The Founder: PR’s Friend or Foe?


Earlier this month saw the return of The Pros Winter Series for its third year showcasing new comms techniques and discussion around some the hottest PR issues and debates of 2021, all delivered by industry leading Black, Asian, Mixed Race and Ethnic Minority communication pros in the UK.

The series featured keynote speakers from authors Poorna Bell and Musa Okwonga to broadcaster Emma Dabiri, journalist Sathnam Sanghera and political commentator Nishma Robb, alongside a whole host of panellists willing to impart their comms expertise.

Diffusion’s CEO & Co-Founder, Daljit Bhurji was asked to chair one of the panel discussions on “The Founder: PR’s Friend or Foe? The good, the bad and the Musk.” Over the last two-years, the founder has emerged as both the hero and villain of our times, depending on your perspective. Think Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk racing to Mars, Mark Zuckerberg’s tight grip on social media, or even Bill Gates’ philanthropic work shared through the conspiratorial lens of the anti-vaxxer movement.

In most organisations, the founder is often the biggest influence positive or negative on corporate reputation, often even long after they depart. Bhurji kicked-off the discussion by asking the panel how they would approach working with a founder who doesn’t fit into the usual media stereotype of the ego-driven ‘tech bro’ or the glamourous ‘SheEO’.

Panellist Jessica Hope, CEO of Wimbart, an agency that specialises in working with African brands observed that when it comes to African or POC founders, many western journalists automatically gravitate towards wanting to craft a ‘rags to riches’ narrative. They can often find it difficult to remove a “struggle journey” from how they want the founders to be portrayed. However, in her client experience, the founder usually does not fit that stereotype, explained Hope. Instead it’s about conveying to business media that the story is about a smart founder who just happens to be African and then talking about the specifics of innovation and running a business in Africa.

The discussion then moved on from start-ups to maturing businesses and identifying the warning signs for when the brand may have outgrown the founder. Ben Roberts, Director at Harvard PR stated that there is no hard or fast rule, with some much depending on the actual brand. Some founders like Bill Gates will forever be tied to the company regardless of what they go on to do, whereas others like Twitter will probably not feel the impact of its founder Jack Dorsey leaving the company again as CEO, he believed.  Hope added that at some point it’s important reputationally and operationally to separate the founder from the brand, especially when building the profile of the company and looking for investors.

Bhurji then asked the panel how comms professionals should handle communication for a brand as the founder moves on, observing anecdotally in the world of tech the trend for charismatic white male CEOs to be replaced with more down-to-earth CEOs with an ethnic minority background, such as Sundar Pichai at Google or Dara Khosrowshahi at Uber.

Panellist Julian Obubo, Brand Strategy Director & Partner at Manifest, acknowledged the observation and shared his view that this may be more down to the inability of Western media to tell the stories of CEOs from diverse backgrounds and create those business characters that seem larger than life.  Roberts added that it is essential to have a very detailed comms playbook in place that from an early stage showcases the “bench strength of the executive team” ahead of any possible succession. Even down to ensuring the Founder is never photographed alone, but always with other senior execs.

Bhurji ended the session by noting the growing importance for brands to create diverse and inclusive workplaces and the role that PR plays in communicating an open company culture. He asked the panel how best to encourage diverse voices to be heard if, as is often the case, the founder is white and male.

In reply, Roberts emphasised the importance of finding and encouraging the voices of execs from minority backgrounds as spokespeople, ensuring they have clear areas of topic ownership with media. He noted, “there is nothing worse than just being invited to talk about diversity because you’re not white”.

When it comes to founders sharing the limelight, Obubo also observed that founders need to have self-awareness. They may not be the best person every time to tell every story the media wants to hear, and that’s when allowing other voices to shine is key.


This panel and many others are available to watch on demand for existing ticket holders via The Pros Winter Series site. If you missed out on tickets for this year’s conference, keep an eye out for the event in 2022 and others produced by BME PR Pros.