Transitioning from Sundance to the Food and Beverage Industry featuring Emel Shaikh, Sundance Institute
Gooder Podcast Featuring Emel Shaikh
This week on the Gooder Podcast I had the pleasure of talking with Emel Shaikh, a PR and communications strategist with more than 10 years of experience leading publicity efforts, both in-house at the renowned Sundance Institute and as well as boutique agencies across multiple disciplines. Join us as we discuss why growing up as an immigrant and a woman of color influenced Emel’s interest in amplifying the untold stories of fellow BIPOC and other minority groups.
In this episode we learn:
- How the pandemic has affected PR, what brands are doing differently that they weren’t doing before and how they are planning for the change.
- About what it means to be an outsider, especially within PR and strategic brand communication and how that “outsider” status becomes a super power.
- Why she’s not a fan of cancel culture and explains how she thinks it doesn’t hold people accountable for their behaviors.
- What made Emel decide to start her own firm on her own and work with minority owned brands rather than bigger ones and the challenges that these brands are facing.
- Which women leaders she has her eyes on that she’d like to elevate or want people to see.
Transitioning from Sundance to the Food and Beverage Industry featuring Emel Shaikh, Sundance Institute
About Emel Shaikh:
Prior to starting her freelance journey, Emel worked in various PR roles, developing campaigns for Better-for-You food and beverage, wellness and lifestyle startups and CPG brands. The experience gave her a firsthand look into what it takes to launch and grow an innovative product and ignited a passion for mission driven brands. Emel did four years in-house, where she led the charge on publicity efforts around the annual Sundance Film Festival in Utah, built awareness of Sundance NEXT FEST, a new film and music festival in Los Angeles to reach a new demographic, and introduce tastemakers to the Sundance brand and pitched stories surrounding the institute’s year round artists support labs and programs.
Guests Social Media Links:
Personal website: http://littlecakeshop.tumblr.com/
Sundance Institute is a non-profit organization founded by Robert Redford committed to the growth of independent artists. The institute is driven by its programs that discover and support independent filmmakers, theatre artists and composers from all over the world.
BIPAC is a bi-partisan, membership-supported, mission-driven, organization working to improve the political climate in America for the business community and help employers and employees play a more active role in public policy and the political process.
Fast-moving consumer goods, also known as consumer packaged goods, are products that are sold quickly and at a relatively low cost.
Clubhouse is an invitation-only audio-chat social networking app launched in April 2020 by Paul Davison and Rohan Seth of Alpha Exploration Co. In May 2020, it was valued at nearly $100 million. On January 21, 2021, the valuation reached $1 billion.
Tik Tok, known in China as Douyin, is a video-sharing social networking service owned by Chinese company ByteDance. The social media platform is used to make a variety of short-form videos, from genres like dance, comedy, and education, that have a duration from fifteen seconds to one minute.
One Stripe Chai: Hand-crafted chai that actually tastes like chai. Black tea brewed with organic spices and made with love in Portland.
Wayne Enterprises, Inc., also known as WayneCorp, is a fictional company appearing in American comic books published by DC Comics, commonly in association with the superhero Batman.
Amazon.com, Inc. is an American multinational technology company based in Seattle, Washington, which focuses on e-commerce, cloud computing, digital streaming, and artificial intelligence.
Diana Fryc: Hello, welcome to the Gooder Podcast, I’m your host, Diana Fryc. As partner and CMO of Retail Voodoo, an award winning brand consultancy, I have met and worked with some of the most amazing women in the natural’s industry, food, beverage, wellness and fitness. As such, I have decided to create the Gooder Podcast to interview these great women and subject matter experts and have them share their insights and expertize to help businesses all around the world become gooder. So great to have you guys with us today.
I’m super excited to introduce our guests today. Emel Shaikh is a PR and communications strategist with more than 10 years of experience leading publicity efforts, both in-house at the renowned Sundance Institute and as well as boutique agencies across multiple disciplines. As an immigrant and a woman of color, Emel is particularly interested in amplifying the untold stories of fellow BIPAC and other minority groups. Prior to starting her freelance journey, Emel worked in various PR roles, developing campaigns for Better-for-You food and beverage, wellness and lifestyle startups and CPG brands. The experience gave her a firsthand look into what it takes to launch and grow an innovative product and ignited a passion for mission driven brands.
Emel did four years in-house. You did four years as like a penance or something at the Sundance Institute as a media relations manager, where she led the charge on publicity efforts around the annual Sundance Film Festival in Utah, built awareness of Sundance NEXT FEST, a new film and music festival in Los Angeles to reach a new demographic and introduce tastemakers to the Sundance brand and pitched stories surrounding the institute’s year round artists support labs and programs. Welcome Emel. Nice to see you today.
Emel Shaikh: Nice to see you too. Thank you so much for having me on the show.
Diana Fryc: Of course. How is L.A. today?
Emel Shaikh: L.A. is good. It’s a nice, warm day. We have our Santa Ana winds. It’s a little bit windy, but we have it much better than I think most of the country here in California. So I do think we’re allowed to complain.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, Seattle, we have a little bit of snow. Actually quite nice most of the year here, but we don’t like to advertise that a whole lot. But we’re heading a little bit of snow today. So it feels like winter. It’s cold and snowy. So I’m dreaming for Los Angeles or someplace tropical.
I’m excited to share you with the other day we met through a speaker, actually, you reached out to me a little while ago, and you’re working with a client. I think this is a client of yours and had wanted to provide her a platform to talk about her and her expertize is Vivi Mullen. And as we chatted, I was intrigued about what you were up to and wanted to share your story. Now, before we go too far down that route, let’s just talk a little bit about your history, simply because we can’t talk to somebody who’s worked at Sundance and not at least ask about Sundance because it is such a cultural phenomenon and at least in the US and you can probably speak to that on a more broader level.
And then you are working there and you were working in film and you made a conscious decision to change. So maybe touch on Sundance and tell us, is it what we think it is? Is it the endless parties and fancy pants, crudities and then and your journey into the shift?
Emel Shaikh: Yeah, absolutely. Sundance I think it’s a magical place. I think it’s so much more than the parties and the crudities, although there’s plenty of that too, but it’s a really wonderful place. And I think my biggest takeaway from having worked there is actually the thread that connects what I do now all together, which is Sundance has always been a platform for storytelling and championing voices that maybe haven’t been heard before. And they’ve always been really supportive of the underdog. They have programs that are dedicated specifically to different communities, and that’s something that has always resonated with me. And so, yes, to your point, I did make a transition out of entertainment. So just to back up a little bit, I’ve been in the communications and the PR space for about 10 or 11 years now.
That’s what I went to school for. It’s what I’ve been doing since I graduated from college, but what was serendipitous was I had an internship in college that led to a job that then led to me working at finance and it was all in entertainment and in film. And by virtue of being in L.A., I think there was just this natural pull towards that industry. But it was never something that I actively wanted to pursue. I enjoy film thoroughly, I love reading, I love the creative world and creative arts, but it wasn’t anything that I had, unlike a lot of my peers and colleagues, it was not something that I made a conscious decision to do. The chips kind of fell into place in a really serendipitous way.
And so because I’ve been working in PR for a long time and I really enjoyed that aspect of it, I tried to look at what I enjoy in my personal life where I could bridge the gap between my professional skill set and my personal interests. I think a lot of people feel this way about food, especially now food’s really become a hot topic of conversation for everybody, but I love food. I love to eat. I love to go out to restaurants. I love trying new snacks. I bake at home. I just love everything about food. And so I wanted to kind of bring those two areas together. And so I made the decision to transition out of the entertainment and film space into the food and beverage space. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last about five or so years.
Diana Fryc: You said something about you love food. I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t think I’ve met a single person that said that, “Ah, I hate food.” I mean, we have our people, but I think everybody loves food. I even wrote an article about this recently where we forget as marketers that food is the tie that binds. It binds us to family, it binds us to heritage, it binds us to friendships. We give it as gifts. We use food to soothe the soul. We use it to step back in history and remember our childhood. And I think a meal in and of itself is storytelling, not unlike film other than you must eat. You do not need to watch a film, but you must eat. And so why not enjoy it, right?
Emel Shaikh: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s so interesting that you say that because I also have grown up on a very flavorful diet always. So I can’t even really enjoy something as simple as, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because it just doesn’t feel flavorful sometimes. It really does soothe my soul eating food that’s like really delicious and robust. It just genuinely makes me happy.
Diana Fryc: That’s awesome. And one of the things that I was saying is that, this tie with Sundance and supporting kind of the outsider, the underserved from a film storytelling standpoint is kind of a natural kind of connection between that and food and beverage and this better for you space. But talk to me a little bit about the audience. I think, I could be wrong, Sundance seems to me until recently to be really be targeting those people that enjoy storytelling in an art form format. And you’ve not been at Sundance during Covid, Covid has kind of turned storytelling into a 24/7 opportunity between social platforms and online viewing, et cetera. Maybe let’s talk about target audiences a little bit, when you’re telling the story of an underdog in film, I think that Sundance is saying or telling this story to a very specific audience versus in the food world, your audience is a little bit broader. Is that correct? Or I’m making an improper assumption?
Emel Shaikh: I think it means different things to different people. I mean, yes, to a degree, independent film is typically targeted to a specific audience. But I think it’s because independent film doesn’t have the same commercial viability that like a Disney film would have. It also comes down to like money and reach and all of these other things that are kind of outside of the general public’s control. So I think there is a little bit of that too. I guess the crossover there is like there are people who genuinely love specific kinds of cuisine, for example, or there’s people who have a specific diet, whether that’s chosen for social reasons or for health reasons, which both are fine.
So I think that also means that there is a specific audience for specific kinds of foods too. But I think that food is one of those things that is just a equalizer. Everybody does, exactly to your point earlier, everyone loves food, everyone’s eating food, growing up in some capacity. And of course, there’s things like food scarcity. But you need food to fuel your life, whereas independent film is like a type of art form that can fuel your life or your soul in a slightly different way. So I think that there’s similarities and then there’s differences for sure.
Diana Fryc: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the area of focus here for just a minute. And that is PR. And I’m frequently speaking with brand owners or entrepreneurs talking very specifically about brand or leadership. I do want to talk about PR right now, specifically within the context of the natural movement, just kind of accelerating and becoming more democratized. And the fact that we’re entering on month number 12 of being locked up, locked down in front of a digital screen. And I just kind of wonder what’s happening with PR and what are you seeing brands doing right now that might be different than they were before? And how are people starting to plan for things changing again and opening up?
Emel Shaikh: Yeah, I think it’s really fascinating what is happening in the world as our world really was turned upside down. PR to me has always been a very vital function for a company, for a brand of any sort, not just for better for you natural foods. But it’s also usually the first thing that goes when there are budget cuts or if someone’s coming from more numbers driven background, the expectation is that PR is going to be a vehicle for sales. And it is, but it’s also a vehicle for brand awareness and amplification. And it doesn’t work the same way as advertising does.
By virtue of that, and I think because for the last 10 years, social media has exploded, PR is constantly changing. So PR had already been shifting even before the pandemic hit and we were all forced to adapt. But I think PR is one of those industries that you kind of always have to be flexible. And there’s almost like this dance between being proactive and reactive to what’s happening around you. So there are things that you can plan and forecast or look ahead to, almost like you’re kind of viewing a bigger field from up top and trying to figure out what might be coming down, the projections or whether that’s like planning new products or launches or if there’s a holiday that’s coming up that might be like organic tie in or seeing trends that you want to be a part of and be part of a conversation or be a thought leader or even like a trailblazer, whatever capacity.
But you also have to be very reactive too, because things shift so much. I think a great example is Clubhouse as an app and even Tik Tok, neither of them are meant to be what is like traditional media relations editorial tools, but they are really vital to PR now, especially in Covid times, because they are connecting people in a very organic way. And I think those are the things that you can’t predict. You can’t make the ocean spray skateboarding guy go viral. That wasn’t planned. But that brand really capitalized on it really well by expanding on this like eBay struck magic and went from it.
I think as the world around us shift, PR will continue to shift. And I think flexibility is key because I think another thing that this last year has demonstrated is you can’t prepare for everything, there are going to be things that are going to be outside of your control. And so being able to go with the flow and still think creatively, I think those are areas that will always be evergreen for PRs, not being rigid, not being stuck in your old ways, but kind of looking at everything that’s changing around you as an opportunity. And how do you amplify a brand, whether that’s a client or you’re working or you have your own business, how do you utilize that to your own best.
Diana Fryc: In your estimation, I’m seeing quite a bit of this. I’m seeing many people in PR kind of wanting to broaden their core competencies. They either start as a sole prop like you or they’re in a larger organization.
They’re wanting to do stretch.
Emel Shaikh: Yes. I think the most successful; overall, marketing umbrella is an integrated team. And it has to be because that’s just the way the world works, like PR doesn’t stand on its own. Everything is tied together. So, having additional skill sets where you’re able to provide guidance on, say, paid social media pushes or using user generated content to create your own Instagram calendar, for instance, or utilizing a press hit to then push sales via advertising. Everything is locked and together. And I think really each pillar needs the support of the other in order for the brand to be successful. So as publicists, for us, it’s important to at least have an understanding and knowledge of how all of these other channels operate so that you can then contribute to your best ability, but making sure that everything comes up together simultaneously.
I think that kind of just goes back to the, being flexible point where your things are changing around us all the time, technology. I think if you look at the history of publicity, which I don’t have like a degree in that, but for many, many years, I remember, I have been at a point in my life where, like, you would scan press clips to fax over to clients, I know people before me who had to do much more hands on clipping. Now everything is digital. Everything moves so much faster. And there was a long period of time where PR kind of slowly changed. And then over the last handful of years, it’s just like zoomed up a hundred miles an hour. And so, again, flexibility is key because we’re in the past, an organization may have thought of PR as a secondary need and prioritized marketing. Now everything has to be meshed together because you’re not necessarily going to be successful in marketing for instance, if you don’t think about PR as a part of that machine.
Diana Fryc: Are you seeing anything new, any new tactics that have been used or any tactic shifts that have happened that you anticipate are just going to accelerate or move forward as we open up? Or do you think it’s just we don’t know what we don’t know in three months, we’ll see what PR will look like?
Emel Shaikh: I think one of the things that has happened over the last 12 or so months is, and perhaps this is just me noticing it a little bit differently now, because I’m working as a solo practitioner versus being at an agency, but I’ve definitely worked at companies in the past where for better or for worse, there’s a way to execute PR, which is the let’s see how widespread we can get this news and then we can be reactive and respond to whoever is interested. And it’s called like a spray and pray method where our goal is to just go out really, really wide and hopefully you’ll get some interest. And that’s one way to do it.
And then the other way, which in my opinion is the better way to do it is to be very targeted with quality over quantity conversation. You’re having really engaged, very targeted pitches out to editors because editors are inundated with pitches they always were. But with Covid and layoffs and media houses shuttering and staff sizes shrinking and print becoming obsolete and so much focus on digital and budgets shifting, these are all the things editors are thinking about more. And at the same time, the volume of pitches that they’re receiving is probably going up too, because on the flip side, PR people are getting laid off and they’re starting their own businesses, boutique agencies, or they’re like myself, becoming solo practitioners.
The idea of really being thoughtful with your communication to an editor, really being cognizant of what they would actually cover, if it makes sense, kind of putting yourself in their shoes and thinking about what kind of story they would write that would get clicks, what would they need in order to make their bosses happy? I think that’s key. And that’s always something that’s been encouraged and taught in PR for many, many years. But I think as an industry, we often stray away from that. And I think over the last 12 months with Covid, there’s almost this like revisitation to that concept of no, you really need to engage with people because why else would they care about you? Why else would they respond to your email when they see your name pop up when they’re getting bombarded with emails all the time?
So I think it’s just that connecting the one on one communication, the really engaging with somebody on a personal level, I think that’s what will hopefully come back and become even more important as we move into the future and whatever 2021 is going to bring us.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, is it going to be realistic for PR firms or brands? I mean, the number of platform options to share your story or share a message just is getting exponential in content creation. Going back to that focus standpoint, not everybody can be a PepsiCo with the staff of 40 people. Filling the airwaves or filling the web, is it realistic to think that people can stay focused? I know that seems like a really bizarre question, but it just seems like everybody was going along and now we’ll just talk about Clubhouse? I can’t tell you how many people are like, “Yeah, you’re on clubhouse? Are you in there?” And I’m like, “Yes, I’m in there, but it feels a little bit like a FOMO platform. I got to have that thing rolling all the time, otherwise I’m going to miss out on my opportunity.” So now I’ve taken my Facebook and my LinkedIn and I’ve put a bunch of crack cocaine on there. How realistic is it for the content creators to have to stay on top of platforms like that that are just now demanding even more? It feels demanding even more. I could be wrong.
Emel Shaikh: No, I think you’re right. And I think that’s actually sort of the problem because it goes back to the spray and pray mentality of like, let’s just be on everything. Let’s just amp it up and hopefully we’ll find the right connections. But like, in my opinion, the approach needs to be the opposite of, using clubhouses as an example, you don’t have to follow a thousand people just so that looks like you have a lot of followers or you’re following a lot of people, follow the people who are actually going to contribute to your specific needs. So whether that’s an editor, whether that’s like a VC group, whether that’s an incubator or an educational platform, you don’t have to be in every single thing. It’s not about being in all places at all times. It really is, again, about being very focused and targeted because you’re not going to take away any good lessons for yourself if you are taking that scattered approach.
And so I think that it is a personal compass. I think you kind of have to follow of how much can you tackle for me, because my job requires me to be constantly emailing and pitching and talking with folks, when I’m not working, I’m very drained and I don’t want to spend my free time on social platforms. But I think it’s become so habitual exactly for that reason of like the exclusivity of something or like how much people are talking about it and wanting to be a part of it. And the phone aspect of it is what keeps us all plugged in. But we’re not taking it. Just being plugged in or being on an app doesn’t mean that you’re getting anything from it. So what does that mean for you as an individual? What are you looking for? And how can you best narrow things down so that it’s going to serve you for your own best interests?
Diana Fryc: I’m going to say for those that don’t know what FOMO is, because I don’t want to make that assumption, Fear of Missing Out. Yes, it is very real. It is so real that it has its own acronym now.
Emel Shaikh: But we’re also getting into a world now. And I think, again, we have Covid to thank for this, I guess. I don’t want to thank a pandemic, but there’s also like the opposite of FOMO that’s starting to creep up, which is the joy of missing out where you take pleasure and not being a part of everything. And I love that more.
Diana Fryc: There’s something powerful about when somebody goes, “Have you blah, blah, blah?” And you’re like, “No.” And you go, “No, I haven’t as a matter of fact.”
Emel Shaikh: No. And I have no interest in it.
Diana Fryc: No interest. Thank you. Let’s shift our focus for a moment. One of the things that you brought up when we were preparing is not actually unlike Vivi, but this concept of being an outsider. And you mentioned that sometimes you do feel like this outsider or maybe you feel like it more than not, I’m not sure. I was wanting to bring in all of my notes and then I thought, you know what, I’m going to let Emel kind of talk about what do you mean by that? And then within the context of the work that you’re doing, is it a benefit?
Emel Shaikh: Yeah. So for me, being an outsider really boils down to I’m an immigrant. I moved to the United States when I was 15 from Pakistan with my family, and I finished high school here in California and then went to college, entered the workforce. Different people define this phrase differently. I am a first generation immigrant, which it can be like the child of immigrants, and you’re the first one, or it could be the immigrant themselves. And because I moved to the US when I was 15, which is a very strange age to be a teenager, a girl alive to begin with, I think that had a lot of impact on that. And so also like a third culture person where you kind of have multiple environments, multiple cultures within your upbringing as well. So it’s not a concept that I know I’m alone in. And I’ve realized that now that I’m much older and have spent a lot of time learning and growing myself too. But this is a phenomenon that exists of feeling like you don’t belong in either place. And it’s very common for immigrants or children of immigrants as well.
So that was something that I had kind of always felt and I never really realized or recognized how to define it until more recently when I really tried to take a more introspective look and dig into it and see if I could grow and learn from it. So, I think that there are a lot of ways that almost every one of us will feel like an outsider in some capacity. But I think for folks like myself who may have grown up in, like I said, multiple cultural homes or there’s a push and pull between who you’re supposed to be as an American versus who your you are based on your background. I think being an outsider is something that you kind of — it’s not a phase, it is something that you kind of always have in the back of your mind. And for me, it’s one of those things where I felt like, how do you create a home for yourself? How do you create that space where you feel comfortable in your own skin?
So that’s something and I don’t have the answer. I don’t think I have the answer to that yet. But I think it’s something that weighs heavily on my mind always. And so I do try to take the approach of keeping that in mind in whatever I pursue professionally at my personal life. So whether that’s requiring empathy when I have a crazy neighbor that’s acting in a specific way or if I’m approaching a client trying to understand what their story is and how you amplify it in an authentic way, I think that’s something that I always, the outside or part of it just definitely comes into play in that capacity for me then.
Diana Fryc: Is there almost a superpower ish thing? And here’s the reason I ask that. Like I am first generation. My parents were immigrants. I was born here in the United States. And I don’t have the history of being an immigrant, but I do have that dual life going on. I was an outsider when I went to school because my family was odd compared to the whole suburban world that I lived in. And then when I went home, I brought home American attitudes and behaviors that were incongruent with what my family’s cultural expectations were. So I was like constantly in conflict while trying to divide that. And it was problematic at the time. And a time it becomes a problem sometimes when I have my insecure moments.
But I often find that it turns into a little bit of a superpower because I feel like in the whole world of, you don’t know what you don’t know, I have a little bit wider version of I know what I know slice of the pie. And I don’t know if you see it that way as a communicator and the work that you’re doing, I would think that you kind of go into everything eyes wide open anyway. But I just don’t know, just like, do you feel like there’s a little bit of a superpower ish there, superpower ish feeling when you’re stepping into a new scenario?
Emel Shaikh: Yeah. I think that’s such a fascinating question because I don’t know that I would use superpower as the word to describe it, but there is something there. And I think this is like a much bigger conversation too, that we as a society are still trying to figure out. But for the longest time, I’d be in meetings where I’d get this prickly feeling and I didn’t know how to put words to it and I didn’t know what it was.
And I didn’t feel comfortable speaking out because no one else seemed to have the same feeling or I have this intuition or a gut instinct, and I think I just realized over time that it was like me being able to see the other side of the coin and kind of seeing if you’re going to do X, Y and Z thing, this could be a reaction that no one else is thinking about. But I also never felt like I had the power or the authority to speak up. And now I realize it is like this is why you need people of color in board meetings and sitting up in higher level positions, because that gut feeling that I have is essentially like, “No, you shouldn’t do this thing because there are going to be repercussions for it. And you’re not thinking about it because your world view doesn’t necessarily include everybody.”
And so I think it’s not necessarily a super power, because I think that there are instances where it can put you in a very uncomfortable situation where I don’t want to speak to another culture’s experience, but I can be aware that something someone is doing could impact somebody else, if that makes sense. That’s the awkward place to be in because not my place to speak on behalf of another person from a different culture, for instance. But I think that we’re becoming more aware of it as a society, too, because of the social reckoning this country is facing currently.
Diana Fryc: Well, so we’re going to kind of step a little bit further into that conversation and kind of there was an acknowledgment or a statement that you made really about how dominated the PR industry is with particularly with women, which is fantastic because as communicators that’s natural, but that it was predominantly white or Caucasian women and that there were a lot of missed opportunities or I don’t want to say, bonehead, because it makes people sound like they’re stupid, but just kind of like, oh my goodness, I can’t believe that happened. And it’s just because our industry is so small. And this is in the natural’s industry as well too. Very Caucasian, white, upper middle class dominated leadership and visibility. And so subsequently, we just keep talking to that same audience on purpose or on accident, depending on how you take a look at the situation. Can you talk a little bit about the impacts that you see? If we don’t kind of amp up our diversity in this really special area of brand communications, where do we short cite the consumer and where do we short cite the brand? Do you understand what I’m saying?
Emel Shaikh: Yes, I do. And I think it’s really interesting because you would think that with everything that’s happened over the last summer with the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and so many others that people would recognize this as a reckoning, we need to do something about it, and yet I have seen example after example of Brown’s failing and failing terribly, including this week. So I think there’s two things at hand for one, PR as an industry, especially on the consumer side and lifestyle side, yes, it’s predominantly female. And a lot of the times it is Caucasian women. And I think part of it has to do also with — I grew up and I’m really thankful for the way that my parents raised me because they didn’t have expectations of me to pursue only certain industries.
I did have a lot of creative freedom and flexibility to pursue whatever made me happy, as long as it would also allow me to be financially stable and independent and be able to stand on my own feet and plan for a future where as a lot of kids from different cultures don’t always have that freedom and there is still a lot of expectations about, no, you have to go be a doctor, you have to be a lawyer. And so oftentimes I imagine there’s that. That is a barrier for people of color who may want to pursue a career in a specific industry, but they feel like they cannot. So that may have some contribution to why there isn’t more diversity in PR specifically. But on the flip side, I think it’s so important because if you are representing another brand, if you are representing a brand that has a specific audience, you need to be able to think like that audience. Like, what would that audience want to see and how do you do the best job for your client? And what ends up happening when you don’t have diverse voices in the room to begin with is something that is meant to be really nice or warm hearted, or it could even be an attempt at showing diversity can backfire.
And that has real implications. And I’m not a believer in cancel culture. I do believe people make mistakes and you need to learn and grow from them. But I think that that is a predominant conversation. Cancel culture, like if you’ve done something wrong, you’re done for you’re never going to work again. And I think that still happens now, whether or not I like it, but I think that that also means that there’s real world repercussions for you messing up. I mean, I literally this week came across an instance of this high fashion publication that was talking about organic cotton. And one of the photos that they used in the article was a photo of the cotton plant with the hands of a black person kind of reaching around it.
And the instant I think of that, there’s no way you can use that photo, but they did. They’ve taken the article down since and they’re getting huge backlash for it. And this is in February of 2021. If you have somebody on your team that understands other cultures, like that would never have happened. And I’ve gotten to the point where I get a brands apologize. And now we are scrutinizing brand’s apologies and whether the apology is sufficient. And are they going to take action? I’m way so exhausted of that. I don’t need people’s apologies anymore because those apologies are empty. There’s usually no action that’s taken as a result of it or nothing meaningful. Or even if there’s action that’s taken, the damage is done. But if you have BIPAC folks in the room to begin with, that would never have happened. And so I think that’s where the importance of having people of color at all levels, at all companies is so important is because not only are they going to be able to prevent you from making a mistake like that, but then you’re actually speaking to all audiences.
Diana Fryc: This is going to sound weird maybe, but in the whole grand scheme of things, as a brand owner, knowing that you’re putting something out that’s questionable that may get you more eyes on your article or more eyes on your brand, what do they use to say, “No, I don’t know if this is true anymore. No press is bad press.” When we’re thinking about that, how much on the line? I almost wonder how much of these decisions are, it’s like varying shades of gray, so to speak, like this is going to be offensive enough to get us some good press, but not so offensive that blank. I mean, is that at all happening? I know that sounds like a weird question, but I just want to put that out there.
Emel Shaikh: I think it does happen. I don’t believe that all PR is good PR, I believe smart PR is good PR. I don’t want to generalize, but I think the concept of, oh, we can do something that’s just slightly offensive is also very much like a white man talk.
Diana Fryc: It’s malicious and manipulative, right?
Emel Shaikh: Yeah. And it is because you’re not thinking outside of your own experience. Like, yes, you may offend somebody, but what does that offense mean to that person? It could be very traumatizing. I mean, using the instance of this photograph that we just talked about, there are decades and decades of painful memories attached to that.
And that’s currently a topic of conversation in this country, the reparations that we need to make as a society to African-Americans or black people, black Americans. And so it’s like, what’s the cost? Is it worth it to offend enough to get eyes when you’re genuinely being cruel to another person or another human? I don’t believe in that. I don’t agree with that. But I’m sure there are people who don’t see it the same way that I do.
Diana Fryc: I definitely think at least for the Better-For-You space, this natural’s space. I think nobody wants to do that. I just kind of want to put that out there. I just wanted to put that out there and kind of go, are there people that are going being provocative enough to get attention? But I think there’s lots of different ways to do that now without being like provocative.
Or being provocative in a good way.
Emel Shaikh: Yeah.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, and do you feel like this — I think you’ve already covered this, but can we as white women be doing a better job. I feel like you’ve already said that is just like you just got to have people on your team, you need somebody to check you and to be able to have transparent conversations because we can’t have everybody’s experience, to your point, so I don’t know. What else can be done for these brands that are looking to do the right things and communicate the right way?
Emel Shaikh: I think if you’re looking to do the right thing, you do it by hiring the right people and I think it’s just as simple as that. I think there’s a lot like the assumption, I think a lot of times is that there aren’t enough people with the right expertize that also fit certain criteria out there. And I just don’t think that’s true; I’m an example of that. I’m someone that’s Pakistani, grew up in a Muslim household who is working in communications and working with Better-For-You brands. Like I know that there aren’t a lot of other people like me out there maybe, but there are still some people there. And if you are actively actually wanting to do good things, then you have to seek out the right people to help you do that, to achieve that success.
I think a lot of the times I hear a lot of the advice I think founders get is find someone that compliments you, somebody that doesn’t have the skill sets that you have so that they can fill that gap and you can be successful together. And I think that applies to people beyond founders too, it applies to different departments within an organization. It applies to every level of a job. You want to find the people that are not only the best in terms of qualifications, but best in terms of their experience. And I think that’s why diversity is so critical. It’s we’re all human and I think there’s a lot of people that have been just systemically left out of this conversation. And I know I’m not the first person to say this. So it’s like it’s not news to anybody, but it just needs to happen and that’s what the breakdown. I think that’s where the breakdown comes.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, I’m seeing the fire and I’m seeing the passion clearly as you’ve stated all throughout here that you’ve committed to working with brands, BIPAC owners and other minority groups, clearly why you started your own firm. I guess my question for you is, why did you feel like you need to do this on your own for a big brand that’s doing this or a big firm that’s doing this kind of thing? Why is Emel on her own tackling this?
Emel Shaikh: Well, I think because this is something that I’ve been thinking about for many years, many years before Covid, many years before these brutal murders from last summer. The fact that there are a lot of really wonderful people who are doing really creative things, but there’s just this barrier to entry with firms, because a lot of times, whether you’re a boutique agency or a huge firm, there are retainers. And for smaller mom and pop shops or immigrants or someone that’s already marginalized, they don’t necessarily have the funds to pay into a retainer that’s four, five, 10, 20 thousand dollars a month. And so that had been something that was on my mind for the last two jobs that I’d had before I started being a solo practitioner. And I had tried one of my previous agencies to bring in more diverse clients and that’s where I really recognized that sometimes it’s just the retainers are just too high. And so that’s the biggest, I think barrier to entry for some of these brands to start with.
And then I think it is, again, who is the one that’s helping shape your story? And if there isn’t enough diversity or if it’s not even a diversity thing, I think if you’re trained under folks who have worked in it, traditionally work in a specific manner and are not necessarily thinking in creative ways or thinking about how newsletters for instance, are a huge driver for conversion and sales, but a traditionalist might only want to see something in print.
Those can also be barriers to success. And so for me, wanting to work with minority brands was something that had been kind of at the back of my mind for a number of years already. And then when I started out on my own, it was not necessarily a decision for me to go out on my own. At the start of Covid, I was laid off, and so I really took that as an opportunity to reevaluate what I was doing, and that’s when I decided to kind of branch out on my own and then actively pursue the kinds of clients that I wanted to support, which is minority owned brands or restaurants. And so the reason I wanted to do it is because I think I understand there is a way to tell a story for some of these minority owned brands but I think unless it’s a part of your own lived experience, you just can’t speak to it. And in the past, that is exactly — that was the function of PR to hire somebody that can massage the message and help tell your brand story.
Now, though, I think as a country, as a society, we care a lot more, thankfully, about the nuances of a brand and also how you break barriers within that brand. I look at a brand like Omsom, which is the Asian culinary driven sauces brand that launched this past summer, and they do such a great job because they’re not tokenized in the culture at all, they’re actually using like chefs from specific backgrounds to help craft these sources, but they’re also appealing to a larger demographic. You’re not simplifying things for the everyman because who is the everyman? And so I think we’re starting to see more of a shift towards that anyway, which is really good. So it’s a good time for me to be able to kind of execute on this work because more people are paying attention. But that was something that I always wanted to do, was to work with brands whose stories I could tell on their behalf in a way that others may not be able to.
And I’ll use the example of one of my clients right now, which is a Chai brand. It’s called One Stripe Chai. They’re based out of Portland and they started because Chai is a very South Asian beverage, if you grew up in a South Asian household, you drank it two times a day, every celebration and while people pay a lot of attention to coffee as a culture, Portman especially is like very coffee crazed place we think about like third way. We care about where our beans come from. And almost every coffee shop you’ll go to will have a chai latte or some sort of chai drink on their menu. But it doesn’t taste very good and the problem there is it changed now.
But five years ago when One Stripe Chai started, there weren’t that many chai brands that were actually owned or funded by South Asian people. So you have to know what the product is in order to create it to a certain degree and I think the same thing applies with PR. I really enjoy working with South Asian brands because I know that I can speak to that experience or the nuances of what it means to be Indian versus Pakistani versus Bangladeshi or whatever, a little bit more than somebody that’s not South Asian would. And so if in doing that, I’m able to help champion and amplify other South Asian brands, and that’s a win-win for me.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, I think that’s wonderful. I really respect the fact of you seeing a need and there’s been so much evidence over the last year of people just kind of going, okay, well, it’s changed everything and I’ve always seen the need for and just step into it and see what happens. So congrats on making that big move.
Emel Shaikh: Thank you.
Diana Fryc: Now, before we kind of start wrapping up, I have one question for you and this sense of kind of a tricky question. This is around that cancel culture POV that you have. Of course, we had I don’t remember the name of the martial artist that was just let go from Star Wars, after making some very interesting comments on social media. And your POV is, is that you’re not a fan. I want to say I’m going to really oversimplify here. You’re not a fan of canceled culture and I think this is a tricky topic because on one hand, you want people to be accountable for their actions and another time you don’t want to ruin somebody’s life if it was a genuine error.
Because this is kind of a neutral zone here, it’s just you and I tell me or maybe share with us. I’m curious what is important that you share about cancel culture and why is it important that it doesn’t take over or go overboard for you and what does that mean? It’s a kind of big open question.
Emel Shaikh: Yeah, I think the problem I have with cancel culture is that we live in a society that has very short memories and so I think we’re just constantly repeating the cycle a little bit. I don’t think that cancel culture actually hold people accountable. And I think that there are still many loopholes for folks who make grave errors that they need to be held accountable for that, and then eventually when media stops paying attention, 15 minutes later, things go back to normal for them. So or even thinking about how do you separate the art from the artist? And I don’t have the answer for that. There’s so many people who are problematic who are being held accountable now.
But does that mean that you stop watching all of their movies or stop listening to all of their music from way long ago? I don’t know. It is a very complex conversation to have, but I think the problem I have is when we are so quick to jump to this, like, oh, let’s never buy their records anymore, let’s not support this brand. You’re not holding the person accountable; you’re just trying to take their money away, essentially. But we live in a capitalist society and we really, as much as I wish that we could create change through our wallets, I don’t think that it always happens that way. Like, if you think about big corporations, there are a handful of five brands that pretty much owned 90% of the brands that are on the market.
Like even when you’re a new product that’s launching, if you end up getting bought out and it’s a good deal for you, that’s wonderful and I’m glad for your success. But then if you’re owned by Coca-Cola, what does that mean for you as a brand? What does that mean for the brand ethos? What does that mean for cancel culture? I think it’s just really complicated. So I guess the point I would want to make is rather than jumping to bombard somebody on social media or taking any kind of action that’s negative, like really holding people accountable to their terrible actions or things that they say we need to reevaluate that. I don’t think that there is an easy answer. I don’t know if I’ve even really figured it out. But I think for me, it just become such a rinse and repeat cycle that I don’t think it has any impact anymore.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, I agree, I think that it’s an easy gut response that is forgotten a week later or maybe a month or quarter or a year later. I just thought it would be interesting to hear your POV. We covered some heavy stuff today girl!
Emel Shaikh: I know and I do want to add one quick thing to this that I just thought of, too. I think we also have to examine who we criticize and how much. I mean, there was a great article in Fortune a couple of months ago that examined if we treat female CEOs worse than male CEOs for their behaviors, and it uses examples of organizations like the Wayne that really set out to do good, I think and they had a lot of blind spots. But the repercussions of that company has faced are so much more grave than some of the mistakes men make. And I think, again, we’re all trying to figure it out. I don’t think that there is one easy solution, but I think that also comes back to the blind spots we all have and how we get so focused on whatever our personal definition of the right thing is, and there is just no one answer.
Diana Fryc: Well, big, heavy, so we solved a lot of the world’s problems today and opened a whole lot others at the same time. I always have a couple of quick questions that I like to ask before I wrap up that are kind of off topic, but in category, so to speak. So I always like to find out who you are watching right now. What women leaders are you watching right now?
That you just kind of would like people to see or just simply elevate who’s doing good?
Emel Shaikh: Oh, my goodness. That is a tough question. I think that there are a lot of people who are coming out of the last handful of years to really bring about big change, I think we need to pay attention to I don’t even know if it’s like Gen Z or Gen A, which is like 8 to 12 years old. I think it’s like literally the future of our world. I think those are the people who really care. They’ve grown up around technology, but they’re also the ones that have grown up around, like how do you train for a school shooting?
I didn’t have to do that when I was in high school and in college and I think it really shapes their worldview in a very specific way. And I think we have a lot to learn from these very young leaders who are just like are fed up of having their futures destroyed. Whether that’s through global warming or seeing their fellow students getting harmed in front of them, it is a very specific experience that we don’t have. I don’t have, certainly, but I think it’s shaping our youth in a very dynamic way and I think I really look to the future, if that’s what makes me hopeful for the future, is the next generation of trailblazers.
Diana Fryc: Tell me what kind of interesting fact, I always like to have a little cocktail snack fact in the back of my head because I just spoke with, anything that you like to go any little snack that you’d like to share with us right now?
Emel Shaikh: Like a little snack brand or?
Diana Fryc: No, something like interesting tidbit. Yeah. How many lipsticks does an average one go through in the lifetime kind of fact?
Emel Shaikh: Oh, my goodness. Well, I think it goes back to food because I love food. I think that we want Amazon was first kind of really becoming a big thing. We had this conversation around as a society about what is the state of books and independent bookstores and then we saw a huge revival for that now. And I think similarly to that, I think there was a point where print journalism was really starting to taper off and it wasn’t making money. But I think we’re also seeing this really great revival of hyper niche publications that might be quarterly or bi annual, but there’s really beautiful writing. There’s beautiful storytelling and I think that we really should be paying more attention to these creators who are telling stories in a whole new way and keep us inspired, I don’t know if that’s a factoid, but I certainly.
Diana Fryc: I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens a distribution of information is so much easier right now so that publications might have a smaller readership. And so from a sponsorship standpoint, maybe a little bit cash strapped would have to rely on subscriptions more. But the sheer volume of POVs that are able to. This podcast is exactly an example of that. There are thousands of us out there that are sharing millions of stories and so subsequently, same with publications and periodicals that’s interesting. What kind of brands do you have your eyeballs on right now? Who are you watching? Who are you excited about?
Emel Shaikh: I think anything in the candy space. I think that can be in the Better-For-You segment, a natural segment. I feel like there’s going to be more of an exposure there. I think we’ve seen a little bit of it already. But that’s an area that makes me really excited because I have a massive sweet tooth. So I’m always on the lookout for new snacks to try. And I think just ready to drink products? I think that there is going to be a shift in that, too, I think with things like CBD infused drinks or like kombucha and energy drinks changing and becoming more natural. And there’s just so much, I think, interesting stuff happening there that I’m excited to keep an eye out for and see how that’s going to shift.
Diana Fryc: The last thing I like to ask before anybody leaves is how are you keeping yourself centered these days or sane or both?
Emel Shaikh: It’s very hard. Lots of naps. No, I’m very lucky that I have a dog who keeps me company. I think there’s no medicine that is sweeter than just cuddling with your dog or like scratching their ears and I think that has been the most soothing thing through all of this crazy year is having just a loving companion there.
But naps too; naps also help.
Diana Fryc: I am down with the nap.
Emel Shaikh: Yeah.
Diana Fryc: Well, Emel, thank you so much for your time and for reaching out to me and just introducing yourself to me a while back. That’s fantastic. I’m excited to watch you grow your practice and see how you help some really amazing brands out there in the universe and thanks for joining me.
Emel Shaikh: Thank you so much for having me. It is great to chat with you Diana.
Diana Fryc: Oh, thank you.
This episode is sponsored by Retail Voodoo, a creative marketing firm specializing in growing, fixing and reinventing brands in the food, beverage, wellness and fitness industries. If your natural’s brand is in need of positioning, package design or marketing activation, we’re here to help. You can find more information at retail-voodoo.com. And so there you go. I hope you enjoyed this episode. Thank you so much for hanging out with us today and if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to this channel and share with your network. Until next time, be well and do gooder.