by Tony Jones
Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Memphis-born public relations professional Devin James has steadied himself after getting wobbled as part of a public relations team assisting the city of Ferguson, Mo. with its public response following the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Michael Brown Jr.
James and his company, the Devin James Group, were working out of the spotlight until a St. Louis newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, detailed James’ reckless homicide conviction resulting from a shooting in 2004. He served three months in prison and 10 years probation.
The newspaper followed up with a scathing editorial, presaging an Internet and media explosion excoriating James. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles was well aware of James’ past. He told St. Louis’ KMOV Channel 4 that he felt it would provide an additional connection “to counter criticism that city officials are out of touch with people who may have a criminal record but are trying to turn their lives around.
“My background was never an issue to anybody. It has no reflection on my ability to do public relations or be a strategic counsel for government entities,” James said during an interview with The New Tri-State Defender.
James was hired as a minority subcontractor by the St. Louis-based communications firm Elasticity, which was contracted by the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. Katy Jamboretz, vice president, Marketing & Communications, for the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, says the organization has asked Elasticity to release James from his subcontractor role, due to a lack of transparency.
“While we admire his personal growth from difficult circumstances and commend him for his high quality work in Ferguson, it was the lack of information about his background that prompted us to make this move,” Jamboretz said in a written release. “Mr. James failed to inform us of his prior conviction. He also did not reveal this information to Elasticity when he was hired as a subcontractor. As of today, we are developing new vendor due diligence policies which we believe will prevent similar incidents in the future.”
James said his company has always been forthright with all of its government clients.
“We told the partnership (when his firm was initially hired). We told the partnership and they thought it was a good idea when they recommended that we work with Ferguson. So every headline that you’ve read has been inaccurate.”
James has at least one public official, Tennessee State Rep. Barbara Cooper, strongly on his side. James’ family turned to Cooper for assistance after his conviction and subsequent prison term.
“What happened to Devin was ten years ago, if not longer. And I know because I helped him through it,” said Cooper. “What they’re trying to do to him is so unfair and typical, though it really comes as no surprise. Why don’t they tell the truth for a change? Yes, he was a felon; was. Look what he has become since. That’s the real story.”
A July 2014 article in the St. Louis American speaks to what James has become, reporting that he was class president of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business Minority Business Executive Program.
Let him speak for himself.
“My firm was under contract with the St. Louis Economic Partnership for a brand assessment of North County, where Ferguson is located. About two days after we completed the assessment, Michael Brown was shot and killed and the Partnership decided that they needed to do something to protect the investments in the region,” said James.
“Contrary to what a lot of people think, we were not actually tasked to do PR (public relations). Our initial assignment was to assist the P.R. firm retained, Common Ground public relations.”
Putting the Ferguson area into context, James said, “It wasn’t a secret that the area lacked the investment that the non-African American areas had received. The highest ranking executive in the county is African American and has acknowledged that they had not done a good job in investing in the African American community.”
His core duty began as part of the team seeking ways to spur more economic investment in the African-American community. That involved discussion about topics that are issues in many other cities: How to challenge patterns of poverty and determining corporate responsibility.
“Like any other typical American city,” said James, including Memphis in the mix. “I have been doing business there (in Ferguson) for six years and never got a prime contract.”
Then the shooting occurred.
“The first thing that jumped out to me was that there was so much division between the city, the state and the county. When something large like this happens in a small town like Ferguson they’re not equipped to handle something like this,” said James.
“My first concern was where were the resources to help them. The police chief immediately called the county in take over the investigation. The first couple of days it was amazing to me how little support they received. To me it was almost like they had left them out to burn. I think a lack of leadership from the state to the county level added to the confusion. It was chaotic. We’re talking three or four days after the shooting and there was no clear plan.”
James said it is not his intention to criticize the initial PR firm that was hired.
“I just think something like this was outside their wheelhouse. The cultural sensitivity piece was missing. Nobody had really dealt with any kind of race related, international conversations. Of course in Memphis we’ve dealt with that kind of conversation for years so I understood what kind of conversations that needed to be had. As I was engaging the stakeholders I was concerned that no one understood the severity of the situation.”
By email, James detailed his responsibility following the shooting.