Joseph Varney Baker: The First African-American to Found a PR Agency

Joseph Varney Baker

[Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of articles about the history of PR as part of our celebration of PRNEWS’ 75th anniversary. The series is a partnership with the Museum of Public Relations.]

Jared Meade, Principal, Rayne Strategy Group

Ask PR pros about priorities facing the profession and an overwhelming number of answers will involve the need for greater diversity. Though diversity is a critical issue in PR, as a profession we have done a subpar job of acknowledging pioneers of diversity in communications’ history.

As we approach Black History Month in February, it is an ideal time to honor PR trailblazers. Communicators need to make sure these pioneers are included in PR textbooks so that they can serve as role models to students. For those of us in the industry, learning about these pioneers inspires us to do more for diversity and inclusion.

Joseph Varney Baker is one of those trailblazers who should be better known. Born August 20, 1908, in Abbeville, South Carolina, he attended Abbeville State Teachers Training School. In the 1920s, the teenager moved to Philadelphia, graduated from Central High School and eventually studied journalism at Temple University.

His storied career began as a reporter at the Philadelphia Tribune, the African-American newspaper. Eventually he worked his way up to city editor.

He also was the first African-American journalist to write for The Philadelphia Inquirer, which is the third-oldest surviving daily newspaper in the United States.

Journalist Beginnings

After leaving the Philadelphia Tribune, he worked as a PR consultant for the Pennsylvania Railroad. This led him to found a PR firm in NY, Joseph V. Baker and Associates, in 1934. The firm, the first African-American-owned PR agency, specialized in PR, marketing and advertising aimed at African-American audiences.

Based on available evidence, we acknowledge Baker as the first African-American founder of a PR firm. “We don’t have Baker’s papers, but we are searching for them,” says Shelley Spector, co-founder of the Museum of PR. “We are proud that we have been able to save his memory, because he was nearly forgotten,” she adds. Spector believes there’s a chance that evidence of African-American PR executives active prior to 1930 will surface. “Who knows, we might find more...because this history has never been ‘excavated’” before now.”

In the Encyclopedia of Public Relations, Marilyn Kern-Foxworth described Baker as, “A much-revered entrepreneur within both the black community and corporate America, Baker was seen as a formidable force in bridging the two constituencies.”

Incidentally, Kern-Foxworth is deserving of mention. When she graduated from U of Wisconsin in 1980, she was the first person of color to receive a doctorate in communications with a concentration in advertising and PR.

PR Trailblazer: Joseph Varney Baker (1908-1993) was the first African-American to establish a PR firm.

Impressive Client List

Over the years, Joseph V. Baker and Associates’ client list would include some of the biggest corporations including the Pennsylvania Railroad, American Tobacco Company, Carrier Corporation, Hamilton Watch Company, the Gillette Corporation, Scott Paper Company, RCA, Procter & Gamble, Chrysler, DuPont, U.S. Steel, Western Union, NBC, the Association of American Railroads, and major African-American entertainers.

Long active in politics, Baker was chosen in 1960 to serve as an assistant to then-VP Richard Nixon’s campaign staff when he ran for president against John F. Kennedy.

During his career, Baker also worked as the director of the Division of Negro Research and Planning for the Pennsylvania State Department of Labor and Industry, then as director of Negro Work for the Republican State Committee.

As a man with a deep passion for PR, Baker worked to instill that same passion in others by serving as a mentor. He was instrumental in helping others get their start in the profession, especially African-American women.

One of his mentees, Barbara C. Harris, began her career at Joseph V. Baker and Associates. She was the first woman of color to handle major corporate accounts and eventually became president of the firm in 1958.

As with many PR pros, Baker was very involved in his community. In addition to his membership in PRSA, Baker was active in the Boy Scouts, the Prince Hall Masons, the Philadelphia NAACP and Philadelphia Press Club, among others.

First Black President of PRSA Philly

Baker was unanimously elected as the first African-American president of the Philadelphia chapter of PRSA, in 1958. In addition, he was the first African-American to earn the Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) designation.

Baker retired in the early 1980s. In 1990, the PRSA Multicultural Affairs Committee named one of its awards in Baker’s honor, recognizing his many achievements in PR.

The man once described as the “Dean of Negro public relations men” died at his Germantown, Pennsylvania, home on May 7, 1993, aged 84.

[Note: The Museum of Public Relations will host its 5th Annual Black PR History Event, Jan. 30, 6 – 9:30 p.m. at 85 Broad Street, Penthouse (corner of Broad and S. William St), NYC. The event will feature 100 years of African American media in an exhibit titled: “From the Civil War to Civil Rights: a Century of Social Advocacy through Public Relations.”]

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