Nothing About Us Without Us: Black Women Discuss Communications in the Era of COVID-19

Published on March 2, 2021

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Written by Shareese ThompsonShareese Thompson is a Vice President at M Booth Health and believes conversations and connections can be the spark that ignites the fires of change.


As we transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, we’re delighted to bring you this fascinating and important conversation, the first of two parts, between Cheryl Overton, Chief Experience Officer at Cheryl Overton Communications, and Shareese Thompson, VP of M Booth Health, about the ramifications of historical disparities in health that impact African Americans today.

 

Audio podcast:

 

Shareese Thompson:

We are so excited to be here today. I’m Shareese Thompson, I’m a Vice President at M Booth Health. And I’m joined today by Cheryl Overton, who is the founder and Chief Experience Officer of Cheryl Overton Communications. She is also a strategic partner of M Booth Health and a treasured agency friend. So, welcome Cheryl. We’re so excited to have you. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about your superpowers, how you engage us in the communications field and have done so for such a long time.

Cheryl Overton:

Oh, wow. Well, thank you first and foremost Shareese for having me. It’s such a pleasure to talk to you today and thanks to everyone at M Booth and M Booth Health, you guys are always so generous and inviting and welcoming, and I appreciate you sharing the space with me today. I have been in this business for over 20 years. I actually started in this business doing very high science, pharma communications. Everything from pre-approval strategy to launching products all over the world, to indication changes, to crisis and issues. The things you know so, so well, Shareese, is how I got my start in this business and how I really built up my skills. How I very early on learned the kind of rigor, the kind of discipline, the kind of excellence you need, to really deal with things at that very top level.

Of course, since that time, I have branched out and across business sectors to do this work for consumer brands; you name the sector, I’ve worked on it. And really my sweet spot now is working with brands to really better understand multicultural consumer segments. How to engage with them and frankly, how to better market with and to them too. To just be more inclusive, to be more understanding of these segments. And frankly, to understand that these are truly influential and growing segments. That the way we market to them is not about “doing the right thing.” It’s about great business, very smart savvy consumers, who, when they start to accept a product, is how things really pop off. And so I’m thrilled to be focusing on those audiences in my work these days.

Shareese Thompson: 

Well, thank you again. I think one personal note is that we’ve known each other for a number of years and you’re a personal mentor. So, I’m really more excited to talk to you today as two Black women in marketing and communications. And at M Booth, we pride ourselves in being conversation catalysts. Really being the arbiters of discussions and movement in the world of communications that really make change. And so where we find ourselves right now, uniquely in the midst of COVID and the need for a focus to some degree on BIPOC and how we’re going to be moving forward, meeting the challenge of getting herd immunity and getting us safe as a country. And Black people in particular, and those other people of color in our communities have this increased focus in terms of messaging and communications to these audiences for increasing their vaccines.

So my colleague Tom Rovine and I recently did a blog post on the M Booth Health site. And we were talking about the need to really approach, before we start even talking about how we can break down barriers in terms of medical mistrust. How we really got to where we are collectively as a community. And not only communities that we should be talking to about increasing vaccinations, but also who those messengers should be. And I’m curious if you had thoughts on, in terms of talking a little bit more about truth and how that is important for us to get to, getting these communities to trust the medical establishment in a better way.

Cheryl Overton:

Yeah, it’s an important conversation and it’s a layered conversation. I absolutely understand and appreciate all of the marketing powerhouses and campaigns that are out there now. And I live in Brooklyn and I see posters and billboards even in the communities. I get it, people are spending a lot of time, effort and frankly, big, big advertising dollars to make sure everybody far and wide sees this message about vaccination and trust. And this’ll be what’s helpful. What I do think is really important and at the soul and the heart of all of that though, is culpability and accountability. I don’t think that we’re going to be able to build trust with Black and Brown communities until the healthcare establishment, the medical establishment as an institution, and I’m not calling on one particular sector. It’s not just pharma. It’s not just the government. It’s not just healthcare providers. It’s probably the whole constellation of that. There has to be some culpability for their part in building that history and track record of mistrust. It didn’t just come out of nowhere. There are proof points behind it and they’re long and they’re storied and they’re actually in the present day as well; it’s not ancient history. So, there has to be some real accountability. We can’t sweep it under the rug with fancy campaigns and celebrities and people getting vaccinated on television. We have to do those things to raise awareness and de-mystify, but we also have to be accountable and culpable for how we got here. I think in doing so, you have a more authentic chance of reaching Black and Brown communities. They’re not skeptical just for skepticism’s sake. They’re skeptical because they’ve been on the receiving end of mistreatment. And it’s very hard for somebody to say, if a big campaign says, “trust me,” it’s very hard to just be like, “okay.” Unless you have some acknowledgement of, “I get why you feel the way you feel.” Here are the things that we’re trying to break down and the things we’re trying to accomplish together.

Listen, there’s more than one way to be Black. You said it best, we’re not a monolith. So, what I would recommend though, is that people who are experts in marketing communications, who also have the lived experiences, should be on the team at every stage of the planning, the development, the execution, and beyond. And the measurement and the evaluation, I think, truly inclusive teams are really the key to this. Can I then ask my Black employees, what do they think about it? They may be your Black employees, and of course, have a perspective and a point of view, but that doesn’t mean they’re experts at marketing communications. And I think that’s one misnomer that organizations have been making, especially in the past year, that they need to stop. You still need to get that subject matter expertise.

I think with regard to healthcare, there are fewer of us in the communication side of this. I remember coming up and like I said, I started my career on this side of the business. And there were very few people who looked like me. And I certainly, on the client side, didn’t see many people who looked like me in communications. They might have worked in other divisions of a pharma company. So I think that is changing and improving, but you need to use the subject matter expertise. But no excuses like, “I can’t find the talent.” The talent is there.

You have to intentionally engage and secure the talent, and throw some money at the problem. Because as my mom used to say, it’s not working. So, I do think that you need somebody, though, at every stage of this. If you’re working in a healthcare professional communications realm, where you’re working on Advisory Boards and publication plans and HCP communications, and the development and training and continuing education of our healthcare providers, I think that it’s very important to have that perspective on the strategic team who’s creating those programs, who’s creating those modules for curriculum. The discussion about cultural competency is a very long one. It’s been going on for decades, yet we’re still here. So we have to change the way we’re going about it. And I think a big part of that is to get the right subject matter expertise. That includes the lived experience on the team.

Shareese Thompson:

The conversation you had with us was about not necessarily looking at Black or Black and Brown audiences as a specialty, but sort of leading back to what you were just discussing: “I’m a human first.” Some of the things that we are doing in terms of reaching audiences or reaching communities of color are seen as specialty, as opposed to an integral part of the foundation of the plans that you’re talking about. Can you talk to me a little bit about some of the points that you shared during that discussion?

Cheryl Overton:

Sure. I mean a couple of things, and I don’t want to get caught up in vernacular, but I think there are some nuances here. Doing multicultural marketing is a specialty. It is a specialty. It is something that I believe you need specific experience, specific… you hone that skill. It’s nothing that I would just throw somebody into if they don’t have the strategic underpinning, the background, and the experience to do so. That’s a specialty. What I think, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but what I think I’m hearing you say, and all too often, many agencies or total market agencies I would say fall into this, is, “We’ll do a big campaign and, oh, let’s ask the Hispanic team they think should be done?”

Or let’s ask the people who do diversity, what do they think we should do to reach more Black consumers with this campaign? That is something that I think we’re reverse engineering that should organically be built inclusively from the beginning. The truth of it is, sometimes campaigns are labeled total market or general market campaigns but your key target, your best prospect, might be a person of color. I’ve done a lot in CPG in my career. I’ve worked pretty much with every CPG company on the planet. Personal care as a category I’m really passionate about and have worked extensively in. And I was working with a client on a razor product, and it’s a general market campaign. I mean, this is a big global brand and something we’re going to do in many countries.

Their target consumer happened to be a Black male, 35 plus. So, he was a little bit older than we sometimes programmed for the media. But he was of African ancestry. That’s what the market sizing data showed us. So, deal with the data. It’s not somebody’s personal anecdote. The data showed their best prospect, their biggest consumer, their biggest growth opportunity was with this guy. When you think about that, it doesn’t mean other men won’t also find appeal in the messaging or in the campaign. But you should engineer the campaign to fish where the fish are. And frankly, when you get to the heart of those human truths, those campaigns resonate beyond that target. I think all too often, the thinking is, “oh, if I build it for him, I might turn off some other people or those other people might not think it’s for them.” That’s not the way. I think we have to build it with an inclusive mindset from the beginning.

And if that is not your expertise, call an expert. Because that is the way that we’re going to build campaigns that frankly have the most relevance and resonance. And I think we’re seeing this in a lot of the discussion about the Super Bowl commercials and things like that. I know we’re not talking strictly about advertising. But when you think about the ads that had the most talk, not from the critics, not from those of us who sit as agency professionals as pundits, but from social media chatter. The ones that were inclusive, or had that inclusive hand on it, like you could feel that insight and that nuance come through, are the ones that performed the best.