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It was three years ago that actor and comedian Lenny Henry caused ripples through Britain’s creative industries when he used the annual BAFTA television lecture to lament the ‘appalling’ percentage of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people working in the sector and called for legislation to address that.

Over the previous three years, Henry said, the total number of BAME people in the industry had fallen by 2,000 while total employment had risen by 4,000. ‘Or to put it another way,’ he said. ‘For every black and Asian person who lost their job, more than two white people were employed.’

Henry’s speech ‘got the debate at the front of people’s minds’, explains Nina Smith, corporate communications manager at Channel 4, who is also a member of the broadcaster’s diversity task force. ‘It became politically a very interesting issue.’

Some might argue diversity has become the ‘fashionable initiative’ but Smith adds: ‘Being fashionable means that people are talking about it, and that means there is pressure for companies to come out and say what they are doing. Lenny was our industry’s catalyst.’

Channel 4, a public service broadcaster that launched in 1982, has a remit enshrined in legislation that, Smith says, ‘gives us a very clear direction in terms of the kinds of content we produce and how we operate as a business, and part of that is about promoting cultural diversity’.

The television channel is associated with big moments in broadcasting history, such as the first lesbian kiss on prime time in Brookside, Desmond’s, a comedy with a predominantly black cast and crew, and the Paralympics.

But Henry’s powerful speech also prompted Channel 4 to launch a 360° Diversity Charter at the beginning of 2015. ‘It is really a statement of intent,’ says Smith, ‘a framework for all the work we do around diversity as a business, as an employer, what we do on screen and what we do off screen. We don’t produce any content in-house. We commission independent production companies. We spend hundreds of millions of pounds with the independent sector every year so we have huge influence and sway. We feel a responsibility to make a statement about what we are doing to promote diversity.’

But it is not just about talking the talk. ‘One of the important things we do about our work in diversity is that we are really accountable. We report really clearly against what we said we planned to do. I think that sets us apart. I haven’t seen any company reporting to quite the same level of honesty or completeness that we do,’ says Smith.

‘We want to be very clear about the progress we have made but also the challenges and what we are going to do differently. We will make that information publicly available and share as best practice. The area of diversity is imperfect. Nobody is doing it exactly right. We are all on a steep learning curve, and some industries are only just waking up to it. There is an opportunity to share knowledge and accelerate that development; that is very much part of our ethos.’

Where does an organisation start? ‘Data is crucial to all of this, but the thing about ‘diversity data’, if you want to call it that, is that you have got to be really careful about how you ask the questions and what questions you are indeed asking. We do ask staff regularly as part of their employee survey to disclose their diversity information. Last year, our diversity focus was all about disability, on the back of the Paralympics. We had various clear initiatives, both on screen and off screen and as a business, that were really simple and quite big stretching targets that we were going to measure.’

On screen, Channel 4’s target was to double the disabled talent on 20 of its biggest shows. Off screen, its target was to double the disabled talent at 20 of its biggest suppliers.

‘One of our biggest commitments was internally, where we said we were going to ring fence 50 per cent of our apprenticeships and 30 per cent of our work experience positions for disabled candidates,’ adds Smith. ‘We have met or exceeded all of those targets.’

The broadcaster also set itself a target that by 2020, six per cent of its workforce would be classified as disabled. ‘We know that the secret to increasing those numbers is, as well as recruitment and retention, about creating an environment where staff feel comfortable about disclosing that information,’ says Smith. ‘And particularly where disability is concerned, people don’t always self-identify as disabled so that question Tick the box if you are registered disabled doesn’t work. It is very sensitive.’

It was vital at the outset that Channel 4 had up-to-date and accurate information about its workforce, so it created a campaign ahead of its annual employee survey that was about culture change.

‘We told staff what we were doing, why it was needed and why it was important that we have a clear picture of the make up of our staff. The centrepiece of all of this was a series of ten films called This is me, where Channel 4 staff told their stories and experiences of having a disability or working with a mental health condition. It was a really honest account by colleagues, some of whom were very senior people in the business, saying Yeah, by the way I’ve got ADHD and this is what my life at work is like and these are conversations I have with the people I work with about it, and here’s how it’s challenging and here’s how it’s kind of good.’

Smith, who was recently named as one of the top LGBT+ Corporate Rising Stars, believes that lots of companies are nervous about having ‘open and honest’ conversations with their staff. ‘They don’t know where to start,’ she says. ‘We have a very strong consumer brand, and we work hard to echo that internally. We have a lot of creative talent in the business to help us do that.’

The campaign, which was led by chief marketing and communications officer Dan Brookes, involved ‘many, many people’, including Channel 4’s in-house creative team and human resources, produced results. The percentage of disabled staff employed by Channel 4 moved from three to 11 per cent, easily exceeding its six per cent target.

‘Disclosure did that,’ says Smith. ‘But the end game is not to reveal who we employ. It is about becoming the best disabled employer in the UK and creating an environment that anybody from any background feels they are able to do their job successfully and that they will be supported.’

In the area of diversity and inclusion, language is crucial. ‘Use the wrong language and you can turn somebody off,’ says Smith. ‘Use the right language and you can bring somebody into the conversation. The way we approached it with staff was to ask How can we support you to do your job more easily? It is not just about Do you have a disability? People have all sorts of needs and requirements. We have lots of work still to do, but it is getting there and it is high on the priority list.’

But the work was not just internal. Channel 4 launched a competition for advertising companies, inviting them to create a campaign in which disability was central. The winning adverts, created by Mars and Abbott Mead Vickers for the Maltesers brand, received £1 million of free air time.

‘Mars has since said how it was not just about commercial success, but has also changed attitudes within their business. It has given them a hook, which again shows how important the internal part of this initiative is.’

At the end of each year since the 360° Diversity Charter was launched, Channel 4 has produced an in-depth document which details its progress against targets and outlines its targets for the following year. In a demonstration of how important Channel 4 views this initiative, each document has been launched in Parliament with a high profile personality sharing their experiences.

Last year it was actor Idris Elba, star of Luther and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. This year it was Riz Ahmed, star of Rogue One, describing his experiences as a Muslim actor and the economic case for diversity.

The communications team also ran a series of internal events, briefing senior managers on key messages, to engage staff with the report.

‘As a creative business, we know that we are not going to be as successful as we could be if we don’t do this,’ says Smith. ‘It’s a part of our purpose as a business. The Charter has given our work on diversity a profile, and from a communications perspective we can say This tells you about our mission statement, what we have done and what we are focusing on this year. Too often with this agenda it feels woolly and targetless.’

This year Channel 4 has four areas of focus, including an internal drive to improve BAME progression and, specifically, to help and mentor ten BAME colleagues to achieve

more senior positions. ‘People talk about culture change, but that is incredibly difficult to achieve. It takes a lot of resource and commitment from a very senior level. In Dan, we are very fortunate to have somebody at board level who is championing this agenda. You cannot be successful without that.’

Smith initially got involved because of her professional background. At Channel 4, she is responsible for all corporate reporting to the board, which takes place quarterly, and also the company’s annual report, which last year picked up a trophy at the CorpComms Awards.

‘There is a programme management aspect to that, because you’ve got to be across what everyone is doing and monitoring their progress.’

Collating information for the Diversity Charter reviews was a natural extension of her role.

‘It all fits in to what I do in corporate communications because this is an important part of our story as a channel, the conversations we have with political stakeholders as well as our audiences.’