Once just a ‘nice to have’, diversity in public sector comms is now here to stay

It doesn’t seem so long ago I was working in busy public sector press offices churning out announcements.

People want to feel equal, not singled out and never ignored, says Syeda Hasnain-Mohammed

Then, it seemed a luxury to have the bandwidth to disseminate comms to regional outlets, let alone ethnic publications. Despite it being a key aim, it was a ‘nice to have’. Now, it’s a ‘have-it-or-be-damned’ scenario; and it’s about time.

The Black Lives Matter movement and devastating consequences of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities have jolted the comms world awake to inequalities we couldn’t or wouldn’t see before. What would once have been isolated incidents are now sparks that have spread like wildfire.

It’s no longer simply a case of good or bad PR, either; demonstrating genuine efforts for equality can make or break an organisation’s reputation. But it cannot be done without inclusion of the groups we are trying to communicate with.

There are countless public sector campaigns or events being criticised for having too many male and/or white faces. Even the faces of public sector leaders are changing, with more Government figures from ethnic minorities and the recent appointment of Amanda Pritchard as the first female CEO of NHS England.

Seasoned colleagues recall efforts by local and central government to reach diverse communities since the 80s. After sweeping health system reforms and seismic events such as 9/11, we witnessed yo-yo phases of comms equality. That was, until 2020.

Ethnic minorities who were the subject of a campaign to encourage COVID-19 vaccine take-up have told us they didn’t want to be targeted, manipulated or persuaded; just to hear facts and make up their own mind. I’d seen this in so many campaigns before… a discomfort at suddenly having the lens of Government on you like Sauron when you had been so accustomed to living on the fringes of it.

This push-pull of over- or under-communicating has not found its equitable medium. People want to feel equal, not singled out and never ignored.

Finding the balance has perhaps also been hampered by the imbalances in our own teams. Too often the faces communicating to diverse groups are not representative. People in my network have struggled to find career equity – enough for BAME or female professionals to resort to WhatsApp and Twitter groups to create a fairer space.

This needs to change if we’re to use the valuable insight into communications preferences, subtleties, risks and trends that only those from within ethnic communities will know how to leverage.

Internships, development programmes and other networks could all be used to bolster accessibility and encourage a broader field of talent more representative of the communities we serve.

We’re facing an uncertain autumn and another long winter. With more COVID-19 waves and variants on the horizon, patient waiting lists and winter pressures, it would be easy to be distracted.

But the momentum is here, now, to correct inequalities in our industry. We cannot afford to let this be a passing phase.

Syeda Hasnain-Mohammed is head of communications at King’s Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre

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