NEW YORK—When the latest census numbers were released earlier this year, it became clear—if it wasn’t already—that the ability to communicate effectively with multicultural audiences in the workplace, the community, and the marketplace will be a crucial 21st century survival skill for American corporations. With the number of Hispanic Americans up 58 percent over the past decade, to slightly more than 35 million—about the same size as the population of non-Hispanic blacks—companies need to be more sensitive than ever to the different communication needs of minority communities, and agencies need to be ready to help them.

New York consumer marketing specialist Vorhaus & Company this week became the first PR agency to respond to those census numbers, launching a new practice—V!Diversity—devoted to minority marketing. While the practice will ultimately offer counsel on reaching a wide range of minority groups, including Asian-Americans and people with alternative sexual preferences, it will initially focus on the African-American and Hispanic audiences.

According to agency president Robbie Vorhaus, “The recent Census figures prove what we’ve known all along:  there is a dramatic expansion of ethnic audiences with extraordinary purchasing power.  Companies that recognize these important audiences will be rewarded with enthusiastic, loyal customers.”

The move is unusual because typically, multicultural marketing has been the domain of two kinds of agency: specialist firms owned by minority practitioners, or giant multinationals for whom ethnic marketing is simply one more sub-specialty. Midsize firms—even those with strong mainstream marketing credentials—have rarely marketed their minority market capabilities.

But Vorhaus believes his firm’s unique “story-telling” approach to public relations is well suited to reaching minority audiences. “There are obvious differences, and you need to be sensitive to the various cultural issues, but what is the same is the need to come up with a theme that resonates. Everyone responds to good stories.”

The firm already has extensive experience in the multicultural marketing arena, having created programs for clients such as Domino’s Pizza and Bertolli USA, but it decided to formalize the practice only after a trio of employees—including two African-Americans and a Cuban-born staff member—asked for permission to formalize the agency’s expertise.

The group will be headed by agency veteran Kyle Potvin, who says the firm’s recent work for The Food Network, which worked with Vorhaus in South Florida after the local cable network threatened to drop the channel from its line-up. At the PR firm’s suggestion, The Food Network created a cause-related program focused on nutrition, partnered with nutritionists and hospitals in the region, staged seminars, and got involved in the community.

“There was a huge groundswell of support from the community,” says Potvin. “People wrote letters to the network. There was a very supportive editorial in El Diario. The result was that The Food Channel was reinstated.”

The latest census shows more than 82 million Americans—almost one-third of the U.S. population—identified themselves as members of the three largest minority groups. The number of Asian-Americans was up 74 percent, the number of Hispanics was up close to 58 percent, and the number of African-Americans was up 21 percent. The number of non-Hispanic whites increased by slightly more than 5 percent.