Yorkshire CCC’s comms team sacrificed Azeem Rafiq at the expense of the brand – and we’re all poorer for it

The things we love hurt us the most and, as Azeem Rafiq – the courageous whistleblower from Yorkshire County Cricket Club who has revealed the tragic truth of systemic discrimination in the professional game – gave testimony to MPs, sport hurt more than it ever has.

We failed Azeem Rafiq and we must do better than simply support the brand next time, argues James Fenn
We failed Azeem Rafiq and we must do better than simply support the brand next time, argues James Fenn

Every line felt like a punch to the gut. Every revelation a stab in the heart. Watching a tearful Azeem Rafiq, someone who has fought so hard, reveal that “my career was taken by racism” was devastating.

As a communications professional, I could write about how this case has been handled. The terrible way Yorkshire County Cricket Club failed to take responsibility. Its appalling description of ‘banter’. The specific PR failings of one club.

But that would miss the point. This is bigger than one team, or even one sport.

What this case has shown me is that the world we talk about, write about and even sometimes advise clients about isn’t real for so many people. There is another world we don’t see – or, maybe, that we choose to ignore.

I’ve played amateur cricket for close to 20 years. I’ve heard plenty of talk of the discrimination that Rafiq described. Yet still I was rocked by every word, as if it was a surprise.

I think that’s because most of us, myself included, live in a form of blissful delusion. Ignoring the true meaning of what we see and hear, because it’s too painful, or too difficult. We want to preserve the worlds we love, so we ignore uncomfortable realities.

We create paper worlds. Visions of a liberal society where so much progress has been made. Where we accept problems exist, and create strategies to solve them, but define them how we want to, in terms we think we can solve – not how they are being experienced.

In The Guardian sports writer Jonathan Liew’s brilliant piece earlier this week, he talked about the England and Wales Cricket Board’s commitment to anti-discrimination and wrote: “Consequences are for the little people. Humanity is for the comms department.”

As someone who works in communications, it’s one of the most powerful sentences I’ve ever read.

Every brand and governing body now has a perspective on DE&I. Thank goodness they do. There is so much that needs to be done and communications professionals should continue to help.

But we must understand that our job isn’t to frame their position in a way that works just for our clients. Or for us.

It’s not to craft a new paper world out of purpose statements and values presentations, meaning nothing to the people struggling in the real one.

Azeem Rafiq spoke about wanting to be “a voice for the voiceless”.

This is our great challenge: to elevate the voices of those who experience things we never could, to hold ourselves responsible for uncovering their reality, not creating our own, and to ensure that we embody the diversity of experience required to see the truth.

This courageous man sacrificed his career, his privacy and his relationships to lay bare the stark reality of a world that had failed him.

If, next time, we haven’t exposed these issues before another whistleblower has to sacrifice themselves, we will have failed him too.

James Fenn is associate director of sports and partnership marketing at Hill+Knowlton Strategies

Thumbnail credit: Getty

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