Opinion: The Need for Greater Representation in PR in the NHS | Simone Onasanya
Simone Onasanya addresses the stark facts about Black workers in PR and calls for institutional change in the NHS to encourage more people from ethnically diverse backgrounds into PR
At the height of the pandemic, during a regular zoom meeting, my 6-year-old son was leaving for school and came to say goodbye. He glanced at my computer screen and said, “Mum, are Black people not managers?” Startled, I responded, “Why do you say that?” He answered, “Because there are only white people on your call. You’re the only Black person.”
Most PR agencies have mainly white workforces... 92% of PR workers are white.
I had become so accustomed to seeing nobody that looked like me in senior meetings that my son’s question came as a shock. I had never expected him at such a young age to start building perceptions and self-limitations based on race. I told him I would need more time to give him an answer and made a mental note of how best to respond to him later that day.
In 2020, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) published a report on Race in PR. This report exposed the harsh truths of the PR industry and how, despite being largely based in ethnically diverse cities such as Birmingham, London, Leeds and Manchester, most PR agencies have mainly white workforces. In fact, 92% of PR workers are white.
In a similar vein, the London Wage Foundation’s recent research found that 29% of black workers are taking home less money than the equivalent white workers. This ethnicity pay gap will most certainly not decrease in the current financial climate.
Leadership and organisations themselves have to make a cultural shift to transform PR in the NHS into an attractive career choice for people of diverse ethnicities.
These stark facts are demoralising. The PR industry should have a more diverse workforce, especially in a diverse city like mine - London. The benefits of having a culturally and ethnically diverse workforce are immeasurable, especially in a sector such as the NHS.
As stated in the CIPR report: “Race in PR finds a public relations industry in which BAME practitioners tell of racism, microaggressions and unconscious biases faced, and having to work within an inflexible culture that denies them opportunities and fair progression.”
Being able to share my experiences has been incredibly helpful. During the pandemic there was a real shift of togetherness amongst PR professionals in the NHS, and a growing atmosphere of equality in what has traditionally been a hierarchal structure. I was first able to share my own experiences alongside some wonderful, super-smart, Black PR and comms professionals at an NHS webinar in 2020. Many colleagues admitted afterwards how unaware they were of our experiences, and they found this important to have open discussions with their teams.
Following on, I was fortunate enough to connect with two, Black, female PR professionals, both of whom are mothers and work in the NHS, and we talked about our families and the fact that we were a very invisible group of women in established and successful PR and communications teams in the NHS. We bonded through our shared experiences during the pandemic.
I am sure you’re all wondering what I did say finally to my son. I told him the truth. And I told him that things need to change.
Since then, we have continued to meet, share our career aspirations and talk about the challenges we face. Mostly though we’re passionate about seeing change. Leadership and organisations themselves have to make a cultural shift to transform PR in the NHS into an attractive career choice for people of diverse ethnicities.
The CIPR report calls upon “senior PR business leaders to take [their] findings seriously and work to change practices and cultures to ‘unleash talent and create a fair and equal workplace for all’”. The majority of black women in the PR profession and, especially within the NHS, need a commitment from business leaders to improve the situation.
I personally will continue to advocate the sharing of stories and voices of the under-represented in the NHS, and I look forward to launching a platform for this in future. Meanwhile, I am sure you’re all wondering what I did say finally to my son. I told him the truth. And I told him that things need to change. Like me, he will be a game changer. It’s in his DNA.
Simone Onasanya, Senior Communications and Engagement Manager, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
Genevieve Shaw, Founder & Editor-in-chief
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