HEPHZIBAH KWAKYE-SAKA PR Manager, Factual for Sky
WE NEED BUILT-IN SYSTEMS THAT BRING PEOPLE IN AND GIVE THEM AGENCY TO SPEAK UP
There have been many times when I have been the first, and the only black person in a room, and asked to speak on behalf of a people – whether that be Africans, Black people or another combination of my unique identity.
I found that I only truly found my voice and my confidence back when I gained a community and a space where I felt I could be authentically myself, without having to play a role – whether that was imposed or otherwise.
That community was a group of friends with diverse experiences in the PR industry. Some worked in creative, finance and other parts of the business, but we all learnt from each other. It meant that I was able to learn and put in practice the new tools and skills I gained. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to grow as much as I did if I had not found that group of friends.
That’s the importance of community and having people who look like you in the industry, particularly in more senior positions. It opens up dialogue and creates space to learn from each other.
Now that we are in a moment of change and building up the momentum for transformation in the industry, there is the possibility of falling into previous patterns that harm and hinder progress.
Many people are expected to be the spokespeople for the whole community of Black people, and it is important to establish holistic change that we can build upon, not on the shoulders of individuals, but on systemic change and transformation.
It is simply not enough to just have a someone in the room who represents a marginalised group, the structures in the room must change and there should be built-in systems that bring more people in and give them agency to speak up.
Ultimately, Black people are not responsible for educating the rest of society on the change that should be made, but we can take up positions to spark that education. I think that’s very important, because some of the fundamental answers to the question of sustainable change, and the picture of the change we would like to see, lie with us.
I‘ve now been in the PR industry for seven years and my main experience is in creative media, entertainment and the arts. My route into the industry has been a fairly unusual one, that involved deploying all my powers of persuasion to convince my mother it was the right course for me.
Growing up in Ghana, I didn’t know anything about PR. My passion was reading and always has been, for as long as I can remember. When I was about 7 years old, I found Oprah Winfrey’s autobiography and was so captivated by her story, that by the time I finished the book, I decided that I wanted to be just like her.
In my mind, I was convinced that my dream career lay in the media industry, although at the time, I had not defined it absolutely. My parents had always wanted me to have a blue-collar job and when I was preparing to go into university, I told them I was interested in media and communications.
This was a negotiation process and even though my grades clearly showed that law and the sciences were not my strong suit, I had to put forth a case for my choice in subjects.
My mum asked me to write a 3000-word essay outlining what I was going to do in media and how I intended to make a successful career of it. Thankfully, she was really impressed, and I got the chance to do what I really wanted.
Later, I went to Brunel and did media studies and communications, and was exposed to different areas of media. It was from there that I got to know more about the opportunities in the PR industry.
The essay started me off into my career with such intention, but I soon found that once I got into PR, I was so overwhelmed by new experiences and the environment that I found myself in, that I no longer navigated with the same level of intention and purpose. In many ways, I was simply happy to be in the room.
Today, I have that confidence, but I know that there is a long way to go and as long as we are still accounting for firsts, we will have a long way yet. That will be the sign of reaching change for me.
Looking at the wider PR industry, we have a lot of barriers to break down before making significant progress.
This also needs to address the situation where the only Black person in a room, or the token person of colour is asked to give the view of the whole community with the assumption that the community is a monolith.
The importance of community and direction is vital.
The most fundamental change that can come out of this movement is an understanding of the importance of creating a community that is built to support the vision of change that we have. If we can build that with intention and direction, we will hardly recognise the industry we currently see, and its impact will be far-reaching and unstoppable.