Sarita Shah is a Senior Associate at Weber Shandwick, a global public relations agency. She works with global corporations building bespoke Corporate and B2B programmes to manage brand reputation and engage business customers, policymakers and employees. Her clients work in industries that are re-shaping our world.
Her current portfolio spans executive visibility, regional and commercial campaign development and CSR. Sarita’s pushed clients to develop more data driven and bespoke social strategies. She’s as comfortable creating a paid Twitter campaign as she is developing a story with the FT.
One of Sarita’s proudest achievements was working on an award-winning project in 2016 looking at why girls in Europe aren’t pursuing STEM subjects. A campaign that’s changing
how girls and young women are taught, encouraged and supported.
In 2017 she was invited to the Cannes Festival of Creativity having won the UK Silver Young Lions award for PR. The pitch, which addressed a brief set by the British Heart Foundation, focused on the importance of matching an organization’s objective with the correct audience. Instead of proposing a broad-brush approach that sought to combat heart disease amongst the general British population, the campaign honed in on British Indians, a group four times more likely to die from heart disease.
Before joining Weber Shandwick, Sarita obtained a BA in History and Politics from the University of Oxford.
Describe your background in 5 words max?
Third Generation but still Indian
How did you get into PR?
Like many, by accident! I’d planned on being a lawyer my whole life – a barrister, to be specific. I studied History and Politics at university because of my passion for the subject, but also because I knew it would seamlessly fit into a law conversion. But when I got to university, I quickly realised the law was not for me.
Yes, I was opinionated (I still am) and yes, I loved to be challenged (I still do). But I also wanted an opportunity to be creative at work, and more importantly, I wanted the ability to shape conversations, not regulate the ones that people were already having.
What do you love about your job?
It doesn’t limit me. As the media continues to evolve, the PR and Communications industry has no time to rest on its laurels. We’re being challenged to build on our already rich tapestry of skills, tap into human truths, and fundamentally tell stories that matter.
What are you most proud of?
My first business trip. It was to the Cannes Festival of Creativity. Having won a Silver UK Young Lion with a campaign driven by the need for greater diversity in comms outputs, I found myself in Cannes just 8 months into my first job. Sitting in an auditorium listening to Juan Manuel Santos, the then President of Colombia, discuss how the ‘River of Lights’ campaign contributed to the end of a 50 year civil war shed light on the enormity of what we can achieve as communicators.
What’s been the hardest lesson to learn?
Own your voice but know your limitations.
Who are your favourite people in PR and why?
I don’t have a single favourite person in PR. My favourite group of people in PR are those that appreciate the commercial value and potential of Communications. It’s easy to internalise popular perceptions of what PR is, and buy into the notion that it doesn’t deserve a “seat at the table”.
But the people I’ve learned most from in during my career are those who show why Comms matters. It sounds trite, but whenever I want to show people the power of PR, and the power of influence, I point to Kylie Jenner sending Snapchat’s share price into a tail spin with just 140 characters.
If I really, really had to pick my favourite person in PR – it would have to be C.J. Cregg from The West Wing.
What skill do you think every PR has to nail?
Knowing when to trust your gut (and accepting this will come with time).
What is your favourite social network and why?
Instagram – it’s a peak into someone else’s world and, at the very least, shows you who that person wants to be….it also gives you endless life inspo!
Who is your favourite journalist and why?
This might be cheating, but since they don’t by-line their articles, I feel warranted in saying The Economist. Whilst I don’t always agree with what they write, they force me to confront my presumptions and continue to challenge my way of thinking. For me, this is what great journalism does. They also have an excellent Latin America section – which is hard to come by in a UK-based publication. I also love the fearless assertion of The New Yorker’s op-ed contributors. One in particular is Katy Waldman, whose writing shows a remarkable level of self-reflection – clearly seen in a book review she wrote titled, ‘A sociologist examines the “white fragility” that prevents white Americans from confronting racism’.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Less is more. (It would be too ironic to expand)
Biggest PR campaign fail and yay of 2018?
Biggest yay – Nike’s campaign with Colin Kaepernick. It was brave, it took a an unwavering stance, and it forced their global audience to sit up and take notice.
Biggest fail – The announcement of every proposed Brexit deal (…and Brexit). During each round of negotiation, the government continued to obfuscate the elements of the deal that might actually resonate with the general public.
Finally, on the D’ word… What can the sector do to encourage diversity?
First, we must destigmatize communications. I often wonder whether this is a hurdle unique to the South Asian community, or if it affects the broader BME community or even wider society.
The involuntary sigh, blank stare, or the dreaded “I thought you did law?” when you tell family members that you’re in PR is enough to put anyone off the job! This is only made worse when you hear the same family members lauding a close relative for being a “consultant”…are they different? I think not.
In the British South Asian community, PR has a PR problem. And as I’m sure many British Indians can attest to, we look for validation from our families before undertaking big life changes (such as which job to take when leaving university). Too often I hear, “I’m not sure my parents would think PR is a good career”. Tackling this problem doesn’t just require greater awareness among future PR practioners, but also requires educating the whole community of the industry’s worth.
Concurrently, the industry has a responsibility to ensure diversity is meaningful, and not a tick box exercise. Only when every member of the workforce feel comfortable in bringing their unique outlook on the world to the table will communications and marketing outputs reflect the world we live in.
Sarita is one of 18 mentors for the BME PR Pros/PRWeek Mentoring Scheme 2019.