If Black and Indigenous people, and people of colour, matter in your PR agency, prove it

Davina Ramnarine has often been the only person of colour in the room at the PR agencies she's worked at. She's never had a manager of colour. She's experienced racial micro-aggressions. And, as the Black Lives Matter movement ripples around the world, she asks: How is it that we work as creative problem solvers, selling ideas and solutions every day, yet somehow diversity and inclusivity remain so elusive?

No-one can plead ignorance about the social injustices and inequalities faced by the Black community anymore, especially those of us for whom the media agenda is our bread and butter.

People have taken to the streets. You can’t escape the news. Content is plastered across social channels. That white supremacy and systemic racism exist and are having a devastating effect on the life prospects of Black people, as well as Indigenous people and people of colour, is an inescapable fact.

A Black Lives Matter protest in 2014

And yet, as I look at my social feeds, so many of the people I’ve worked with throughout my career in PR – the majority of whom are white and many of whom are leaders in our field – have shared nothing about the Black Lives Matter movement that continues to unfold before us.

I am left wondering why those I’ve worked with in Australia, Canada, and the UK have remained silent, and what we can do to move beyond this apathetic status quo. Have you spent the past few weeks questioning your complicity? Assuaging your guilt?

Maybe you’re doing the hard work of learning about white supremacy, your privilege, and systemic racism. Maybe you’re donating to organisations that are fighting this fight, and feel you’d only be virtue signalling to post. Maybe. But my experience tells me you’re more likely to be ignoring this topic because it makes you feel uncomfortable.

We’ve known for a long time that our industry has a diversity problem. I’ve been in PR and communications for a decade, working in PR agencies in three countries. I have seen so few Black, Indigenous, and people of colour in the agency world – agencies that claim to represent, understand, and have a unique talent for empathising and communicating with the societies they live in.

I’ve often been the only person of colour at the table; I’ve never had a manager of colour.

What I have had though, are the same conversations when it comes to the topics of diversity and inclusion. I’ve heard a lot of lip service. I haven’t seen a lot of change. I’ve experienced the same apathy over and over again.

In Canada, I experienced racism in the workplace, from micro-aggressions such as casually being told my last name is “too difficult to pronounce” (honestly, people can pronounce ‘Zack Galifianakis’ correctly, but ‘Davina Ramnarine’ is a struggle?) to being shut down and ridiculed by senior leadership when speaking up about the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity in my company.

And more.

And worse.

In the UK, I saw something special amongst us few people of colour: nods and smiles as we passed each other in the halls, as if to silently say ‘I see you’. The problem is we need white people to see us, but, more than that, to ensure we have a seat at the table. And we need to see you take a stand for what’s right.

My experiences in Australia gave me hope. I felt heard and supported. But despite this, I found that discussions and celebrations of diversity were myopic and centred on gender and sexuality, with a general avoidance or perhaps wilful ignorance when it came to addressing the lack of racial diversity in the industry.

This is why I feel a responsibility to speak out and ask more of the leaders of this industry, an industry that helps shape the public agenda and normalises what we see, hear, read and pay attention to.

I believe that PR practitioners have always had a moral obligation not just to say something, but to do something. I don’t believe my experiences and observations of racism are unusual for people of colour in public relations. Nor do I believe I’ve experienced the worst of it; I’ve had opportunities in this industry, and I’m quite aware of my relative privilege as ‘model minority’ compared to Black and Indigenous communities.

Change in our industry is long overdue, and it’s because the people who’ve historically had the power to drive meaningful change haven’t been doing it.

It’s time you recognised that the system you are a part of is broken. How is it that we work as creative problem solvers, selling ideas and solutions every day, yet somehow diversity and inclusivity remain so elusive?

Please don’t simply relegate the Black Lives Matter movement to an internal case study or a ‘lunch and learn’ session, as is so often done for the racist and tone-deaf brand campaigns we continue to see. I’m certain that if there was more diversity at the table, those campaigns would never have seen the light of day.

Instead, consider looking at fellow senior leaders in person or on your company leadership page. Do you notice a complete lack of Black, Indigenous or people of colour?

Think about your wider team and colleagues. Are they representative of your city and country?

Ask yourself if you have ever listened to the industry experiences of the one or few Black, Indigenous or people of colour in your company. Better yet, have you ever sought out these people to learn about their experiences?

Do you understand what racial micro-aggressions are? Have you ever committed them?

Have you tried to build the profile of Black, Indigenous or people of colour in your company, through exposure to industry events, master classes or more, to uplift these groups and ensure others can see themselves in the industry? At a baseline, are these people even in your company photos?

If the answer is no, you’ve got some work to do. I don’t have the answers, but here are a few tips on how you can get started on the critical work required for meaningful change in our industry.

Educate yourself

Read content from Black activists and leaders, take a course, join the conversation. But don’t expect the Black and other communities to do the work for you.

Unconscious bias courses are often a requirement in our industry, but white privilege and classism are topics frequently danced around and not properly acknowledged.

Create safe spaces for open dialogue

Engage in conversations with Black, Indigenous and people of colour about their experiences. Truly listen, and acknowledge the reality of the prejudices and fears many face or have faced. These simple actions help people feel heard and this supports inclusion. You’ll probably learn a lot.

Widen your circles for recruitment

I’ve often heard the refrain that there simply ‘aren’t candidates of colour’ for PR roles. Are you looking in the same places for something different? Remember, it can be hard for people to envision themselves on a career path when they see no faces like theirs on company pages or if their path to entering your company is marketed as a program for ‘disadvantaged minorities’. That’s hardly inclusive or fostering a sense of equality.

Show people that there truly is a pipeline to leadership, recognition and success in the industry for them. And stop using the excuse of ‘cultural fit’ in your recruitment – this is so often a euphemism for excluding those who don’t look like you or have the same background.

Remember intersectionality

If you’re going to build a ‘diversity council’, make sure you have Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour on it – not simply gender and sexual diversity.

White feminism doesn’t support everyone and addressing intersectionality is important but often (and conveniently) overlooked in our line of work.

Say – but mostly, do – something for the Black Lives Matter movement

I think it’s important that PR leaders visibly commit to real action, transparency and updates on progress towards better diversity and inclusivity. You have social channels and followings. You work with big brands and the media. How are you using your power, dollars and your voice, particularly if you are a leader in the industry?

How will you stay accountable? And what are your metrics for success in driving industry change and investing in the talent, communities and opportunities for Black and other communities?

The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted overt racism against the Black community, but more broadly, the covert and systemic racism that all Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour experience. The PR industry is no exception.

What we say and do about diversity in our line of work has huge potential to impact not only the opportunities of those within our industry, and those who might wish to join it in the future, but also how society at large views Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour.

It’s time for the public relations industry to play its part in ensuring that Black Lives Matter. It’s time for you to speak up. It’s time for you to take real action.

Davina Ramnarine is a PR professional who has worked in celebrated PR agencies around the world, including in Melbourne


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