Conversation to Action

Elly Aylwin-Foster | 4 November 2020

With every event that passes in the rollercoaster that is 2020, we find reminders of the importance of sharing and nurturing perspectives outside our own. Part one of the PM Society webinar series ‘Celebrating Diversity: How to do More’ chaired by Hassan Chaudhury from the Department of International Trade, was a timely moment to reflect on some of these events and what the healthcare communications industry can do in response.

Speaker Shaheed Peera of Creative Floor pointed out that, although many people who are invested in greater diversity in their professional lives are tired at the slow speed of progress, it is still important to appeal to two camps of thought; those who are fully aware of the need for greater diversity but don’t know how to make it happen and those who concede it is an issue but not a priority for their business. Perhaps we’d like to think the former camp is the majority, but it’s still necessary to engage with both to move the conversation forward.

There was a strong consensus from the speakers that, despite diversity finding a place on more agendas and perhaps even agendas with increasing reach, the work is only just beginning. Speaker Nikki Kahllon of West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, introduced the Shuri Network, set up in response to the lack of female BAME CIOs in digital health; a poor reflection of significant female BAME talent in the sector. At the time, in July 2019, there were only 7 such CIOs. 

Avril Lee, Chair of the CIPR Diversity & Inclusion Network, shared findings from their recent report titled ‘Race in PR’. The findings were disappointing, with many participants reporting experiences of microaggression, unconscious bias, racism and unequal opportunities. It was not uncommon for people to leave jobs because they felt their race had been a barrier to progression or enjoyment in their role. As Avril highlighted, these findings point to a psychologically exhausting workplace environment which puts the onus on people ‘outside the monoculture’ to fight for change, which simply isn’t sustainable and not conducive to workplace wellbeing.

In the nuanced and regulations-driven sector we work in it is sometimes too easy to assume that consumer-facing communications ought to do the heavy-lifting when it comes to representing diverse audiences or creating statement-driven campaigns, but, as the speakers argued, that must not be an excuse.

If your audience are not around the decision-making table, go and find them.

An insightful anecdote was shared from the HIV therapeutics space. The agency team working on a campaign were struggling to land on a campaign message, so they decided to simply go out and listen to the stories in the HIV community. One of which was of a young British African woman diagnosed with HIV at an early age and concerned with the taboo around HIV in her conservative Christian community. She developed an initiative that allowed young people to seek out HIV testing in church spaces, under the guise of choir practice. We were challenged to wonder, how differently a typical agency creative process would have approached this if it were a client brief to improve testing rates within a demographic.  Would the end result have been so intuitive and effective without the involvement of diverse perspectives?

So, down to the ‘how to’

In some ways the headline takeaway from my own perspective was that there are no big headlines or new news at this stage. We all know there is much to do, and every company is at a different point in both understanding and acting on the needs for a diverse, happy workplace. The ‘how to’ of a metropolitan creative agency may look different to the ‘how to’ of a med comms agency in the rural South East, but as all the speakers passionately demonstrated, there is no shortage of things both could be doing.

  • Importance of public-facing anti-racist statements on company sites and anti-racist and anti-discrimination conduct clausesSome agencies such as Wieden and Kennedy posted statements on their sites within days of the first protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and beyond.  At moments of such paralysing enormity like the murder of an unarmed black man by police, it can be impossible to know what the right words are, when it’s easy for words to feel inauthentic or ‘too small’ for the scale of the challenge. But the message from Shaheed was that the visibility of those statements matter. Especially if we consider the impact they could have on those who read them…
  • Utilise new and different resources (like the Shuri Network!)Companies cannot expect to find more diverse talent, or uncover new ways of tackling briefs if they continue to look in the same places and use the same recruiters. The Shuri Network is also in the process of developing shadowing and fellowship opportunities for young women of colour to gain experience within digital health companies. They are looking for digital leaders to participate.
  • Unconscious bias training and reverse mentoringNikki Kahllon recommended both unconscious bias training and if applicable, becoming a reverse mentor or mentee from the perspective of diversity and inclusion. Having taking part in reverse mentoring herself it is something she would recommend and is challenging the industry to set up more initiatives.

The next action 

On Wednesday 11th November 1-2pm there will be another opportunity to listen in and learn from part two in the Celebrating Diversity webinar series, ‘how can we be allies?’. Those of us at C&C who attended part one highly recommend it. There may be no easy solutions, but it has never been more important to participate in this conversation.