Are you there PR? It’s us, the disabled PR pros

Posted by Sara Hawthorn
Image shows five lego figures sitting around a white table.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to the #powerandinfluence chat to talk about inclusivity in PR. I was excited and looking forward to a weighty discussion on what I know is a tough topic. What I didn’t expect was silence. Now, I’ve had a while to think about that chat and form some thoughts on why so few chose to actively participate on the night.

Setting the agenda about disability in PR

I’ve been vocal about the lack of disability visibility in PR for the last couple of years – since my first article in PR Week back in 2016. Since then I’ve covered it in my podcast, and had comment pieces on PR Careers, The Telegraph, and Influence Online covering different aspects of disability and inclusivity in PR and business leadership. Through social media, I’ve been fortunate to come across others doing the same. These voices are calling for same thing – getting rid of the taboo, openness and a noticeable change in the numbers of disabled PR people working in the sector.

But all these voices belong to disabled people. I’ve realised that we’re not having a conversation, we’re soliloquizing.


Why is disability a conversation stopper?

In my opening paragraph, I chose the words ‘actively participate’ specifically because the #powerandinfluence discussion did generate likes, RTs and comments, but mostly after the debate was over. Whether this was because people caught up on the debate later, or mulled over the comments for a bit before deciding to say something, I don’t know. But that silence reaction is still all too common and prevalent when we broach the subject of disability in PR and it’s why there’s no dialogue happening to try and implement change.

It means when we speak up and out, we do so as the ‘disabled PR people’.  Amy Rowe, co-founder of fintech content marketing agency Foco, nails it when she says:

“Any progress the industry makes is still marred by this weird prevailing attitude that if you’ve got a problem like a disability, you have to first confess it, like it’s something you did wrong, and then you typically get asked (if you’re lucky) what the company can do to help.”

The idea of ‘confession’ is an interesting point – the culture which still prevails is one of flawlessness as Amy points out.

“When I landed my first job in PR I was under the impression that the only people who made it to the top were infallible. Weaknesses would get you found out and thrown out. I think unfortunately, even some years on, the industry still rewards sparkly outward perfection.”

It’s because of this continuing ethos that speaking up feels like a confession; an admission that we falsified ourselves in order to match the high bar and a request for forgiveness to still be part of the club. In being so vocal and candid about the lack of disabled PR pros and the general poor diversity record of the profession we are criticising the behaviours and cultures that sadly continue to exist in PR, and the homogenous model that shows little sign of breaking. This, understandably, sits awkwardly with PR folks, because there’s no easy response or get-out clause to explain why without admitting that we’re right – that the majority of the teams out there aren’t remotely diverse.  The two options, then, are engage with us or remain silent. Most opt for the latter.


Working to secure buy-in on diversity

In a recent Yorkshire Post article, Forward Ladies founder, Griselda Togobo, notes that one of the top three reasons we fail to get anywhere significant with diversity is due to the lack of senior leadership commitment and buy-in. Being seen to support diversity is a bigger goal than actually making workplaces more diverse. She’s totally and disappointingly right.

It baffles me that we have to work for buy-in. Even at a mercenary and capitalist level the figures show that diverse teams are more profitable and make smarter business decisions. Despite that doubt at senior levels we are here, pushing for a commitment to change. By talking about our experiences and our needs we are taking the steps you will not to demonstrate how disability diversity can and should work. We are forging the path to make it easy for you to walk on after us. Don’t be silenced by our questions through awkwardness, or worse, thinking it doesn’t apply to you. This is an invitation. In the same way that mental health, gender and BAME discussions have generated allies and forward momentum, so too can the movement to make PR open and inviting to those with disabilities.