By Trinity Hunter | May 31, 2022
It is not a secret that the world of public relations is based on deliberate communication. While different public relations professionals will select various communication objectives, strategies and tactics based on the situation and their own practical experience, a practitioner’s background, perspective and life experience also come into play. All these attributes combine to form a strong PR professional. The same is true for members of the AANHPI community.
In recognition of Asian American/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) month, The Museum of Public Relations hosted a webinar titled “A Celebration of The AAPI Community in Public Relations.” The topics ranged from recognizing current and previous trailblazers of this community, ways for up-and-coming public relations professionals to grow in their confidence and what the communication field can do to uplift its AANHPI members.
But this article will focus on three themes that emerged from the session: the need for AANHPI practitioners to tell their stories, the impact of stereotypes on these practitioners and the importance of leadership and mentorship.
Telling Their Stories
Across the board, regardless of ethnic or national background, panelists recognized the potential cultural barriers that cause people to shy away from speaking openly about their histories. In the initial “fireside chat,” Richard Lui, news anchor for NBC and MCNBC, spoke candidly about his familial history, namely how his grandfather immigrated from China in search of new opportunities for his family. This decision shaped Lui and his path toward becoming one of the only Asian American news anchors to date, and, although he never met his grandfather, he credits him for his courage and vision.
Regardless of whether other individuals have similar pasts as Lui, he implored more AANHPI people to resist the urge to shy away from being open about who they are and where they have come from. Even if this acknowledgement begins with simply writing down facts about yourself and accounts about your family, Lui believes that reflection has great potential for empowerment; acknowledging the ancestors of the past will aid in determining the path for the future.
The urge to share more about personal identity did not end in the discussion with Lui. Bill Imada, Chief Connectivity Officer of IW Group and main emcee of the webinar, echoed this call before beginning the first panel discussion.
“We need to tell our stories,” Imada said. “We need to share our lived experiences, our histories, our narratives, so that people will understand who we are.”
Impact of Stereotypes
Beyond personal and cultural barriers, individuals may not feel entirely comfortable sharing information about themselves due to existing stereotypes. Soon Mee Kim, Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer of Omicron Group, pointed out that Asian Americans are “plagued” with stereotypes such as the model minority, perpetual foreigner and the bamboo ceiling. Each of these stereotypes function to detract from the individuality of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
Where the “model minority” may appear to be beneficial on the surface—it asserts that Asian Americans are expected to have greater financial and academic success—it pushes the expectation that people within this ethnic group will only focus on the STEM pathway, rather than a more creatively-based career. The “perpetual foreigner” attempts to strip all people within this community of their American roots; there is always the expectation that they have come from another country and into the United States.
Finally, the “bamboo ceiling,” somewhat similar to the “glass ceiling” faced by women, represents the fabricated idea that while AANHPI individuals may be reliable workers, there is little confidence in their ability to serve in a leadership role.
Leadership and Mentorship
While other members of the panel echoed Kim in acknowledging the institutional obstacles that might prevent people from feeling comfortable expanding on different aspects of their identities, others spoke about the importance of leadership and mentorship within the public relations field. As younger generations of AANHPI individuals come into the profession, it is imperative to cultivate their skills and passions through this avenue. Cynthia Sugiyama, Head of Communications for Diverse Segments, Representation & Inclusion at Wells Fargo, expressed how grateful she was to have mentors who championed her growth in her morale and skills and how she hopes to be this resource for those coming behind her.
John Onoda, Principal of iQ 360, added to the points about leadership and how it is a “learned skill.”
“The number one attribute that will get you [to the top of an organization or foreign agency] is leadership,” Onoda said. “Leadership is so incredibly rare.”
Although the calls for increased leadership, mentorship and vulnerability were aimed toward the AANHPI community, it is imperative that the field of public relations, namely the executives who guide it, cultivate an environment that will be receptive to these individuals. The burden of instilling change cannot be placed primarily on those who have been historically underserved. Intentional change must be made to create a space for AANHPI people to share their histories, expand their leadership and engage in mentorship.
One way of accomplishing this is by recognizing that individuals within this marginalized group do not exist as a monolith. This means that they deserve the same amount of agency to have different personalities, opinions, focuses and strengths as non-marginalized identities. Recalling the exploration of common stereotypes of AANHPI people (model minority, perpetual foreigner and bamboo ceiling), all of them work to inhibit personal and professional growth of those afflicted.
Refusing to adhere to the status quo and celebrating individual expression should be without conditions. In his fireside chat discussion, Lui noted that the AANHPI cultures that have easier times with communication are those who suffered from colonialism and the resulting forced assimilation. But it is a double-edged sword. Cultures that did not struggle with colonialism might lack the skills expected in a modern communication field, yet those who survived this suppression will still feel its impact today.
For those who may not feel comfortable with sharing their experiences or taking the leap of faith to reach out to a mentor, Jacqueline Liu, Senior Vice President of The Pollack Group, encouraged people to start where they need to. Vulnerability presents differently for everyone, whether it be a retweet, a blog post or something as simple as writing words down on a piece of paper.
Jae Pi’ilani Requiro, Vice President of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion of AEG, expanded on the affirmation that AANHPI people do not exist as a monolith, while also recognizing her privilege of being one of the select groups within this distinction who have been silenced less than others within the marginalization. This discrepancy among the groups places a unique responsibility on those with more privilege.
“We have to learn ourselves in our own community…so that we can amplify [their stories] in a way that is really honoring what their needs are if we are not able to provide their voice,” Requiro said. “We have a responsibility to lift as we climb.”
Overall, this webinar presented a variety of opportunities to everyone. First, there must be a recognition of harmful discriminatory practices that have permeated throughout the public relations industry. While most of these are (hopefully) not intentional, their effect has still been damaging to the ability of AANHPI people to exist freely within the space they occupy. Vulnerability and openness are necessary, yet the work should not disproportionately rest on those outside of the executive offices.
Once these spaces are improved, older generations will have increased opportunities to mentor those coming behind them. Young people must be encouraged that their role models are not an unattainable goal or an exception to the rule; they must be able to see the viability of their own dreams. Mentorship and leadership will have unabridged growth if the environment allows them to flourish.
Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have a place within the field of public relations. As we work to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive profession, we must never forget the necessity of opening doors for as many people as possible. It’s time to get to work.