Going Beyond: PR Must Act on HBCU Advocacy, Here’s How

Nearly 20 years ago while attending my beloved HBCU Tennessee State University, Dr. Victoria Sturgeon asked if I could stay after class. A mass communication major, I was surprised when she advised that I should pursue a career in public relations. I started a PR firm immediately after I graduated.

As HBCUs rise to greater prominence, there is a newfound interest in these institutions that is invigorating. For an HBCU alum, I know the Black excellence that exists on these campuses.

Now, as a PR professor at a liberal arts HBCU, every time I connect with students I am reminded of those who advocated for me.

Beyond Mentoring and Guest Lecturing

Advocacy for HBCU students in PR/communication programs extends past mentoring and guest lecturing during the semester or making occasional contact with career development centers and academic leaders. We must get deeper into our HBCU communities by extending structural, curricular and financial support.

What communicators must remember is that true advocacy only occurs when two specific functions work in tandem–action and communication. With regular and intentional communication that deepens relationships and strengthens the connection between HBCUs and their students, PR pros get to know the culture and talent on these campuses.

With bold and progressive action, PR pros can impact the legacy of these institutions. This can not only improve racial/ethnic makeup of our industry, but create a generational shift for HBCU students and their futures.

Here are a couple of ways PR pros can go beyond and reach real advocacy. 


  • Endow a scholarship for PR/communication majors at an HBCU. Attach a stipend and a paid internship to the deal. Fund this annually and increase the amounts incrementally.


  • Invest in technical facilities at an HBCU. Contact an HBCU’s development office and say you want to support the greatest financial need in the school’s communication program.


  • Offer to teach a course as an adjunct professor. Consider even transitioning to teaching at an HBCU full-time, if you desire a career shift and have a passion for education.


In addition to the top five HBCUs that may immediately come to mind, another 100 HBCUs need support. At least 60 percent have a mass communication program in the arts and sciences discipline where students are receiving direct or comparable instruction connected to the PR field.

  • Reach out to HBCU deans and department heads to inquire about their programs. Request a meeting to discover the best ways to forge relationships and brainstorm about partnership opportunities.


  • Connect with HBCU professors closest to your location/region via LinkedIn and email. Inquire about ways you can support their instruction and research.


  • Say yes anytime you are invited to work with HBCU students. Recognize the best approach is to listen, meet them where they are and follow through to help with whatever they may express to you.

I am grateful to my HBCU professor for pulling me aside long ago. Her advocacy was the initial nudge that launched my career. That’s the kind of action and communication required for our HBCU students who are bright, brilliant and full of promise.

Real advocacy goes beyond.

Aerial Ellis, Ed.D. is president, the PRSA Foundation and Wells Fargo-endowed chair/distinguished professor, North Carolina Central University