Why The Pros Winter Series Exists – And Needs to Exist

Why The Pros Winter Series Exists – And Needs to Exist

By Elizabeth Banauka, CEO and Founder of BME PR Pros/Blueprinted

I’m knackered but buzzing.

We just wrapped The Pros Winter Series with a keynote Q&A delivered by the brilliant Sathnam Sanghera and chaired by Manifest’s equally brilliant Julian Obubo and, well, I’m on a fatigued high (if that makes sense?).

For those who don’t know about The Pros Winter Series (where’ve you been?), it’s the virtual version of the first BME PR Pros conference that took place in December 2019.

This year we had nearly 70 speakers, 18 events and 10 pieces of exclusive content.

It’s a huge undertaking. My tiny team and I proofed every bio and speaker form submitted, checked every Twitter handle, gathered every headshot. I briefed 52 speakers in four weeks, held calls with agents, publicists, and PAs, we combed through flyer after flyer checking names, titles, and organisations. Checking logos, dates, hashtags.

We set up Zoom webinar links and checked and triple checked they had the right date, the right time and went to the right speakers.

We edited and trawled through web copy, we supported nervous content providers and rooted for first time chairs and speakers.

We navigated tech glitches, bad lighting and deliveries that happened mid-session.

We pushed out (okay, spammed) our timelines with marketing content and pitched and re-pitched our incredible speakers and content.

Unlike our counterparts that run big comms and PR events, we don’t have a marketing budget, a list of subscribers or members we can sell to. Heck, we don’t have a marketing person yet alone a marketing team. Every single pass we sold for The Pros Winter Series was a result of our LinkedIn posting, our tweeting and our Instagramming.

We did this alongside our “day jobs” of running The Blueprint, The Xec. and, for me, a PR client too. Yes, there were long hours and lots of weekend working.

I think there’s a point with most events you find yourself thinking “why? Why are we doing this to ourselves?”

This year it didn’t happen with The Pros Winter Series and now I suspect it never will.

A little background…

In 2019 I had health problems that left me bedridden for pretty much seven months (FYI, I’m fine, had back surgery, all is good, thanks!).

After launching the BME PR Pros/PRWeek Mentoring Scheme in 2018, I’d become obsessed with putting together a conference filled with all these amazing, talented, diverse pros I was meeting. People I felt the comms world should hear more from.

I also became increasingly aware of so many topics and trends related to Black, Asian, Mixed Race and Ethnic Minorities that didn’t seem to get a look-in at most comms events. In fact, I felt a lot of societal shifts were rarely covered.

(I once suggested a high-profile industry event should include a session on Black Twitter and, to be honest, I think that guy’s jaw is still on the floor in that conference room in central London.)

The thing with this diversity stuff is that you can wait patiently for people to give you a platform, or you can create your own. You can ask people to do something, or you can do it yourself.

After my first back op was postponed in July 2019 and I found myself looking at an additional eight weeks in bed, I decided I wanted to control my narrative. I’d end the year not looking back at lying sick in bed but looking back at the first BME PR Pros conference.

So, I started working on it from my bed. Pulling together a programme, securing speakers, picking a venue, finding sponsors, selling tickets and all the usual event management stuff.

I’ve done more than a hundred events in my career and I’ve pretty much seen it all. Or so I thought.

What surprised me organising that first conference was the amount of casual racism I had to navigate. It became clear many in our event-loving industry drew a line at attending an event made up of speakers from Black, Asian, Mixed Race and Ethnic Minority backgrounds.

It became clear that companies and organisations that loved to talk about their passion for diversity and their commitment drew a line at sponsoring an event with a BME line-up (yet for years many were comfortable to sponsor and/or attend events with only white speakers but hey ho…).

For every “no” I offered to negotiate. Most refused. One mocked.

For many, the idea was a firm “no”.

This year’s The Pros Winter Series sold a record number of passes and had a record number of keynotes. We were fortunate enough to secure Google UK’s comms team as an event partner and Ketchum, Harvard, Manifest, Blurred, and the CIPR as sponsors.

It’s easy to get caught up in the stats or the financials but those aren’t our “whys” and certainly not mine (you don’t get into D&I to get rich).

Our “whys” come in the many moments that emerged from the series.

When you hear Donya Davis talk so movingly about design inspiration Virgil Abloh and her “why” (her son), when you listen to Nishma Robb talk passionately about tackling economic inequality and supporting Black businesses, and when you get to learn from talented young pros such as Lejohn, Amira, Deepak, Lateefah, Nabila and Naomi or Cremilda, Chris and Olivia. Or when you get a glimpse of the brilliance that is Poorna Bell, Katie Dash, Lottie Whyte or Emma Dabiri. Or the inspirational forces that are Femi Oluwole and Musa Okwonga that just make you want to do good and be good.

It’s catching our smart, insightful, articulate panellists debating everything from the impact of covid on healthcare comms to Love Island.

Hearing six incredible women of colour talking about menopause, maternity, miscarriage and #MeToo and doing so openly, with power, passion, and compassion.

Outrageous inequality means there are still far too many events where speakers from Black, Asian, Mixed Race and Ethnic Minority backgrounds are woefully underrepresented.

Too many events miss out on incredible speakers simply because to many people an ethnic speaker = a diversity speaker. Or worse, an ethnic speaker = less than.

Too many events are unaffordable for those out of work or juggling ethnic pay gaps, gender pay gaps or both (our tickets started at £34.99, and we gave away pay-it-forward tickets).

Too many events rely on exploiting self-employed speakers by offering “exposure” when they deserve payment for their time (we pay keynotes, self-employed speakers (with ten or less members of staff), unemployed speakers and journalists).

Too many events that are simply tone deaf, inaccessible (we had real-time live captioning), exclusive and excluding… and more fool all of them.

Several times during The Pros Winter Series, I found myself thinking “I can’t believe I get to watch this”.

There were sessions that made me laugh, made me think, made me smile and one made me cry (#MusaOkwonga). Every single one left me inspired.

I often joke to our speakers, “you’ve got to bring your A++ game, because if you don’t, racists will say ‘and that’s why I don’t hire minorities’”.

Crap joke aside, our speakers always do.

The Pros Winter Series exists to give talented Black, Asian, Mixed Race and Ethnic Minority pros a platform to showcase their talents and expertise.

And it will always exist because the world needs to hear more from the likes of Maria, Perveen, Esther, Sarah, Ramona, Paula, Maya, Corrina, Mary-Jane, Caroline, Daljit, Matt, Phillipa, Cremilda, Chloe, Donya, Selena, Lejohn, Fayola, Bieneosa, Emma-Cherrice, Kristian, Valerie, Jessica, Lateefah, Krish, Chanté, Louisa, Sebrina, Deepak, Ronke, Avril, Nabila, Chris, Kenon, Anthony, Anaïs, Olivia, Maxine, Shanil, Paul, Julian, Jennifer (Jo), Brandon, Efe, Harriet Otoo, Janelle, Ben, Sarah, Puneet, Sanjani, Whitney, Charandeep, Harriet Small Okot, Naomi, Alicia, Arun, Karen, Annalisa, Chinedu, Anisha, Amira, Scarlett and Simba, and, of course, our keynotes.

I’m grateful to all of them for bringing some much-needed light during this dark winter.

Thank you to Tim, Catherine, Pollyanne, Jo-ann, Janita, Louie, Ellie, Julian, Alex, Ali, Nik, Katy, Stuart, Alistair and Jon for making it possible for us to create an inclusive event series.

And thank you to Lisa, Karl and Krish for making The Pros Winter Series a ‘thing’ and a great thing too.

Happy holidays! e. xxx