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Behind the mask: Racial equity means looking for outcomes over milestones

One afternoon in our police press office, I took ownership of a colleague’s handover. He needed a statement signing off for an announcement the next day. Instead of waiting for a reply, I called the officer, listened to his feedback and agreed the text. I made the task my own.

The next day, that colleague spoke to me in a different way – he thanked me and explained how the announcement had gone. We didn’t have much in common until then. Today, I am proud to call him a friend.

I can’t remember what made me act the way I did, but I will never forget that it was the first time I felt truly part of a team. When two officers were murdered, our darkest hour, he had my back and I had his.

That memory returned when I read about another comms professional – the only Black man in his agency, largely ignored by his White, middle-class colleagues.

I read this in Behind the Mask, a report led by the PRCA Race and Ethnicity Equity Board (REEB) recording the views of men of Black, Asian and other ethnically diverse backgrounds in PR and communications. It was published earlier this summer and I was one of a handful or participants - another sad reflection of how woefully underrepresented we still are in the industry.

Some of this is difficult reading. Good people have left already. One participant has seen others progress first. None of us had relatives with past experience.

While aimed at industry decision makers, there is advice for future comms professionals too; follow culture not salary, become a thought leader, be your true self, be open to networking. 

Some dynamics are complex. An elder once questioned why I was doing a history degree. That made me double down on my chosen path but hoping for the odd “black sheep” is not a long-term diversity strategy. The Asian community is still sceptical of a PR industry that only seems to reward the White establishment – the half-truth of that statement makes it hard to rebut.

But the report is powerful in other ways. It seems we're all driving ED&I in our workplaces. At first, all I wanted was to be judged on merit alone. For the sake of others, I can no longer afford to be that naïve.

We’ve tried to offer solutions. Some call for the “Rooney rule”. That could be hard for our trade bodies to mandate – but there is also evidence it works.

Emmanuel Ofosu-Appiah was the inspiration behind this report. In one sense we’re opposites; he’s from Edgware, London with an agency background, I grew up in south Manchester and have worked in-house almost all my career.

But we shared one principle - giving lived experiences helps focus minds. I attend a lot of ED&I sessions and am concerned the noble – and correct – aim to broaden diversity beyond race makes the mission more conceptual than urgent. Rather than celebrating milestones we must chase outcomes – the same way I chased approval on that statement all those years ago.