Elizabeth Bananuka, Founder of BME PR Pros
We caught up with this firecracker, who is forging a successful career in PR by day, whilst by night propelling BMEs into the industry who wouldn’t be doing it without BME PR Pros. The platform is opening doors for the brightest talent, who won’t let their aspirations be dashed by prejudice and discrimination. We’re rooting for this lady, just like she’s rooting for them.
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.
The rise of #metoo and #timesup has created an important opening in discussion on gender equality but it has also put fear into young women of what they may expect to experience in the working world. What would you say to those wanting to pursue a career in PR?
Prejudice and discrimination shouldn’t impact your dreams. I always say to BMEs just starting out that they deserve to have the same dreams and aspirations as a straight, middle class, home counties white guy from Oxbridge. Yep, maybe they’ll face more obstacles and their starting line may be further back, but they too are entitled to have the biggest dreams and aspirations.
It feels like female solidarity is slowly starting to crest a wave. Do you think women are feeling more confident to stand up and be heard right now?
I do. We have a lot to thank Twitter for. It’s been a powerful campaigning tool for minorities, women, LGBTQ and many others. And not to mention some vocal individuals (a shout-out to Reni Eddo-Lodge, Afua Hirsch and Laura Bates). Our sector needed it. Women have been on the receiving end of atrocious harassment by some agency staff, journalists and clients – I can tell you some horror stories. I also think a lot of agencies need to be much more responsible for guiding young people. And of course, there’s a strong drinking culture and an expectation on young staff to ‘look after’ clients at client parties and award ceremonies. Young people are vulnerable to the pressures to perform both professionally and socially and I think the sector needs to be kinder to them.
You hold down a day job on top of building BME PR Pros. If this side-project turned into something greater, would you be eager to give up the day job?
I wouldn’t give up my freelance life altogether, but I’d love to get to a sustainable position where I could be working on BME PR Pros in working hours, rather than my evenings and weekends. I don’t want to exploit the format though, this initiative is non-profit making and is driven by a mission to support BMEs in the sector. To me, it’s about ensuring our talented BME mentees get the careers they deserve and the sector gets to benefit from their talent. I want it to be pure. I’ve been overwhelmed by the desire of people to help. Over 130 people have offered to be volunteers just this year and I’ve struggled with the demand. I’m not keen on exploiting BMEs and wouldn’t want anyone to work free.
I need to find a balance. I didn’t get into this to fall into volunteer management but I don’t want to close the door on goodwill and support. I came up with this sitting alone in my flat. Naïve – perhaps – but I just saw myself working with clients and then in my free time organising events, developing initiatives and uploading web content. I started working alone in January 2017 because for years, when I tried to work with others, they either weren’t interested, couldn’t or didn’t want to give the time or they just didn’t get it. So, I worked on it solo and I got used to that. It never occurred to me others would want to get involved and I didn’t plan for it.
Working solo is exhausting but working by committee can be too slow a process for someone like me. I feel a sense of urgency around this and don’t want to waste valuable time on bureaucracy, meetings and minutes.
I also don’t want to create a new diversity echo chamber where the BME issue is dominated by me. My ideal is that others are inspired to create their own initiatives and in 18 months BME PR Pros won’t have to exist and I can finally sleep.
What's the one thing that's shocked you in your mission to raise the profile of diversity?
Well, to be honest, it’s the number of people who want to get involved for their own profile or the profile of their business. I’m not for sale. I’ve been careful who I work with and interact with because my integrity is important to me. My primary audience are BME PR Pros. I can’t and won’t sell them out for an agency with an appalling diversity track record wanting to throw money at me. Every diversity champion I shout out has – to me – passed the BME PR Pros unspoken code. They’re beyond the tedious, boring, kill me now “why is diversity important” nonsense. They get it, are doing something and want to do more.
For all the wonderful stuff that has come out of this, I also see and hear some pretty awful stuff. It’s a constant reminder that diversity is far from fixed. PR is still very old-fashioned and for me, there’s a confidence issue. There are far too many people scared to voice an opinion away from the norm and too weak or indifferent to create change.
I don’t think diversity is challenging but I do think lack of opportunity, the gender pay gap, the BME pay gap, inequality, prejudice and lack of opportunity are. If you live in a diverse city like London but find diversity in the workplace challenging, well I think you need to ask yourself some tough questions.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I’ve got lots of good people around me to inspire me every day. My parents are amazing and both very different – a perfect combination of ying and yang. We came over here as immigrants and my mum has worked very hard to put me in a place with loads more opportunities than she had herself at my age. My family is a bit of an oddity as we’ve never really fitted in. Unlike other relatives who are Rwandan, Tanzanian or Ugandan, we are a mix. And unlike other relatives we are the only ones here. I’m aware how freeing it can be to not fit in but also how divisions can lead to such horror. My Dad lost family to Idi Amin (there’s a road in Uganda called ‘Bananuka Drive’ as a tribute to my paternal grandfather) and my Mum lost relatives in the Rwandan genocide. I guess this motley background has shaped my thinking and the fighting spirit of family members inspires me.
My friend Nyree Connell is another person. She always rooted for and respected me professionally and she got BME PR Pros immediately. And Daljit Bhurji has been incredibly generous with his advice - I would have lasted but a day in PR without his unflinching encouragement.
I’m also inspired by grassroots diversity initiatives. I love the work of Women in PR and Ethan Spibey’s work on InterComms. I love what Krish Jeyakumar and Rowan Ellis are doing with Ruckus Retreat and Mercedes Benson with Social Fixt.
And of course, there’s all the positive feedback about the initiative, which keeps me going and inspires me.
Finally a quote which hangs on my wall, “If I knew that the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant new apple trees today”. There are different versions of it and some are attributed to Martin Luther and others to Martin Luther King Junior but this is my favourite version.
What's in store for the cause this year?
The plan is a whole load of new content for the website, a really big initiative which scares me but I need to keep telling myself “you can and will do it and it will be amazing”. And a series of panel events like we did last year. We’ve also got a high scale conference scheduled for spring next year which I am very excited about but I would be ruining the surprise to tell you more about it now!