‘Black and Brown people currently working in the PR and communications industry have a rod running up our spines made of some otherworldly material,’ says Barbara Phillips, Chair of the PRCA’s newly launched Race and Ethnicity Equity Board (REEB).
Aiming to reform an industry that has been too slow to undo the status-quo of non-inclusive boardrooms and leadership teams that harm practitioners with microaggressions, prejudicial hiring practices and unfair promotional decisions, the board has set out its terms of reference for making long-overdue changes. As Chair, Barbara shares how the board’s work has begun, how lockdown triggered some much-needed reflection within the PR and communications sector and what it would take for her to recommend public relations as a career to young people in 2020.
What are you most looking forward to getting started on in the role?
As a board we published a terms of reference document that covers a number of pressing issues within PR and comms. So, I am most looking forward to there being a time when full access to senior leadership industry opportunities does not stop dead (for the most part) when it comes to Black, Brown and ethnically diverse practitioners. It doesn’t seem to matter how talented or qualified we may be or how much we contort ourselves in an effort to ‘fit in’.
What do you see as the main challenges to REEB’s aims and how will the board tackle them?
The main overall challenge is a complete lack of desire to even have a conversation about race much less tackle the devastating effect it has on different communities and the industry. We have several strategies to tackle them including partnering with organisations already adopting best practices, and using the influence and reach of the PRCA.
Tell us a bit about the other board members you’re working with and what they’ll be bringing to the team?
We are all equal in our passion, dedication, commitment and determination to deliver at least the beginnings of racial equity across the PR and communications industry. We are all agreed that the current status quo of ‘all white leadership and decision makers’ is unsustainable and we refuse to let future talented PR and comms professionals enter our industry with close to nil chance of succeeding to its highest echelons because of their race. I am just the mouthpiece!
In the launch for REEB, you mentioned the need to step away from using ‘BAME’ as a descriptor – why should other industry bodies consider taking the same step?
I think that is for each organisation to decide. But it is worth mentioning that many leaders, individuals, and influencers have voiced their deep displeasure at being referred to as BAME. As we mentioned at our launch, it rather clumsily lumps together whole communities, whose lived experiences are vastly different, especially around race. It essentially means other than white; white being the centre. Best practice dictates you listen to your audience/client/customer. We are all those things – that is why the decision lies with each organisation.
How did you originally get started in public relations/communications?
I worked on events within the Black community including the Notting Hill Carnival, and Afro Hair & Beauty. I then studied for my Masters in Communications Management, ran my own small Diversity/integrated comms consultancy for a few years, then went in-house as head of comms in the City.
COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the PR industry – how has it impacted your work, personally?
For many independent consultants, it stopped the flow of work dead in its tracks. Lots of people did lots of different things. I started volunteering at an education social enterprise, helping with their corporate strategy. I now sit on their advisory board. Having more time meant I was able to help set up the REEB and accept the role of Chair.
Do you think the industry can return to the way things were before the pandemic?
It can quite easily but I doubt there is much appetite for that to happen. Flexible working, soft skills, and huge doses of humility because of the stark experience of lockdown, have forever (I hope) changed the communications industry for the better.
What are some of the projects you’ve been a part of during your career that you’re most proud of?
All of the Black organisations that gave me their account when I had my own consultancy. Getting PR coverage for Black organisations in the late 90s was challenging, to put it mildly! I did a stint at the NHS that was good for the soul. But if I am honest, I am most proud of being involved in REEB and being part of the long, long, long overdue change. Nothing beats that.
How has the working relationship between PRs and journalists changed during your time in the industry?
Honestly, I have worked more on culture change and transformation inside organisations for some time. Most comms teams are now integrated so I would provide content, messages and news from the inside, but my colleagues would place it externally. I do shudder when I think about my past experience of dealing with journalists. I found it a grim experience, even when I worked on some well-known brands. I think it’s better now.
What do you love most about working in the PR and communications industry, and would you still recommend this as a career?
I think I was always destined for communications. English was my best subject at school, I studied media and linguistics at university, I used to write lyrics for a band (don’t ask) and I love to tell a funny story. I love being around people and hearing their stories and their view of the world that is no doubt different to mine. I suppose it’s the human stories I love the most and being able to retell them in a way that audiences can feel a part of.
Being brutally honest, I cannot in good faith currently recommend this industry to young joyful fresh-faced enthusiastic hopefuls unless they are white. Black and Brown faces will endure an uphill struggle for recognition, experience death by a thousand cuts (microaggressions), and be paid less than their counterparts because of their race, all of which may lead to mental wellbeing issues that affect their performance that, in turn, is weaponised against them through toxic workplace policies. Sound inviting? Know that as Black and Brown people currently working in the PR and communications industry, we have a rod running up our spines made of some otherworldly material. But the REEB are fully aware of the current environment and we plan to be on hand to mentor and support practitioners currently in the industry and the next/future generations coming through.
Find out more about the work of the Race & Ethnicity Board here on the PRCA website.