Setting the Public Relations Field Ablaze: The Legacy of Ofield Dukes

By Tiffany E. Browne, Director

Before Judy Smith, the Black woman whose work in crisis communications was fictionalized to create the television series Scandal’s leading character, Olivia Pope, Ofield Dukes was a powerful presence with an equally powerful voice. A giant in public relations, Dukes was a pioneer for Blacks and people of color in the communications field. His work spanned decades, working with civil rights icons and entertainers. However, his most notable role was serving in the White House under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The Alabama native was a graduate of Wayne State University, where he earned his degree in Journalism. Dukes was unable to find work in mainstream journalism as most publications were white-owned, but in the early 1960s, he landed a job as a staff writer for the Black-owned Michigan Chronicle. There he covered politics and breaking news and crafted music reviews and editorials.

A former Detroit prosecutor working for President Johnson was an avid reader of Dukes’ work. He connected with Dukes and convinced him to take a job as Deputy Director of Public Affairs for the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. It was an offer Dukes couldn’t pass up; he went on to serve as a communications counselor to President Johnson and Vice President Hubert H. Humphry.

From the White House, he opened his own public relations firm, Ofield Dukes and Associates, with Motown Records as his first client. Other big-name clients would later include CBS records, boxing promoter Don King, Time Warner, musician Stevie Wonder, and others. However, his love for politics never wavered and his political clientele is a running list of civil rights leaders and Black congressional members. In working with Coretta Scott King, he used his public relations platform to rally support for a federal holiday that honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also organized the first Congressional Black Caucus dinner in 1972.

Dukes learned early on that “Nothing happens in D.C. without a mixture of public relations and politics,” and he skillfully navigated that intersection. Never sacrificing integrity, his work shared powerful truths, particularly while representing several foreign countries, including Ghana and Liberia, and garnering support in opposition to apartheid in South Africa.

The Washington Post dubbed Dukes “one of the top public relations persuaders in the city,” and he was widely considered one of the country’s best. He succumbed to multiple myeloma in 2011, leaving behind a blueprint, not just for future Black public relations professionals, but for all those who seek to elevate excellence and bring about meaningful change.

The legacy of Ofield Dukes is a reminder for us all that the power behind insightful communications is enduring. Dukes led and operated with purpose. His work with political and civil rights icons brought on social change. For us here at Hatcher, his legacy serves as motivation to create purpose-driven work for our clients and act as ripples of positive change.