#BlackLivesMatter, Bristol, and the Media Storm

By Kate Vogelsang, CIPR North East committee member.

Nearly 100 people joined CIPR’s Diversity and Inclusion Network, CIPR North East, and CIPR South West for a fascinating event on 6 October: ‘Bristol, #BlackLivesMatter and the media storm: personal perspectives from public sector comms and the media‘.

Here are just some of the highlights from a frank and thought-provoking discussion –  hosted by Avril Lee, the chair of CIPR Diversity and Inclusion Network – with Saskia Konynenburg, Head of External Comms for Bristol City Council and Sima Kotecha, TV and radio correspondent for the BBC.

Saskia was in charge of the communications and PR for Bristol City Council during the Black Lives Matter protests. She was a key member of the team managing the response to the statue of Edward Colston being pushed into the harbour in Bristol, and the discussions about what would go on the plinth in its place.

She talked about her role during the protest which resulted in the statue being toppled, and how there was a need to balance the need to keep people safe during a pandemic with a public right to protest. This added an additional complexity to the communications, and she highlighted the importance of good working relationships with the police alongside necessary crisis management.

Saskia also explained that this wasn’t just about managing the reputational risk to the council or the media interest. It was about listening to people across the city.

“The statue divided the city. Some people were appalled it had been pulled down and others were jubilant. Everyone was sharing different versions of Bristol’s history and suggesting different people that should go in its place so we couldn’t make any rash decisions. The only way we can move is by learning the truth of our past so we’ve launched a History Commission in the city. We want to bring people together for a greater understanding.”

There was a huge demand on the time of her team, and that of the city’s mayor, Marvin Rees, the first elected black mayor in Europe. In the first week after the protest they gave 57 interviews and 56 statements to more than 100 outlets.

This included BBC Newsbeat, BBC Radio 1, CNN, Le Monde, The Globe Canada, Al Jazeera TV and Channel 9 Australia; as Saskia pointed out, not typical outlets for Bristol City Council’s news.

All this activity reached a total global broadcast audience of 13.2 million people and 178 million people in print.

Saskia’s advice to anyone dealing with a similar situation was again about engaging with and listening to people. For the council, this means with every group in Bristol:

“Remember not to alienate other groups, for example labelling people as racists for having a different view or not understanding. You’ve got to listen to everyone, particularly in situations where views can be so polarised. An inclusive society needs to include everyone.”

From Sima’s point of view as a journalist, she could see how what happened in Bristol became a global story:

“It was at a time where Black Lives Matter had triggered who we are as a society, and it became amplified as a story in the current context. Everyone had an opinion. The media attention was even bigger as a result.”

Sima gave us an honest and inspiring account of her experience as a journalist over the past 16 years, and talked about what it is like being a journalist of colour at a time of Black Lives Matter and COVID, when conversations around racial equality are heightened.

She spoke very passionately about not wanting to be stereotyped, and the importance of BAME journalists not just being given ‘black and brown’ stories to cover.

“The media needs to do more to diversify the workforce, but you can’t just put people on stories that connect with the way they look. You are more than what people see.”

For her, she emphasised the importance of being seen as a decent journalist with integrity, impartiality, and a commitment to public service.

Sima also talked about the importance of targets in recruitment – and, importantly, hiring people with talent – and particularly at senior level in organisations. She explained that without a diversity of voices in senior positions there will be a narrow portfolio of stories.

She spoke openly about her experiences in the early years of her career, and how it was so important to her that she didn’t want to be a ‘token hire’ or defined by what people could see.  She told us about how her experience as a journalist started in Canada working for a political newspaper, leading to a research job with BBC Radio Berkshire, working at the BBC bureau in New York, before she became a reporter now working across the world.

And she gave some advice to those of us working in PR pitching stories to journalists:

“Make sure what you send is actually a story. I wake up to at least 50 press releases every morning and I usually delete them after reading a couple of lines! And have somebody at your fingertips who can convey a story – a real person, or an expert. And put people forward who don’t look and sound the same.”

Sima wrapped up the event with some advice for those who want to be an ally to those from a BAME background:

“Nobody can help who they are, you are born the way you are. So have honest conversations, gain trust, convey how you feel. And be kind.”

If you attended this event, and haven’t already done so, please consider making voluntary donations to the Taylor Bennett Foundation and CIPR’s iprovision benevolent fund. The Taylor Bennett Foundation is a charity that exists to encourage black, Asian, and minority ethnic graduates to pursue a career in communications.

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