Three things…

How’s it going with all those resolutions you made? You know, the ones where you were going to get to the gym four times a week, eat seven portions of fruit or vegetables a day, give up alcohol and sugar, and be nice to everyone you meet? Those ones. Chances are that whilst you’re probably still doing okay(ish) now, barely a week into January, by the end of the month most people are falling by the wayside, and by the time you’re halfway through February those promises will feel like distant memories.

The thing about New Year’s resolutions is that they’re often about deprivation, and there are usually far too many of them for any normal human being to stick to. Making new habits is hard, no matter which self-help books you’ve read that promise to make it easy to keep going with radical changes, so maybe there’s another way to look at it.

After years of well-intentioned but ultimately pointless resolution-making, this year I’m taking a different approach, streamlining the whole process into three key commitments – and guess what, they’re not all about me and the changes I want to make, they’re about promises I’m making to myself, to the teams I work with and the companies I engage with.

Let’s take them in turn. My personal promise is to be kinder to myself. In practice that’s going to mean making sure I’ve got a good balance between commitments to work, writing my novel (draft 3, since you ask) and juggling family demands, along with remembering to relax and have a bit of fun. Could be any of us, right?

For the people I work with, as individuals and teams, whether it’s as a consultant, a mentor or a leader, I’m going to ask them to be brave. 2018 is the year to step out of your comfort zone and do something different, maybe it’s something that scares you or means learning a new skill, or perhaps it’s about asking yourself the ‘so what’ questions. It might even be about being brave enough to say  ‘this isn’t for me’.

Being brave is just as important for companies and organisations as it is for individuals, but it seems to me that sometimes what companies need more than courage is someone to challenge their thinking in a constructive way, so that’s my company promise this year. It’s going to be about broadening business horizons, thinking about what the future holds and how organisations might need to adapt to best exploit what opportunities lie ahead.

I’m going to come back to these themes of kindness, bravery and constructive challenge throughout the year, and I’d love to know what your three words would be, if you could sum up what you want to happen in 2018 for you, the people you work with and the company that you’re part of.

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

 

Workplace Wellbeing

It’s unlikely that you’ll have missed it, but just in case, today is World Mental Health Day and the theme this year is all about wellbeing in the workplace. To their credit, numerous high profile individuals, including Lloyds Bank chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio and Geoff McDonald from Minds at Work (and former Global VP of Human Resources at Unilever) have been open about the difficulties they’ve encountered, largely driven by stress in the workplace.

Many big companies and professional organisations have called for a greater focus on mental wellbeing, but the stigma associated with asking for help is enormous. According to the PRCA, 59% of PR and communications practitioners say they’ve experienced mental illness, yet only 37% would approach their managers to talk about the challenges they’re facing.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to create the right environment for people to flourish and that means cultures which enable individuals to openly seek help when they need it, hopefully before they reach a crisis point.  It’s not rocket science – to be compassionate, to look out for people’s welfare and to identify those who need support – but it’s also not something that’s focused on in management skills training. There’s always an element on how to manage performance (usually how to give constructive feedback, swiftly followed by how to manage underperformers out of the business), but not on how to help people who really need it.

And, because once the subject of mental ill-health comes up in businesses, HR departments get anxious about legal liabilities and confidentiality in a way that physical illness doesn’t seem to provoke, it’s all conducted behind closed doors. People ‘disappear’ from work, returning a few weeks later surrounded by rumours, unless they decide to be open themselves about what’s happened to them, all of which adds to the stigma.

Let’s train our young managers and leaders on how to spot people who’re burning out, but more than that, we need to keep talking and sharing our experiences. Presenteeism continues to be a curse in our industry, particularly for the ambitious, so highlighting the successes of flexible working and insisting that people balance their lives is an important leadership task. Yes, we can lead by example, but we also need to take action so that at all levels, our teams are able to manage their working pattern and preserve their physical and mental health as they build their careers.

Want to take that first step? Having been fortunate enough to hear Geoff McDonald speak very eloquently about how to create “mentally and emotionally healthy and human workplaces where individuals can flourish and organisations prosper” I can thoroughly recommend Minds at Work as a good place to start: www.mindsatworkmovement.com

Let me know how you get on.

 

Marcel and AI – the future of agencies?

First up, a couple of disclaimers. I used to work at Publicis some years ago, and still have some extremely fond memories of the place and the people. And secondly, what I know about Marcel so far, the AI system Publicis has just announced it’ll be spending all its award entry and sponsorship money on for the next year, is what’s publicly available.

Still, from what I can see, the majority of the reaction to Marcel has centred on the likely impact that missing out on awards might have on the motivation of creatives across the business. If they aren’t going to be recognised by winning awards, how can they judge their success, so the argument goes. Marcel is described by Publicis as a ‘professional assistant system’, which will incorporate detailed profiles of every member of staff in order to pull together teams to address specific client needs, the idea being that staff can ‘bid’ to be involved in client briefs.

Hmm. Let’s just take another look at that, shall we? Whilst it’s heralded as a natural next step in delivering the “Power Of One” approach that has supposedly done away with individual P&Ls to facilitate cross-company working (tell that to the poor souls presenting quarterly numbers for which they are being held accountable by the way), in my opinion the real promise that Marcel makes is to remove the need for managing directors and business unit leaders altogether. Well, if you have the technology to match people to opportunities across geographies, time zones and markets, what’s the point of having managing directors to manage those people? If the promise of the work itself is strong enough, one presumes, there will be no need for traditional leadership of any kind.

It kind of fits, though, with what’s happening across the communications business as a whole. The exodus of mid-level and more experienced account handlers from the PR and medcomms business continues as people walk away from the always-on demands of agency roles to freelance. They don’t seem too bothered about any lack of personal development or growth opportunities, in fact some see not having to participate in company-led initiatives as an advantage. Loose collectives or groupings of freelancers happy to work together on projects directly with clients are springing up all over the place, as our work becomes increasingly commoditised.  It becomes about the ‘stuff’ we deliver rather than the value of the thought behind it.  To be fair though, talented creatives and planners have long been able to name their price in the freelance market, picking and choosing the work they want to do and the hours they want to work.

The days when clients relied on agencies as their institutional memories are rapidly disappearing, as the value of long-term relationships is continually degraded. In the race to cut costs, most agencies now have to repitch regularly even when the client is happy, because that’s what procurement requires. The influence of procurement on agency selection increasingly forces marketers to view all creative agencies as much the same, and the only way to differentiate between services becomes about chemistry and teams rather than the ability to do the work to a higher standard or think differently.

What Marcel offers, in my view, is the opportunity to remove even that differentiation. It promises to use predictive technology to match talent with client briefs, wherever it’s located. The problem for me is about seeing ‘talent’ (or as I like to call them, people) simply as a series of building blocks, albeit with varying characteristics, rather than in all their rich diversity. Amongst other things, this limited view provides procurement with the opportunity to more clearly specify which blocks it wants to buy, at what price. So, I foresee a future where procurement will specify the use of x hours of y shaped talent at z price (not that different from what happens now), and the beauty of individual creativity will be lost in translation. If you’re a freelancer, you’ll be forced to fit into that mould too, whether you’re under the radar or not.

And if you don’t fit those specifications, if your creativity isn’t quite the right ‘shape’, or if you need a different kind of opportunity to grow your skillset, well that’s tough because there won’t be a manager or a leader in place who gets you and is willing to fight your corner.  In the race for flexibility, we are at grave risk of losing our individuality, the ability to engage with and support real creativity that’s different and chafes at being put in boxes.  Winning awards is often the result of creating environments that nurture difference, that encourage creativity and enable people to be themselves.  You can’t wish winning teams into existence just by picking people from all over the world and shoving them together to answer a brief, they need leadership and support, and technology alone won’t deliver that.

Maybe I’m wrong, hopefully I am, but my worry is that Marcel heralds a future where the importance of the individual contributor within agencies becomes meaningless, certainly from an account handling and management perspective. And once this AI system has got enough data on board about what makes a successful campaign, how long will the individual creative be safe? Whatever happens we can’t get this particular genie back in the bottle, because where Publicis leads, others will almost certainly follow.  In ten years time, perhaps the hottest shops on the block will be agencies that offer a return to ‘old school’ working, with teams all together in one place rather than scattered to the winds.   What do you think?

Nearly there…

After weeks of frantic election campaigning here in the UK we’re nearly there, and whatever your voting intentions tomorrow, you’ve got to admit that campaign managers from all sides have had their work cut out keeping their candidates on track, in control and on message.

Maybe it’s just me, but there have been times when I have yearned for candidates and party spokespeople to set aside their soundbites, stop using the techniques so painstakingly learned to avoid people’s questions, and instead speak to the electorate as human beings. Yes, it’s important to stay on message, but that doesn’t mean trotting out the same stock phrases out over and over and over again in response to numerous different questions. “Strong and stable” made sense the first time I heard it, but as time went on and every Conservative Party spokesperson hitting the airways used it, the phrase lost its meaning and became risible.

Don’t agree? Well, it certainly gave the opposition room to counter-attack with “weak and wobbly” every time manifesto promises were clarified and amended in response to public criticism. Oh, and by the way, do stop answering every question with “let me be clear”, it begs the question of why you weren’t clear in the first place. Why not drop the barricades a little and use your own natural speech patterns – unless of course you spend your time in the pub continually interrupting people and shouting “let me finish…” whilst completely ignoring the question you’ve been asked. No? Thought not.

Now, when I have gone into pitch for business, one of the key things we’ve done to prepare is to make sure we’ve got the facts at our fingertips. So, when going into a radio or TV interview to talk about say, the cost of policing, it’s a good idea to have written the numbers down in big letters where you can see them, so you don’t have to make up the answers on the fly (and get found out when you get it wrong – repeatedly). Also, on this same topic, maybe learn from your mistakes so that if you’re invited onto another programme to talk about perhaps local election results, you don’t make the same error all over again. In fact, if this is your candidate, I’d be taking them off the airways altogether  – oh…

In the communications world, there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes on issues management – looking at where problems might lie for brands and businesses in order to defuse them before crises happen. So, if your own personal beliefs seem to be at odds with the mainstream, or even your own party’s policies, it’s worth taking time as a candidate to think through how you might respond to challenges about them. Just ignoring the issue simply makes it worse, and gives the appearance of not caring what people think about your views – as does a long period of silence followed by an unconvincing denial. We don’t all have to agree on everything, but pretending you do when you don’t can be fatally damaging to your reputation.

I worked with an HR manager years ago whose mantra was that you should take time to understand the intention behind people’s behaviours, because it was almost invariably good, even if the execution left a lot to be desired.  It was a good lesson, and worth applying in this instance, because I don’t believe any of the campaigners and their advisers went into politics with the intention of misleading or alienating the electorate. But I’d give anything to hear a politician today dropping the front, speaking like a human being, admitting when they’re wrong and talking about what really matters to them, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

So, some last minute advice to all the candidates today – lose the rhetoric, speak from the heart and remember what it is to be human. There’s an appetite for change, and those who can actively listen, engage openly and acknowledge other’s views in debate rather than simply blindly defend themselves are likely to make more headway in today’s environment.

 

 

Fake It Until You Make It

I’ve read quite a few articles recently about Imposter Syndrome, something that apparently many women in particular suffer from. The theory is that regardless of how successful you are, on the inside you regard yourself as something of a fraud – even though to the outside world you seem to be a high-flyer.  It is rooted in low self-esteem, and it can get worse the more successful you become, and the more you mix with other talented individuals.

It’s all about comparing yourself with others and finding yourself wanting – not a pleasant place to be.  Instead of being able to accept that you might, just possibly, be good at what you do, Imposter Syndrome means that you tell yourself that no matter what you achieve, those achievements are somehow fraudulent compared to those of others.

Well, I’d like to propose a different approach. How about, instead of deciding you’re successful despite your shortcomings, why not just decide to be successful and then worry about whether or not you deserve to be afterwards. In short, I’m recommending the “Fake it until you Make it” approach. Act as if you are already a winner, already on the path to success and soon enough you probably will be.

Last year I went to a masterclass on how to write a bestseller, run by The Guardian. One of the speakers was Clare Mackintosh, whose first novel “I Let You Go” hit the bestseller lists right off the bat. I’m over simplifying this, obviously, but she talked about how she’d essentially just “decided” that she was going to be a writer, quit her job and then got herself work as a freelance journalist by telling editors that she was already working as a freelance.  What Clare did was to become a writer through the power of living a writer’s life, rather than wait for someone else to tell her that she was one.  I found her really inspiring because of the clarity of her vision and the decisiveness of the actions she took. Also, her books are incredibly well written and definitely worth reading.

When my business partner and I set up our own communications agency, we didn’t agonise for months about whether or not we would be successful, we got stuck in and acted as though we were already there. That confidence meant that clients were able to trust that we’d deliver, right from the off and I am sure was a huge part of our ultimate success. We used to talk about it being our “field of dreams” strategy – you know, if you build it, they will come (and they did…).

I know this sounds obvious, but if you’re feeling like an imposter, try not to give in to the self-doubt. When you’re not feeling confident, try acting as though you are until you’ve developed the skills and tools you need for that confidence to be real.  You’d be surprised how quickly that can happen.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that we are all of us to one extent or another playing roles that we feel are expected of us, so spend your energy making sure you’re performing with confidence instead of agonising about what others might think.  It’s like wearing a dress that you secretly think is a bit too short. Style it out and nobody will know that you’re worried it’s too short, they’ll just be wowed by how fabulous you look.

Change or chaos?

Originally, I had planned to write a post today about change and how to cope with it both as a leader and as someone on the receiving end of change for which they feel unprepared. I had intended to reference the excellent course on change management that I attended some years ago and to discuss the merits of the SCARF model1. If you don’t know what that is, the acronym refers to a framework by which it’s possible to understand people’s responses to change – and therefore how to make the process of change easier and more positive.

SCARF stands for Status (because we feel threatened if we perceive our status to be reduced), Certainty (because uncertainty about the future leads us to make mistakes), Autonomy (because if we don’t feel as if we have a choice, that puts us under increased stress), Relatedness (because if we don’t feel we belong, then we don’t trust people and situations) and Fairness (because we feel threatened if we believe we are not being treated fairly).

One of the reasons I wanted to write about change was because I met someone last week who is about to start a new role and it got me thinking about my own experiences of being a ‘new starter’ in a role or organisation. I had intended to share some words of wisdom about how to get through those first days and weeks and end on a generally encouraging note.

But over the past few days we’ve been exposed to change of a most radical kind and when you look at it through the lens of the SCARF framework, doesn’t it feel as though the new President of the US has got just about everything the wrong way round?  Whatever your views* on the rights and wrongs of the executive order he signed banning entry to the US for refugees for 120 days (and an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria) as well as all immigrants and visa holders from Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Syria for 90 days, don’t you feel that the way it was done is also a huge part of the issue?

In leadership terms, the first 100 days of any new CEO are vitally important, a time when the leader sets the direction for his or her tenure and it’s clear that the intention here is to signal strong leadership. Yet, quite aside from the moral and ethical questions associated with his current approach, what we’re actually seeing here is an example of how not to lead any organisation. Directives are unclear and poorly thought through, executives who are supposed to implement them don’t appear to have a clear understanding of their instructions, and huge damage is being inflicted upon the reputation of the organisation itself. This is not how to manage change. This is how to create chaos. Then again, perhaps that was the intention.

 

 

Note:

  1. The original SCARF paper was published in 2008 by Dr David Rock in NeuroLeadership Journal issue one.

*For the record, I’m one of the more than 1,646,055 people who have to date signed the petition calling for the proposed Trump state visit to be downgraded. And I’ve revised that number upwards four times in the last few minutes.

Happy Equal Pay Day?

Today is Equal Pay Day in the UK. What does that mean? It’s not just another opportunity to talk about the gender pay gap, 10 November 2016 marks the day from which women in full time jobs will in effect be working for free until the end of the year. Last year’s Equal Pay Day was 9 November, so we’ve made pretty much zero progress over the last twelve months in reducing a pay gap between men and women of almost 14% (13.9% to be exact).

What’s shocking about this is that it’s been 46 years since the Equal Pay Act enshrined in law the rights of women to be paid the same as men if they were doing the same job.  46 years! It’s shocking that today in 2016 there is still this huge disparity in the way that women are valued in the workplace as opposed to men.

Now, here’s a question for you. Do you think Theresa May is paid less than David Cameron was for the job of Prime Minister?  Had Hillary Clinton made it to the White House, would she have been paid less than President Obama? Seems unthinkable, doesn’t it. The thing is, these are high profile roles where salary is a matter of public record, and it’s simply not a level playing field for many women working across a broad spectrum of industries.

Only a month ago, supermarket giant ASDA found itself braced for a class action suit, when an employment tribunal found in favour of 7,000 shop workers who complained that they were being paid between £1-£3 less than staff at distribution centres (most of whom are men). The company had tried to argue that because shops and distribution centres were in different locations, separate pay arrangements were justified. The tribunal found that ASDA could have made sure that there was equal pay between men and women if they wanted to, but chose not to, according to law firm Leigh Day, which represented the women. And they’re not alone – a similar action is being brought against Sainsbury’s on behalf of 400 workers in a similar situation.

Over the years I have read many articles and manifestos that place the blame for the pay gap on demographics and cultural issues, claiming that women choose lower stress lower pay roles, or that they prefer to be family carers, quite aside from any workplace discrimination. The truth is that there are a combination of factors which influence the gender pay gap, many of which need to be tackled long before girls reach the workplace.

The Women’s Equality Party (WE) is calling for a new approach to widen the conversation, with a new three part approach to tackle inequality:

First, to address workplace discrimination WE is calling for companies to publish pay data broken down by gender, ethnicity and disability as well as by pay, employment status and working hours, including retention rates during and after parental leave.

Secondly, WE believes that remodelling the UK education system to ensure all girls get an equal education – and to do this it asks that schools conduct a gender audit of the curriculum to ensure they promote role models challenging gender stereotypes, as well as offering quality, independent careers guidance that encourages girls to do science and boys to think creatively.

Finally, WE is calling for further investment in childcare to enable more women to return to the workplace without being penalised financially for doing so, and has made concrete proposals for how this could be funded. It also wants to encourage men to share in parental leave by breaking down both financial and cultural barriers, with fathers receiving non-transferable 6 weeks of parental leave at 90 percent of pay.

At the current rate of progress, it will take until 2069 to close the gender pay gap, and longer if you are a black or ethnic minority woman, or indeed an older woman. We can’t wait that long. If you are in a leadership role, man or woman, make time to examine and address this issue within your workforce – you might be surprised what you find. And of course, if you’re working in an organisation that employs more than 250 people it will shortly be a matter of public record anyway, as you will have to publish details of pay gap data in 2018.   We cannot take progress for granted, it is our collective responsibility to make sure our workplaces represent the very best practice, for both men and women.

Under pressure?

Our industry is populated by bright, driven individuals who often work stupidly long hours to meet client demands and who take their work incredibly seriously. The pressures can sometimes feel overwhelming and I know I am not alone in having worked with colleagues who’ve come close to burning out simply because they have worked themselves to a standstill.

It’s not just about the client who calls at 4pm on a Friday afternoon with a crisis that simply MUST be worked on late into the evening or over the weekend though. Sometimes it’s about an individual who finds it hard to delegate because they are so anxious that their work is perfect that they have to do everything (yes, I’ve been there in my earlier years), or who has to check and double check the work of others (also been there) to make sure that they don’t fall foul of a client who’s similarly driven (oh yeah, I’ve definitely been there too).

This week there has been much discussion about mental health in the workplace to coincide with World Mental Health Day on Monday, and I do believe that as an industry we are much more sensitised to this issue than we were in the past. As leaders and managers, we’re more able to spot the individual most at risk of burning out because they’re often our best performers, the ones whose clients depend on them utterly and whose teams love them because they’re always picking up the pieces.

The bigger question for me is how we, as practitioners, can help ourselves. Not just in terms of managing our mental health but also our physical health, because people who work too many hours for too long struggle physically too. Not enough time for exercise, not eating properly, and most important of all, not taking care of ourselves when we are sick. I know I’m not alone in repeatedly struggling into the office when really I should have been at home under the duvet, and I can think of many high performers who push themselves far too hard physically as well as mentally.

The nature of our business is that it is not a 9-5 environment, and we need to encourage each other to look after ourselves, to give ourselves permission to recover properly from physical illness by taking appropriate rest and pacing ourselves.  Too often physical illness is the harbinger of mental health problems, with the body breaking down because the mind won’t allow sufficient rest or relaxation.

So this year, as the evenings draw in, and coughs, colds and flu start to spread (not to mention norovirus), give yourself permission to take a couple of days off to properly rest, to consider what your body needs rather than what your team or your client needs. We are none of us superhuman – and you can’t lead a team from a hospital bed. Too extreme? Maybe, but as leaders, one of the examples we need to set is that of how to build a career with longevity – one where you can still get to the top but in a way that’s more sustainable. Don’t just think about the wellbeing of your teams, make your own wellbeing another one of the touchpoints you review when you’re thinking about the health of your business.

Room for improvement?

How funky is your office? Are you working from one of those desperately trendy spaces – you know the sort of thing, chairs and walls in primary colours, posh wallpaper, or maybe a neon slogan urging you to “Go for it” or “Live Life”?  Do you have access to table football or a mini pool table sited conveniently near the kitchen? Is your office china part of an artfully mismatched, fabulously retro set of ‘70s greatest hits? Is there a drinks trolley that comes around mid-afternoon on a Thursday or Friday to make the fact that you’ll be there until 8pm just that little bit more palatable?

If you can answer yes to most of the questions above then congratulations, you’re probably working in a communications agency. Or perhaps an internet pioneer that’s hit the big time and is now coining it in every time you hit the search button in a desperate quest to find a bar that nobody else has heard of.  Anyway, whether you’re working in an office that’s been designed to death or somewhere that could just as easily be an insurance brokers as a creative agency, chances are you’ll be working in an open-plan environment.

Open-plan has distinct advantages when it comes to efficient use of the space – not least because you can accommodate greater numbers of staff than within individual offices, but there are also cultural and developmental advantages. So long as you’re flexible enough from an admin and operational perspective it’s possible to rearrange seating plans to ensure that someone struggling with a specific task is seated next to someone who excels at it. Or if you spot some office politics starting to emerge, it’s simple enough to move people around.  So far so good.

How about grouping people by client? Or by seniority? Er – maybe not such a good idea after all, unless you want everyone working on a specific client going stir-crazy from boredom, or all your account executives plotting a mutiny. Maybe by task then, so that the people who want quiet can all sit together quietly and the people who need a bit of banter to get them through the day can whoop it up in a corner to their hearts’ content?

Either way it’s not easy. A recent What Workers Want survey (YouGov for the British Council for Offices, sponsored by Savills), showed that whilst 75% of participants valued a quiet space for focused work, only 30% were actually satisfied with its provision in their offices. Researchers from the Auckland University of Technology in Australia have just released data that showing that as the number of people workers have to share office space with increases, the less productive and friendly they become.  As people become ever more closely co-located, the noisier their space becomes, the less control they have over their individual environment (I’m thinking here especially of hot-desking), and the harder it becomes to concentrate and deliver great work.

I am a great believer in the impact that physical space has (positive and negative) on people’s engagement, commitment and investment in their work.  There are times when it’s important for teams to be physically together, and times when for maximum creativity, quiet space for thought is crucial. The latest approach to office design speaks to the need for a rethink when it comes to open-plan working, emphasising the need to ‘sneak in’ more quiet space and more privacy, whether that’s using bookshelves or plants to create separation and screening, or creating more bookable spaces to allow room for people to think.

Why does this matter? Well, our businesses are built on creativity, and a pool table and neon sign just aren’t going to cut it if what our people really need is quieter, less crowded spaces in which to think and be inspired. It’s hard to hold people accountable for doing their best work if we don’t hold ourselves accountable for creating the right environment for them to work in.  Food for thought.

Time to practice what we preach

I’ve worked in healthcare communications for more than 20 years and in all that time I don’t believe I’ve ever interviewed, let alone hired anyone with a disability.  Every office I’ve worked in has been fully equipped with facilities for people with disabilities including lifts, ramps and disabled toilets, but I can’t recall seeing a single person who needed to use those facilities.  I’m also pretty sure I haven’t worked with anyone living with visual impairment or indeed with anyone who has hearing difficulties, for example.  Attending the first Cannes Lions Health Festival I was blown away by a speech from Francesca Martinez, a stand-up comedian who has cerebral palsy (but who prefers to describe herself as ‘wobbly’), but I’ve never come across anybody working in our industry who is ‘wobbly’ or otherwise coping with disability.

When you consider the debate across the communication industries about the need to reflect the society in which we live, and the fact that in the UK there are more than 6.9 million disabled people of working age (approximately 19% of the working population, according to the Disabled Living Foundation), my experience is startling, and I am sad to say that I am not alone.  Just this week Sara Hawthorn, owner of PR agency InFusion Comms, wrote in PR Week that “after almost 10 years in the PR industry I have never knowingly met another PR professional who has any kind of disability and that needs to change.” She’s right when she says that there’s a stark lack of conversation around inclusivity and how to create a positive culture around disabled PR professionals.

I’m a big proponent of women’s equality in the workplace, and as I wrote earlier this week, there are important campaigns running in many agencies and holding companies to support gender diversity, as indeed there are about LGBT rights and providing equal opportunities to BAME communities, but where are the equal access campaigns for people with disabilities? I don’t mean physical access, I mean access to careers and opportunities – although let’s not forget just getting to the office can be a mountain to climb for wheelchair users or anyone with a physical disability who needs assistance getting on and off trains. Imagine if you had to book assistance 24 hours in advance, for every train, every day – twice a day – and if you’re unfortunate enough to have to use Southern Rail for your commute you’re totally stuffed before you start – but I digress. The widespread introduction of flexible working policies across many agencies though means that more and more people are able to work from home as the traditional desk-bound model of working fades away, and surely this is another reason why now, more than ever, we can and should accommodate people with differing physical abilities.

As an industry we’re getting much better at supporting people coping with mental health problems (although we’ve still got a long way to go) and if you’re diagnosed with a serious illness most employers are fantastic at helping you to stay working and employed, but we need to find ways to open doors for people living with disabilities.  As healthcare communicators we often speak for and on behalf of people coping with disability, so why aren’t we employing disabled people who can share their lived experience with us and be part of our teams? When we pitch for business, we’ll often seek out somebody living with, say, psoriasis or diabetes to help us understand the impact this might have on their lives, and we can often find people with those types of experiences working within our agencies – but finding an employee who’s living with disability? Pretty much impossible.

Where to begin? Well, I guess we can make a start by talking about the issue, and thank you again to Sara Hawthorn for raising it in the first place, because I was certainly ashamed by my ignorance and lack of attention to the problem. We can ask recruiters to think about how to help us address the issue, we can be specific in our job ads, going beyond the usual “open to all” statements to be clear about how someone with a disability might be suitable for the role(s). If I were in agency now I’d be talking to my HR team about how we could create an open access entry scheme for people with disabilities – but I’m not, so I hope someone else will take the hint. Above all else we need to make it as OK to talk about disability in the agency workplace as it is to talk about any other topic.  Let’s do it.