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This Sussex Life: "I realised other people in PR didn’t look like me”

Preena Gadher

Preena Gadher, director of top PR agency Riot Communications, reflects on how her student years at Sussex shaped her ambitions and her life.

English had always been my best subject at school, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it at degree level. I wanted my studies to be broader. At Sussex I was in what was then the School of Cultural and Community Studies and I could do English alongside gender studies, migration, globalisation… it was exactly what I wanted.

Coming to Sussex was my political awakening. I had a strong sense that people were politically active in the past at Sussex, and it was something I wanted to be a part of. So I joined protests for the first time in my life and was on the board of Student Action for Refugees.

It wasn’t hard for me to find like-minded people. Sussex made me feel free. I had never felt like that before. I also found it very inclusive — particularly for LGBT students. That was a big deal for me. I thought this was a great place to be, whatever I studied.

I also didn’t realise how cosmopolitan the University would be. I was in East Slope  –   RIP!  –   and half the people in my flat were international students. Twenty years on I still have friends in other parts of the world. It has given me an excuse to go on far-flung holidays.

Before I graduated in 2002 I was in the loos in the Library and there was some graffiti next to the toilet roll holder, which said ‘pull here for an arts degree’. I thought, what am I going to do? I’d studied French at A-level so I joined the language assistant programme of the British Council and moved to Strasbourg for a year while I figured it out.

Because I'd done English I thought about publishing. I wanted to work in editorial, but I wrote to all the publishers and they turned me down. Then Penguin said they had a placement in publicity. I’d been interested in the media, so it was a good combination for me. And I was very lucky. I turned that two-week placement into six weeks by making myself useful. When a job came up I applied, and I stayed there for nearly six years.

I was riding around in the back of taxis with Nobel Prize-winning authors, economists, physicists; the smartest people in the world. For a 23-year-old, it was pretty exciting and totally intimidating, but a fantastic place to train and to have your mind opened and expanded in this incredibly privileged way.

It was a big deal for me to make the PRWeek Powerbook 2019, which is their top 100 comms professionals in UK. PR is like publishing in that it isn’t very diverse. Looking back I was quite naive thinking I would go to work in publishing and PR. Once I was in I realised other people didn’t look like me. I was brown and working class. I wondered if it was for the likes of me. I want to show people if I can do it, anyone can do it. I have done quite a bit around highlighting diversity in the industry. I’ve been a mentor on a scheme called BME PR Pros and I myself have been a mentee in an organisation that supports women in PR.

Our agency, Riot Communications, turned ten this year, which feels like an achievement. We specialise in culture and entertainment, which is unusual but it’s something I feel passionate about. We are very choosy about who and what we represent. I want to work on stuff that I care about and that I believe will change the world in a positive way. In that way we maintain our integrity and our reputation.

One of our memorable successes was turning Yuval Harari into a best-selling author. Yuval wrote Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, and has gone on to write Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. He was an unknown writer, and the publishers came to us because we are experts in promoting non-fiction. I read Sapiens and thought here was an extraordinarily gifted writer. I made it my mission to make him a success. Sapiens has sold millions and is one of Obama’s favourite books.

We currently have eight employees, but we’re looking to expand. I would like to do more TV and film. It seems to be a golden era for TV. Certainly there is a lot more investment in content creation –  for Amazon, Netflix and now Apple. We are currently working with Mammoth Screen, the TV production company behind Poldark, who have created an adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s novel Noughts + Crosses, which is going to be a prime-time BBC One drama series, and that is going to be amazing.

I’m very keen to maintain the right work-life balance, so I try to set an example. I stop for a lunch break. I don’t expect to see emails from my staff after 7.30pm or before 7.30am. If I’m on holiday, I won’t be online. We also have free fruit and we get out of the office to do some of our work activities. I see workplace well-being as essential.

This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series.

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 10 May 2019