Cultural Awareness & Communications

A Conversation with Eugene Williams

Eugene Williams has been in Topeka for 20 years as a general manager for public television at KTWU, which he says is amazing because general managers typically last for 20 seconds.

Consumers gravitate toward campaigns that reflect their culture. Genuine and sincere messaging resonates when it is truly authentic. But where does the listening begin? How do we start the conversation? Recently jhP’s Charles Morgan [CM], account coordinator, sat down with Eugene Williams [EW], KTWU CEO and general manager, to discuss diversity in marketing and how businesses meaningfully engage diverse audiences in their communications.

CM: What’s on your mind when it comes to diversity?

EW: I think what we’ve done, and I’m talking about the whole communications industry and probably more importantly, society – we’ve kind of watered down what diversity means. We’ve tried to put diversity into these neat little pockets.

When you say diversity we define it as these ethnic groups, these gender groups, and really what diversity is, is much broader than that – it’s about diversity of thought.

You can’t get diversity of thought and you can’t get a diversity of ideas unless you have a diversity of culture. We all come from varying places and we all have a certain amount of baggage that comes with us, and that baggage can be really good.

“You have to have a lot of tools in your toolbox. And if you’re not willing to go out there and buy those tools, guess what – you’re not going to be able to fix what needs fixed.”


CM: How can brands be inclusive?

EW: I believe that it really starts kind of at the core, at the very top. It is hard to include something or someone if you don’t know that it needs to be included.

It comes back to that toolbox thing. If you’ve got people who understand that you not only need a hammer, but sometimes you need a screwdriver, sometimes you need a pair of pliers, sometimes you need a ratchet set – if you understand that you need all those different things that need repaired in a different way.

I think what we have a tendency to do from the inclusion standpoint is, that there are a lot of hammers that sit at the table and make decisions. They all look like hammers, and when they all look like hammers, every problem whether it is creatively or mechanical, whatever it is, every problem begins to look like a nail.

Until you are willing to feel the discomfort of bringing other types of tools to the table, then you are never ever going to get it right.


CM: Why does diversity matter in advertising?

EW: The reason it matters is because everybody buys something and everybody sells something. Even if it is the simple idea that people sell themselves – if you think that everybody is somewhat monolithic in the way that things operate, then you’re fooling yourself.

If you want to sell a product, if you want to sell a service, you have to understand that there are a lot of people that may have an interest. You hurt yourself by being so focused in one area, by being so tailored in one area, by creating messages that are for one type of audience – you leave money on the table.


CM: How can companies make that shift, to thinking more and being more diverse?

EW: It is hard given where places are today. And this is where it gets to be more of that personal thing for individuals.

It is about fear, that’s all it is. People think, well, what am I going to have to give up in order to get them involved in this? That is the societal guild that exists. There is this crazy idea that in order to get something you have to give up something. It’s the most ridiculous thing I have heard of in my life. In order for you to live your life, I don’t have to give up anything. As a matter of fact, if I help you live your life in a way that benefits you, it actually benefits me too. And so, it’s that fear of what does that mean, they’re afraid to do what it takes to get them there. And that is something that the dominant culture in our society needs to figure out.


CM: When brands are sending marketing messages out but maybe missing that diversity internally, do you think it’s visible culturally to the outside – can the audience tell they’re missing something?

EW: Oh yeah! That’s easy, really easy. You look at the message! This is something you will understand very well. I do a lot of consulting work for a lot of different businesses. You and I could be in the airport and when I do this [nods head] you understand what I mean. The dominant culture does not get that. They will never understand in that one gesture what I have acknowledged to you is, your full-complete total existence. They don’t get that. And see, I could put together short 15-sec spot with just those things, with just that one gesture in about five to seven different settings and every black person, especially every black male, would get it. No white males would understand it. No white females would get it. And so, if I am not in the room when you start to make that message to folks in the room that don’t look like me, that don’t think like me, you will miss that boat totally.


CW: What has been the biggest shift over the years when it comes to featuring minorities in advertisement?

EW: I have heard Oprah say this a number of different times, when she was a kid she didn’t really see a lot of African Americans on TV and stuff like that. I think things started changing when people realized there was a market, meaning there were products and services that could be sold to that market. And when they realized that you couldn’t sell to someone who speaks Spanish by you talking in English. You can’t begin to sell something to black culture or about black culture if you don’t know anything about it. It requires that type of nuance and understanding.

If you go back to 80s, maybe 90s, you know rap music started to hit, I heard Oprah say, I knew rap music had really hit when I heard the Pillsbury Doughboy rapping. I mean culturally, there was time when MTV didn’t play Michael Jackson. And so, all that stuff began to change like mid 80s, when they realized that people were buying stuff.

“Culture is a blending of ideas. It is a lot more complex than we would like it to be. It is a lot more complex than what we try to make it be.”


CM: From a business standpoint, how important is it to have diverse relationships, colleagues and friendships?

EW: You’re supposed to make it broad. You’ve got to want to do that. And the people that want to do that are always successful. And it’s not to say that the people who don’t do it aren’t successful, but they’re limited in their success. You have got to be willing to put yourself in a situation where you want to learn, you want to seek knowledge, and it’s going to cost you something.


CM: From your experience, what are the attributes required from our leaders to gain their commitment in engaging our community and driving forward the diversity agenda?

EW: Leadership is an attribute, but of course it comes with a lot of other things that lead to the major attribute of leadership. I think it is a matter of looking in the mirror and being open and honest with yourself that there are things that you can do better and that is leadership. Another thing is that you are able to look around you and say “Charles” knows something that I don’t know, there is something that he can teach me, that is another aspect of leadership – recognizing that you don’t know it all.

You may have a family member or a friend that disagrees with you on political issues, instead of trying to make sure your agenda is talked about all the time or trying to get them to adjust to what your way of thinking is, you might have to sit and just listen and then say okay, you know what, I am going to sit and think about that. I am going to research that. Once again, that is a leadership attribute. Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes or situation and try to understand what it is that they are asking you or telling you that is important. It really is that whole thing of doing any internal audit – being open and honest with yourself.


CM: What tips would you give a company on diversity and inclusion?

EW: Get outside yourself. Find others and really, really see others who don’t look like you or sound like you. Go out and actually look for folks that disagree with you. Look how people utilize technology differently from various cultural groups. And it’s hard to not stereotype, because a lot of what happens in our lives we use as frames or references to understand, opposed to what we have developed ourselves.

There are a lot of things that are just handed to us and we take those things for granted – we say okay, that is just the way people are – and that is not the way people are.


CM: Why now? Why is this conversation timely and relevant to today?

EW: I think people are breaking out from those stereotypes. And they really do want to be recognized for their individuality. We see this now with the #MeToo movement. We’re beginning to feel the need to not set ourselves apart, but to set ourselves up to be better than what society in general has defined all of us in society as.

There is no group in society that has not been taken advantage of. Everybody has been discriminated against – that goes without saying. But I think that now is the time where people have gotten to the point politically, religiously, and socially, where everything has just come to this head where everyone wants to be different and needs to be better.


CM: Have you seen it done right?

EW: There is a brand out of London that challenges the prevailing thought. They sell a number of different products. Their branding challenges society in the way they do their commercials and stuff like that. They make you ask a lot of questions when they write their copy and when they show their people – they challenge the audience.


CM: What should leadership be doing to further cultural diversity?

EW: If you are diverse, then you’re already inclusive. You have to have the right folks at the table. And if you don’t have them, you go out and get them. As much as possible, you should have a diversity of clients, which means you have a diversity of people sitting at the table.


CM: What can employees be doing on a daily basis to be inclusive?

EW: I learned something from an older gentleman early in my career. I took my first general management position when I was in my 20s. This guy, Bill, was in his late 60s or 70s, getting ready to retire, he said, “You have to live life. You have to live life without resorting to giving in.”

I think that is true, especially for young employees, people right out of college – you feel the pressure of your first job – should I say this, should I not say this, am I going to be able to hold on to this position. That fear exists in today’s society.

“What I have learned is, we have to live life to the point where we say what it is – you can’t buy me with the status quo.”


Read more about Eugene Williams below: 

Eugene Williams has an extensive background in broadcast and film which includes work with CBS, CNN, NBC, The National Science Foundation, and numerous local stations, state associations and independent production companies.

Eugene is proud to be a native of Mobile, Alabama and an alumnus of the University of Alabama where he earned his Bachelor of Arts in Broadcast and Film Communications. After completing his undergraduate degree in communications, he completed an associate degree in electronic technology, earning three certificates in electronics from Southwest State Technical College. Eugene also has a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Mobile.

At the national level, Eugene has served as a member of the Public Broadcasting System Board of Directors. He has served on the Small Station Fund Committee and the Digital Distribution Fund Panel for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting. He is a graduate of two prestigious programs of the National Association of Broadcasters; the Management Development Seminar for Television Executives and the Broadcast Leadership Training Program.

Eugene takes a leadership role at both the state and local levels. He is a member of the Kansas Association of Broadcasters serving as a past-Chair and past Vice-Chair. Eugene served two terms as Chairman of the Kansas Public Broadcasting Council and served a 10-year term as Chairman of the Kansas Public Broadcasting Council’s Digital Television Committee. Eugene is a member of the Downtown Topeka Rotary Club and has served as Chair of its Community Service efforts. Eugene also served as Vice-Chair of the Downtown Topeka Rotary Foundation. In March of 2016, Eugene was inducted into the Topeka Business Hall of Fame.

As a broadcaster, Eugene serves as Executive Producer of a variety of programs (sports, talk, documentary, and music performance). He is a three-time EMMY winner that has been nominated 9 times. He has hosted a variety of TV shows and pageants and moderated many political debates. In 2011, Eugene served as the emcee for the state of Kansas’ sesquicentennial (150th) celebration. Eugene is the host of KTWU’s newest program, Working Capital, it showcases entrepreneurship and provides an atmosphere for sharing practical business experiences. Working Capital is a show about local and regional businesses within the KTWU viewing area.

KTWU celebrated 50 years of broadcast service on October 21, 2015 and was the first public television station in the state of Kansas. KTWU is licensed to Washburn University and provides programming for both children and adults, with subjects related to education, cultural enrichment, public affairs and entertainment, 24-hours a day, seven days a week. KTWU also provides and participates in a number of community outreach programs and educational services.

KTWU serves approximately 196,000 households in the eastern Kansas corridor. Some of KTWU’s productions include: Sunflower JourneysQUEST; Beyond Theology; Wood, Brick & StoneIGI LIVEWorking Capital, the Washburn University Holiday Vespers concert, and several Theater of the Mind radio plays. Many of these have won awards at the local, state and regional divisions. KTWU’s productions have earned 17 Emmy nominations and have won 8 Emmy statues.