Black History Month: 'If industry leaders want to bring about change, we need to deal with the problem of race'

Throughout Black History Month in October, Women in PR has been publishing interviews with senior black and mixed race female comms professionals on topics including diversity in PR, racism and Black Lives Matter. Here are some of the highlights.

(L-R) Dorothy Burwell, Effie Kanyua, Barbara Phillips, Evadney Campbell and Jennifer Thomas
(L-R) Dorothy Burwell, Effie Kanyua, Barbara Phillips, Evadney Campbell and Jennifer Thomas

Q: Do you think the industry has a diversity problem?

Effie Kanyua, director of PR and comms, Hearst UK: "Well if you look at all of the stories and you listen to what people are saying, I don’t think it’s any surprise that it has a problem. The problems have been around for years and years, but what the past few months have done is highlight how widespread the problems are."

Dorothy Burwell, partner, Finsbury: "Yes, and I think it’s obvious when you look at the makeup of the industry. Across the industry we don’t reflect the wider population throughout London at all. The bigger issue, however, is what is driving this underrepresentation."

Barbara Phillips, director, Brownstone Communications: "I think the problem is actual bona fide racism. Racism is a very ugly word, which would explain why it has to date been avoided at all costs. But if PR and comms industry leaders (who are master problem-solvers) want to bring about change, then we need to deal with the problem of race."

Q: Do you think brands should be talking about the importance of racial diversity and, if so, what are the best ways to address the topic?

Kanyua: “Don’t put out statements that you can’t live up to, be transparent, and show support. I understand that it’s tricky for some people as they don’t want to speak up [because] they know they aren’t doing what they need to be internally, but I don’t agree that you should stay silent. Be transparent. Brands can’t just post a black square [on social media] and leave it at that.”

Burwell: "Post- the death of George Floyd there has been an increase in ‘performative allyship’. Brands have said a lot and produced symbols to join the movement, but there is not a lot beneath the surface. They need to demonstrate how they are supporting an inclusive culture. Don’t just tell us that you believe in equality, show us what you are doing to cultivate it."

Jennifer Thomas, former director of internal communications, Direct Line Group: "For brands to be completely silent, that makes them complicit."

Evadney Campbell, co-founder, Shiloh PR: "None of us can fail to see the visibility of diversity on our screens nowadays, but how deep does that really go? What are the companies actually doing for their people, how are they treating them within the organisation, and how are they helping them to progress? Everyone can talk, what we really want is to see long-term changes – and more importantly, we want to see organisations look closely at their people to determine why they are not attracting a more diverse base and why these people have not progressed through the organisation."

Phillips: "I think brands that talk about racial diversity should personify their intent through their executive board membership. Throwing up a few black and brown faces in recruitment materials only goes so far. Even I have fallen for that one, only to have a brutally rude awakening once inside the firm. If the seats of power are still all white and likely male, then all discussions should be internal and focused on correcting their unsustainable operating models. We see through the lip service."

Q: Do you feel the Black Lives Matter protests have started to trigger real change in the industry or are people just paying lip service to the issue?

Thomas: "I don’t think we’ve seen real change yet because change takes time. It’s definitely started a more honest conversation, which is good. Whatever your background is, or wherever you are in your career, it’s given us permission and a platform to speak up, and that has been the biggest change."

Burwell: "I don’t have a crystal ball to say whether real change will take place for the future, but what it has done is it has opened the conversation on the real challenges that black people face. Hopefully that will be sustained, but I think what will drive it more is client engagement and the strategic impetus to do something."

Campbell: "The bottom line is, yes, it has started to trigger a real change. For those of us that have experienced real uprisings before, this definitely feels different. Whether it continues is up to us, and we have to keep on at these companies as well as disrupting systemic racism to ensure that it does."

Q: If you could sum up the reasons behind your success in a few sentences what would they be?

Phillips: "When the microaggressions start (as they always do) I am… fairly plain speaking (I'll admit to even being strident on occasion) and don't shy away from having difficult conversations. They haven't always ended well, but that's the price we pay for being 'black at work'."

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