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  • Shilpa Saul

Are communications professionals colluding in culture wars for the sake of column inches?

Being one-step removed from PR – as I am now in my role at an equity, diversity and inclusion consultancy – has provided me with the opportunity to view the comms industry from the outside-in. And I’m noticing some startling trends.

We’re all well-aware that British politics and some areas of the media are negatively impacting ED&I efforts, deliberately labelling its work as “woke” to stoke reactions across society. Since the dawn of time, PR professionals have needed to understand what people are talking about in order to create headlines and stories that meet that appetite.

Back when I started out in PR the late ’90s I remember my boss telling me that the best way to get column inches was to associate my client with sex, sleaze and/or celebrity. Unfortunately, today it would seem that comms professionals are jumping on the ‘woke’ angle as a way to create manufactured outrage, stoke media reaction and generate high-profile, talkable coverage.

Why do I think this is? It’s no secret that the industry as a whole is struggling to diversify. A new report from The Unmistakables reveals that despite more people claiming they feel comfortable talking about ‘diversity’ at work, they still can’t confidently discuss the very topics that relate to diversity – personal identities. It also finds a staggering 41% of people in the media, marketing and sales industries admit to disengaging from ED&I conversations in the workplace (vs 26% UK average).

I, for one, believe that the lack of true diversity in the sector, combined with the struggle – or perhaps lack of willingness – to discuss personal identities and ED&I, is leading to comms campaigns being created with a lack of depth, authenticity and credibility. Worse still, the lack of understanding or care about the negative impact these types of stories actually have on underrepresented communities do everything to reinforce the status quo.

Having worked in the industry for decades, I have every sympathy for the people who are tasked with generating editorial coverage – particularly the hallowed Double Page Spread in print or the front cover of a supplement, which – inexplicably – still seems to be one of the ultimate signifiers of success.

So what's the solution? Here are seven:

  1. Have the difficult conversations with clients. Really interrogate what ‘success’ looks like for them and why. Counsel them on what you know best – spheres of influence. Help them to understand the nuances at play and guide them on what ‘good’ should look like and why within the overall context of the brand strategy and objectives.

  2. Move beyond trying to create ‘news’ for the sake of it, particularly given the editorial agendas of most mainstream media at the moment. I’m so bored of hearing ‘we’re going to take your brand off the product pages and into news’– there’s often little commercial benefit to doing this. Leave mass reach to paid media, the magic of earned comms is in nuanced messaging.

  3. Do more to get to know the client’s key audiences. Focus on depth messaging vs breadth of coverage. If you’re aiming to reach traditional middle-Englanders who have a penchant for outrage, keep focusing on the Daily Mail. If it’s not, go where your audience is and tell stories in a way that will genuinely resonate with them. The Zoggs ‘our body, our swim’ campaign is a great example of this.

  4. Challenge the status quo and use your collective influence for good. As an agency or in-house team, have a point of view on what ED&I means for you and live that every day, not just when you need to reach underrepresented audiences.

  5. Diversify your teams – move beyond the typical monolithic agency culture to really diversify your teams. Don’t rely on paint by numbers to achieve a team that just looks diverse (after all, that hasn’t helped with the current Cabinet), but put the work in to seek diversity of thought. Everyone brings a unique perspective based on their lived experiences – see different ways of thinking as a positive rather than something that will get in the way.

  6. Move beyond calendar moments – it’s hard when you know the media will be primed for stories around Pride Month and Black History Month. Clients will want to be seen to celebrate such calendar moments and you can help them to do this. But help them move beyond moments by creating campaigns with longevity in addition to a one-hit wonder of a celebrity photo call or clever pun on words. I’m working with a brand at the moment that is focusing on LGBTQIA+ communities. Whilst they recognise they are ‘too late’ to generate editorial in time for Pride Month per se, they are focused on the positive impact the overall campaign will have on the communities they want to celebrate.

  7. Think about everyday inclusion. The more you can tell stories that naturally include inclusion cues vs ‘deliberate inclusion’, the more you can change the overall landscape. For example, a youth-organisation focused on diversifying membership had a recent brand relaunch. The PR team came up with a very clever play on George and the Dragon by creating a story around ‘Georgina and the Dragon’ challenging stereotypes about what girls can achieve. Had I been advising them, I would have encouraged them to think back to the overall goal of the organisation – to diversify membership, specifically encouraging more Black and Brown girls to join – and then go back to the idea to see how inclusion could have been better built in. Yes, it generated column inches, but what did it really do to help the overall objectives of diversifying membership? This goes back to diversifying teams – bringing a different lens to the idea would have strengthened the output.

Shilpa Saul is the inclusive communications director at The Unmistakables. This article first appeared in Influence on Wednesday 7 June 2023.


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