Everyone is different. Everyone is the same.

As professional communicators, should public relations practitioners focus on individual differences, segmenting people into chunks by age, gender, geographical location? Or categorise by attitude – friend or foe? Perhaps by behaviour – which way did you vote? Are you with us or against?

Stephen Waddington directs PR practitioners towards using data and algorithms, which can be useful. But it can also be our modern day equivalent of reading head bumps for understanding who we are and what we do.

He rightly indicates the ethical dilemmas raised by Derina Holtzhausen. I’m likewise concerned by the implications of people being increasingly divided into multiple, fragmented publics even as we share the same space.

This tension is inherent in my PhD study of career strategies in public relations.

Public relations as an occupation promotes an individualistic model of careers, reflected in practitioner surveys and academic studies that mention attracting a certain “breed of person” and recruiting those with a “good” or “right personality”. Reference to personality is found historically, in respect of contemporary practice, in relation to ethics and within gender studies literature.

A focus on traits rather than competencies can be found in job adverts, anecdotal career advice and silly “personality type” clickbait articles (including this one on the CIPR site “for switched on public relations professionals”: The top five personality types of PR people).

Personality profiling is not just for fun. Historical and contemporary studies of public relations have found that women in particular find their personalty is linked to appearance, and both viewed as “intrinsic” to their ability to do a job. Of course as any misogynistic troll proves, this is an issue way beyond PR though.

In career studies terms, this thinking reflects theories based on matching concepts and personality typologies that emerged in the early 20th century. They speak to the idea of congruence between a person’s characteristics and the requirements of a job or occupation. Despite initial intentions for such approaches to support individual career choice, they soon became used by military and big business as a winnowing process.

Profiling emphasises structural norms of  personality. Yet segmenting public relations practitioners on such superficial grounds when hiring and promoting is problematic for a number of reasons, including:

1. Trivialisation: Emphasising the importance of having a “bright, enthusiastic personality” gets in the way of presenting public relations practitioners as qualified strategic management advisers.

2. Occupational closure: Selecting by personality can lead to recruitment and retention on basis of homophily; recruiting “people like us”.

3. Discrimination: Judgements made on basis of personality may reflect prejudice about the types of people suited to work in, or progress within, public relations; and discriminate against those who don’t fit this notion of ideal fit.

4. Opportunity structure: Public relations becomes seen as an occupation that attracts, and offers opportunities to, certain types of people, which acts as a barrier to enabling greater diversity.

5. Labelling: Some people think, feel and behave differently as a result of personality disorders. It is important to understand mental health issues and how these relate to ability to function in the workplace and wider society. Even light-hearted personality-based labels can stigmatise people who are living with, or who have recovered from, various conditions.

Just because people are different, doesn’t mean that they aren’t also all the same. Just because we are the same, doesn’t mean we aren’t also different.

Focusing only on differences often leads to conflict. Indeed, technologies enable segmented groups to become increasingly divided and potentially dangerously cohesive thanks to the filter bubble of search engine algorithms, social network endorsements and confirmation bias (where people attend to information that is consistent with existing views and avoid contradictory information).

In public relations, we need to be open to difference at the same time as recognising similarities. As an occupation we should be adhesive, enabling different types of people to be able to work and live together.

And, when we talk about personality, as professionals, we should do better than rely on discriminatory euphemisms, outdated profiling techniques, or Cosmopolitan magazine style quizzes.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

2 thoughts on “Personality”

  1. Wow, there is so much information in this post, that I am not sure which topic to choose or what message you are trying to convey. However, I am genuinely interested in your comments on hiring and promoting PR professionals. My experience has been that individuals within PR consultancies and PR corporate teams have always been characterized by their diversity. How would you recommend we attract such professionals beyond listing the skills required?

    1. Mary – thank you for your comment. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that we should look beyond the superficial idea of personality when recruiting and promoting. This includes being mindful of our own bias – and that of algorithms that increasingly play a role in categorising people (as recruiters – particularly ‘head hunters’ increasingly trawl social media for ‘talent’).

      With regard to attracting people of diversity, I believe we have to recognise this means many more things than gender and race (although both are important dimensions) – two aspects I feel have been neglected are class and disability. The first is changing a bit but, for example, unpaid (or low paid/expense only) internships and early career roles favour those who have financial support from parent. I don’t think the culture within PR (particularly agencies) is seen as open to people with diverse biopsychosocial needs though.

      Again, there are many levers in careers, so to highlight a few… We need to ensure that public relations is seen as a career that has potential to meet the ambitious and needs of different people, is open at multiple points (ie not just post-education) and is multi-dimensional (ie beyond the stereotypes). That is something not only for publications (PR Week, PR Moment, etc) and the professional bodies, but for all of us with a platform. I’d like to see us step up in our communications and not be afraid to talk seriously and intelligently. As well as showing the benefits (including fun) of working in PR/communications, we should acknowledge and address its limitations (long-hours culture, etc).

      Second, we need to be radical and take action against discrimination – and that means not seeing every issue as a communications one. Gender pay/reward parity is something that the major consultancies can lead on today. Have independent reviews undertaken and eliminate inequity rapidly. Address poor structural issues around recruitment pay offers, bonus payments (which may be % of salary), and appraisal schemes (do they reward popularity, grade level or length of service rather than performance – and is that judged on neutral conditions).

      Likewise, look seriously at retention data and ensure that people aren’t leaving PR because of failings in working conditions. Research in US and UK shows BME practitioners find that when recruited for diversity, they are then expected to confirm in a way that hides cultural diversity. Liz Bridgen’s research (although small scale) raises issues about women leaving because they find the work trivial and the atmosphere bitchy.

      Lots more I could say, but it is about addressing our own biases, communication to attract a range of different types of diverse talent and action in addressing structural and cultural issues.

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