Master’s student Brijea Daniel is on a mission to make a major impact in the media: humanizing marginalized communities by representing them authentically in corporate brands.
Her path to this specialized career opened when Daniel received the Diversity in Public Relations and Advertising Scholarship, without which, she said, it would not have been possible for her to attend USC Annenberg.
“This scholarship is the foundation of my journey toward becoming a trailblazer in the PR and advertising fields,” she said. “When I first switched my focus in the communication field from broadcast journalism to PR and advertising, I knew my goal was to become the best in the area.”
The newly created scholarship, established by the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations’ (CPR) Board of Advisors, aspires to combat the longstanding and pervasive lack of diversity in the PR and advertising fields by funding a scholarship for a Black student in USC Annenberg’s MA in PR and Advertising program.
The CPR board created the scholarship with the aim of having an immediate impact: growing the pipeline of talented Black PR and advertising professionals. By offering the opportunity to both earn a graduate degree and build a professional network, board members hope to level the playing field for Black students now, and eventually, in perpetuity.
When Daniel learned that she was the inaugural recipient, she “couldn’t believe it.” Her whole family had been praying and finally could breathe a sigh of relief. Daniel’s joy blossomed even further when she met the board members who support the scholarship.
“These are really important people who work for all these important companies,” Daniel said. “They saw something in me and wanted me to have this opportunity. It’s very inspiring. It makes you feel like you can do anything.”
CPR board member Matthew Harrington, global president and COO of global communications firm Edelman, was eager to step up.
“It was an easy decision to join with fellow CPR board members to establish this scholarship,” Harrington said. “Growing and supporting diverse teams is essential for Edelman’s success and meets a critical need in our industry. I look forward to continuing to support more students like Brijea in the future, bringing bright new leaders into the public relations fold.”
USC Annenberg Professor of Professional Practice Fred Cook, who met Brijea through the scholarship process, echoed the sentiment.
“I got to know Brijea better when she became a student in my Branding with Purpose class,” Cook said. “She is a very thoughtful individual, who is skilled at communicating her own unique perspective on many of the complex issues that professional communicators face every day.”
But Daniel did not always feel so seen. Growing up as a “small town girl” in Harrisburg, North Carolina, in a Caribbean American family, she felt largely “invisible” in the media landscape.
We are thrilled to share the perspective of @jeaa_nd, a master's student in PR and USC Annenberg's Diversity in Public Relations Scholar. Being told that she needed "straight hair" to succeed as a broadcaster, she wants to represent marginalized communities. #WeAreListening pic.twitter.com/D280kI70hr— USC Annenberg (@USCAnnenberg) February 18, 2022
“When I was younger, I didn’t see people like myself represented in commercials, in TV shows, in movies,” she said. “You don’t think about how detrimental that is to you as a kid.”
Daniel "internalized” this stigma. While nurturing her deep passion for reading and writing as a child, she created handmade books that mostly depicted white characters with blonde hair.
“For most of my life, I wanted white people’s hair,” she said. “I didn’t like my skin color either and it wasn’t until high school that I reckoned with that by surrounding myself with people who looked like me. I also did the work to understand the systems that influenced how I felt about myself.”
During high school, Daniel maintained a “golden girl image — straight A’s, captain of the volleyball team, good behavior,” she said. “If something threatened that image, I worked hard to do damage control. I found myself doing PR before I realized I was doing it.”
To break into the media industry, Daniel first pursued a career in journalism, attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned her undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism and global studies. In addition to being a staff writer for the university’s Black Ink Magazine, she had a chance to pursue a number of journalism internships at top-tier television networks. During one of her internships, Daniel collaborated with four other interns to create an original news segment, competing against other teams to have it aired on national television.
However, Daniel said, she was discouraged from being her authentic self.
“I was told that I would have to straighten my hair or wear a wig because I couldn’t have my natural hair out on camera,” she said. “It was kind of unheard of for Black women to do that. You can be as confident as you want, but that is still going to have an impact on you.”
Daniel wore her hair natural anyway and she and her team ended up winning the competition with a news story on the Death with Dignity Act. Still, the pain of feeling she was erased, lingered.
“People are afraid that white media won’t accept it,” Daniel quipped on the challenge of getting stories about people of color told in the news. “Since [white approval] is considered to be the end-all be-all of media in general, that’s definitely a barrier to telling authentic stories.”
Daniel’s aha moment came after she graduated in 2020, during the pandemic and subsequent protests that ignited after George Floyd was killed by police.
“During that summer, I realized I didn’t like the way the media was framing [the pandemic and the protests] and I got a more objective view of journalism,” she said.
Daniel decided to re-route her career to PR and advertising; fields she sees as similar to journalism, but with an opportunity to have more creative control over messaging.
What is most exciting to her is creating inclusive campaigns that use “cultural and social listening” to help corporations better represent Native Americans, Latinx Americans, LGBTQIA, and, of course, African American communities.
Daniel believes “many brands fall into the trap of representing communities how they perceive them to be, instead of who they actually are,” she said. “It’s important to ask: ‘How do you prefer to be represented?’ before targeting them in a campaign.”
It is this questioning that Daniel believes gives a “humanizing” approach to advertising. She says companies need to invoke genuine authenticity, not just tokenism: “Is it actual inclusion or do you want my face there to make it seem like you’re doing something?” she asks.
Campaigns like Dove’s Real Beauty or their CROWN coalition (which supports the CROWN Act banning discrimination against African American women’s hair), are the type of advertising campaigns Daniel dreams about launching as a future PR executive.
To that end, at USC Annenberg, Daniel said she’s soaking up everything like a sponge. “There’s just so much that you can learn,” she said. “But, first and foremost, I want to be a thoughtful, strategic public relations professional who comes up with groundbreaking campaigns that really touch people, and that they talk about for years to come.”
Brijea Daniel, a trailblazer indeed.