Date Posted: Wednesday 10th June 2020
Over the last decade, the fashion and beauty industry has come a long way in terms of diversity, however, the recent death of George Floyd has sparked outrage amongst us all, and has made each and every one of us question what we can do, both individually and within the companies we work for and with.
Now is the time to continue to educate ourselves, listen and learn, but we know that lots of businesses are unsure of what tangible things they can do and are worried about saying the wrong thing, so DIARY directory wants to use our platform to discuss issues openly so we can all become more inclusive.
DIARY directory caught up with Shannon Walker and Deborah T Johnson who have a combined 20 years’ experience within the beauty and lifestyle communications sectors, working previously in-house and at PR agencies across both mass-market and luxury brands. We wanted to share their experiences while working in communications.
Deborah T Johnson, Agency Owner
Deborah T Johnson left the agency world in 2018 and became freelance. She now runs her self-titled PR agency and represents independent brands created by women of colour. Lending her expertise and services to some of the UK’s most exciting, distinct and innovative brands such as Antidote Street, Black Skin Directory, West Room Aesthetics and Maya Njie, her goal is to champion and support brand owners and women who are like herself whilst encouraging the economic level up of her community.
"I worked in agencies for about 12 years, the majority of which was spent at PuRe PR. Here I truly was able to learn the ropes, honing my craft in effective brand storytelling and development whilst gathering a wealth of contacts that were integral to me having the confidence to go it alone.
"PuRe as an agency was a perfect place for me to spread my wings as the company really encourages autonomy amongst its staff and allows for all voices to be heard. I understand now that perhaps my time at PuRe was unique with the level of autonomy and responsibility I was entrusted with. Always feeling included and that my opinions and perspectives were valued from all aspects, such as decisions on how the agency can develop and also relating to client strategies.
"They were also great advocates for me behind the scenes, turning down the new business after a pitch that I was involved in resulted in the brand saying they wanted to take PuRe on, but only if I did not work on the account. When PuRe queried if it was a race issue, and insisted that I be on the account, the brand decided to go in another direction with their PR.
"At the time I took it on the chin because you somewhat become immune to these forms of microaggressions and develop a thick skin.
"I was always aware that the majority, if not all, of the brands I worked on during my time at an agency were not founded by women like myself. The same with brands that I generally found in magazines on websites etc and that always niggled me. Why were these black-owned brands not getting the same level of visibility?
"This was one of the deciding factors in my decision to go freelance and be of service in elevating these brands in all areas."
Shannon Walker, Founder of Social Disruption
Shannon Walker launched Social Disruption earlier this year with the aim of adding value to in-house communication departments lacking in diversity, offering a fresh perspective and support on inclusive campaigns and messages.
"I’ve always been drawn to the challenge of being in traditional in-house environments where I could carve out a niche; introducing forward-thinking digital ways of working as well as be an advocate of diversity through my work. As a result, I’ve had the pleasure of working with incredible luxury brands, amazing people and been on projects where I could contribute to a business’ output of diversely rich campaigns.
"I will forever treasure and be grateful for these experiences, however, it is no secret that the PR Industry overall has a big diversity problem. No one deserves to feel like they don’t belong, aren’t heard nor seen. This firm belief fuels the drive I have to not only advocate diversity, purpose and positivity but align with the people and brands who share these values too.
"In all honesty, at the time of writing, being asked to give my experience of racial injustice fills me with anxiety for various reasons. However, I know the greater purpose these difficult conversations serve in education and change and I’m awed at the results being achieved globally in doing so.
"PRCA notes that Black professionals account for only 2% of people working in communications. When I started in the industry, I viewed being the only Black PR at an event, in a team or a corporate office as an exciting opportunity to ‘represent’ and offer a unique perspective. As it became a re-occurring theme in my career, it became to feel disheartening and, as you may expect, not without conscious and unconscious microaggressions, being made to feel as an “other”, disempowered and sometimes lonely. Examples include: being told outright “you wouldn’t make it in this industry”; enduring some thoughtless hair and skin tone remarks, questions and jokes over the years. Some instances are due to cultural differences and genuine curiosity, so for the most part, you grow a thick skin, knowing that malice may not be intended and that calling this out will be downplayed as being too sensitive or defensive. In rare cases, blatant discrimination exists in the industry. I’ve only witnessed the extreme end at the start of my career years ago, in the form of open use of obscene racist terms used (including the N-word used as a description), witnessing a colleague being bullied, as well as chastisement for raising awareness of this. I eventually walked out. Many other Black PRs I know with similar stories have decided to leave the industry altogether. There have always been several non-Black peers who have 'privately' shown amazing support and discomfort expressed at being a witness to racial injustice. However, the education needed to support them in calling this out wasn’t in global circulation.
"I’ve always made a conscious effort to focus on the good, and use these experiences to overcome, build character and further motivate me in my work. We’ve seen how there’s power when people unite, speak up and support others to drive change. I hope by sharing this, gives someone else the confidence to channel their experiences into something positive and will encourage more difficult internal conversations that will help the work to eradicate racial injustice in the industry."
Brands and agencies have touched on diversity and inclusion schemes, talked inspirationally about equality, and have committed to change, but is that enough?
Shannon: On a surface level perhaps, however we’ve seen this is not enough for consumers who are fiercely untied in demanding more. Transparency is paramount on the topic of anti-racism, hence the increased pressure for brands and agencies to outline clearly what these schemes look like to disprove that they are part of PR or performative action ploys. Industry leaders, influencers and brand communities, have joined in chorus to hold businesses accountable to ensure real change takes place.
Focus now is on the absence of existing Black and POC professionals in these conversations for change. The personal experience, perspective and expertise of this groups voice should be consulted at the heart of all the discourse around change, otherwise this is counter intuitive.
What can PR agencies do to change?
Deborah: I think pledges are a great and clear way for agencies to demonstrate their commitment to change and be held accountable. This has to be work that is seen as long term. What we’re experiencing right now is not noise or a storm in a teacup. It’s what many women like myself, business owners, brand founders, journalists, influencers have been saying for a long while, and it has taken such a tragic loss of life paired with the slowing down that the pandemic has created for us to truly be heard.
But in making these pledges, ensuring that you’re consulting with the people your pledges are for is key. Because you don’t know what you don’t know. In bringing in the voice of a relevant BAME person they can guide on areas and aspects that may have been previously overlooked and also help expand on areas that can add more value.
Also, we need to be asking how journalism can change. I understand how stretched things are for many staffers, with teams being condensed, but providing more opportunities for smaller black-owned brands is key to enabling them to have equal opportunities to grow their businesses. I’m working on a platform that aims to address this and be a source for our industry and consumers as whole.
There was a lot of excitement when Fenty Beauty launched, heralded as the brand championing diversity with their expansive shade range, but prior to this launch there was already a great selection of independent make-up brands doing just this and catering to their niche. Diversity to me also means levelling up the opportunities for the economic prosperity of black-owned businesses founders who are then able to re-invest in their communities and be a beacon of light and inspiration for those coming after them.
Shannon: Social Disruption has published a list of action points, which have been compiled from discussions had with Black creatives:
These points are not exhaustive as there's an immense amount of work to do, and even undo, to see complete equality in the industry and wider society. However, the global conversations taking place, sparked by the Black Lives Matter Movement, are inspiring outpours of unity and rapid moves towards overdue revolution. I'm sure that I'm joined by thousands when I say, I'm starting to feel hopeful and look forward to seeing the positive changes ahead.
Businesses taking the steps to make changes include:
b. the comms agency
b. the comms agency has this week announced that they, as a prominent UK communications agency representing global cross-sector, with multi-category brands, are in a privileged position to help make a difference and have committed to 8 steps of change - these include extending their Diversity Board, education, offering an ongoing paid BAME graduate scheme, offering 1 year’s pro bono communications services to a Black-founded brand; annual quarterly free communications workshops. As well as making sure the talent representation side of their agency will continue to be more diverse, while also encouraging authentic diversity through casting, content and the creative teams they work with and making sure any upcoming events are all-inclusive. Please read the agency's full pledge here @b_theagency
The British online retailer has committed to setting up a team to shape a Diversity and Inclusion Plan. It will commit to creating clear goals for equal opportunities in its workplace and across its content channels to uplift the Black community. They have stated that they will be educating themselves on topics including systematic racism, unconscious bias and appropriation of Black culture in order to make the company a fairer and more inclusive place. 'From leadership to recruitment. From training to mental health support. From charities we back to partners we collaborate with. From brands we stock to businesses we invest in. From faces we feature to content we create. Our commitment to this plan, the broader conversation, and to *actual* change will never end.' Please read ASOS' full pledge here @asos
The beauty retailer has pledged that they will only display testers for brands who have designed their stands to include every shade and they will provide testers and stock for all complexion shades of the brands in every store. Please read its full pledge here @spacenk
Karla Otto is developing a company-wide program to enable their employees to take action to support universal justice and equality. They are also working with clients and outside experts on ways to better support Black and minority-owned businesses. Please read their full pledge here @karlaotto
The luxury global e-tailer has announced the launch of its Black Employees Forum, aimed at bolstering the diversity of designers the company retails and how it will encourage more black people to want to work for MATCHESFASHION. The new CEO will also address the issue of under-represented designers from minority backgrounds in the fashion industry. Please see the CEO's full pledge here @matchesfashion
The fashion designer has set up an internal working group as a first step and will provide additional support to ensure that we are listening to each other, discussing the issues, identifying unconscious bias in ourselves and ensuring our short and long-term actions reflect all our learnings. Please see her full pledge here @victoiabeckham
The agency has pledged to focus on inclusivity, education and representation. Please view their full pledge here @seen_group
We would love to hear what pledges your brand, agency or magazine will be taking and we will be doing a follow-up piece highlighting the businesses who are taking affirmative action, so please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Introduce Mandatory Ethnicity Pay Gap Reporting
Much like the existing mandatory requirement for employers with 250 or more employees to publish their gender pay gap, we support the petition calling upon the government to introduce ethnicity pay gap reporting to shine a light on race / ethnicity based inequality in the workplace so that the issues can be exposed and addressed.
Petition to Introduce Mandatory Ethnicity Pay Gap Reporting
Deborah T Johnson PR in 'PR Companies'
Social Disruption in 'PR Companies'
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