Carmen Parahi | The Innovator 25 Asia-Pacific 2021

Carmen Parahi

Pou Tiaki Editor



"Mahia te mahi, hei painga hei oranga mo tātou katoa, do the work for the wellbeing of everyone."

Stuff, the largest news website in New Zealand, hired Carmen Parahi to head their Maori engagement, so she decided that the best way forward was to acknowledge the many mistakes in the past, and to ask their readers to hold them to account in the future. Parahi's work, which includes an investigation into previous racist coverage, is viewed as an enormously important step in New Zealand's ability to confront and learn from the mistakes of the past. Parahi's bravery is no flash in the pan; she has reported on Maori affairs for her entire career, including positions at Maori Television and TVNZ. 

How do you define innovation?
I love innovation. It always begins with an idea. To solve a problem, fill a gap, provide a solution or simply, to create. But an idea remains fanciful until a set of actions is prescribed to it, and performed over time, to bring it to life. This is innovation, a marvellous human endeavour. In 2021, everyone is having to think and work differently. If a company is not innovating in all parts of its business during the pandemic, then it will struggle to survive, thrive, and grow. Now, more than ever innovation needs to be front of mind in everyone’s work practices.

What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen in the last 12 months?
New Zealand cartoonist Toby Morris and microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles created an extraordinary range of animated Covid-19 safety messages for Aotearoa. The award-winning work came to the attention of the World Health Organisation who contracted them to do more. Now, the whole world can watch the pair’s innovative and life-saving comms.

In your opinion, what brands and/or agencies are most innovative around PR and marketing?
The most innovative are those which share an authentic story and provide an emotional connection to products or services, use data to inform their work, and think broadly, by using diversity, inclusion, representation and equity practices. Why? Connecting with more people, connects to more opportunities for everyone.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider 'innovative.'
Last year, my organisation Stuff embarked on a new journey which I helped to lead, called Pou Tiaki (the guard post), a strategy to better represent all people in Aotearoa. Part of this included a project: Our Truth, Tā Mātou Pono, investigating how Stuff had reported on indigenous Māori (my people), since our first papers began more than 160 years ago. We found racism, marginalisation and stereotyping against Māori. In November 2020, we offered an historic public apology to Māori for what we’d done, commiting to do better for all communities we’d failed to represent fairly in the past. At the same time, we released a company charter to hold ourselves accountable. Since then, we’ve been working on a number of practices and opportunities to increase our representation, diversity, inclusion and equity.

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation?
At the moment, Shonda Rhimes. She’s doing great stuff on television and streaming but is also developing a platform called Shondaland, to showcase different multimedia projects and new talent. I love the way she is totally immersed in storytelling. I love stories, all stories told in whatever form. Māori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa. Always innovating, from the time of their Polynesian seafaring ancestors, navigating the Pacific for thousands of years, settling various islands before the final adventure in Aotearoa. Then innovating for the past one thousand years, changing their language, practices and cosmogony stories to reflect different flora and fauna, to create a unique culture transformed by the ancient land. Despite many challenges from Western European colonisation, they continue to survive and evolve as a people.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
If my energy wanes, I stand up, either sprint on the spot, dance furiously, walk to the beach or lie in the sun. I do whatever I can to get a quick hit of happy hormones. Feel good, be positive, get creative and make excellent decisions. However, if the rut lasts for days then I take time off work and switch off from being online, which is where I work. I get back in nature, spend quality time with my children, and immerse myself in storyland, from books to streaming.

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
Stories, representation, diversity, inclusion and equity = innovation. Mahia te mahi, hei painga hei oranga mo tātou katoa, do the work for the wellbeing of everyone.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
I’d be creating stories. Wait, that’s what I do now. Sports. I’d be involved in sports. I’m currently working on my golf game, it’s slow progress. Although I channel Lydia Ko in my mind, unfortunately the execution is a fail. It’s a long game haha. I always thought I’d love to have my own talk back show too. So, I’d be a storytelling, sports jock, talk back show host, haha.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has helped you get through this year or provided inspiration?
I enjoy indulging in a streaming or TV or podcast series, like reading a good book you can’t put down until it's finished. Star Trek or Star Wars, adventures, action, science fiction and fantasy genres are my favourites. I like stories about transformation or overcoming the odds, based on real life events or people giving stuff a go like Master Chef, and Lego Masters.

What's your favourite time of day and why?
At night, from 9pm. I have children, so life is quiet at 9pm. I seem to get a burst of energy then and if I start writing or working at that time I can continue really easily until 2am. If there are no clouds, I’ll go outside and stare at the stars too. I enjoy listening to the owls at night. Another favourite time is going to the local beach around 10am during the week, when there are few people around. Often I don’t have my swimwear but sometimes the sea looks so good, I just walk straight into the ocean, clothes still on. I love spontaneous moments.