Elizabeth Bananuka | The Innovator 25 EMEA 2020

Elizabeth Bananuka



“I think a real, positive divide is going to emerge between the agencies of the past and future. Spoiler alert: the agencies of the future have a deep understanding of the importance of diversity."

Elizabeth Bananuka is nothing less than a force of nature within the PR industry. Named as one of PRovoke Media’s 15 global Ones to Watch for 2020, Bananuka has more than lived up to her billing as being one of the few people in the sector who could drive change on diversity, with her timely launch of the Blueprint diversity quality mark. The Blueprint, which had been in development for more than two years, named the first agencies to achieve the tough standard as the rest of the industry was just waking up to the urgency of taking action on racial diversity, equity and inclusion in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Blueprint is the latest in a series of innovations by Bananuka, who is outspoken in calling for change, and calling out agencies and organisations who aren’t walking the talk on DE&I. She founded her “side hustle”, BME PR Pros, in 2017 to promote diversity in the industry, including setting up its respected mentoring scheme. Bananuka started her career in events before moving into PR, working in-house and in agency before setting up her own consultancy five years ago.

Where is the most urgent need for innovation within the PR/communications industry? 
The sector needs to stop acting like it’s living in an Enid Blyton novel and start diversifying already. We need a more diverse workforce and we need to stop treating consumers that aren’t white or straight or able-bodied as an afterthought. There’s something uncomfortable about being a Black woman in comms and knowing the industry has never valued you as a consumer. Unless it’s Pretty Little Thing blackfishing, that is.

How would you describe the communications/PR industry's level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines?
Far, far behind. If only the innovation matched the confidence levels…

How have the events of 2020 impacted innovation in the PR and communications industry?
I think it’s good we were forced to seriously look at the “working remotely” thing. I hope it will help more women with children stay in the industry. I hope it will help those pros with a disability get ahead in the sector. I also like to think it will cut the London-centric approach and diversify the industry by bringing in people that can’t afford the ridiculous London rents and house prices.

The summer of BLM forced many agency hands to finally confront their diversity record and to come up with solutions. I think the fact many couldn’t even start to support their clients through it speaks volumes of how out of touch so many agencies are. Funny when you think how much time they spend trying to convince clients they know customers... Apparently many only know white customers. Having said that, it’s been incredible to see the work being done by Blueprinted agencies Manifest, Blurred, InFusion Comms, Stronger Stories and Cirkle. Genuinely inspiring, game changing stuff.

Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
The gender pay gap. We’re 65% female and the fact a gender pay gap exists is appalling. The way we chew and then spit out females once they hit a certain age or have a family is embarrassing.Solving the gender pay gap will – I suspect – remove many systemic barriers to inequality and support diversity across the board. I also suspect it will make better businesses, a better sector and lead to better work. Enough with the tedious future trends reports and more time finding innovative solutions to gender inequality, please.

What is the ideal working scenario for innovation?
A fearless environment. If you think your staff do great work in the toxic environment you’ve created, I bet they’d do even better work in a fearless environment.

Has 2020 changed the way you define/approach innovation? How?
Nope. Will it help a talented Black, Asian, mixed race or ethnic minority pro get a job? Stay in a job? Or get a promotion? I’ll try to do it. Have they underestimated Black, Asian, mixed race and ethnic minority pros? I’ll show them. Have they let racism, racial harassment, micro-aggressions and workplace bullying thrive? I’ll get them. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow… And if it can be done by tweeting or posting on insta and LinkedIn? Even better.

What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen this year?
Manifest giving its staff Juneteenth off, Blurred setting a target to have a 40% BME workforce and Stronger Stories becoming employee owned to create greater equality between the predominantly white management and founders and the diverse staff. I know, these aren’t focused on work but with all due respect, we hear enough about great campaigns. What we don’t hear enough of, is agencies putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to D&I.

Can you imagine giving everyone a day off in the middle of the pandemic and all the business uncertainty it brought? Or throwing down the gauntlet and being the first to set such clear and ambitious diversity targets? And to give up your share of a business to address your “white privilege”? I mean, if I hadn’t seen all of this with my own eyes, I would have told you to stop talking crazy, to get the hell out and to shut the front door.

What is the most important lesson you've learned this year?
Self-care and self-preservation. I’m a Black, female, African, immigrant and there are many sharks swimming in the diversity waters. To quote Audre Lord: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider innovative.
In January 2017 I bought a domain name for £6.49: www.bmeprpros.co.uk. And here we now are: 350,000 hits all through organic growth. Just me and my fat fingers tweeting typos and posting Daniel Kaluuya gifs. More than anything, I am proud that I have got so many talented Black, Asian, mixed race and ethnic minority pros jobs and clients. And I’m not even a recruiter… I’m also proud of the many friends I have made. They keep me keeping on. 

Any habit/activity that you have added to your life this year that you hope to take forward post-pandemic?
I started doing the 30 Day Shred back in March. Disappointingly I still don’t look like Jillian Michaels… But I shall continue. I’ve started doing 6k walks too whilst listening to books on Audible and it’s been a revelation. Doing what I do, hearing what I hear and seeing what I see… It’s important to find a way to get out of yourself and pounding the streets of north London listening to books is it for me.

How can the PR industry make real progress in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and what is the biggest obstacle?
How can the PR industry make real progress? By more people genuinely giving a toss. The biggest obstacle? A lot of people just don’t give a toss. Out of the top 100 PR agencies in the UK, how many do you think have diversity strategies in place? How many of those do you think have targets? How many of those targets do you think are from boardroom to internship and work experience? Maybe 10? 15 if we’re being generous? Obviously it’s not helped that many in our industry have reached the top by being ruthless psychopaths because, you know, being a boss of a diverse workforce requires adaptability, emotional intelligence, positive communication skills and good business acumen. I think many will struggle with the second and third and many haven’t realised diversity is good for the bottom line.

What are you thinking about most these days? 
The Pros Winter Series and Tanzania. I’m off for a month in the New Year and my fingers burn from keeping them tightly crossed that the pandemic and lockdowns don’t botch my plans.

Your bold prediction for 2021…
I think a real, positive divide is going to emerge between the agencies of the past and the agencies of the future. Spoiler alert: the agencies of the future have a deep understanding of the importance of diversity, how to recruit, retain and support a diverse workforce and they have accountable, measurable, transparent policies in place. They’re also doing exciting work and attracting lots of great talent. They’ve evolved from ‘diversity is about samosas on Diwali’ to anti-racism companies actively tackling gender and pay gaps. They are the Manifests, the Blurreds, the InFusion Comms, the Cirkle’s and the Stronger Stories. I know which camp I’d rather be in.