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.

A disruptive week in PR

disruptionIt’s always good to disrupt your normal routine with an opportunity to learn new things, gain different insights and meet interesting people. Last week was a disruptive one for me to this extent.

The main event was the inaugural PR and Disruption conference at the London College of Communications, followed by the annual MIPAA “soirée” @Goodwood Festival of Speed and then the CIPR Fellows lunch at the Waldorf hotel (disrupting the normal choice of the House of Lords).

The disruption motif was evident at the conference in a number of different ways:

  • How PR can help organisations adapt to a disruptive world
  • Whether or not social media developments are disrupting PR practice
  • Disrupting the way in which we think about PR – particularly drawing on social theory
  • Using PR as a disruptive force

There seemed general acceptance that PR operating at a strategic level is essential in managing the various disruptions happening in the world. Likewise, debate around social media developments which sought to present these as disrupting the modus operandi seemed to indicate more that digital PR is a core aspect of practice and needs to be reflected as generalist social media competencies (including arguments for T-Shaped employees).

The third perspective on disruption was instigated by Øyvind Ihlen of the University of Oslo. For the practitioners attending the conference, his billing as an academic seemed to be disruptive as the stereotype that this is irrelevant to practice came over strongly. I’m a big fan of Øyvind’s book: Public Relations and Social Theory and particularly his chapter On Bourdieu, which I used when discussing PR knowledge management systems in The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit. So for me, practical linkage between academic and practitioner work is not disruptive.

The main argument that Øyvind put forward related to seeing PR  as social constructivism – that is, that human beings co-create meaning with communications as a reflective and discursive process, involving polyphony (embracing multiple opinions and voices). As such, this disrupts the normal management perspective of public relations.

It was in this respect that the most disruptive comment was made in response to a question about evaluation of such an approach to PR. Øyvind responded that he did not believe in measurement which set Twitter alight as this is now heresy as the practice has become evangelistic in propagating a measurement gospel.

Personally, I find much PR measurement tends to be reductive and illusionary as it reflects the ideas of rational management i.e. that we can command and control within a premise of a logical and linearly ordered world. As I’ve said many times, the world is messier and more complex than that.

Indeed, I would like to have heard more during the conference that related to using PR as a disruptive force – both within organisations (as per Holtzhausen’s work, PR as Activism) and in wider society (the Dissent PR concept we’ve been exploring at Bournemouth University).  There also ought to have been more diversity in the demographic of the speakers as it is questionable how disruptive the views of men are – although they may be the outsiders in a female dominated occupation.

On the face of it, there wasn’t much disruption evident at the MIPAA get-together at the end of the Moving Motors day of the Goodwood Festival of Speed. The event itself has proven a disruptive force over the past decade as it has developed as a modern alternative to the traditional motor show (and totally replaced this in the UK). From the PR perspective, it is perhaps ironically disruptive to hold a ‘pop up’ soirée as the traditional schmoozing or socialising aspect of PR is being squeezed out as practitioners are under increasing time pressures.

This is a link between all three events I attended this week as it seems disruptive to take time out to catch up with colleagues in the PR world unless it is instrumental to practice. I felt this very much at the CIPR Fellows lunch where although there was a good group of attendees, the retired contingent was less prevalent than in previous years (perhaps preferring the House of Lords venue) and most of us there seemed to be self-employed and so able to justify disrupting our days by attending.

The speaker at the lunch was Toby Young, who presents himself as a disruptive force, in terms of being opinionated and rather controversial.

His talk made an interesting connection to social theory as he presented a post-modern critique on public relations (or rather publicity and spin doctors) with a reference to Foucault (although I doubt he’d read the chapter by Judy Motion and Shirley Leitch in Øyvind’s book).

For Toby Young, Foucault was evidence of the disruptive influence of PR on society. From the publicists’ ability to create totally false discourse about their clients to the spin doctors’ control over political narrative, PR was to blame. Instead, we were urged to look for those with integrity and strongly held beliefs (he held up Margaret Thatcher and Michael Goves as shining examples of conviction politicians).

For me one of the challenges of trying to present or critique post-modernism is that its characteristics mean any discussion ends up being post-modernist. For example, what Toby Young presented was not an absolute truth, but his perspective and interpretation, particularly of who was credible and authentic and who was not. He criticised Twitchunts when mobilised against those who wrote things he agreed with, yet cited social media as a positive force against the false nature of PR-manufactured stories.

Again, what he succeeded in doing was stimulating attendees to take to Twitter to offer a polyphonic account of the talk. So, with wonderful irony, it is this negative discourse that enhances the persona that Young portrays – with or without PR support.

Whilst these three events disrupted my normal routine, each succeeded in introducing me to some new things, insights and people. Which has to be a positive outcome – although I’m not sure quite how to measure it.

Do the CIPR presidential candidates appeal to women?

genderBoth candidates standing in the CIPR President-Elect 2013 elections (who will become President in 2014) are white, 40+ years old and male. As men comprise a minority of PR practitioners, perhaps it is time to throw into the debate, a question about how appealing Stephen Waddington and Dr Jon White are to women?

It is a relevant consideration given that the UK PR Week-PRCA 2011 PR Census, revealed the occupation is dominated by the young and female.   Also, CIPR “aims to develop an inclusive culture, raise general awareness of diversity within the public relations industry and to increase the number of public relations practitioners from all backgrounds”.

What are some of the issues that face women working in PR that the candidates should address?

1. Salary disparity – women in PR are paid less than men at all levels according to the data from the PR Census study. Nearly 30 years ago, US researchers released the Velvet Ghetto study noting a million dollar income penalty over the course of a woman’s career in PR. It isn’t difficult to argue that things haven’t changed much.

2. Mid-career chasm – there also appears to be a black hole with women leaving PR in mid-career, possibly as a result of a lack of flexible options for combining family and work commitments.

3. Friendliness trap – academics have claimed that women working in PR are expected (particularly at the start of their careers, and specifically in agencies) to adopt overtly feminine behaviour, which serves as a trap to their subsequent credibility and career progression.

4. Female dominated education – the majority of PR undergraduates are women, with men often less than 10 per cent of a class. A gender imbalance is frequently notable among cohorts studying the CIPR’s professional qualifications. The willingness of women to seek qualifications (perhaps buying into the professional agenda of career development) does not seem to be generating them greater career rewards.

5. Marginalisation of women as communicators – women have traditionally occupied technician roles in PR, with claims made that they have softer skills best suited for a communications-dominated position and function. In the past, women were employed to target female-oriented media and organise parties. This continues today, but additionally, they dominate specialist areas such as internal communications and lay claim to relationship building.

Of course, these issues do not affect all women and most apply beyond public relations.  We can also argue that with self-efficacy and personal agency, women are as capable as men of building successful careers. The current CIPR President is female, as was the one before. There have been a total of eleven women Presidents compared to 52 men. The first was Margaret Nally in 1975, followed by Norah Owen in 1981 and then Carol Friend in 1986. In the 1990s, two of the ten Presidents were women; in the last decade they accounted for three out of ten. This decade, so far it is three out of four, with Jane Wilson holding the role of CEO since 2010 as well.

So let’s cut the male candidates some slack – but invite them to comment here whether they believe there are specific considerations relating to women, and other sectors of society, in building careers in public relations. And how their year in office could help address some of the issues that I’ve mentioned above.

Over to you guys… how do you appeal to women in PR?

Elections are poor public relations

An election may seem to be the essence of democracy – with public participation in a decision making process demonstrating engagement and a method of the majority selecting who they wish to represent them within a particular system.

As such, it ought to be good public relations – a time of relationship building, consideration of well-made arguments, co-orientation around issues of common consent and an opportunity for the views of the masses to be considered by those seeking office.

Continue reading Elections are poor 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

A taste of public relations

image On 1st September, we’re presenting an evening with Alison Theaker, Peter Brill and me in Bristol as a taster for the CIPR qualifications, and also to celebrate the launch of the 4th edition of The Public Relations Handbook.  If you’d like to join us for free seminars, expert insight and advice, see further details and booking at:

This event is partly to promote the qualifications and the new book, but also aims to show the importance and value of connecting theory to PR practice.

Continue reading A taste of public relations