Celebrating and Supporting the Hispanic Community: A Conversation Between PRSA NCC President Lisa Kiefer and Mary Ann Gomez Orta
By Lisa Kiefer, President, PRSA NCC, and President and CEO, Sightline Strategy
Each year, National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15) provides us a dedicated time to celebrate the contributions and rich cultures of Americans whose ancestors were from Central and South America, Mexico, Spain and the Caribbean. For the PRSA National Capital Chapter (NCC), it is also about elevating the voices of our Hispanic and Latinx members and celebrating and learning from their work.
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mary Ann Gomez Orta, president and CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute (CHLI). Outside of her work with the CHLI, Ms. Gomez Orta has amassed an impressive career, including as both a practitioner and educator in public relations and marketing. She is a member of PRSA NCC and was most recently an active member of the PRSA Miami chapter.
I wrote this blog as a way of sharing highlights of our conversation, in which I asked Ms. Gomez Orta about her current role, past experiences and general perspective on supporting the Hispanic community. I hope you find it as insightful and educational as I did.
[Lisa Kiefer] I would love to talk about the work you are doing through the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute. The organization was founded in 2003 by Members of Congress with a mission to advance the Hispanic Community’s Economic Progress with a focus on Social Responsibility and Global Competitiveness. What are you focused on right now, and how has that focus shifted in 2020?
[Ms. Gomez Orta] We have a powerful vision at CHLI to advance the Hispanic community’s diversity of thought. We were formed by Republican and Democrats so that we could promote the richness and diversity among anyone who identifies as Hispanic or Latino. We don’t all think or vote alike. We might not support the same party, but we are focused on creating a pipeline of young, diverse global leaders. We have created an internship program in Washington, D.C., where students intern for two months with a Member of Congress and then spend the other two months in a corporate public affairs or government relations office. Most of us [Hispanic and Latinx] weren’t exposed to people in the business sector when we were growing up so we provide that opportunity to students and help them see how the public and private sectors work here in the U.S.
Many of our interns go on to law school, to work on the Hill or at think tanks or non-profits. We shorten the trajectory and path to success compared to what the rest of us experienced growing up.
In 2020, we have had to make the program virtual but students have still been able to do the full internship. We had to move our annual fundraiser from May to September and make it virtual. As we all stepped in to help, we were navigating new roles and responsibilities, including at home, learning new technological languages and skills. In this time, we’ve all learned and discovered different talents we didn’t know we had. It has taught us more patience, empathy and compassion for others.
[Ms. Kiefer] You have done so much in your impressive career so far, particularly serving and advocating on behalf of the Hispanic community. What have been some of your greatest achievements, and conversely, some of your greatest challenges?
[Ms. Gomez Orta] From a personal standpoint, my greatest achievement is with my family. Both of my parents were farm workers with a third-grade education. I had to take on a lot and be supportive as the oldest of five. Now, all five of us have college degrees and two of us have masters’ degrees.
I think I achieved so much because I asked a lot of questions. I was always interpreting language and culture simultaneously. I’m proud that I didn’t see a barrier in asking, “What’s next?” “How do I do this?” There was a sense of professional vulnerability that I have been able to balance and master, and I often encourage others to do the same.
I also jumped into jobs and career options that no one else around me could guide me through. I worked for PR firms and had my own consulting firm for a while. I worked in corporate marketing and public relations for McDonald’s and Coors Brewing Company, and worked in communications for the pharmaceuticals industry.
Those jobs were rewarding but also challenging, especially to be a woman in some of those industries in the 1990s. Sometimes a woman was my harshest critic. At other times, it was a man who wanted to test me, drill me for information or make me justify a PR or marketing strategy over and over again. It made me stronger, but it was a tough experience. Again, I wasn’t afraid to ask questions. I took time to meet with those people and asked to learn from that, asking, “How should I have been better prepared?” They were open to answering and giving me advice. People love giving advice if you’re asking the right person at the right time. I learned a lot then and many of the lessons that I find strength in, I pass those on to our interns, alumni and the professionals I work with now.
[Ms. Kiefer] You earned a degree in communications and you have worked as a practitioner and an educator in communications and marketing. How has that background and knowledge helped you in your career and the role you are in now?
[Ms. Gomez Orta] Working in any kind of non-profit organization, one of the most important components of leadership is being able to communicate. Part of what we do on a daily basis requires strong communication skills and effective two-way engagement.
I have to communicate with staff, the board of directors and our interns – communicating a vision and strategy. Words matter and words have both positive and negative power. In my job, it is about intentional communication and thinking about the words you use because they have a stronger impact than you realize.
When our interns start, we focus only on positive, strengths-finding language. I don’t incorporate negative discussion or disempowering words. As part of the Hispanic community, we have heard too much negative language. I want to provide a space for these young people to start hearing positive and empowering words.
I treasure my communications degree. I didn’t realize how much it was going to help me. When I worked in PR agencies early on, it gave me an opportunity to learn about many different kinds of businesses and to interact with many different people. I would not have had that experience if I worked for one company on one topic. Now, I always encourage students to consider working in a place where they will get access to a variety of issues to work on and different people to learn from.
[Ms. Kiefer] We are nearing the end of Hispanic Heritage Month. As you look back and ahead, what is your take on progress that has been made for the Hispanic community in the U.S., what more needs to be done and what can professional communicators do to move the needle further?
[Ms. Gomez Orta] The Hispanic community in the U.S. has come so far and made many contributions. We are the largest minority group in the U.S. by demographic numbers and are a huge consumer base. Our purchasing power is very strong so businesses are starting to think about and include us when they might not have in the past. We have also improved in high school and higher education, and many more Hispanics are finishing college.
In many situations, though, we are still discriminated against and not included. A lot of conversations have happened around the country this year to resurface issues regarding social injustice. There is a renewed opportunity to move forward.
A big part of that is working together with other groups. This is why CHLI’s vision statement about diversity of thought is powerful. You can look at our board and see that it is intentionally not all Hispanic men and women. We have professionals who are Black, Asian, Hispanic and white, those who are part of the LGBTQ community and many other diverse backgrounds among our leadership. The only way the Hispanic community can be included more often is to get involved and be invited to the table.
If everyone is only at their own table, we are all missing out on each other and how we can serve and support each other. That requires pushing ourselves and each other a little out of comfort zones. Getting involved with other “families” and groups than only those we know or with which we’re already comfortable.
Professional communicators can help by focusing on being inclusive in writing and when identifying and considering audiences. There is a lot of beauty in creating copy and campaigns when we have different points of view. Invite others to be part of a brainstorm or to serve as guides or partners. Add more richness to stories and projects. It is an important part of the discovery process. I challenge our PR professional community to think out of your own box.