“The Nomad” is a fortnightly published series where I talk to professionals in PR and Comms who are from a country but spend their love and life in different countries and cultures, then delve into the insights which might help other people to live or to do business in an inter-cultural world. If you or someone you know would be happy to share their perspective, please get in touch! I’d love to hear from you.
When I first started The Nomad, everyone kept saying that Katrina should be definitely one of the guests. She has been a trailblazer in the PR industry. Her personality shines through and her contribution has been *phenomenal* (to say the least!). When I first started in PR, Kat is also the one that people kept suggesting I should follow and make the connection.
And I did. I did learn a lot from her. Our meeting was insightful and emotional. We also did share several things in common, not to mention “Ricky Martin”.
Katrina Marshall has a successful track record in journalism and corporate communications during a 20-year career. She demonstrates solid experience in producing content for all media for international news organisations including the BBC World Service and the UK Guardian. She’s also a founding member of PRCA Race and Ethnicity Board (REEB) which purposefully ensures the PRCA – as well as the broader PR industry – adopts a best practice approach to ethnic and racial inclusion.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Kat to discuss the PR industry in Barbados and the UK. We discussed people, culture, and intersectionality in the industry and the importance of bringing “our whole self” to work. “I worry that we’re going to get so good at the image of who we present, that eventually there’s going to be nothing left of who we actually are when all of the fancy shiny bits fall apart”, said Kat.
1. Hi Kat, how are you doing? What’s been keeping you busy lately?
What’s keeping me busy is readjusting to life outside my flat after a year of lockdowns. I’m still not sure if I can manage human beings and adults and public transportation all at the same time, but I’m working on it.
What’s been keeping me busy? I’ve just been asked to be the senior writer for Melan Magazine – it’s an online lifestyle magazine for women of colour 40 and over. It’s funny how it came up because I barely remember applying even though I’d read a few of their pieces before. I’m a wordsmith and I guess after forays into local government communications and consulting with Finance and Tech firms, I’ve always at heart been a writer, journalist and all-round pen for hire. So it’s been wonderful to write about Black women like me, FOR black women like me.
As for the rest? I’m from the Caribbean, so these long days and very short nights are making a huge difference to my mood and overall countenance. The idea that the sun doesn’t set until after half-past nine in the evening is definitely doing good things for my mental health right now.
2. What was the image of the country in your head before you came here and what is it now in your heart?
I think because Barbados was a colony of Britain, quite a few of my cultural references were already British. I think my image of the UK was more geographical than it was cultural. I came for rolling English countryside and white fluffy sheep, thatched roofs and cobblestone streets. And just the order of things … like the way history is preserved. For example, on one of my first trips out when I was in the International Students’ Society at Uni we went to Cambridge University and one of our group got told off for walking on the lawn! (Apparently, only masters or senior students can do that?) God knows when that tradition started or why but it has been preserved but I kinda like that. A people’s soul lies in its traditions. Without them, we are rootless drifters floating through time. I love the idea that lock keeper and town crier are still modern professions ya know? Stuff like that.
Now my surprises came more from my interactions with people. When you are from a small Caribbean country, you assume that people from large Western countries are more worldly than you are; but in reality, the world comes to England, the world goes to America, the world goes to Canada. Naturally, those of us who go there, or come here, spend a lot of time looking outside of our borders. However, people who live in large Western countries have no reason to, because everyone comes there; it can be quite insular. I’m regularly surprised by the lack of broad-mindedness and evolution by lots of the English people that I’ve met. I’ve worked with some of them; I’ve dated some of them. I continue to be a little bit taken aback that the breadth of my understanding of the world and where I fit in it is not mirrored in the experiences and in the knowledge of people who’ve lived here or there all their lives.
3. People love to talk about the weather in the UK. Apart from the weather, what has been your impression of the UK and the people here so far?
I actually don’t mind the cold, it’s the darkness that bothers me. Dressing for the cold is kind of cute. There are lots of bits that go with an outfit for winter. There’s a hat, this scarf, the gloves, you can match your boots to your stockings. So, that’s a bit of fun. I’m not a huge fan of snow. I didn’t know what a reindeer was when I first got here, and that was quite amusing for the other girls on my rugby team. “That’s a rather large dog!” I said in the middle of training in Leicester’s Bradgate Park. The retort? “Kat Marshall, have you never seen a reindeer?” That question, in and of itself, tells you everything you need to know about what people perceive of people who are not from England. On one hand, they ask you ignorant questions like “Have you never seen a reindeer?” Why would I? There’s no reindeer in Barbados; on the other hand, they want you to have known things that are obvious to them. But yet, they ask you questions that indicate that they haven’t done their research. So, on one hand, you’re exotic and you’re interesting. But on the other? Well, why don’t you know this? Well, why would I know this? When I think of all the disappointing things, it is the degree to which people who are immigrants are expected to assimilate. But yet, there’s very little attempt to meet them halfway.
I always find it so irritating that people ask me: “Why don’t you watch I’m a Celebrity (Get Me Out of Here)?” I’m like, “Well, why would I?” (I do not share this British obsession with barely relevant celebrities debasing themselves on national TV for a cash prize), “What do you mean you don’t watch EastEnders?” Why would I? The only reason why I used to watch Casualty – an old medical drama – was because my friend Martina Laird played a paramedic in it. That’s the only reason I used to watch. So, that’s been the most disappointing thing. It’s the constant expectation that the immigrant will assimilate. Even people who were born here but are of foreign parents are expected to prove their Britishness. Immigrants make up the majority of large metropolitan countries; why can’t you make the effort to learn them a little bit more? I shouldn’t have to change my accent so that other people can understand me. Caribbean people have been here since before Windrush. But yeah, my accent is different when I’m trying to speak to white English people, versus when I’m trying to speak to my Nigerian friends or my Caribbean friends, because I don’t like to be misunderstood, and they don’t like to misunderstand. That’s a really long answer to a short question!!!
4. That’s a true and interesting observation. If you have the power of changing that reality, what would you do?
What I would love is to take some of the ignorant people that I have met. I don’t mean ignorant in the way that they’re bad people. I mean, they’re ignorant of a series of facts, and they are ignorant of the way other people think and go about life. I would love to put them all on a plane to Barbados. Just drop them there. No local knowledge, no friends, no fixer, no handler, nothing then watch them go through the different stages of feeling like the “other”. Hopefully, that would increase their degree of humility, because, to me, it comes down to just arrogance. The arrogance of thinking that because you’re Western, the world will come to you, and everyone will assimilate to you. That’s my biggest disappointment. But the lack of understanding that the world is eventually going to make people who only think one way, speak one language, or live one place in the minority. Those of us who have weathered passports, and more stamps than we can count, bits of languages, and more importantly, bits of our hearts, live in other places. I’ll never feel at home because bits of my heart just live in other places. I’m not wealthy enough to go to those places, but I think my life has been richer for it.
5. What has been your biggest challenge so far living in the UK?
The kind of serendipitous way of evolving into relationships. That’s not something that I’ve been able to do as easily here. Now I’m an open gregarious person, so I tend to make friends relatively easily. But even so, the other difference has been the degree to which I trust people. When they say “let’s go for a drink”. I believe them. I trust people when they say “I hope you have a good weekend”. I believe them. But those phrases are more about conversational window dressing in England than they are about a genuine desire to connect with someone.
That was hard for me. I got a phone call from a former boss not too long ago, where I was told that I was talking to my colleague too much because she has her own work to do. Now, this woman sat next to me two days in a row and said how much she loves talking to me. So either she didn’t have the spine to say it to my face and complained up the chain of command. Or the shrivelled old white woman who collared me up is the real-life embodiment of the evil Defense Against the Dark Arts professor in Harry Potter, Professor Delores Umbridge. Either way…
I’m just like, the degree to which the natural way of connecting with people has so many layers and so many barriers, and it takes so much for people to just be themselves is confusing and draining. So much of the interactions seem to be curated. I regularly have to remind myself that not everyone wishes me well, that a smile does not mean that someone’s happy with you. Whereas Barbadians will tell you pretty quickly if they like you or not. You’re not going to be under any illusion that this person really does not want to talk to you. So, that was hard. It always makes me the exotic other. It makes me the bubbly Caribbean girl with the smile and the curls, the girl with the bronze skin and lots of stories about rum, but it doesn’t translate into them taking me seriously as a comms professional. I find that I get jobs better when my interviews sound like I’m reading a eulogy.
6. How would you describe the PR/media landscape in Barbados and how is it different from the PR landscape here in the UK?
I think the thing that surprised me the most about comms in the UK was the way it was so stratified into very strict industry areas. There was agency; there was in-house; there was the big-budget PR; there was marketing and PR, which is different from comms and PR. There were different degrees of measurement; there were the information packs and research you can pay for. I understand why it has to be that way. When you finally release the series, you’re going to be all up on Twitter, looking to see what your impressions were like. What’s measured gets noticed. If I had moved to the UK the second time specifically to take up a job in PR and comms this would all have been part of my research. But I didn’t, so it was all very new and baffling. And in some ways, taking practitioners further and further away from the essence of what practising PR is.
For me, working in communications in the Caribbean is usually a follow on from being a journalist. Very few people start in PR, they start as journalists, and they move into PR because the market itself is just so physically small. The way I did my job well was I leveraged the contacts that I had as a journalist. In terms of measurements, well, there are three national newspapers (one online), if you made it to two of the three, you got coverage. There’re seven radio stations and about five to seven news bulletins, medium to long length, every day for five days. If you do the math, if they made it to three of those stories, three of those days, they got coverage, all you had to do was turn on the radio. I could be doing media monitoring while I was brushing my teeth that morning. So, the idea that I need to then schedule my tweets in Hootsuite to promote or encourage coverage you either got or were trying to secure surprised me. I learned to work around it. There’re some parts of it that I still don’t think I’m ever going to be fluent in.
7. You shared in the #PowerandInfluence session a while ago that the nuanced cultural landscape of Barbados is far harder to crack than big named brands think, can you expand on this, please?
First of all, I want to declare my hand really early on that chat. I consulted quite a few senior PR people in Barbados before I had that conversation because I don’t live there anymore and the landscape has changed. So, take what I’m saying with a grain of salt. But what I will say is, and this is something that I’ve lectured to some of my students about before, there is a degree of arrogance, I think. I don’t know if it is as bad as it was before. But there are two examples of how to do it well and how to do it badly.
Contrary to what the prevailing narrative about the smiling happy Negro is where everything is “Irie Man”, Barbadians are extremely difficult people to impress. Just because you come from foreign countries doesn’t mean we are simply going to accept you; you have to earn the acceptance. When Mc Donald’s first came to Barbados, they showed up, rolled out their plan, which came out of a box, and they just waited for the people to come. They didn’t last a year. Why? They never stopped to ask us what we like. Turns out we like chicken and pork chops, but not so much burgers. It was at a time when I think there were also fewer economic incentives to invest in fast food chains like Barbados.
Fast forward to about 15/20 years ago, the mobile company Digicel set up in the Caribbean. Digicel’s primary investors are Irish, and the Irish and the Caribbean have a degree of similarity, in the way that we relate to each other, in the way that we’re straight-shooting, and in the way that there is a shared ideological background in terms of oppression. There’s even a small group of Irish and Scottish descendants in Barbados in the North of the island.
Digicel did its homework. They found out where Barbadians like to drink. They found out what they like to drink. They found out what they spend their money on. They found out where their festivals are likely to be. It’s something as simple as the CEO would always make sure he was seen drinking the beer of the country he was in at the time. Mind you, Digicel’s pockets were very deep; they could have paid for just about anything. That’s another perspective because a lot of the time he who pays the Piper calls the tune. But that is how they did their homework. The CEO would be on a boat catching fish and come back to shore and he’d be roasting fish on the beach with no shoes on, no shirt on. He made the effort. Digicel is still a massive presence in terms of digital mobile carriers in the Caribbean. There were some initial problems with breaking up the monopoly because Cable and Wireless had the monopoly on telecoms in the Caribbean for 50 years. Cable and Wireless did not make their money in England. 50% of their global profits were from the Caribbean. So that was their first major hurdle – removing the stranglehold C&W had on the Caribbean. Still, Digicel managed its image and found a way to gently, humbly but decisively work its way into Barbadian culture and provide the kind of confidence in its brand that made it a long-standing presence in the Caribbean corporate sphere. In the tale of two big brands, McDonald’s and Digicel. One is still there and one never came back.
My point is, there are many reasons why Barbadians are sceptics and difficult to convince, and why as PR and comms people, there needs to be a really long and almost loose approach to understanding the cultural landscape and then figuring out where you and eventually your clients fit in it. You can’t just walk in, unpack something, let it run, and then pack it back up again.
8. From my research (and correct me if I’m wrong), Vietnam and Barbados, in terms of culture, share a few things in common and I’m talking about nepotism or “scratching someone’s back” in the workplace and business, what do you think about it?
I don’t think the degree to which nepotism plays into the way Comms people do their jobs is any greater or less because it’s Barbados or because it is PR or because it’s Vietnam. In England, Northerners look out for each other. The Londoners look out for each other, then the whole Black Caribbean and African crew look out for each other. That’s not specific to the Caribbean and I don’t honestly think it’s always a bad thing. I mean…Getting your foot in the door of the comms industry is not a walk in the park. Take you Son… I watched you from a distance kick your way into Comms, made sure that people noticed you, and you did what I did. You got the advice that I’m sure I got from Ella Minty which is to make sure that people notice you, then gradually, I think you will step back a little bit when it isn’t essential that you are seen and heard quite as much. There are quite a few things I see on Twitter now that I just don’t comment on; whereas before, I would have felt like someone has to know what I think about this.
It can be difficult when you don’t have an in, but if you do the groundwork and if someone takes you under their wings, and you prove that you don’t have airs and graces, then it will come. If you present yourself as either equal or wanting to learn, you’ll get the in. When you get that in, when it comes to doing the job, you then have a golden opportunity. Let’s say, as maybe someone from Scotland who wants to work in Barbados, you have a golden opportunity to take the sharp, shiny, fast-paced version of Comms that you know blend it with the different cultural aspects of doing business in Barbados and then find the best bits in the middle. You can introduce better versions of media monitoring, you can create linkages, not just in terms of inter-island, but inter-industry. I think as much as nepotism could be a problem, once you get the in or once you take the time and the investment to get the in, both legislatively and culturally; then take the best of what you know how to do as a foreigner; marrying it with the best of what we have to offer as Barbadian comms people…you can then find a shiny new way of understanding. You must also accept that there are some bits you’re probably never going to understand, but make it your own, create that newness and that freshness, that benefits both demographics. That would be my small piece of advice.
9. Expanding on that, I think as PR and Comms practitioners, we work with people and cultures, therefore, it’s extremely important for us to understand culture, socio-economic and language nuances, what is the main piece of advice you would give our peers seeking to promote their client/employer in Barbados?
With not just official PR people, but with opinion leaders and opinion shapers. Understand that influencers in Barbados are not like the Kardashians. The people who have the most social influence deliver their IG or Facebook lives from the front step of their homes. They drink beer from the bottle. They speak in Bajan dialect. If you don’t understand something, you need to take the time to ask for help. Barbadians would rather you ask. Don’t be too quick to make judgments, because nothing is ever as simple as it seems. The size of our community means that in one bedroom, there is a drug dealer and then in the other, his brother is a member of the military. So cultivate biblical levels of patience. Don’t make assumptions; have deep pockets; do your research and find a local ally. Take the time to understand the local landscape, both during work time and outside of work time, because there’s very little separation in Barbados, or in the Caribbean in general.
10. People talk a lot about diversity and inclusion in the PR industry in the UK, but there’s also a whole lot about gender and sexuality. It’s Pride month time and companies, as usual, turn to their rainbow logos to stay relevant. I don’t want to see a black square post or a rainbow flag post when nothing tangible and progressive has been done. Why do you think it’s important for us to celebrate this month? Where’s the progress to be done?
Why is it important? I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud. I am a three-box ticker. Yeah. I’m black. I’m a woman. I’m an immigrant. And if you really want to stretch it, I’m gay. The word intersectionality is my whole life. It’s important for me because for an industry that spends so much time polishing other people’s images, so many of us cannot be our authentic selves at work. It’s as simple as that. The worst part of it is, we are so good at telling other people’s stories and crafting narratives for other people that even when we are faced with the reality that we are doing our own membership a disservice, we find a way to polish it again. If you scratch a quarter of an inch beneath the surface of a PR facade about diversity, it is as rotting and green as a shamrock. Very few people take the time to create change that will alter lives. Lives like so many of my closeted brothers and sisters. I want them to be able to wear small pink panties, sashaying down the street in the middle of Pride month with their employers’ name on a banner over their head. Without a second thought about being othered, ridiculed, exoticised or face reprisals. That’s what I want for you. If it means I have to write articles that make people uncomfortable and block trolls off my Twitter, I’ll do that, but it’s not going to happen overnight.
It’s important for me because if you just look at Twitter and LinkedIn, there are not enough hours in a day to listen to every podcast, read every blog, comment on every news story or write an opinion piece on every pressing issue trending in the industry. We are constantly churning out our own content. But in doing so, I don’t think we’re spending enough time focusing on how we feel and the authenticity of what we bring. I worry that we’re going to get so good at the image of who we present, that eventually there’s going to be nothing left of who we actually are when all of the fancy shiny bits fall apart.
I just think that we’re… I don’t know… it’s hugely important to me to be so much more than just a comms person, because how I make my money is like, 1/8 of who I am. I cook really well; I write really well; I dance really well. I’m a good daughter; I’m a good auntie; I’m a really good sister. The reason why it’s important to me is that as an industry, we are failing the least of us. If the least of us are not feeling like we belong, you’re taking the wealth of who a person is, and you’re losing it, you’re throwing it away. I would like this to be a separate answer from the cultural conversation we had earlier, but separating the personal from the professional is a luxury that we no longer have… not in comms… not if we’re going to call ourselves the storytellers of the industry.
11. We’re moving to the end of the interview and it’s been emotional to me. Let’s end this with a light-hearted question. You mentioned earlier that you didn’t eat scones, but if you do, which team are you on? Cream first or jam first?
I am definitely team cream first. I’m team Cream. Why? Because the cream is going to sit in the scone and with the jam on top of it, the scone remains intact. If you swap it around and put the jam first, the firmness of the cream and the porousness of the scone means you’ll end up with something looking like you’ve disembowelled a pig! And the scone will inevitably end up like adamp dishrag spoiling your fine china.
Hi, it's me Son. I'm the one behind the blog Son Talks. I mean, I'm happy to verify I'm not a robot. Can easily spot cars or chimneys. I'm working as an Account Executive at Intent Health. You can reach me via LinkedIn at Son Pham or Twitter at @beyondson_ If you or someone you know would be happy to share their perspective, please get in touch, I’d love to hear from you. Over and out! See ya soon x