In the second installment of our Women Leaders in PR series, we focus on Michelle Flowers Welch, the founder and CEO of Flowers Communications Group.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2011, Flowers Communications Group has always focused on public relations and communications that target multicultural audiences. Today, tailoring PR efforts to reach a wide range of consumers and VIPs across varying demographics is becoming more and more commonplace. But when Flowers Communications Group was in its early days, that was not the case.
Welch talks with us about the evolution of multicultural PR, how she got her start, and why she’s looking forward to the rest of 2012.
Michelle Flowers Welch, Flowers Communications Group
To say that things have changed in multicultural PR since the days when Michelle Flowers Welch launched Flowers Communications Group 20 years ago would be an understatement.
“When I first started the company and even prior to that, it was a hard sell to get corporations to see the need to develop specific, authentic programs to reach African American and Latino consumers,” Welch tells us. “It was almost like people would see the numbers but not yet the importance of changing the communications approach to reach that consumer base. Many thought they could use the same strategic approach, take the same ad, and plug in people of color, and put it in publications of color.”
It’s hard to believe, but Welch is talking about the time around 1991. Wilson Phillips, Color Me Badd, and Paula Abdul were topping the Billboard charts. Forest Gump and Shakespeare in Love were Oscar winners. Jay Leno was just about to take over for Johnny Carson. In other words, it was a long time ago, but not that long. Nevertheless, Welch says she had been working with a cosmetics client at the time and had to point out that women of color should be featured in the brochure.
“How in the world can you expect to sell this product when you don’t even feature women of color wearing the product?” she asks.
When Welch was in college, she planned on a career in journalism. She’d done a number of internships in the media and had been offered a job in broadcast media, intending to start after she graduated from Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina.
However, she had been introduced to PR by a guidance counselor and thought it was an interesting way to “work with the media and shape stories.” When she was offered a PR job working in the corporate communications department at an insurance company, she took it. After that, she moved to Chicago and worked with the Chicago Urban League, led by her mentor Jim Compton who emphasized “building strong partnerships with corporations.”
Then she moved on to agency work, starting with GolinHarris. By the time she started Flowers Communications Group, she had experience working in the multicultural space, rising to SVP at Burrell Communications.
Nowadays, Welch says she’s happy to see firms that don’t necessarily specialize in multicultural PR “trying to work more authentically and trying to develop programs for” these audiences. Still, we asked why the PR industry continues to have issues with staff diversity.
“The environment and the culture often don’t set you up for success. That’s why you don’t see the numbers growing in the ways one might think,” she says.
But, she adds, “when I look around, I see a lot more diversity in agencies and PR environments.”
Moreover, she thinks there are opportunities aplenty for women in PR. However, as a woman entrepreneur, there have been challenges.
“There’s so many women in management ranks at major corporations, many women now own their own firms, and PR on the agency side is dominated by women,” she says. “It can be tough and challenging as a business owner… getting capital and business. But even that, over the past 20 years, I’ve seen a change for the better.”
Now Welch is preparing for the next chapter. Rashada Whitehead has rejoined Flowers Communications Group as president — “So many times, especially when you’re a small boutique firm, people don’t have a succession plan. I really wanted to make sure this company I started lives on,” says Welch — and Welch is launching a new business, Welch Consulting, that will move into other areas of interest, such as sports marketing.
A couple of times as we spoke, Welch referred to herself as a “pioneer” in the industry, and thought it was appropriate that she was being interviewed at the intersection between Black History Month and Women’s History Month.
“I’m really proud of the work we’ve done as an agency,” she says. “Working on campaigns and programs that respect different communities and key issues like economic development. I know that the work this firm has done really makes a difference and really helps corporations and brands make a difference.”