What drove you to create BME PR Pros?
I started thinking about the diversity issue in 2015 when I attended a panel event on global communications and international development. I was the only black person in an audience of more than 100 white comms professionals. It struck me that there was a real disconnect and underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the industry. But more than that, a complete irony given the discussion focus – reporting stories from the global south. From there, my frustration snowballed. I went to events put on by the PR community purporting to challenge the diversity problem but I found many were disempowering, vacuous or both. Diversity always seemed to be attached to some kind of reward or CSR initiative. I realised that nothing is going to change through a trickle of quarterly meetings and – in my opinion – some pretty poor initiatives.
I felt I could do better and lift the game on how BMEs are viewed and I wanted to root for talented BME PR professionals. It still surprises me that in such a creative industry, diversity has not been tackled. I suspect a lot of agencies - big and small – don’t want to see change. Don’t get me wrong, I know incredible agencies doing great work where they just get it. But, to me, the Weber Shandwick’s, Golin’s Manifest London’s, M & C Saatchi PR’s, Ketchum’s, Dynamo’s, Cirkle’s et al are the exception and not the rule. I believe far too many don’t show a will for it. And there is such a low benchmark for what we consider to be effective diversity initiatives.
I believe if an agency had a dream client knocking on their door with golden budgets but the deal was pinned to creating a diverse team of people, that agency would find those BME candidates. It’s sad that money could be the rare incentive to change the status quo.
Here’s the thing; the business case for diversity has been pushed for years and years. If you run a business and you understand the importance of diversity but aren’t doing anything about it, what’s the matter with you? To me it’s simple: you’re either the agency of the past or the future.
What's the biggest lesson you've learnt from starting up BME PR Pros?
I’ve learnt the lesson of self-belief. The ability to do something entirely on your own. I’ve worked ridiculous hours, unfunded. I currently pay for every aspect of BME PR Pros including the website myself and with no-one next to me to make this initiative a reality. I’ve made no room for self-doubt, I’ve tried to believe that it’s going to be amazing. It’s not like an entrepreneur setting up a business is eager to fail or launch a mediocre business! I’ve had to force myself to believe I could do something good that would work. I couldn’t afford – financially, emotionally, mentally – to consider failure.
It’s been a very lonely business but I believe there is a whole load of talented BME PR Pros out there and I felt it was important to celebrate them and I felt compelled to do it. I still do. Being a consultant, I have much more freedom to make this work and I can talk uncensored and unfiltered. I am able to be authentic and vocal about BME issues. We work in a vanilla and muted sector, where some employers I’ve had would be very uncomfortable around the topic and wouldn’t have been happy to have me doing what I’m doing with BME PR Pros. I feel I have a responsibility not to censor myself for the good of other BME PRs striving to progress.
What's been the biggest milestone so far?
The happiest moment was on 4th December last year when the BME PR Pros / PRWeek Mentoring Scheme mentors got together for the first time for the PRWeek photoshoot to accompany a feature on the launch. Seeing these passionate, talented, generous, diverse individuals come together, who had taken a leap of blind faith to be part of the scheme and my little initiative, brought it to life for me.
It’s interesting that my biggest milestones around this come down to human interactions. Yes, it’s great the website has now had 100k hits in just over 7 months but to me, it’s the human stuff. It’s having a Skype chat with a BME going through a tough time and getting an email later to find out you’ve made a difference. Or hearing the impact our mentors are having on the careers of the mentees. Or the emails - I can get up to 100 a week- from BMEs saying how inspired they are by the mentors and mentees. Or genuine diversity champions that have heard me and got me, got what I’m trying to do and supported it. Shout out to Colin Byrne and Rachel Friend at Weber Shandwick who were there before I even had a website. That’s the stuff I care for. That’s the stuff that affects me and keeps me going.
The lack of diversity is well-documented in the PR industry. What do you think is the biggest barrier to people of colour getting in and what should businesses be doing to tackle this?
Too many recruitment practices are flawed and old fashioned and too many recruiters don’t get it. It’s a weird sector - we perpetuate the myth of how we see talent and what colour we’ve decided talent must come in. The PR industry wants candidates to assimilate to the cookie cutter profiles made in the past and there is no BME-shaped cutter to use. Too many recruitment processes are subjective. Take the NHS, it’s interesting that when it comes to medical staff and the skills needed being black and white (pun intended) then the staff are very diverse. Then you step into a comms team within the NHS and other healthcare organisations and the comms teams are very white. That is weird to me. How can we have so many agencies and organisations with massive comms teams in a city as diverse as London and yet the sector is 91% white? I think that’s weird and I think anyone that doesn’t think that’s weird, is weird.
Why can a Nigerian guy be a doctor in the NHS but not a Director of Communications? Or a girl with a hijab a dentist but not a Head of News? It’s really simple: if BMEs don’t apply for your jobs then you need to rethink your recruitment practices. If you have a BME retention problem, you need to look at your working culture. I’m not willing to accept that talent is not there. This is not a BME problem but a sector problem.
I am very aware that many of my white counterparts will have access to more opportunities than my BME counterparts. There is also a BME pay gap – not just in PR but across sectors – and it is much larger than the gender pay gap. And it’s not easy being a lone BME in a large organisation.