney’s epic Pepsi dance break to Orbit’s legendary “lint licker” vs “cootie queen” feud, nothing sparks nostalgia like a good throwback commercial. The household brands we grew up with, and the advertisements that enticed us to buy them are like wallpaper stuck on the periphery of our minds.
Commercials play a significant role in influencing our standards of beauty, shaping our self-perceptions, and cultivating our cravings. Historically, the business leaders calling the shots behind the images that flood our screens and adorn city billboards have been white and male. As a result, Eurocentrism has long been the standard in mainstream ad media, often to the exclusion of people of color. That’s been slow to change.
The makeup of the PR industry is 87.9% white, 8.3% African American, 5.7% Hispanic American, and 2.6% Asian American, according to a 2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Last year, Lisa Osborne Ross broke the industry’s color line, becoming the first Black person ever to lead a major public relations firm.
In 2021, Ross was named US CEO at Edelman. Here’s why that matters: As the top decision maker at the largest and most powerful PR agency in the world, she has the power to help shape the America of tomorrow—maybe the world.
“At Edelman, we hold a seat at the table with the largest brands and organizations in the world and it’s our responsibility to use that access, that influence, that trust to create work that not only achieves the business goals of our clients but also advances society,” she told ESSENCE.
I caught up with Ross to discuss why representation in ad media matters, why it’s important to sit in the power seat, and how Edelman is moving the needle forward for diversity, equity, and inclusion across the PR industry.
Why representation matters in PR.
Many prominent companies have found themselves in hot water after releasing culturally insensitive ad campaigns. Lest we forget H&Ms “Coolest Monkey In The Jungle,” Nivea’s “White Is Purity” campaign, or the time Pepsi replicated the real-life imagery of a Black woman facing armed officers at a Baton Rouge protest to depict Kendall Jenner conquering structural racism with a can of soda.
Given the lack of diversity in PR, it’s no wonder these abysmal campaigns made it past the boardroom. But, as major companies reel from costly hand slappings over culturally irresponsible antics, Ross says the implications of such reckless imagery are deeper than just bad optics. “It’s inappropriate, it’s stupid, it doesn’t make you feel good, and it’s also dangerous,” she said.
In the US, 43% of American citizens are people of color. Ross says the images brands push across our timelines and televisions should mirror that. “Communications, advertising, PR, marketing – it’s all about how brands show up in the world. So when the world looks like it does, those campaigns and narratives and efforts have to be reflective of those around us,” she said.
At Edelman, Ross says, this representative approach is applied to every brand the firm touches. “We pride ourselves on giving guidance rooted in culture based on direct feedback from communities,” she said. The implications of this shift are enormous. As the largest PR firm on the globe, where Edelman goes, the industry follows.
The importance of sitting in the power seat.
Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Kanye West, and any number of contemporary supervillain-esque characters, have so corrupted the concept of power that those who pursue it are often perceived as inherently Machiavellian. But Ross has no qualms about owning her quest for the power seat.
From her early career as a consultant with PR and marketing agency, FleishmanHillard to her stint as Director of Communications for the Clinton Administration to her five-year ascent at Edelman that ushered her into the chief executive seat—every step of Ross’s ascension up the corporate ladder has been intentional.
Her pursuit of power, she says, was sparked during her sophomore year at Marquette University. “In this [Black studies] class, we were talking about discrimination, and I raised my hand so naively and said, ‘I have a lot of Black friends who don’t like white people. What does that mean?’ The professor said, ‘It means nothing. Your Black friends are not the power system in this country. When white people don’t like you, they can prevent you from getting a loan to buy a house or a car. When white people don’t like you, they can prevent you from getting a job or getting into the school of your choice. It’s about where the power sits,’” she recalls.
That lesson would shape the trajectory of her career. “It made me say early on—I will have that influence. I will have that power because I won’t allow that to happen to me, and I won’t allow it to happen to other people,” she said.
Ross says her parents, both HBCU grads, drilled into her and her two older brothers, the necessity of education. Her mom, Thelma Little Osborne, completed undergraduate studies at West Virginia State University. Her father, Daniel H. Osborne, a former Montford Point Marine, went to Xavier College before getting his PharmD from Howard University. Ross says they modeled intellectual curiosity in their home, and worked to secure the best possible education for their children. “I am so keenly aware of my parents’ struggle and how they got to this place,” she said.
Equally important, Ross says, is what they didn’t teach. “I am aware that so many Black parents say to their children, ‘it’s going to be hard for you. You’re not going to be wanted, and you’re going to have to be twice as good to get half as much.’ My parents never said that. Instead, they were like, ‘Girl walk into that room, do what you have to do, and keep it moving,’” she said. “I was unencumbered. That was powerful for me.”
In the span of her career, Ross had the unique opportunity to witness some of the world’s most influential movement makers wield their power for good in real-time—Black women like former US Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman. “I worked for Alexis Herman when I was at the [US] labor department, and I would sit in a meeting with Alexis and see her spin this magic that would end strikes, that would move the President in a direction that he needed to go in,” she said.
In the early years of her career she observed the gentle manner in which Rosa Parks inspired people to action. “Early in my career, I spent 72 hours with Rosa Parks. I was at Fleishman at the time, and a Black sculptor named Artis Lane had done this beautiful sculpture of Rosa Parks. It was going to be in the Smithsonian sculpture garden, and we were representing the Smithsonian,” she recalls. “I was tasked with traveling with Rosa Parks for the 72 hours she was going to be in Washington. What I learned just riding with her was so monumental. And she wasn’t seeking to teach me, but every time she opened her mouth, I learned, and I held on to it,” she recalls.
Ross says being in a power position is not an end unto itself but a means of influencing progress. For her, doing good and being profitable are not mutually exclusive. “I firmly believe that when you are guided by purpose, profitability follows,” she said.
Shifting the culture on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the PR industry.
Black women are leaving corporate America in droves, citing discrimination, microaggressions, and lack of advocacy. While Ross has a deep appreciation for the very real and pressing challenges facing Black women executives across industries, at Edelman she has the rare benefit of having a powerful and supportive advocate in the C-suite.
Richard Edelman, the global CEO of the firm, recognized Ross’ potential early on.“Richard, I think, will say that he knew when he hired me he was going to make me CEO,” Ross said.
Before moving into the chief executive position at Edelman, Ross served as COO of the firm at the onset of the pandemic. She was in the role during the racial awakening sparked by the murder of George Floyd, and recalls the toll those events took on her as a Black woman and leader.
“I took on a much more public role in terms of talking about systemic racism, plus Edelman was doing research that we were releasing on systemic racism and what was the responsibility of brands and corporations to address it,” she said. “All the while, I’m traumatized. I’m so busy taking care of my family. I’m so busy taking care of my company and so busy taking care of my leadership. I was struggling. I have three black brothers, I have uncles, and I’m a mother. So when I think about that man [George Floyd] crying for his mother, I had to reset,” she said.
Ross recalls conversing with Richard about the pressures she was feeling at the time. “I remember telling him, ‘I can’t be everything to everybody.’ And Richard, because he is one of the most wonderful people I have ever worked with, said, ‘I hear you, and you have to take care of yourself, but the world needs your voice right now. So, do what you need to to get strong, but I can’t let you sit back because the agency needs you, the industry needs you. The world needs you,’”
It is because of that kind of advocacy that Ross felt empowered to accept the promotion to US CEO, knowing that she would be supported at the highest level of the organization.
In her less than two-year tenure as US CEO, Ross has led the firm in taking significant leaps toward diversity, equity, and inclusion. “More than 30% of our workforce is racially diverse, or as I prefer to say, represented by emerging majorities. We were pleased to reach that target a year early in September 2021, and I am also proud to say that my executive leadership team is over 50% people of color,” she said. “We understand that to best serve our clients and communities. Our company must reflect the world around us, which is why we are continuing our efforts to ensure our workforce mirrors the population data revealed by the latest U.S. Census report.”
Edelman has also long engaged with HBCUs through campus recruitment, special events, and leading seminars inside the classroom. In addition, the firm hosts a virtual summit for HBCU faculty and staff, creating a forum for professional development, curriculum development, networking, and more.
With great power comes great responsibility and Ross takes neither lightly. She understands the power of her presence and is committed to wielding it for good.