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.

Public Relations as a Rainforest

ID-10080659In writing about T-shaped career decisions for public relations practitioners at PR Conversations, a comment by Natalie Bovair suggested a tree trunk for the vertical stroke that grows thicker and deeper, but needs (along with its main branches – the horizontal stroke) to bend to the winds.

This is a useful metaphor, which can be extended to consider public relations using the analogy of a rainforest – one of the oldest, and most diverse, land based ecosystems.

Within our rainforest, we can represent clients and employers as the fauna, those animals (birds, invertebrates, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians) seeking survival within what we could term a jungle (allowing for multiple definitions of the term).

Some of this terrain may be dense and impenetrable, parts of it may be lawless or unruly where only those who have adapted to be the fittest survive. It may at times be confusing and threatening – or considered as a fragile, spiritual place full of exotic and exciting mysteries. Whether menacing or magical, our rainforest is the home of the flora of public relations.

The analogy works in terms of specialisation as many of our animal clients are found in particular rain forests – and are vulnerable to extinction, being dependent on their eco-system. I also like how the nutrients (necessary for survival) are found in the plants within the rainforest – showing the importance of the PR practitioner to the client.

The rainforest comprises several layers – and in these, we can locate our PR practitioners.

Emergent layer or over story: The pinnacle, where it is windy, the air is hot and the clients are agile monkeys (The Jungle VIPs). A few trees reach these lofty heights and stand tall above others with both long trunks and extended limbs that have adapted to function at the highest climate. But they may be distant and need to withstand all extremes of weather. To thrive above the canopy, plants and animals (PR and clients) must adapt to a bright, open and changeable world.

At these heights, the trees are tough and take full advantage of the resources available here. They spread their foliage (their generalist skills in the original T-shaped concept) to catch as much sunlight as possible. They use the wind to disperse pollen and seeds – akin to ideas and followers in PR terms. Indeed, these emergent trees are likely to produce seeds with wings to fly out of their shadows and thrive on their own.

Our clients at this level are often sizeable, such as the harpy eagle – a fierce hunter. It blends with the surrounding forest perfectly, and relies on excellent vision and hearing. Showing close integration of PR and client, and a competency in boundary-spanning.

Other clients, such as the pygmy gliders, use a different strategy – secretiveness. Where the confidentiality of the relationship with the PR consultant is paramount. And, there are the largest butterflies in the world, Morpho peleides. They reflect light to appear a vivid, iridescent blue colour, although their underside is a dull brown colour providing camouflage against predators. They fly at the highest level to warm themselves and attract mates. Such beautiful clients live hard and fast, so need careful PR handling.

Canopy layer: Home of tall trees, with thick trunks and branches and lush foliage. The environment attracts more wildlife than elsewhere in the rainforest and has a refreshing breeze and dappled sunlight. This can be considered as our professional or community of practice layer in public relations. Where our connections form a tight network to cope with rain and sunlight. Here, life is less changeable but more humid. Canopy trees are remarkably similar to each other. The biggest threat comes from lichens, algae and mosses that steal the light and block the tree’s breathable surface. Are these the competing forces that are challenging the dominance of PR in its traditional communications and relationship domains?

Here the plants (PR) rely on the animals (clients) for survival (seed dispersal) and often need to attract them using succulent fruit. It is amusing to read how fruit here may need a tough cover to pass unharmed through the animals’ digestive systems. And, the animals are fickle and move from tree to tree following the fruit. I’m sure in PR, we’ve all had clients or employers who make us feel like that!

There is variety in clients (fauna) in the canopy – most of whom are large and strong enough to be safe from most predators. They are predictable in their behaviour, vocal and exist in many varieties within species, although they may be vulnerable to threats from predators. Changes in the environment can cause instability and stress to plants and animals, although those remaining may close ranks or saplings may thrive. Although other species emerge to fill any gaps, the status quo is likely to win out.

Understory layer: Underneath the canopy is a layer comprising young or short trees, a tangle of shrubs and woody or soft-stemmed plants. Here the specific rainforest environment is an important factor, but in general it will be dark, less windy and more humid. Perhaps our tactical-only PR practitioners can be found in the understory – where it is hot, damp and the air is still.

The flora here grows in the shade of the taller trees and needs to adapt to survive. Species that do well include many forms of houseplants. Understory plants have to find ways to advertise their flowers to attract animals and insects in the dim light. The fact that the flowers are frequently found on the tree’s trunk rather than in its foliage suggest a focus on the specialism of PR rather than any generalist or strategic competencies.

Understory flowers are strong-smelling and suited to the tastes of the animal the plant depends upon – which again emphasises a willingness to bend to the client rather than challenge in any way. The analogy is reinforced by observation that clients may adopt disguises, pretending to be something they are not. Plants (PR) may be complicit in this deceit providing camouflage as protection from predators for reptilian and other clients. Not only does this approach offer sanctuary but enables the animal to capture its prey.

The understory is a more open place where some clients are able to fly freely – but where others set traps to capture them. It suggests a murky world, full of challenges and risk.

Forest floor: At the base is a dark place where the humid air is still. The vegetation is mainly fungi and other plants that live off decaying leaves and other matter fallen from the trees above. It this the unethical underbelly of PR practice? Here the clients include small invertebrates, living under stones, leaves and logs, alongside animals who forage for survival. Everyone here is vulnerable to surprise attacks – crises maybe – and need to hide until threats pass. Our publicists who will say and do anything could be seen as the plants providing that vital cover.

But let’s not forget that it is within the roots of the emergent trees or those found in the canopy layer where some animals hide. It is a rich place where there is great interdependence.

The rainforest involves interconnections with many plants growing on other plants for support – we can think of these perhaps as our students looking to find their own way in the world. I like the idea of them as Epiphytes, non-parasitic air plants who start life in the spot where two branches meet in the sunshine of the upper canopy. They produce their own energy and obtain moisture and nutrients from the air. Ephiphytes are also incredibly diverse and include species such as bromeliads (eg pineapples) and orchids. The former of which support their own plant life – young entrepreneurs. Mind you, there are also dangers for established trees in the rain forest from epiphytes.

In summary, as an occupation, we should ensure that those in the overstory and established canopy do not block the sunlight from the understory and prevent the growth of the plants there who are looking to grow and adapt. We need to provide room for both young shoots and those students who are epiphytes. But in accommodating the young saplings and air plants, mutual respect is required so the host isn’t damaged by its accommodating nature.

And the fauna (clients) and flora (PR) need to work together for survival of the eco-system, but recognise that there are threats both from within and outside our environment.

I’ve largely drawn on the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution website for information about the Rainforest. The image for this post is Earth and Tree by njaj; courtesy of

Who do you think you are? Respond to the PR Census 2013

PRCensusScoping the PR industry is an unreliable business – but the PR Census (undertaken by PR Week and PRCA) is a valiant attempt to provide some useful numbers and insight into who we are and what we do. That’s why I support the call to complete the census form:

The greater the number of UK practitioners who take a few minutes to participate, the more reliable the data and analysis that is produced will be.

Reviewing the findings from the 2011 PR Census, I summed up public relations as:

dominated by the young and female. In terms of age, only 20% of PR practitioners are older than 45, despite the fact that 28% of the general working population is over 50. Women account for almost two-thirds of the PR industry (64%) compared to 46% for the overall workforce.

It is doubtful that two years on, the PR industry is demographically greatly different – but we will have an opportunity to look at some trends and dig deep into the data to discover if some of the previous findings still hold true:

  • PR practitioners are not a greatly diverse bunch in demographic terms
  • On average, the female respondents had less experience than their male counterparts
  • There seemed to be a black hole of women leaving PR mid-career (and not returning after maternity leave)
  • Regardless of age or experience, there continues to be a noticeable gender salary discrepancy in men’s favour
  • With a relatively long hours culture reported by respondents, starting salaries in PR aren’t overly generous – which is even more important than two years’ ago given increasing costs of undergraduate degrees

If these aspects remain pretty consistent, it suggests little has been achieved since the last PR Census to address issues that should be of concern to employers, professional bodies, educators and practitioners themselves. Rather than simply focusing on where the results from the 2013 PR Census offer an opportunity for the industry to pat itself on the back, more needs to be done to future-proof rewarding careers in the field as the norm (regardless of gender, age, race, class, education, experience, entry point, etc).

Anyone looking to recruit PR talent continues to lament the shortage of really high calibre candidates. There has never been a better opportunity for public relations to secure its ground as a credible, valued professional discipline both as an in-house function and a bought in expert service. This is great news – but we won’t realise the potential, and attract or retain the brightest and best, if we simply use this important research to create infographics and generate publicity for PR.

A story of superhumans – inspiring a PR generation

Today I met the 2012 intake of public relations students at Bournemouth University. To use the vision of the London 2012 games, this is the next generation that we need to inspire to lead our occupation. A quick poll (well asking them to put up their hands) revealed pretty much all use Facebook, but perhaps a quarter have a Twitter presence and a handful can be found in LinkedIn or Pinterest. So are they a digital generation – who live an always-on, hyper connected lifestyle, ruled by apps and online news?

If they are not, then they will soon need to address this gap in their competencies as they look to engage fully with the world of public relations, and indeed, modern University education. Rather than Google and Wikipedia (which undoubtedly have become their primary sources of information at school), we expect them to engage with online learning resources, electronic journals and ebooks, web and mobile based communications, respected blogs (such as PR Conversations) and social media based professional networks.

Their future careers need to be about more than getting to grips with the tools of digital communications however. We need to inspire them to change perceptions and become highly regarded strategic managers. This aim requires the practice of PR also to change its perception of students and not see them only in terms of craft skills destined to follow a career that relies on time-served and step by step promotion up the agency or corporate ladder.

In the new world of work, you need to create your own opportunities – this was the message from the final year students who came along to share experiences of their placement years. If you want to be recognised and have a great personal reputation, this takes superhuman effort rather than floating along waiting for chances to come your way.

As the Summer of superhuman efforts in the Olympics and Paralympics fades into our memories, it is worth reflecting on how perceptions were changed during a few weeks of inspirational sporting endeavours. At least for a while, our opinions of being British changed. We felt a vicarious satisfaction in delivering a world-class games, that reflected our unique culture and showed the rest of the planet that we are more than the impressions often left by our politicians and drunken holidaymakers.

One legacy that it is hoped will have longevity is a new view of those with disabilities – thanks in part to the Meet the Superhumans campaign by Channel 4. This involved more than a short promotional video however, as Channel 4 had invested in getting to know the Paralympic athletes over a two year period. But the phrase, superhuman, was inspired and helped reposition the Paralympic games, and its competitors, as people who demonstrated superhuman abilities rather than disabilities.

But without the achievements – and genuine personalities – of those who participated in the games, no creative communications campaign would have altered perceptions. What challenged our opinions, beliefs and attitudes was the realisation that the athletes were, to an extent, just like us. Well, in reality, they aren’t like us, as most of us never aspire to, let alone achieve, the pinnacle of our potential. Whether that’s being a medal winner, or delivering a personal best, it means striving and sacrificing to realise dreams.

That also means being better than the previous generation – I genuinely want to be inspired by those entering public relations. Yes, as an educator, I can help them on their career paths. I can introduce them to the theory and practice involved in public relations, and encourage them to engage fully with digital communications and future trends. But what inspires me most is when they push this further and show what they can achieve. Only they can change the future perception and opinion of public relations.

Plotting a personal path to PR career success

PR Academy is looking to document how studying a PR qualification has helped in developing careers. The “Your Learning Journey” concept involves posting a comment on its blog in no more than 140 words relating the influence and path taken as a result of gaining a qualification. As well as potentially winning a Trailfinders gift card to the value of £250, there’s an opportunity to feature in its campaign to encourage continuous learning. You don’t have to be a PR Academy student to take part (and you are encouraged to Tweet using the #learningjourney hashtag).

This initiative is interesting to me, not only because I’ve spend over a decade working with many students of public relations (including those enrolled with PR Academy), but for the connections it has to my own PhD studies into career strategies in PR.

If you are thinking about your next move in public relations, there are three concepts I’ve found running as threads through my research into the historical context of career strategies in the field. Continue reading Plotting a personal path to PR career success

PR is about action not procrastination

PR time – balancing urgency and importance (after Stephen Covey)

One of those silly PR surveys yesterday made me think – it was about procrastination and the time we waste in putting things off. I am very familiar with the idea with students – and PR practitioners – who are deadline-oriented creatures and expert also at displacement behaviour where you focus on other tasks rather than knuckling down to the priority at hand.

I also advocate Stephen Covey‘s notion of ‘first things first’ and include an adaptation of his urgent-important matrix in the forthcoming Public Relations Strategic Toolkit.

Continue reading PR is about action not procrastination

Feminization of public relations

I’ve produced this infographic as part of my presentation at next week’s International History of Public Relations Conference. My paper aims to foreground the career experiences of women working in public relations in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s. As well as reviewing the existing historical literature (where the presence of women is largely missing) and conducting qualitative interviews, I wanted to put the story into some statistical context.

Although the veracity of any data is impossible to verify, it does provide heuristic knowledge of the increased feminization of the field of public relations over the past four decades. During the 1970s and 1980s, the data indicates the percentage of women in PR in the UK increased from around 10% to 40% – from one to four in every ten practitioners. This has risen further in the last twenty years to almost seven in ten practitioners. Continue reading Feminization of public relations