What better way to salute our sisters for Black History Month, than to speak to the founder of Kasa Communications, Sharon Davis. Sharon was born in London but her roots are in Ghana. She started her career as a journalist with the BBC and now runs Kasa Communications – her PR and Comms agency in North Yorkshire. We talk to her about her career journey , and how her experience of being a black woman in the industry has helped to shape it.
When did you first realise you wanted to become a journalist?
I’m not sure. I think it was a gradual process. I remember when I was 10 I used to love reading and my mum said she thought I’d be a great journalist and should look into it. At the time I brushed it aside, as I was at the stage of whatever your mum said just wasn’t valid. I actually wanted to be a mathematician.
When I chose my A Levels, I initially chose psychology alongside the other subjects. After two lessons I realised it wasn’t for me. Media Studies was the only A Level that fitted in with my timetable at that late stage. I did one lesson and knew I had to be in the media.
How did you enter the profession (education/training etc)?
I chose my broadcast journalism course because it was accredited by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council (BJTC) which was quite renowned at the time. I wouldn’t say I specifically wanted to be a journalist, but at some point during the course I decided it seemed like a good career to follow. And my university had direct links with the BBC, so I managed to get a job fairly soon afterwards.
So your first job was with the BBC. What did you do there?
It was a fluke. I didn’t plan to do that but I went with a friend who used to do shifts there and I picked up the in-house magazine. I saw a vacancy for a receptionist and decided to go for it. Through doing that I then did loads of other things. I did researching in the newsroom and I helped out as a broadcast assistant on a Sunday morning show. I did whatever I could and gained experience that way. I then applied for a broadcast journalism contract which I got the following year.
How different is broadcast journalist to print journalism?
When I was doing my course we did both TV and radio, and I instantly fell in love with radio, because it’s very intimate. I loved the personal connections – you had to physically be in front of somebody, you couldn’t just email questions.
And it’s quite different because you’re taught to write short news pieces. Everything is about trying to write things in the most concise way possible. You’re told it’s something like three words per second, so you have a sense of how many seconds your piece is going to be, and it’s all about trying to get the right information in there, in shortest amount of time. I think that’s a skill that even now is ingrained in me. It dictates how I write.
How did you move into print journalism?
I stayed in broadcast journalism for two years. I was still quite young but really struggled with the throwaway nature of news, and some of the more harrowing research and news stories, like murders and stabbings. I found it difficult focusing on stories that ‘sell’, and balancing that with more value-based stories. So I left, perhaps prematurely, and got a magazine contract, alongside doing a church internship. The BBC was fantastic and I’ll never forget it, but that year after I left, although very stressful because I lacked a secure income, was also one of the best years of my career.
Do you think it was more difficult for you to get your career going being a black woman?
Yes and no. I think class plays a big role in professions like journalism, and PR. A lot of people were trying to manage unpaid internships, alongside trying to get some sort of income, which was a challenge. My parents are by no means super wealthy, but I did have their support. I came from a family where I had a lot of positive professional role models, so in a sense I always knew I was going to succeed, that was never a question – it was just a matter of when and how.
One thing I was told as a child, which many black kids are, is that you have to work harder than your counterparts. To secure my BBC contract, I had a short time of mentorship with an Asian journalist. We were advised for BBC interviews to have three scenario-based examples prepared for different things. He told me, you go in there with 10. That really reframed my mind. I remember preparing for that interview – I prepared so much to make sure I really stood out. It was a very competitive process – you get thousands of people applying for these roles. For that interview, I found out I scored one of the highest. Had I not had that conversation with this journalist I wouldn’t have pushed myself as hard.
I also had the experience of a white friend at the time who intimated that the reason I’d got the job was because the BBC were currently being more open to diverse backgrounds. So you’re faced with that as well.
The other challenge I faced was there weren’t that many role models. It’s very different now, but at the time there was Moira Stewart and Trevor McDonald, who were wonderful, but they seemed like anomalies at the time.
I had inner battles and challenges with the nature of news too. I was one of the only black people in the newsroom but didn’t have the language to say anything about that, which made it very difficult.
The station where I worked had an audience aged 50 and over, so you’re dealing with a very particular demographic. While my parents were of that age group, because of the cultural differences, they didn’t really have the same cultural experiences as the people we were targeting. News reporters would say something to me, and it was just lost on me because I wasn’t brought up with that cultural reference. So that’s another way that it was difficult. It’s not necessarily that nobody is giving you the opportunity, it’s just that you are the first and you find yourself faced with these unseen barriers and challenges that we weren’t talking about in 2006 or 2007. It made me feel very insecure.
How did you make the move from journalism to public relations and communications?
I never set out to have a PR career as such. I remember being in a BBC newsroom and receiving a press release, and thinking, this is so poorly written – if it was written better it would actually make a story. I had some other experiences like that, and decided that I really wanted to give a platform to those who either couldn’t naturally get media exposure, or who just didn’t know how to do it. That was the first seed of being on the other side.
Once I’d left the BBC and needed to find work I did some PR work for a government body. After that role, PR just seemed like the most viable thing, as it could provide me with a stable career. And because of my journalism background I had the knowledge to do it a bit differently.
What made you decide to set up your own business?
I set up as self-employed in London in 2010. I was 26. From then to 2013 it was a real mixture of short-term contracts, sometimes not even in journalism, sometimes administrative, just to help me to figure out what I wanted to do and get things going. The first two years were a bit hit and miss. And then I started to do a mixture of contract work, associate work with agencies, and then my own freelance work, and built my freelance portfolio. In 2014 I decided to turn it into a bit of a micro agency. In hindsight I perhaps didn’t have the depth of experience in PR to warrant that move, and while I applaud my ambition, I should perhaps have stayed freelance for longer. So that didn’t really work out.
Then when I moved up north I went back to freelancing out of necessity and Kasa Comms grew out of that.
How did you develop your career in North Yorkshire?
I wound down my business in London and moved to North Yorkshire on a bit of a whim in 2016. I had a career break and took the summer off to think about what I wanted to do with my life, and if I wanted to be in comms anymore.
I pursued accountancy for a very short while, but I didn’t fancy spending the rest of my 30s trying to qualify. Then my husband got a professional role up here, so I had to think about what I was going to do. We lived so remotely – I don’t think people really appreciate how remote parts of the Dales are. From where we lived it took nearly an hour to get to any sort of motorway or main arterial road – so I decided to go back to freelancing.
While doing that I built Dales Business Women and started Dales PR and Marketing, as it was then called, and ran those businesses side by side.
What was Dales Business Women?
It’s a woman’s networking group I set up, partly because I wanted to make some friends and meet like-minded women. I applied for a bit of business funding, which had to be endorsed by a councillor. He told me, not in any sort of ill-mannered way, that if I got two people at this event I’d be doing well. He said people in the Dales are busy, they work two or three jobs. It would not be through any fault of my own, but just to be aware of the climate I was doing it in.
At the first event (I had a three-week-old baby) and we had nine people. Then at the second event in June (with a three-month-old baby) we had 25. At that stage I thought, based on the councillor’s very honest advice, if I’ve got 25, maybe I’m onto something. That’s when we expanded it to cover four venues across the Dales and built up an established membership of 50 people, with another 20 to 30 people who just came to ad hoc events as well. Given the climate, and where I lived at the time, I feel that was quite an achievement. I no longer run it, I sold it on, but it still exists today, and that’s something I’m quite proud of.
There aren’t many black women in business in North Yorkshire – have you seen this as an advantage or disadvantage?
It’s a funny one because I think being in a small minority has a number of advantages, as well as the obvious barriers. Barriers like being the only one, and things like food and hair or anything that relates to me as a black woman. I’ve had to make certain skincare and beauty decisions because of lack of access, for example. So there are those sorts of things.
I think people here are really lovely, but there can be a slight challenge with how they integrate people that aren’t from their own communities. And that affects you whether you’re black, white or purple. But as a black businesswoman, where I play it to my advantage is that I’m the only one, so I can do what I want. I stand out anyway so no matter what I do, I’m different. I look different, I talk differently. So anything I do is going to be different. In that sense I have fun with it and think, let’s see what we can get away with.
To be really honest, I think sometimes business people don’t interact with me just for the fear of the unknown – not because of any malicious reasons. But let’s be honest, as humans we are drawn to people that are like us, and I’m not like a lot of people. There are times when I think, I know that what we do is really good, but are people tentative because I’m an unknown quantity? That’s a very real thought that runs through my head quite regularly.
The other challenge is how you’re able to talk to people. Sometimes I think when you’re around people who, even if they’re not from an ethnic minority background themselves, they’re used to being around people who are, you’re able to be quite honest and open. And sometimes I feel here I have to be a bit more guarded and have to be careful what I say. If I say too much people think you’re playing the race card. I’m not, But equally, I’m not going to pretend that I’m something I’m not.
Whatever the stats are of women in business, and black women in business, try adding in the rural location. That’s one of the biggest challenges. As I’m not among other black women, where I can be part of that groundswell of chat and debate to make change, I’m kind of out on a limb and it can feel very isolating.
How was Kasa Comms born?
Kasa Comms is a continuation of Dales PR and Marketing. During lockdown I felt our focus has started to shift as we were working with different clients further afield than the Dales. So I wanted a name that reflected that, and ‘kasa’ is the Ghanaian word for ‘speak’. Then, off the back of that, we have created the Kasa Community.
This goes back to my experiences at a BBC when I said I wanted to give a platform to voices that aren’t often heard. It’s fine if you’ve got a six-figure budget to through at your PR and comms, but if you haven’t it can be quite difficult. So the thought behind the Kasa Community was to try and make it accessible for people who wouldn’t normally have PR or a media presence. It’s basically a spokesperson’s membership, where we push people’s expertise, and help to increase their media literacy. It’s open to all businesses, with an emphasis on those with underrepresented voices that should be heard.
How do you see the future of Kasa Comms, what’s next?
I’ve been in PR for a long time and I think it’s a constantly evolving process, now more than ever. Traditional PR methods may not get people very far for much longer, so I think it’s really important to evolve as well. My focus is very much now on growing the Kasa Community. I want to look at how we can use tech and AI to make it a really tight-knit tool that is useful for both journalists and businesses. It’s a question of growing it to adapt to the changing PR market.
Is there a reason you work with so many schools?
Education has always been close to my heart. Since I was at university, I’ve always done some form of mentoring or programmes where you’re going into schools and helping young people. And while I still enjoy doing careers talks and those sorts of things, being able to serve schools in a more direct way is really important to me.
Schools have had a really hard time over the last five to ten years. Some of them are doing really wonderful things, but the general narrative in the media doesn’t necessary reflect that. From the work we’ve done in the last three to four years with schools, it’s clear that there is a need for them to be shouting about what they’re doing, and it’s quite fulfilling to be able to position them and give them that platform.
What should people do to find out more about the Kasa Community?
I’m always happy to talk to anyone who’s interested in joining. You can also follow this link to find out more or just get in touch.
Finally, what are your thoughts on Black History Month?
Traditionally I have found Black History Month quite difficult because it can feel a touch tokenistic. When I was at the BBC they had something called diversity monitoring week. In that week I remember being in a particular newsroom where they were actively seeking other voices – those with disabilities, different sexual orientations or race – and when the week was finished I heard somebody in the newsroom say, “right, we can put this address book away now”. It was like a tick box exercise. And I kind of feel the same way about Black History Month.
It’s very easy, and very convenient to say, “Look at us, talking about black people”. A lot of black history is quite closely associated and linked to British history, so why isn’t it being taught? I do recognise the need for such platforms, and for me, particularly with this year’s theme of saluting our sisters, I feel it’s a really good opportunity to champion the black women around us. I think there is the perception that black women are strong and they look like they’ve got it all together, but we’re fighting so many different things. Whatever your race, if you can support those black women around you, even if it’s just checking in with them, and actually asking about them, getting beyond the put-together persona that you see, then I think it can only be a good thing.