PR firm celebrates 20 years of social justice
SATURDAY, 21 AUGUST 2010 17:22
WRITTEN BY TRIBUNE STAFF REPORT
Gwen McKinney poses for a photo at her company,
McKinney & Associates, in downtown Washington, D.C.
— PHOTO SUBMITTED BY NNPA
It‟s a long way from working the Philadelphia
beat for the Tribune to celebrating the 20th
anniversary of the opening of the first African-
American and female-owned public relations
firm in the nation‟s capital with a social
But it was just a hop, skip and jump for Gwen
McKinney, albeit, a big hop, skip and jump.
It was in 1990 that McKinney and business partner Leila McDowell started the agency in the
basement of a church. It was called McKinney & McDowell.
Now, after two decades and many notable clients — like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — it
is on the ninth floor of a downtown building and it is called McKinney & Associates.
“McKinney‟s 20-year success story is a trifecta of luck, pluck and imagination,” said McKinney,
a Philadelphia native. “From our basement space in D.C.‟s historic St. Augustine Church
ecumenical center, we planned and persevered, investing sweat, equity and a passion to push.”
Even so, it must have taken as much courage as faith for two women to undertake such a task in
a rarefied environment as the nation‟s capital, a power center of the world.
“My then partner and I were bold, young and daring enough,” said McKinney, “to think we
could compete with the established public relations firms headquartered in Washington, DC‟s
corridors of power.”
McKinney started her career in the late 1970s covering issues affecting the African-American
community in Philadelphia for the Tribune.
Keeping faith with the Black press, McKinney went on to become a columnist and Washington
correspondent for several minority-owned newspapers, including the St. Louis American and
San Francisco Sun Reporter, despite attempts by the Philadelphia Inquirer to hire her.
Along with having articles syndicated in newspapers across the nation by the National
Newspaper Publishers Association — an organization comprised of over 200 minority-owned
newspapers — McKinney wrote for Essence magazine and Black Enterprise.
As Eleanor Holmes Norton‟s press secretary, McKinney firmly entrenched herself in the world
of public relations.
Norton was making a successful run for the U.S. Congress at the time so McKinney got a healthy
dose of crisis management experience and a sanguine view into the world of marketing and
The foundation was laid for McKinney & Associates, a fixture in the capital in social advocacy,
philanthropic public relations, media training and justice in areas like health care and the
environment, which will celebrate its 20th year on Oct. 1.
“No other public relations firm could have won the trust and confidence of LDF like McKinney
and McDowell,” said Elaine R. Jones, NAACP Legal Defense Fund president and counsel
director (1993-2004) of working with McKinney & Associates. “They were caretakers of our
public image during a period when the unfinished business of civil rights was being waged
relentlessly in both the courts of law and public opinion.”
A reputable niche public relations firm in D.C., McKinney & Associates also expanded to handle
national and international issues.
McKinney has worked and attended journalism fact-finding tours in Africa, Asia, Europe and
“The work has been extraordinary and invigorating — from the historic newsmaker luncheon at
the National Press Club for South African President Nelson Mandela to the support and staging
of the first environmental justice gathering of U.S. activists to management of the
communications campaign marking 50 years of Brown v. Board of Education,” McKinney said.
“Although McKinney & Associates has always been committed to „Public Relations with a
Conscience,‟ that mantra was solidified by my nearly 15-year partnership with the NAACP
Legal Defense Fund, our longest continuous client from 1993 to 2007,” McKinney added. “Since
hanging that shingle in 1990, we have grown strategically, adding practice areas, maturity and a
strategic core to meet the needs of our clients in social advocacy, media training, philanthropic
public relations and health equity and health reform.”
Through the success, McKinney has remained true to her principle of not taking on clients or
organizations with views she doesn‟t agree with.
The firm is focused on justice, rights and reform and McKinney has been careful not to let the
business appear mercenary.
“The McKinney PR team knows how to build a plan that respects the big picture and purpose of
a project while laying out practical steps to achieve desired outcomes,” said Linda Wright
Moore, Robert Wood Johnson Sr. communications officer on McKinney‟s work with the RWJF
Human Capital Portfolio.
McKinney is co-founder and was national co-coordinator of the National Alliance of Third
World Journalists, a membership organization of U.S. journalists and media professionals.
In 1980, she founded and directed a special project, the Namibia Information Service that was
supported by the United Nations.
Her far-reaching experience was fundamental in making McKinney & Associates a successful
“I have never before worked with a publicist who „got it‟ like McKinney,” said Larry Adelman,
California Newsreel co-director and Unnatural Causes Creator. “The (firm) understood our work,
grasped our political and communications objectives, drafted an imaginative yet realistic media
strategy addressing our needs and budget and then worked their tails off to make it work.”
McDowell, the company‟s vice president, left in 2000 and moved on to other successes. The two
women parted as friends as McDowell currently works for the NAACP as vice president of
communications. Since that time, McKinney has run the company by herself.
“Social justice advocacy informs the McKinney & Associates style and services,” she said. “The
firm is proud to claim on its client list many of the nation‟s leading civil rights, human rights,
labor and social justice institutions; and even prouder to have been part of their path-clearing