PR’s COVID-19, Racial Equity Response

Published on June 25, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and the national call for racial equity have forced marketing and public relations agencies to shift gears as never before.

As the bedrock of the PR world, public relations agencies are helping their clients adjust while ad sales decline, signaling major changes for the marketing and public relations industry.

Marketing and public relations firms are adept at crisis communication, responding quickly to catastrophic events and changing their clients’ messaging and brand focus. An Institute for Public Relations report indicates the high value of communications for business leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report highlights the important role the PR industry plays as organizations look to create concise and appropriate messaging through a crisis. More broadly, messages of safety, a culture of care, and opposition to racism are driving change throughout the country. Communicators are helping purpose-drive brands respond to calls for more diversity and cultural sensitivity.

Yet our nation’s top public relations agencies have a lack of diversity in their own ranks, and the very firms that are advising other businesses on purpose are also struggling to become inclusive.

The seminal report on purpose-driven communications, The Purpose Report, holds that businesses must pivot from brand positioning to purpose positioning to stay relevant and reflect their consumers’ interests and values. PR firms define purpose through messaging, storytelling and marketing communications. The report introduces a purpose positioning framework to guide brands in developing authentic and comprehensive marketing and public relations plans.

Here are some PR firms adapting and driving purpose-driven change campaigns for their agencies, their industries and their clients:

APCO Worldwide

The global advisory and advocacy communications consultancy, through its Reset Indicator, is tracking the country’s evolution through the COVID-19 pandemic, benchmarking views on where people see themselves today, who is supporting those impacted by COVID-19 and how they feel about the future. This crucial insight will help not only their clients but help influence legislation and policy around pandemic solutions. The majority women-owned business, addressed the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. APCO topped its home page with strong social justice messaging, vowing to take a look at its own culture to identify and address racial bias and discrimination. It promising to continue working to bring more people of color into senior leadership and board roles. Currently the site lists one Black digital practice lead and two Blacks as “finance partners and board observers.

BIGfish Communications

The Boston PR and communications firm posted a list of coronavirus-themed newsletters and media sites publishing COVID-19 news without a paywall. The agency suggested that reporters should make sure their pitches to reporters “contain helpful information.”


The Florida communications agency created a COVID-19 Hispanic Public Relations Resource, an online guide to help brands connect with and support the Hispanic community during the pandemic. The guide includes trusted healthcare sources in the Hispanic community and helps broaden the message of health and wellness to an underserved community. The guide also includes tips and insights for communication teams who want to help reach the Hispanic community on behalf of their clients with messages of service availability and wellness ideas.

Bull Horn Communications

The Tampa Bay public relations firm devotes a section of its website to showcase how businesses are adapting to the changes and challenges brought on by COVID-19. The Coronavirus Pivot features articles on local businesses and nonprofits. These stories provide other businesses with practical knowledge and inspiration to keep going.


The Chicago PR and advertising agency in June advised brands to join the racial justice discussion and be part of the solution. Brand and Racial Justice in America indicates the majority of Americans are concerned about racism and expect brands and companies to address the issue. “Most brands are reflections of our culture,” CEO Richard Edelman said in a May 31 statement. “To do that today means being brave enough to contribute to the change we need to see in culture and society. That means taking on these issues and being part of creating tangible solutions. Above all, to make progress, not promises.” Regarding his own PR firm, which currently has no Blacks in top leadership, the CEO stated: “We will also commit to supporting more local NGOs across America as we have done with Project Hood in Chicago, with a financial commitment of pro bono time equivalent to that which we are giving to the Gun Safety Alliance. I promise that we will hire more diverse senior executives within the next year, to continue to change the face of our company in service of our clients.”
Lisa Ross, named Edelman’s chief operating officer in February 2000, is the only Black in top leadership.

Finn Partners

This global marketing and public relations agency has pledged $1 million since 2014 in annual pro bono hours to support organizations that address climate change, gender inequality and economic crisis. Included in that support is 100 Black Men of Middle Tennessee. Founder Peter Finn, in a statement after George Floyd’s death in police custody, calls the agency’s commitment to diversity and inclusion “one of our core values.” The PR agency’s website lists two Black managing partners and one Black senior partner.


This global B2B and consumer agency advocates a “consumer-first” approach to the pandemic and a blog post supporting LGBTQIA+ employees. No Blacks are listed in its top leadership.


This strategic communication firm and digital brander has published blog posts on how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and directs giving to three foundations. Its website makes passing references to diversity and currently lists no Black managing directors.


This integrated PR agency in the U.S. and UK has taken a public stand in solidarity with the Black community and taken a stance against racial injustice. The firm donated $50,000 to an organization fighting systematic racism including Black Lives Matter, while also expanding its pro-bono PR work to include black-owned small businesses. The firm also pledges to diversify its own workforce, especially at the leadership level, where it has no blacks in their top leadership. To support that effort the firm will conduct training for leaders and hiring managers and anti-bias training for all employees going forward.


The full-service marketing and public relations agency, founded in London and now based in New York City, posted an Anti-Racism Resource page June 15 for its employees and partners. The resource includes books, articles, documentaries and podcasts on racial injustice and how to build a more equal world. Ogilvy has one Black on its leadership team. In response to the growing pandemic in India where resources are scarce, Ogilvy partnered with the Indian government promote homemade masks and the importance of staying covered.

Prosek Partners

This financial communications firm publishes a newsletter and blog posts on COVID-19 news. Its Unboxed Thoughts blog has posted commentary about mental health issues during COVID-19, social equity and other timely subjects. Currently Prosek has one Black managing director.

Publicis Groupe

One of the world’s oldest agency groups, based in Paris, addressed the racial crisis in the U.S. with a June 8 commitment by its CEO Arthur Sadoun. In a video to staff, Sadourn promised to use Publicis’ scale and voice to find new ways to fight systemic racism in the industry. He promised to provide more opportunities for black people at both the agency and within the brands it represents, which include Coca-Cola, Hermes, Nestle, and Whirlpool. The firm is also promising to be more supportive of senior-level black leaders while ensuring their white colleagues strongly contribute to the success of all Black team members.

Ruder Finn

This global public relations firm prepared videos and interviews on how to lead during the COVID-19 pandemic. At this writing, it has made no prominent statement on racism and social injustice in the U.S. and currently has no Blacks in its top leadership.


The global marketing and public relations giant on June 17 announced a plan to fight racism and invest in black talent. A Call for Change calls for WPP to use its global voice to fight racism and “advance the cause of racial equality in and beyond our industry.” The company is promising to review its hiring and retention practices to advance people of color in positions of management and leadership; there are no Blacks on its executive committee. WPP also committed a $30 million over the next three years to programs supporting racial inclusion programs at the firm and beyond.

W2O Group

This healthcare marketing agency launched an analysis of Twitter posts on COVID-19 and a June 15 report death of George Floyd, it issued a report that highlighted corporate racial and social equity efforts and encouraged healthcare clients to lend their voice to issues around social injustice. The company also encouraged staff to take Juneteenth as a paid holiday to support Black-owned business, volunteer or protest. They have also vowed to help educate people about the Black experience in America, while having no blacks in their top leadership teams.

Zeno Group

This midsize public relations agency has issued blogs on business response in the COVID-19 pandemic. On June 1 it issued global study of 8,000 consumers that draws a correlation between brand purpose and bottom-line impact. The agency is largely silent on racial equity issues and has one Black in top leadership.

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