‘I thought my experiences of racist abuse in PR were bad luck’

A new CIPR report finds a profession with declining levels of ethnic diversity and with insufficient action being taken to address the issue. Elizabeth Bananuka, Founder BME PR Pros, reflects on a problem which public relations has been unable, or unwilling, to tackle.

It’s a common myth that my personal experiences were the reason why I launched BME PR Pros but they weren’t. I genuinely believe a sector about people and about communications should reflect all kinds of people and talk to all audiences.

I’d always assumed some of the things I’d experienced in my career – from being called the N word to being blocked for opportunities – was because I had bad luck.

I had the results (and portfolio to prove it) so why wouldn’t I think that?

Prior to launching BME PR Pros I had never met another Black PR woman and had no one to compare my experiences with. When I re-launched the website with the mentoring scheme in 2018, I was overwhelmed by an influx of emails that came (and have never stopped coming) and the things I was told by comms pros of every background and at different stages of their careers.

The Black guy who was referred to by the size of his penis even by board members, the Indian girl called the P word, the South East Asian girl asked about blow jobs, the people abused by clients as agency bosses turned a blind eye, the women mean girled then called hysterical for crying, the many left out of meetings, great campaigns, the ones passed over for jobs, again and again and again, the Black women called ‘angry’ and ‘aggressive’ by their bullies (the irony!), the Mixed Race people asked ‘what are you?’ and the Muslims that drink at work dos because they’re scared of coming across ‘too Muslim’.

And on the flip side, I’ve watched a high-profile agency boss regularly like racist content on Twitter including content pushed out by EDL members and then talk about ‘we need more diversity’ at industry events.

I’ve watched PRs in senior roles with considerable Twitter followers joke about Black people’s reactions to racially offensive comms work, retweeting Islamophobic content and applaud the work of extreme right-wing high-profile racist commentators. I have had emails from comms pros from Black, Asian, Mixed Race and Ethnic Minority backgrounds pleading with me to expose certain agencies and organisations as racist or run by racist bosses.

The lack of professionalism, to be polite, shouldn’t come as a shock.

After all, all you need to set up a PR agency is wifi, a mobile and a laptop – you don’t need values or to care about diversity. There are many agencies with more awards than HR policies, agencies run by famously horrible bosses and whole swathes that reek of toxic masculinity.

So, the latest research? Heart-breaking but unsurprising.

We are a sector full of people that want to talk about diversity but don’t ever want to discuss or engage with racism or racial inequality. That don’t ever want to ask how in 2020 an industry with so many agencies and organisations based in cities as ethnically diverse as London, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, can be 92% white and why the number of ethnic minorities has declined over the years.

I fully expect large parts of our sector not to engage with the contents of the report or to reflect on the working cultures of their own environments because that would take real work and a genuine commitment to racial diversity.

However, for those that want to something about diversity, I created The Blueprint kite mark for organisations committed to removing inequality and barriers to progression. You can find out more here.

Elizabeth is a comms consultant and the founder of BME PR Pros which she describes as ‘one person’s little attempt to promote diversity in the PR and comms sector’. She develops and manages every aspect of the initiative in her spare time including the popular BME PR Pros / PRWeek Mentoring Scheme, the website (which she likes to point out ‘had more than 220k hits all through organic growth in a 16-month period’) and the social media channels (she takes full credit for the Daniel Kaluuya gifs).

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