Black Publicists Talk Battling Restrictions, Championing Inclusivity in Hollywood: "We Can Tell a Variety of Stories"

Illustration by Anuj Shrestha
Illustration by Anuj Shrestha

Illustration by Anuj Shrestha

Black publicists, who struggle with being limited to Black projects — often as the only people of color in the room — are working to break down barriers: "A lot of folks like to put us in boxes."

Despite having more than 25 years of publicity and marketing experience, BazanPR founder Jackie Bazan still finds it challenging to encounter people in the entertainment industry who "understand that the color of my skin does not define my capability in this space."

Bazan’s firm has worked on Black Panther, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, Adam Shankman’s Hairspray and the upcoming Concrete Cowboy starring Idris Elba. But she recalls becoming a consultant for Lionsgate’s Midway, a war epic released in November whose cast was almost entirely white, only after months of "convincing why we were the best people for that job."

It was the first time the education division of the publicist’s company represented a title not targeted to African Americans. "It shouldn’t be, 'Oh, Jackie’s good to do this campaign, because there’s Black people in [the movie].' It should be, 'However you need to target and reach this demographic, I am one of those contenders.'"

For Black publicists, working in Hollywood means fighting a variety of battles — from making sure they are not limited to working solely on Black projects, to getting a seat at the table at agencies and studios, to increasing their representation in organizations like the Television Academy and AMPAS. "If you’re only restricting us to projects targeted to African Americans, how can we possibly thrive? " says SYE Publicity’s Sonya Ede-Williams. "How can we earn the same kind of revenue that our colleagues receive?"

Adds Ascend Public Relations Group’s Erica Tucker, a rep for Kendrick Sampson and Yara Shahidi: "A lot of folks like to put us in boxes, like we can only represent Black people, and that’s simply not true. I experience that all the time, like [at] get-to-know-you lunches with agents and managers, and they sometimes think, ‘Well, you just represent Black talent.'" She emphasizes, "We can tell a variety of stories."

Yvette Noel-Schure, whose clients include Beyoncé and Chloe x Halle, says that even Black talent can prove out of reach: "It starts with managers and agents who convince young brown and Black talent that to succeed, they must have people who don’t look like them opening doors." She adds, "That is an old way of thinking."

The push to change that narrative has grown more intense as a nationwide reckoning on race, after George Floyd’s killing by police, has prompted Hollywood to look at its own racism and make pledges to improve diversity.

Bazan — with Ede-Williams and Bron Studios’ Cassandra Butcher — has put together a list of 96 publicists of color working in film and TV to "provide an open door" for agencies and studios looking to hire, says Ede-Williams. (According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 report, only 9.9 percent of PR specialists are Black.) Butcher says the list is available to "guilds, unions, the Academy and anyone who wants to be a part of change."

For those in need of a database that also includes managers and agents, entertainment lawyer Jaia Thomas created Diverse Representation in 2018. "I was finding that for my Black clients, I was usually the only Black person on their team," she says.

Having served as a mentor to many in the industry, Noel-Schure became the inspiration behind My Publicist Is Black, a group of Black PR reps and execs — including Vanessa Anderson, who represents Issa Rae — who provide advice to those navigating the industry. (The name stems from a phrase on a jacket that Ernest Dukes, now a member, wore to a Beyoncé concert before meeting Noel-Schure: "Beyoncé’s Publicist Is Black" — a reminder that if one of the world’s biggest entertainers works with a Black rep, so could others.) The organization has held events that have involved the sharing of challenges — a process that Tucker, also a member, describes as therapy: "When you’re a publicist, you think that your experience is so singular,” she says of frequently being excluded from red carpets, with "people who are running the list looking at you like you don’t belong there."

Beyond increasing hiring opportunities and support, Latashia DeVeaux, president of the Black Public Relations Society’s Los Angeles chapter (her clients include BET and ViacomCBS), says that BPRSLA, with 160 members, works toward ensuring that "people who look like us are getting the tools to navigate this field." The chapter hosts virtual networking happy hours and panels to help Black publicists become "equipped, trained and hired," says DeVeaux.

Noel-Schure references the early days of My Publicist Is Black, when members who "didn’t have the bandwidth to cover" an account would pass work to fellow publicists. "When you get to the top and you climb that ladder, the ladder serves you no more purpose," she says. "It is your job to throw that ladder back down. We believe in throwing the ladder back down."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.