PR Spotlight: Tas Bhanji, Director at Blakeney

‘Good communications has the potential to change the fortunes of companies, even whole industries or communities. What could be more exciting than that?’ says Blakeney Director Tas Bhanji, who’s helped make change for clients and companies across the globe.

With experience of communications in-house and agency-side across the UK, Belgium and Beijing for companies including McDonald’s, CBI, the British Chamber of Commerce in China and even the European Formaldehyde Manufacturing Association, Tas knows the difference that good comms and PR can make. Can PR ever go back to the way things were before the challenges of 2020, and should it? Read on for Tas’s take.

Tell us a bit about your career so far and what led you to PR…
I graduated with a degree in Mathematics and no idea what I wanted to do with my life other than travel. I got an internship in Beijing which led to becoming events manager for the British Chamber of Commerce. One day, after a long conversation over the exact diameter of a canapé, I realised it probably wasn’t the career for me, so I resigned to decide what to do next.

I knew I liked writing and politics, and I just happened to talk to someone who suggested I might like public affairs/corporate comms. I didn’t really know anything about PR then – it’s funny now to think that despite having read the papers every day for years, I was quite surprised that comments weren’t actually really written (or said) by the people that said them.

I owe a lot to that chance encounter – after a couple of years with Weber Shandwick in Beijing, I moved to Brussels with Fleishman-Hillard, and then came back home to the UK and have worked in-house for CBI and McDonald’s, either side of a stint with MHP, and now I’m back consultancy-side with Blakeney.

You’ve held roles at agencies across the world – what differences (if any) have you noticed with the way the PR industry works across the globe?
One of the main ones is about channels – China has its own social networks which many people in the UK would never have heard of. WeChat for example is way more than just a messaging app; you can use it to order a taxi, get groceries delivered, or pay for your dinner. In some countries in mainland Europe, Facebook is often more dominant than Twitter and used for both corporate and consumer communications.

Public affairs in China is very different to public affairs here in most ways, although having a good network of contacts is very useful wherever you are. My first crisis communications experience was the melamine scandal in China in 2008 – farmers had been adding melamine to milk products to up their protein content, but it was damaging to health, particularly to babies. I was working for an international confectionary company that had its own verified supply chain and therefore not in any way impacted, but our first action in a lot of countries was to apologise for the situation. If we did that here in the UK, it could be seen as an admission of guilt.

What have you enjoyed about working in-house compared with working for a consultancy?
In a consultancy, you can get a lot more variety – no two days are ever the same and that keeps you constantly on your toes. In-house, I enjoyed getting to see something right through from conception to delivery, getting to understand the minutiae of issues and the way it impacts business. In lots of consultancies, you don’t get that because you’re just brought in for quite specific bits of a project. One great thing about Blakeney is that we are set up to really own issues and work as partners with our clients on projects – that means we get to see it from start to finish.

How did lockdown change the way you work?
At first it didn’t seem like a huge shift – I already worked one day a week from home. I actually only came back from maternity leave in January, so I’d already been working hard at being disciplined around working hours – as a working parent, you have to be super-organised – something I, like many parents, have to constantly work at. Over time though I did start to miss the office, and especially those chats that seem inconsequential at first but actually trigger a great idea. Thankfully with such a small team we were able to adapt pretty quickly and those chats, though slightly more planned as they are over Zoom or Teams, still happen, and we have a plan in place to allow small groups of people to go to the office on their specified days.

I have also found that the change has meant more time with clients – Zoom and Teams make it so much easier to bring people together for a quick chat about things, whereas before we might have shied away from having meetings to discuss just one topic.

Do you think the PR industry can ever return to the way things were before the COVID-19 crisis?
Why should it want to? We have shown that working with greater flexibility doesn’t mean any reduction in quality of work. There’s no need to go back just for the sake of it – PR is all about adapting to this ever-changing world; we should embrace that.

Which particular sectors among your client base do you see making the quickest recovery post-pandemic?
Honestly, it’s so hard to say – this pandemic is unlike anything any of us have ever experienced, it’s a risky business if you start making too many predictions. But I think tech can only grow – not least with companies creating and launching new tools, platforms and solutions to allow us to help work, rest and play.

Sectors which invest in communications and corporate affairs are giving themselves the best chances – if there’s nobody making the case for why what you do is important, you risk getting forgotten.

With so many journalists being furloughed, has contact with the media been harder over the last few months?
Definitely – sell-ins have been much harder. As you say, furloughing has meant there are fewer journalists, and the ones that remain are more stretched. Plus, in many instances, people haven’t forwarded their desk phones on to their mobiles. It puts a premium on really understanding what journalists want and being able to capture their attention on email.

The PR industry still has a diversity problem – what can agencies do to create diverse teams and promote people from a variety of backgrounds into higher roles?
I find the issue of diversity a difficult one – I think we often get caught up thinking about diversity as just gender or race, but it’s actually about so much more. Our country, the world, is diverse in many different ways and to truly understand those people, and be able to communicate with them, you need to have an insight into their lives and that can only really come through living it.

So, I think there are two big things. One, understanding that diversity is about more than just having women on your leadership team, and two, truly understanding the value of people with different backgrounds. Think about work you’ve done that has been successful; did it come from people thinking in the same way you’ve always done, or by bringing in a new perspective?

Which campaigns/projects from your career are you particularly proud to have worked on?
Earlier this year, Blakeney ran a campaign for LIVE, the industry group representing live music. With politicians receiving so many competing demands from different sectors affected by the pandemic, we wanted to the live music sector to get the support needed to save it from collapse. Our campaign, #LetTheMusicPlay, focused on the sector’s economic contribution – it supports more than 200,000 jobs. A week after launching the campaign, with the hashtag having been the top global trend on Twitter, the Government announced a £1.57bn rescue package – that really does demonstrate the value of good communications!

What advice would you give to those considering working in the PR industry – is it still a good career choice in 2020?
It absolutely is. Good communications has the potential to change the fortunes of companies, even whole industries or communities. What could be more exciting than that? It’s also enjoyably varied – I once worked for the European Formaldehyde Manufacturing Association, which was surprisingly interesting.
With more competition for jobs right now, be creative about gaining experience. Can you help a local community group with social media? Or talk to local businesses about their challenges and see if you can lend a hand? And make sure you’re visible online – blogging and keeping up your own social media presence will show you’ve got the skills needed for client work.