LONDON — PR agency leaders should be prepared to “do the hard work” on themselves if they are serious about tackling the industry’s diversity and inclusion problem, according to speakers at the first virtual PRovoke EMEA Summit this week.

A timely panel session on The Blueprint diversity mark – recently launched by BME PR Pros founder Elizabeth Bananuka – looked at how PR agencies can turn talk into action and accountability to advance racial equity.

Introducing the session, PRovoke Media editor-in-chief Arun Sudhaman said: “We’ve seen the push for change sweep across America and other countries including the UK, but in this industry I think we all know that talk is not enough — and black people working in PR know this better than most. For several years now our coverage has reflected the industry’s woeful record on racial and cultural inclusion.

“Every study, every initiative is supported by well-meaning rhetoric, but the rate of progress has been slow, and that perhaps helps to explain why many from under-represented backgrounds see these promises as corporate platitudes rather than concrete action. It’s great to see system racism being openly acknowledged and addressed but we have to be clear that real change in our industry is still some way off, it won’t be easy, but the time is now.”

Bananuka said the Blueprint team had been “humbled and surprised” by the response from agencies who had understood that the work involved in working towards the standard was “a starting point to work even harder, not the end point.”

She said the Blueprint has been designed over the past two years to ensure real accountability: “Speaking as a Black person, I’m quite frankly absolutely tired of diversity initiatives that have actually given ethnic minorities an extremely raw deal. I feel the utter wrench and anger when someone announces a diversity initiative and a year later you ask what happened, and no-one will respond. I’m unapologetic that the Blueprint is for Black, Asian, mixed race and ethnic minorities. For agencies who have got in touch and said ‘it’s a lot a work’, it is a lot of work, but it’s not for you.”

And Bananuka said the standard made agencies prove they had already put commitments and structure in place: “You need to have already done some work before, to ensure we’re putting ethnic minorities in safe environments, that we are avoiding putting a whole load lot of Black people in agencies that fundamentally have a toxic culture. If you haven’t really thought about what it means to diversify your workforce, if you think it’s as crude as getting an Indian guy in, you won’t get it, and you won’t provide an environment where people can flourish and nourish.”

Bananuka was joined on the panel by Julian Obubo, brand strategy director at Manifest, the first agency to be awarded the full Blueprint. He said the process was “Rigorous, and long, but that serves a purpose – it’s not something to be taken lightly or done quickly. It demands thought, and data, and has accountability as its foundation.”

Also on the panel was Nik Govier, founder and CEO of Blurred, one of the two agencies to be awarded Blueprint Ally status. Govier said: “Anyone who just decides this is something they need to do to tick a box won’t get through the process. It is hard, but it is rightly hard.

“D&I is very clearly part of our purpose and values, but I was genuinely delighted when we got Ally status because it became clear that we didn’t deserve full Blueprint status, because we’re just not there yet. The process made us better – we thought we were good, but we realised how far we had to go, and crucially we realised we had some massive blind spots. So many people have the right intent and desire, but it’s not good enough.”

Govier said her advice to other agencies was not to be scared of taking the first step: “It’s very easy to see this as a minefield, but better to want to do the right thing and make mistakes than not bother and hope the world around you changes – we’re all responsible for playing our part in solving this problem.”

The second agency to achieve Blueprint Ally status was Leeds-based tech agency InFusion Comms. Managing director Sara Hawthorn agreed that it had not been an easy process: “The hardest part is admitting to yourself that those gaps do exist, but then you can take steps to make some real changes.”

Hawthorn said she was unsure whether the industry was prepared to take the pain or costs of having to take action: “I think we are still too driven by ego in this industry. We need to put that to one side and acknowledge what we’ve done wrong. We talk in PR a lot about being big and bold and proud and reinforcing our worth, but that seems to relate to our work, not the actions we take, and we are going to now have difficult conversations with clients.

“If clients are working all-white teams or not looking to get diverse people in, your role as a strategic advisor is to tell them to look at it. You might end up losing clients and you’re going to have to come to terms with that. If you’re going to take this to heart, you have to let those organisations go or you’re not giving everything you can to improving racial diversity in the industry and rolling that out to other industries.”

As to whether this was a “moment of reckoning” for the PR industry, Bananuka pulled no punches: “There have been a lot of conversations in PR about systemic racism. But our new allies need stop just reading ‘Why I No Longer Talk To White People About Race’ and unpick why they weren’t doing the work before.

“Racism is not an ethnic minority problem, it’s a society problem. You’ve come from a place of wilful ignorance. You heard of unconscious bias and you did nothing. It’s not for us to help you reflect, you need to do that work yourself. There’s a lot of fairweather stuff here. At what point will you acknowledge those uncomfortable points?”

She added: “I am shook by how ignorant our sector is. If our job is to know people, to understand the media, to understand trends, what I’m hearing from a lot of my white counterparts is ‘I never listened to Black people, I never heard their stories, and I never acknowledged their work’.”

Obubo added that he was cautiously hopeful about change, but that part of the issue was a generally narrow definition of racism: “It’s easy to point to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, but now people are becoming more conscious of the insidiousness of systemic racism, where a Black woman can sit in an interview and you can say ‘I’m not sure if she’ll be the right fit, or whether our clients will warm to her.’

“If all agencies do that, you can’t be surprised that there’s no Black people in the industry. The conversation needs to be about covert racism and prevention of inclusion, which prevent Black people from coming into the industry or thriving. When we broaden our idea of the problem, we can start to make change.”

Bananuka also drew attention to the impact of the lack of racial equality in the industry on individuals: “There are so many people who have not had the careers or opportunities they deserve. I know so many young Black women who became independent consultants before they wanted to because of the lack of opportunities. To be 92% white in 2020, we’ve been complicit in something extremely toxic.”