Creating an authentic culture of belonging must start at the top

Creating an authentic culture of belonging must start at the top

By Preena Gadher, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Riot Communications

Riot is the first agency run by a person of colour to be fully Blueprinted, a fact that I am very proud of. But while I had a gut feeling that we were doing a pretty good job of recognising different minority lived experiences – I personally am a diversity bean counter’s poster girl, ticking several boxes on my own! – it was not a given. Without the right people around me, we never would have secured full Blueprint status.

It was a colleague in our Senior Leadership Team who challenged us to really think about our approach to D&I: while celebrating difference felt like a natural way of life at Riot as opposed to an agenda point, did we actually need a more formal approach to do it right, she asked.

The Blueprint provided us with an excellent framework to make the leap from instinctively being good at creating a culture of belonging, to being at the top of our game. But embedding D&I meaningfully also requires a collective level of allyship from the entire leadership team. It means making D&I business critical, putting in the time, energy and hard work to learn and reflect over a sustained period of time. Sometimes that can involve acknowledging and responding to uncomfortable truths. If, however, you approach D&I like a PR Week award submission, you are (rightfully) screwed…

“I’m a firm believer that diversity has to be reflected at every level of an organisation…”

What I have learnt over the years of running a comms agency, as one of the few women of colour, is that it can take a heavy toll, emotionally and physically. The desire to help drive change, at the risk of losing business or alienating people when you speak out, is very real. This is on top of doing the demanding day job!

Many years ago, when I first started Riot, as a naïve, 20-something year old, a wise, black woman in a senior leadership role reminded, “you have a responsibility, Preena,” by which she meant: when you are one of the few people who looks like you at the top, you have a duty to act, and try and pave the way for those coming up behind you.

I took her words to heart, but realised over the years – the hard way – that real change cannot be done alone. You need to surround yourself with people who feel as passionately as you do to help take the load. They don’t have to have lived experience of injustice themselves, but it certainly helps. It was not a coincidence that the colleague who pushed our agency to go through the Blueprint process is a black woman.

I’m a firm believer that diversity has to be reflected at every level of an organisation – as it is at Riot – but without question, within Senior Leadership teams for authentic change to occur. You can claim to have a “speak-up” culture in your workplace all you like, but as every black or brown person knows, speaking up about racism to superiors is a dicey game. Unless you have leaders who understand the risk you are taking, and who are senior enough to address it without fearing the repercussions on their own careers, how can we expect the dial to move?

We will know when things are genuinely improving, when the top tiers of the PR world look quite different to how they do right now.