Barbara Phillips | The Innovator 25 EMEA 2020

Barbara Phillips


Brownstone Communications

“Innovation thrives when the fear of failure is lessened, or ideally removed."

As the first chair of the PRCA’s Race and Ethnicity Equity Board, which was launched in July in response to industry pressure on the organisation to shake up its all-white board, Barbara Phillips is blazing a trail for long-overdue diversity in the UK PR industry establishment. Of her appointment as the first Black member of the PRCA board, she said: “I’m not here for a talking shop. This is our life, so I will take it deadly seriously. Black people and all ethnicities want equity, not just equality: we want to dismantle a lot of organisational processes that stop us progressing unhindered.” A racial justice activist and trainer, Phillips also sits on the Black Curriculum advisory board and is a magistrate. As the founder of Brownstone Communications, she advises organisations on how to create purpose-led, racially-inclusive cultures and retain their best people, drawing on PR, storytelling, and coaching and meditation techniques, and has worked with firms including Diageo, The Body Shop, BT, GSK and EY.

Where is the most urgent need for innovation within the PR/communications industry? 
I think it’s in reflecting the true make up of our clients, customers and audiences. Finding ways to tell our clients’ stories by being deliberately inclusive, and acknowledging that humans are multi-dimensional. If we want to engage with groups that are important to our clients, we should seek a broader context to how they live their lives including how they identify themselves culturally.

How would you describe the communications/PR industry's level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines?
I think PR can be very creative and generate great stories and events that keep abreast of changing times and audiences. And I am glad to see the continued use of data and analytics in all aspects of campaign planning and delivery. Although the jury is still out on whether digital PR is a distinct aspect of our service or an evolution of how we deliver.  But then there are areas where we are still too subjective and this shows itself in a lack of creative diversity. Suffice to say both Argos and more recently Sainsburys did something considered 'revolutionary' by leading with Black people or having an all-Black cast in paid for advertising. We are in 2020! I wondered if the respective PR teams were briefed and on hand to capitalise on the spike in brand visibility that is inevitable when mainstream brands decide (at last) to be inclusive. And just as I decide we are about the same in some aspects as other marketing disciplines, I remember we were dragged back to the 80s and 90s 'stunt culture' with barges going up and down the Thames!

How have the events of 2020 impacted innovation in the PR and communications industry? 
In 2020 our industry has had an awakening to hard facts that perhaps or 'business as usual' wasn't sustainable and in many environments wholly unpalatable. I personally believe we are going to see a whole slew of innovative practices, positive and negative. Leaders are going to have to work out how to maintain the soul of their organisations while undergoing some radical change in the way they operate thanks to Covid19 disrupting well established (but not necessarily appreciated) working practices. And the very slow and steady realisation that PR and communications teams have been enjoying decades of success at the expense of Black, Asian and ethnically diverse practitioners. Keep the clients, keep the brand values, but lose the racism.

More negatively, there will be swathes of leaders dreaming up new and innovative ways to deny that racial equity and diversity are success factors that need to be integrated into operating models, strategies and corporate cultures immediately, without delay. In 2019, our industry was valued at £14.9 billion (PRCA Census) so for some people there is absolutely no reason to do anything differently. And the stronger the noise around diversity and inclusion becomes, the more innovative this group of people will be in side stepping both the conversation and any meaningful action.

Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
We are a people-focused industry. We should be interested in everything that makes us human, be it artificial or real intelligence. There are some very brilliant people out there creating, tools, apps, VR and AI. We should keep up with these innovations then create ways of using them to tell our clients' stories.

What is the ideal working scenario for innovation?
I think innovation thrives when the fear of failure is lessened, or ideally, removed. When all employees feel psychologically safe enough to share their ideas. Then are granted a moment (however short) to run within it and see where it goes. They should be included in the process of taking the idea through the development and delivery phases. This scenario also recognises that organisations have hierarchies, but doesn't allow bad behaviour and stifling perfectly good ideas from the junior ranks, to parade as 'leadership'.

Has 2020 changed the way you define/approach innovation? How?
I must admit to being totally focused on racial justice and mental wellbeing – the two being very closely linked – in 2020. Plus the broader areas of diversity within PR and communications. Any innovation I can bring to getting those messages across an already crowded space is time well spent. That being said, I have always been open to new ideas and approaches and continue to be so.

What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen this year?
I'd say the 56 Black Men campaign, as it smashed the stereo type that a hoodie-wearing Black male (usually young) must be a thug. It was such a powerful execution and beautiful photography. I wear a hoodie at least five days a week and don't have a criminal record. The second is Burberry's Christmas advert 'Singing in the Rain'. Just for the joy, exuberance and edge – and Singing in the Rain is in my top 10 films.

What is the most important lesson you've learned this year?
Be patient, but be ready.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider innovative.
I think every Black or Asian person who navigates the workplace dodging the eggshells, politely pushing back the stereotyping (all the isms) and absorbing the micro aggressions knows something about innovation. As a contractor and interim I finally decided to make each role personal project focused. By this time I had given up on enjoying recognition, promotion or sometimes even common courtesy, so I focused on what the role could give me outside of work. And over the last few years that has been house refurbishment. Walking around my home I can point out which contract/organisation bought me which refurbishment. A bit like sponsorship. That is how I kept myself engaged in hostile circumstances. I think that's fairly innovative.

Any habit/activity that you have added to your life this year that you hope to take forward post-pandemic?
Nothing staggering. Just exercising outside of the gym and learning to love walking.

How can the PR industry make real progress in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and what is the biggest obstacle?
There is no quick and easy fix. But the short answer is look at your culture, make it fair, racially equitable and inviting as well as psychologically safe for every employee. Ask yourself would you let someone you love work there and would you need to shield and protect them from certain policies and behaviours. Then sack all of the racists! The biggest obstacles are racists and bigots pretending to want change but secretly clinging onto the status quo for dear life.

What are you thinking about most these days?
I think a lot about the lost generations of people who weren't from the 'right' background, social class, and of course race, whose talents may have brought innovation to our industry that may have changed it for the better. But they didn't get the chance. So PR's hidden figures, if you will, who went to state schools and didn't have the right accent. I think about them, because that's who I am and am never going stop calling out the ugly side of our industry because it's taken 20+ years to have the platform.

Your bold prediction for 2021…
There is no 'new normal' and almost nobody wants to go back to pre-Covid working conditions and cultures. So leaders will finally embrace their humanity and make decisions based on how it impacts their people's mental wellbeing first... before the shareholders. Clients are leaders, too. So there shouldn't be a disconnect. And of course, the green shoots of widespread racial equity. And people in this space can finally stop having to explain the context and environments of racial trauma (I already have) and move onto how to demolish those environments.