Preena Gadher is co-founder and MD of Riot Communications, an award-winning PR agency specialising in culture and entertainment. She started her career in PR at Penguin Books, before taking up the challenge of setting up her own agency. Nine years on, in their East London home, Riot continues to flourish. Clients include: Moomin Characters; Luna Cinema; World Book Day; Mammoth Screen; The Royal Society; Penguin RandomHouse; HarperCollins; BookTrust; and Waterstones.
In December 2017 Preena was included in the #Bookseller100 which annually recognises the most influential people in publishing.
Preena is a passionate advocate of both women in business, and in the arts, especially women of colour. She is therefore a champion of mentoring programmes that help people see themselves in contexts that are not always obvious. She is on the Board of Trustees of Eclipse Theatre Company which exists to influence and instigate change that leads to a more diverse and equitable theatrical landscape.
Describe your background in 5 words?
British, Gujarati, London via Cardiff
How did you get into PR?
I started my career as the work experience in the press office of Penguin Books having had an interest in the media and knowing that many people with an English degree ended up in publishing. After six years, and knowing there was no way to go higher anytime soon, I decided to embrace an entirely new challenge, and started my own agency with a friend in a similar position.
What do you love about your job?
I get to pick and choose the projects we work on – we only work with clients with whom we share an affinity or for whom we have a passion. That’s important as it means you are motivated to deliver amazing work and have a clear sense of purpose.
What are you most proud of?
Being a brown woman in business is sadly still a disadvantage in the UK and so starting my own agency in my twenties was a massive risk. But now in our ninth year in business, having worked with some of the best people in our sector, I’m super proud of having defied the odds and proved some early nay-sayers wrong.
What’s been the hardest lesson to learn?
I’d never worked in an agency before starting one and I’m sure if I had I would have saved a lot of time learning lessons that other agency owner-managers have down-pat. The whole process has been a steep learning curve – and I still learn at least one new thing every day. But I always say that the day you stop learning in a job is the day it’s time to move on.
Who are your favourite people in PR?
Rachel Bell, founder of Shine Communications was my mentor last year as part of Women in PR / PR Week’s mentoring scheme. I learnt so much about how to run a business from her 20 plus years of experience and I will always be indebted.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the sector?
Every single PR event I’ve been to recently still talks about the challenge of finding and retaining talent. I’ve heard senior leaders in our industry say it’s a problem with “millennial behaviours”. That strikes me as a patronising and lazy response to the reality of a workforce that is changing and is just different to what we have seen before. We have to accept that the generation entering the workplace now wants more from life than slaving at a job in order to save for a house that they will never be able to afford. We need to have better answers. Having a direct connection to a sense of purpose and making a real-world impact is really important as is the ability to work flexibly and on a range of different things. Moreover, the distinction between work and social life is now more fluid and we, as MDs and CEOs, have a duty to acknowledge a changed workforce and think differently about the issue. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is imperative.
And then there’s diversity obviously! True creative ideas come when you question the norm, and see things from a slightly different perspective. How can we claim to have the best creative ideas when everyone in the industry looks the same?
What skill do you think every PR has to nail?
Being able to talk to people, no matter what walk of life they are from. Opportunity lies in the people you meet and the conversations you have.
Who is your favourite tweeter and why?
I don’t have one, it’s the collective that makes twitter so powerful. I stay on top of news via the handles of various newspapers. When people say print media is dying, that may be true in terms of circulation figures, but I would argue that in a world of fake news and citizen journalism, a trusted news brand is now more relevant than ever.
What is your favourite social network and why?
I’m on twitter mainly, but prefer instagram – I’m a visual person and so like images that tell stories.
Best advice you’ve ever been given?
“You will always have to work twice as hard as the next white person but that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve anything you want” – my dad
Biggest PR fail and yay of 2017? (i.e. best and worst)
The Dove ad where a black woman seemingly turns into a white woman was pretty awful. That would never have happened if they’d had a few more black women in the creative room.
I liked Easyjet’s “flybrary” which featured children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson choosing classic children’s titles for Easyjet’s seat pockets to encourage a love of reading in kids. The thing about corporates is that they can think long term unlike governments who think in the short term. Is it a good marketing stunt? Yes, but can big business make a lasting, positive impact? They can if they have the will. And if it’s good PR along the way, I think I can live with that.
Finally, on the D’ word… What can the sector do to encourage diversity?
If you can’t see it, you won’t become it. We need more visibility – and judging by this initiative, there are actually a lot of us out there! Hopefully by speaking up and being more visible, we can demonstrate to other people of colour that PR is a profession for them. This is an imperative challenge.
Preena is one of 15 mentors for the BME PR Pros/PRWeek Mentoring Scheme. Applications for mentees are now open – click here to find out more. The closing date for applications is Friday 16 February 2018.