Public Relations

The Scope of the partnership

A groundbreaking campaign has launched to get one million disabled people into work by 2020

When Brigitte Trafford joined Virgin Media as chief communications officer four years ago, she was surprised to find that the telephone-to-television services company had relationships with more than 30 charities, and that invariably her colleagues found it hard to name even three of these. The potential of these partnerships was far from being maximised.

Consequently, Trafford led a review of each charity relationship to assess whether and why it made sense for Virgin Media. ‘It was a really thorough process,’ she recalls. ‘We talked to colleagues about which ones resonated, and we talked to many of the charities and a couple of charitable organisations.’

A shortlist soon emerged, which was then reviewed by Virgin Media’s internal compliance team to ensure that the charities did not have any skeletons in the closet and that donations would be used appropriately. ‘This was pre-Kids Company,’ says Trafford, alluding to the financial difficulties and allegations that brought down the children’s charity led by Camila Batmanghelidjh.

Scope emerged as the winner, not least because Virgin Media could see that its digital expertise could help to unleash the potential of the very people the disability charity was seeking to assist. ‘I think that’s important,’ says Trafford. ‘For a company’s sustainability efforts with a charity to be really effective they have got to align with what you do as a business. It also means it resonates with customers and employees.’

Scope is also a nationwide charity, which fits with Virgin Media’s footprint: as the product of a series of acquisitions and mergers, the company has 130 people sites across the United Kingdom. ‘We wanted a charity that made sense beyond London,’ she adds. ‘And when we spoke to Scope, we got really excited.’

The charity was keen to create a relationship that went beyond a financial one, but instead develop a meaningful partnership that benefited both sides. Initially, however, Virgin Media funded three campaigns for Scope, including End the Awkward campaign, which highlighted the fact that two thirds of people feel awkward around disability. The campaign used humour, including videos of disabled people discussing how colleagues ‘overcompensate’. It offered advice and tips, such as five things to avoid when meeting a disabled person, including asking inappropriate questions or making assumptions.

‘We know that disability is an awkward subject for most people,’ says Trafford. ‘It is not that they want to be rude but they don’t know how to broach it. The End the Awkward campaign [which ran for three years] was brilliant because it made the point in a way that was humorous and accessible.’

Anna Bird, executive director of policy, research and public affairs at Scope, explains: ‘We know that we don’t get anywhere with bashing people over the head with endless public information, but having a joke with people really does.’

Scope is now considering how it can take certain elements of the campaign into the workplace, and how that might create new conversations. ‘This is genuinely a two-way partnership,’ says Trafford. ‘And when we saw the impact of End the Awkward, we both started to get a bit more ambitious, thinking Okay, that was great but what could we really achieve together?

But it took the intervention of chief executive Tom Mockridge to really drive the partnership forward. He asked the simple question: how did Virgin Media measure up as an organisation in its treatment of disabled people? Scope was invited in to conduct a thorough review. For example, it is looking at Virgin Media’s working environment to check each building is accessible to disabled people, reviewing the company’s interview procedures to ensure that there is no bias against disabled candidates and examining its attitude towards disabled customers.

‘In some places we’ve been doing well,’ admits Trafford, ‘and in others, like many companies, we have got a long way to go, but Scope is helping us to get the processes right so that we are attractive to both disabled customers and employees.’

Some suggestions have already been implemented. Virgin Media has rolled out a dyslexic font for both employees and customers. New signage on the disabled toilets highlights that not every disability is visible. Line managers are receiving training on dealing with disabled colleagues, and how they can offer advice and support. And a building code now ensures that all new premises are accessible while addressing the issue of older properties.

Bird explains: ‘Over the years, the partnership has evolved. We are now coming together around a shared strategy and a shared vision, and there is value on both sides. For example, we know that there is real value for us in being able to take our message about disability much further using the reach of Virgin Media, and to support the company in its evolution as an organisation.

There are Government commitments to halving the employment gap and getting more disabled people into work, but we can’t do it if employers don’t change workplace practices

‘It is also thinking about service to customers, as well as the employee experience. We know that the purple pound, the amount of money that disabled people spend, is about £250 billion a year, but we also know that businesses are not thinking enough about that market share and doing enough to reach those customers. It is really good that this internal process is not just looking at employees but also at how Virgin Media can improve the experience for disabled customers.’

Scope is now getting involved with product development at the start of the process. An early example of the charity’s input is a new high contrast handset for Virgin Media’s V6 and TiVo set boxes suitable for visually impaired customers, which is white with black buttons. The company is also now offering video relay or text relay for customers wishing to communicate with the customer service department.

‘We’ve been working on the issue of disability employment specifically for about four years, working with Government to change the agenda,’ says Bird. ‘We’ve made lots of progress in that time. There are Government commitments to halving the employment gap and getting more disabled people into work, but we can’t do it if employers don’t change workplace practices. Government can only do so much: they are not keen on obligations on employers. Our ability to work with an employer like Virgin Media and really push the boundaries is really exciting.’

Prompted by Mockridge’s intervention and the success of End the Awkward, Virgin Media and Scope have worked together to launch the ground-breaking Work with Me campaign to help to get one million disabled people, who want to work but are currently not employed, into the labour force by the end of 2020. ‘It is a bold but singular campaign; we’ve gone from having three to one campaign, but I think we had to go on that journey,’ says Trafford. ‘I don’t think we could have gone from 30 charities to one charity and one goal.’

For every 100 disabled people who move into the workplace, 114 are going to leave

Virgin Media has pledged £2 million to the three year campaign, and, while not setting specific targets for the number of disabled people it will recruit, is now focusing on gender diversity and disability as part of its wider inclusion strategy. (It also has a vibrant and well established LGBT community.) The funds will be used for Scope’s new digital employment support service, which hopes to reach one million disabled people with employment information and support by 2020.

An Opinium survey of 2,000 disabled people, commissioned by the partners to launch the campaign, found that just half of applications result in an interview, compared with 69 per cent for non-disabled applicants. They also apply for, on average, 60 per cent more jobs than non-disabled people. The survey also revealed that disabled people believe there is a bias against them.

More than 37 per cent of those who don’t feel confident about getting a job believe they will not be hired because of their impairment or condition. Two in five are not confident about the chances of getting a job within six months.

‘There is a range of barriers getting into work,’ explains Bird. ‘But we also know that many disabled people feel frustrated that the support is not available to them in the workplace. Half [those surveyed] say they do not know their rights within the workplace. They are also worried about talking about their impairment, and that might hold them back from asking for the support that they need, such as flexible working, a rise and fall desk or even time off to manage a condition that is changing, which could mean they cannot apply for progression within the workplace.’

She adds: ‘We also know that, for every 100 disabled people who move into the workplace, 114 are going to leave. There is a problem with keeping people in work.’ It is also a huge waste of talent. Scope has calculated that a ten percentage point increase in the number of disabled people in work would increase Britain’s gross domestic product by £45 billion. While the Government offers funding to help disabled people get into work, such as interpreters for those using sign language or taxis to travel into work, many employers remain unaware this is available. ‘It’s a lot for line managers to know, and you need to have the right information and advice present in the workplace, which is something we are working on.’

They are also worried about talking about their impairment, and that might hold them back from asking for the support that they need, such as flexible working, a rise and fall desk or even time off to manage a condition that is changing

Scope believes that employers ‘are nervous’ about the subject. ‘Saying that you are ‘open for business for disabled people’ helps,’ says Trafford. ‘A line manager who is recruiting should know that hiring a disabled person, and everything that entails, is something that the company would absolutely support. It allows them to have the conversation [about the type of support needed] rather than not inviting disabled people to interviews.’

The campaign encompasses both physical and mental disabilities. Scope is aware that people suffering from a mental disability are often worried that there is a stigma attached to their illness, and therefore are unwilling to raise the issue in the workplace.

Bird adds: ‘It all comes down to positive conversations, and being able to talk to your line manager and to trust that relationship. It is so important to be able to change those attitudes and open up those conversations; it is the beginning of all that we want to achieve.’

Trafford admits that Virgin Media is ‘learning as we go’, adding: ‘We’re not trying to pretend we’re the perfect organisation. We are on a journey, but we want to share our learnings with other organisations.’ For example, when Virgin Media asked employees to inform the company, if they so wished, about their disabilities, it prompted a complaint from one colleague about the wording of the questions.

‘What we said was Thank you very much, because she had raised a really good point,’ says Trafford. The colleague then joined a working group to discuss the issue. ‘We had actually thought about the wording, yet we still got it wrong, but we recognised that, took on board the feedback and moved on.’

Virgin Media is also keen to encourage other organisations to join the campaign. It is starting with ‘family’, the other companies within the Virgin Group and also subsidiaries of its parent Liberty Global [which has no links to Virgin]. ‘Whether it is your customer base or supply chain, or the employees within Virgin Media and its social enterprise networks, from Scope’s point of view there is huge potential to reach out to smaller businesses, individuals and publics in a way that we could not do on our own,’ says Bird. ‘There is so much we can do to extend the reach and tap into the power of this partnership.’