Growing up in New Jersey, I looked at my Latino friends, neighbors, and classmates — people from Ecuador, Colombia, and Cuba — and I was struck by how people from all these different countries, thousands of miles apart, were unified by language. Even though Mexicans insisted they were different from Dominicans, who were different from Puerto Ricans, who were different from Venezuelans, it was plain to see we were unified by language. It was our big connector.
That observation — how Latinos were so unified here in the US — would years later become a defining theme in my professional life.
My own family immigrated here from the Dominican Republic. A few years later, I was born in the US and raised in Jersey City. Though I was born an American citizen, I have always related to and empathized with the plight of immigrants navigating a new culture.
I’m the first member of my family to graduate from college. I went to Seton Hall University, where I was given a daunting list of possible majors to choose from. How does anyone that age know what to pick? I had limited exposure to career options outside of the traditional paths — teacher, nurse, doctor, lawyer: jobs that are easy to explain. My immigrant family could easily get their head around those. But public relations? Not so much.
“You want to do what?” my mother asked. “And someone is going to pay you to do that for a living?”
Well, I did in fact choose PR as my major — and I absolutely fell in love with it from day one! Fortunately, they’ve got a terrific undergraduate communications program at Seton Hall that not only exposed me to the fundamentals, but also created opportunities to touch real-life communications work. I was so into it, I even joined the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA). In my senior year, I interned for the Catholic Church at the Archdiocese of Newark. It was a busy media relations office responding to a steady flow of inquiries from reporters at English- and Spanish-language press outlets looking for the Church’s position on issues. The experience was great preparation for my eventual career, and my bilingual skills, while not a job requirement, came in handy.
My next job was in the PR department for Seton Hall. I worked full time for the university, supporting several deans and schools on media relations, communications, and editorial projects. I also spent my nights going to classes for a master’s degree. I’ll tell you, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The master’s really helped me early on get a more expansive view of the profession, and I believe it helped form an even stronger foundation for the career I would soon begin.
It was 12 years ago when I arrived at Univision, the leading media company serving Hispanic America, which also includes the nation’s first Spanish-language TV network. That network grew out of a local San Antonio station in the ’60s. Back then, people asked, “Why do you need a Spanish-language TV station?” All previous waves of immigrants — the Irish, the Italians — they all assimilated. You didn’t need to have an Irish channel or an Italian channel. When we put up the first all-Spanish station in Texas, some thought we were crazy. But for the newly arrived Latinos, our station became an important and trusted ally.
Today, people are retaining their cultures instead of shedding their family’s heritage. It’s an and, not an or. You can be 100 percent Venezuelan, Colombian, Dominican, or from wherever your family’s roots originate, and still be 100 percent American. Technology — easy travel, mobile phones, and television — has facilitated that.
When I was born, my newly arrived parents felt the need to help prepare me for a life of assimilation. They named me “Rosemary,” not “Rosa Maria,” because they came from a generation that associated success in the US with assimilation. In contrast, this new generation doesn’t subscribe to the idea of abandoning their Hispanic identities to assimilate. I named my own daughters Elena and Amelia in the spirit of celebrating our dual cultures.
Never in my biggest dreams did I believe that as an “immigrant” kid in Jersey City, struggling to learn English, I would one day lead communications for one of the most trusted and respected brands for Latinos — and at such a pivotal moment in history. We live in a time when public relations on behalf of our community has never been more critical. Today, not only have the ways we distribute and consume news changed and multiplied, but the very definition of news is being challenged. There is a seemingly constant drumbeat of “fake news” being injected into the social and political narrative. That means our jobs as PR professionals are more important than ever. We are champions of truth. In the case of the Hispanic community, that means not just promoting our truth, but defending it from lies and stereotypes and making sure a full spectrum of stories is being told.
The funny thing is, when I started looking for a job after college, a career in PR that would help me evangelize diversity never occurred to me. Sure, my first language was Spanish. I am Afro-Latina and everything about my upbringing was steeped in pride in my heritage, pride in my language, and pride in my culture. I just didn’t know that I could combine my passions. As I began my career, however, I became all too aware of the lack of communication directed at my community.
So, little by little, project by project, I brought that insight and pitched my own ideas to include more diverse perspectives. I can still see the confusion on the face of former bosses, colleagues, and partners: “You want to do this in Spanish? Why?” It wasn’t until they saw the results that they understood the strategic value. I quickly recognized this was the “added value” I brought to nearly every job.
Every other employer since has recognized the value of my professional and bicultural abilities, and none more so than Univision. I feel very fortunate to be the chief communications officer for Univision. Occupying this seat, at this company, at this moment, is a responsibility I embrace with a deep and unwavering commitment.
I am proud of the role Univision plays as a beacon of advocacy for our audiences, even in the face of risk. There aren’t too many companies willing to break contractual agreements and start a public battle with a presidential candidate — all to take a stand and defend its consumers. And the mission to empower Hispanic Americans continues. Today, we are empowering and informing our audiences on a wide range of key issues, such as the developments related to the fate of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program and immigrant family separations, as well as the upcoming 2020 census and much more.
Being in this seat also means working with top-tier business editors and journalists to evolve from filing a “quota of Hispanic stories” to thinking about the contributions and impact of Hispanic consumers and Hispanic media in the totality of the landscape.
As I reflect on my purpose-driven career, I recognize how important mentorship has been along the way. I don’t mean formal arrangements in the, “Hey, will you be my mentor?” kind of way. I’ve always taken the view that you learn from everything, good and bad. One of the bosses I learned the most from early on in my career was someone who, in my view, just wasn’t effective. I learned from this person all the things I didn’t want to be. At the same time, I saw people who were great role models. Some of my most important mentors probably have no idea of the vital role they played in shaping my career path!
I myself try to be a mentor to young people. While I don’t have formal mentor-mentee arrangements, I gladly accept opportunities to talk to students and young professionals. The upcoming generation needs to see examples of people of color, or those not in the majority, doing jobs that they may want to do someday. They need to see people like themselves in leadership roles.
While attracting diverse students is one thing, retention is quite another. You go to conferences at certain levels, and it’s all women. Then, as you navigate and participate in more senior circles with agency principals and other heads of communications, the gender and racial diversity is lacking.
What’s happening to the women in the pipeline? What is happening to Latinos and other minorities? Why aren’t they running the show and becoming the leaders of their companies? It’s amazing how far we have come — and how far we haven’t.
Women need to see other women in similar positions, they need to see how others juggle work and families. What I often hear from young women is, “How do you do it?” It’s why I made the decision to be less discreet about how I juggle my career and family obligations. I let people know when I am taking a conference call at the supermarket or under the hair dryer at the hair salon. They need to know that’s how it’s done.
So as far as retention, young people need to see themselves represented in the field. We need to go out to schools more and earlier and create opportunities to engage with the professional sector.
The reality is, whether you’re talking about Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, or LGBT professionals, it’s not unique to communications. There’s a dearth of diverse talent in corporate America. When you see these moments in time when brands do things that don’t resonate, or they fall flat, it reminds us about the scarcity of empowered, diverse voices in boardrooms and the C-suite.
How do you create a workforce environment where the workplace is inclusive? It’s much more than, “Okay, I checked the box. I hired a person of color. I hired a diverse candidate.” It’s how do you make sure that everyone feels included? How do you harness the power of rich and dissimilar backgrounds and experiences to grow your business and break through?
When you have a breadth of different minds focusing on a problem, you’re able to see around blind spots and strategize through things that maybe a more homogeneous group wouldn’t be able to see. Diversity is not just a nice thing to do. It’s not just a box to check. Diversity drives growth. In an increasingly global and connected economy, diversity is a competitive advantage. In the case of public relations, which ultimately is about storytelling, diversity means everyone is able to take part in the conversation.
When everyone has a voice, as that young girl from New Jersey once noted, even people from different countries and cultures can be unified.
Rosemary Mercedes is chief communications officer for Univision Communications.
This has been adapted from Diverse Voices: Profiles in Leadership, 2018, Foreword by Harold Burson, Edited by Shelley & Barry Spector. Copyright (c) 2018. Published by the PRMuseum Press, LLC, New York, New York. Produced by the PRSA Foundation and the Museum of Public Relations.