Black Lives Matter and the diversity of British PR: A collective call to action

The Black Lives Matter protests, which began in the US following the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis Police before spreading around the world, have sparked conversations about racism in every sector and strata of society, including PR.

Remove barriers and create a level playing field in the industry if you want to see change, these commentators advocate
Remove barriers and create a level playing field in the industry if you want to see change, these commentators advocate

Now, eight people –  some of whom are alumni of the Taylor Bennett Foundation, a charity that encourages BAME graduates to enter the comms industry – share their views on the movement and what steps the industry needs to take to improve diversity.

Toni Adeola, account director, Brunswick Group

Toni Adeola

Current events have been exhausting to say the least. As a black woman watching the events in the US, the experience has been all too triggering. I think I speak for the majority when I say that, while we look on at what is taking place across the Atlantic, it feels a little too familiar to some of the experiences faced in the UK.

Clearly, we have an issue to tackle here on our own home territory.

Working in corporate London as a black woman has had its highs and lows.

There is the initial high that comes with finally working in a city that you have always associated with success and finally ‘making it’, and then there is a reality that quickly hits; that you are different.

I have lived in Essex most of my life, in a not-so-diverse suburb, so being an ‘other’ is not a new experience for me.

However, when I first started out in PR, it became quickly apparent that my hard work was not going to speak for itself, nor was it going to be enough.

To thrive in PR, you need a vast corporate network and strong, relevant relationships, both built on shared interests and commonalities.

In such cases, being different does not always work to your advantage.

According to the PRCA, the industry is still predominantly white British (78 per cent), although this figure is five per cent lower than in 2016.

For many readers, if you look around your office, I am sure that this number would not be met with much surprise.

As we take a moment to look on at the global events of the last week, there is also an opportunity to look within.

The PRCA and other industry bodies have made significant moves in addressing the issue of diversity, but there is more to be done.

I came into the industry thanks to the Taylor Bennett Foundation.

Among other things, the charity provided me with a mentor at my agency who became more of a friend and champion within the firm.

He understood my experiences and, as a white man, was able to use his privilege to expose me to relevant opportunities and steer me in the right direction professionally.

I was happy that PRWeek was looking for contribution on this topic; it is a great platform to call on the industry to take action.

However, I could not accept this platform without sharing it with other black voices in the industry, so I asked black colleagues to share their experiences of being black and working in PR.

Here is what they had to say:

Alex Kolawole, associate director, APCO Worldwide

Alex Kolawole

The representation of black professionals in the communications industry has increased in the past few years but organisations cannot rest on their laurels.

There is more work that needs to be done to ensure the industry removes racial barriers to entry to attract future talent and change the perception of the industry as a predominantly 'white sector'.

Professionals in the industry must make a conscientious effort to have uncomfortable conversations with individuals from black and ethnic backgrounds because that is how knowledge is exchanged and true progress is made.

I work with great colleagues at my current organisation and have discovered that when they make a conscious effort to have open, uncomfortable conversations about race or movements such as Black Lives Matter, without any prejudice, we build strong relationships and find common ground that moves us, the industry and, ultimately, humanity in the right direction.

The PR industry must refuse to be silent on these social movements and should continue to do all it can to create an industry that makes all races feel comfortable.

I would encourage agencies and communications teams to set targets to hire diverse talent, actively build leadership teams from different races and support organisations such as the Taylor Bennett Foundation that have opened the door for BAME talent to enter the PR industry.

Emmanuel Ofosu-Appiah, UK PR manager, Mercer

Emmanuel Ofosu-Appiah

Many black PR professionals are troubled and affected by recent events in the US.

I know there are lot of us thinking about what we can do within our own organisations to create effective change.

In my view, this is a time for senior business figures, in-house and PR agency leaders to reiterate their support for diversity and reject racism. We all have a part to play, regardless of our skin colour, and it is a conversation we must not shy away from.

If we want to see change, we have to be willing to discuss these issues to create a level-playing field and a progressive environment.

Jennifer Ogunleye, PR manager, KPMG

Jennifer Ogunleye

I have worked both in-house and in agency. The tough thing about experiencing racism in agency life is that you might have the triple-hit of issues from colleagues within your firm, from clients and at industry events.

In-house roles provide the added burden of industry exposure, so if you're in a typically more traditional industry, you may find there is a higher likelihood of experiencing racist attitudes.

I have been approached time and time again by recruiters and agency heads, curious about how to get more diverse candidates into the industry, while I’m simultaneously approached by young, prospective, black PRs at events and over Linkedin who can’t seem to get a foot in the door.

Employers need to take a good look at themselves and ask: where is the disconnect?

It’s not just about finding the talent, it’s about creating an environment where black talent feels welcome, seen and respected.

Of course that will take a certain level of uncomfortable introspection, but if black lives matter to you, it’s about time you put your money where your mouth is.

Josh Burrell, senior press officer, Transport for London

Josh Burrell

I started out my career as a paid intern at a housing association covering communications and PR in-house after applying to more than 100 jobs following graduation in 2012.

While there, I applied for another PR internship aimed at black, Asian and minority ethnic students and graduates with Transport for London, as it sounded great and I hadn’t seen any similar schemes anywhere that aimed to promote the career to races that are typically underrepresented in PR.

The scheme, named after Stuart Ross, has now been broadened to provide internships in public affairs, marketing and stakeholder engagement; other areas of the communication industry where there is a severe underrepresentation of people from BAME communities.

I’m proud to 'buddy' with new interns on the scheme, providing them support and mentoring, and to be involved in the recruitment of future interns on the scheme.

I feel that the PR industry, and particularly major brands, should now look at their purpose more closely and ensure that not only are they not enforcing racist practices or stereotypes but that they are educated on how to stand up against racism and be truly anti-racist.

There is more that can be done to recruit more black people into the industry, and there is no better time than now.

Kamiqua Pearce, senior communications consultant

Kamiqua Pearce

The sector needs to up its game on inclusion and belonging – one thing that has become clear, through platforms like BME Pros and ColorComm and sitting on diversity panels, is there are more than a handful of BAME PR professionals, a great deal more than when I started out almost 14 years ago.

However the challenges and micro-aggressions are largely still the same. Diversity without inclusion is a lose-lose situation.

The sector needs to do more to make those already working in PR and comms, from diverse backgrounds, to feel included, valued and respected and place more value on having a team of diverse individuals who all bring something different to strategy development and creativity.

Once this happens, there will be more BAME PR professionals progressing within the sector and in a position to influence, as well as more BAME professionals talking about and sharing the sector’s diversity credentials within their peer groups and their communities – increasing consideration for a career in PR and communications.

Tommy Rufai, senior account executive, Wimbart PR

Tommy Rufai

For a large part of my career, I’ve normalised our industry’s lack of representation.

I was used to being the only black person in the room and navigating the challenges of this.

However, I’ve come to realise that although something may be normal, it doesn’t mean it isn’t broken.

Unfortunately, the PR sector’s lack of diversity is symptomatic of wider society, and with current events forcing our world into a much-needed reset, our industry needs to follow suit.

Similar to the way society needs to view #BLM as more than just a hashtag, our industry needs to see representation as more than a 'tick-box'.

There needs to be an understanding that diversity is a necessity rather than a trend and if we’re going to see meaningful change, it’s going to take a long-term commitment to self-reflection, education and some uncomfortable conversations.

Ronke Lawal, founder, Ariatu Public Relations

Ronke Lawal

I think there's an assumption that I started my business because I was rejected by a big agency. In fact, I started my business because it was a dream of mine to do so – much like many of my white counterparts who start micro agencies/consultancies.

The industry in and of itself is much like many of the industries and sectors in this country. We have the talent but we infantalise it – offering opportunities at base level but not enough support to rise through the ranks, thrive or flourish. whether it is in-agency, in-house or even as an independent business owner like myself.

Thankfully, I have always been intentional about identifying and connecting with fellow black professionals. I didn't wait for any particular organisation to pinpoint them, I found them myself over the years, because to continue to rely on the very system that enables our invisibility, would be to deny myself the opportunity to see what is true: that we are here and we are great and we will always be more than worthy.


PRWeek UK is committed to having a more diverse selection of commentators in our articles, and is compiling a list of BME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) PR professionals who are willing to be quoted. To be added to the list, please email john.harrington@haymarket.com and include your specialist areas of expertise, and/or preferred subjects for commentary.

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