Q&A with Whitney Simon, head of DE&I

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Where did your passion for DE&I begin? 

For me, my journey began when I first started at university. I secured a job within the DE&I office, which gave me so many training opportunities and I eventually ended up as the DE&I Co-ordinator for all incoming freshmen. 

It was just something incredibly important to me personally, given my background as a black queer woman. 

Meeting so many people from so many different backgrounds helped me to become more compassionate, more empathetic and to have, a better understanding of the world. 

So, throughout university, I felt as though diversity was a big part of what I did socially. And then I went into the PR workforce. It was not diverse at all.  


What was diversity in PR like at that time? 

PR is very homogeneous, particularly in the US. It remains very white, very straight, and really jarring, because I went from such a diverse, international university, into a workforce where I was getting comments about my hair, not being included into activities, and just feeling very ‘othered’. 

The first couple of years in my career were traumatic.  


What did you do in the face of such bias? 

I think it is only when I moved to Missive and did The Xec’s leadership program, aimed at creating the next generation of BME leaders and to increase boardroom diversity client and agency-side, that I became more confident in my skills.  

Now I very much want to help make PR more diverse than it was when I entered it. 

Coming into the workforce out of university or an apprenticeship, you are already very insecure. You have this idea of what work will be like and then you actually get there, and it is different. I think something that people do not talk enough about is workplace culture and how to navigate hierarchy and interpersonal dynamics. It can be so jarring. When you add in working at companies that are not diverse or inclusive, it just adds in this whole other element. 


How did those challenges feel, joining the workplace? 

When I first started my career, I took all the above things personally. I very much felt like I was not good enough to be in PR or was not good enough to be on client meetings. That I should not be there. 

Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to realise that I do have strengths (as well as weaknesses), and my diversity of thought is something valuable I bring to the table. That confidence has helped me navigate the bias that I encounter – sadly, there will always be some type of bias to be dealt with – whether it is racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. My goal is to not allow it to impact my view of myself and my abilities.  


How has DE&I changed over the course of your career? 

I think at the beginning of my career, there was a lot of lip service to diversity. A lot of businesses used to love to talk about how diverse they were. But I was often the only black person, and in one instance, I had an executive publicly comment on the colour of my skin in front of the whole agency – it was traumatic. I continued to deal with these instances at other companies, which was only made worse by how difficult it was progressing at these organisations. It got to a point where I started to internalise these interactions and felt that I was the problem.  

But on reflection, I realise I was never going to make it up the food chain at these types of organisations because that is not what they wanted. I have seen a lot of companies do the bare minimum when it comes DE&I – thinking that hiring people from diverse backgrounds is the end all, be all for being progressive. But diversity is one thing, inclusion is a whole other part of the equation where I tend to see a lot of companies fail.  


Where do you see the diversity of the PR and comms industry today? 

Whereas organisations could get away with that earlier on in my career, that is no longer the case. With the rise of social media platforms like TikTok or Instagram, people are speaking out. Companies are beginning to recognise that if they treat their people poorly, it will go viral – and not in a good way. People recognise that they can no longer just pay lip service, because it will come back to bite them. 

It goes without saying too that the murder of George Floyd was seismic. We were in lockdown and then suddenly everyone was like ‘oh my God, racism exists’. But then everyone jumped on this bandwagon, and we saw brands putting up black squares as their profile pictures, but that was as far as their ‘support’ went. When it became clear that despite all the promises made, there had not been any progress made, there was a major backlash (rightfully so), making companies realise that they must take it seriously. It cannot be a PR exercise.  

It is a similar story with greenwashing as well. I think we are seeing a lot of that. You cannot just put up a recycling bin in the corner and think you have got it all sorted out. It is important for organisational leaders to be honest about what the business is doing because journalists, customers, and stakeholders all have the resources to investigate that. 


What is Missive’s DE&I Consulting Services, and why are you launching this now? 

We’re so excited to offer an accredited consultancy service, which aims to help organisations build more inclusive cultures and practices.  

We were experiencing clients coming to us with PR considerations around DE&I that we didn’t feel we could support without also taking a step back to ensure the DE&I culture and infrastructure was there in the organisation – or there was a will to grow it. As a result, we saw an opportunity to go beyond comms with a consultancy service that was far broader. We are so proud to support clients on their entire DE&I strategy. 

The consultancy has three main pillars: 

  • Discovery: Services to help organisations audit and understand their position and opportunity 

  • Planning: Consultancy to build the strategic case for DE&I  

  • Delivery: Services that range from training and policy creation through to internal comms and recruitment tools. 

In terms of why now, a robust DE&I approach is no longer a nice-to-have, but a business-must for any organisation that wants to remain competitive. The need is clear, and investment in DE&I by businesses globally is expected to more than double by 2026. 

We have seen lots of organisations - including many of our clients – take positive steps towards greater inclusivity. Leaders are now questioning how they can evolve individual initiatives into a widely adopted business strategy. Our new Missive services will support businesses in meeting them at the stage they are at so that they can make measurable DE&I progress.  


Tell us more about Seat at the Table – what is it, and how did you come up with the idea? 

I wanted to start a diversity inclusion initiative, but I wanted to do it differently.  

I did not want to bring all these people into a room to talk about the issues and do nothing about it, or put the burden on people from marginalised backgrounds to solve these issues. I wanted to create a safe space where people can be vulnerable and talk about things that can sometimes be a bit scary or intimidating. 

Ideally at the end of the session people would come away feeling like they have seen something from a new perspective. I wanted everyone to be able to feel confident and comfortable, coming to the table to have conversations around race, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic background, et cetera.  

Seat at the Table began as an internal initiative and it was well received. I expected a handful of people would come, we would have a conversation and it would be great. To my pleasant surprise, the vast majority of the Missive team attended the first session on unpacking privilege. I was so incredibly grateful. 

After that session, people kept reaching out to me, saying that they had learnt something new and were taking it upon themselves to continue that learning. I hosted another session about inclusive language and the reception was so positive. At that point, we wanted to figure out a way that we could package it up and share it with our external community which is what inspired the podcast we have launched.  


Recent lay-offs at big tech companies – such as Twitter and Lyft – are decimating diversity teams. What would you say to these companies? 

It is super concerning. Over in the States, the Supreme Court is looking to do away with affirmative action, which was a piece of legislation to help create more equality for people of colour getting into universities. It is shocking. 

What I would want to say to these companies is that it is incredibly short sighted to cut out key members of your team that are trying to address an issue which is still incredibly rampant. These issues have not gone away. 

All of these companies are successful off the backs of their people. If companies do not treat their employees as people – instead, treating them as cogs in a machine – then they will not have employee loyalty. Instead, they will see high churn and turnover within their staff. 

These same companies will struggle to hire, especially with new generations of the workforce coming in. These are people that do not want to deal with this crap anymore. They want to work at a company that sees them for them, that values their personal experience that considers their background. 

It is just so incredibly short-sighted, because people will always be at the heart of your business, whether big CEOs remember that. 


What would success look like to you? 

There is no end goal. It is an ongoing journey. I cannot speak on behalf of all black people, and I cannot speak on behalf of all Americans. I cannot speak on behalf of all queer people. I am merely a person who is trying to take the experiences that have shaped me and use it (alongside the industry knowledge that I have acquired because of my training), to connect with people so that they can understand that this is a very real issue.  

I do not like to make light of this, but I do consider my experiences at the beginning of my career as traumatic. I have PTSD from it that I am constantly trying to overcome. There was a time when I did not think I was going to work in PR again, but I realised that this is a skillset I have, and I am determined to progress, so I came back to it. 

But there are so many people out there who are leaving these industries because they just do not feel seen, they do not feel represented, they do not feel respected, and companies are losing so much talent. 

So, for me, I just want to help companies understand what they are doing because a lot of the time people are ignorant. It is about understanding that what you do not know can actually hurt you, but also understanding that nobody can know everything. The key is to ensure that you are doing the work to learn. 

Success for me is being able to leave a conversation and having someone say, ‘Wow, I never thought about it that way. Next time I encounter someone I can take that into consideration so I can ensure that I make them feel valued and seen.’ 


What one resource would you recommend to others looking to develop their understanding of DE&I? 

That is a really tough one. And I am going to give you the PR answer(!), but it is whatever works for you. 

As someone who does not really like podcasts, I know that there are lots of good ones out there which talk about race from different perspectives. Code Switch from NPR, for instance, is a really good one exploring how race affects every part of society.  

There are of course so many books to choose from - take your pick – but one that I really love and recommend for people not from a marginalised background is White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. She really breaks down how a sense of fear can keep us from success. 

The book that I read here that helped me understand more about racism in the UK was Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. That was fascinating because as an American, I will put my hands up and say that I was very ignorant to a lot of what was happening outside of my country until I moved here. I had no idea about racism in the UK. That book helped me understand that while the tenants of racism are uniform, it manifests differently around the world. It helped me to check my privilege and understand that the racism that I experienced in America is not the only kind out there.  

There are also great TV shows out there, and not just on race, either. From a queer perspective, Netflix has so many great shows that explore what it is to be LGBTQIA+, neurodiverse, from a diverse background. And it is not from a queer pain, black pain perspective; it is from a queer joy, black joy perspective - seeing people from diverse backgrounds as humans that experience loss and pain, but also experience joy. Heartstoppers, for instance, is one of my favourite shows and it is just because it shows two young boys falling in love. Sex Education is another fantastic television show that talks frankly about sexual assault, about finding your sexual identity - there is so much content that does not just fixate on trauma which is so important as part of these conversations as well.  

So, take your pick, go on Twitter, go on TikTok. Just do your learning. 


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