Personality

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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.

Being human – mental well-being lessons for Thomas Cook PR

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This post started out as a critique of the response by Thomas Cook to the tragic deaths of the Shepherd children in 2006. It supported Andy Barr writing at The Drum who argued a failure to be human, and the FT conclusion that the company mislaid its moral compass in putting legal advice over the paying public.

In reading further about the terrible experiences of the parents, there were many opportunities for Thomas Cook to engage in genuine public relations. Not once did the firm appear to ask what they could do to help or protect the family during this tragedy or in the time since.

But it is easy to point out the limitations in the public relations response, especially when you aren’t on the inside. Critical reflection can be made on the mismatch between the¬†promise on the¬†Thomas Cook website¬†that the company could be trusted and its behaviour when things went¬†wrong. In contrast, the family has shown great restraint and dignity, whilst¬†the company has shown a lack of empathy throughout.

But in thinking further about the case, I recalled a post I wrote last October (on World Mental Health Day) about public relations as dirty work that inherently involves stress and consequently may be expected to cause mental health problems.

It must have been stressful to work in the Thomas Cook PR function these past few weeks. Of course, the pressure is nothing like the anguish experienced by the parents of Christi and Bobbi. However, any human being should have found it hard to act in a way that¬†contributed further to the family’s¬†pain.

Yes, it is our job to protect our employers/clients, but this should be possible to do in a compassionate way. When necessary, we need to be able to advocate harsh truths to those with corporate power to ensure that sensitivity is the first priority. Not being able to take control of a situation or feel comfortable with the decisions of others, may impact on our mental well-being. To handle such feelings of cognitive dissonance, we rely on coping strategies.

In the case of Thomas Cook, perhaps the fact that the company was found not legally responsible dominated discussion rather than considering any moral, or even contractual obligation to its customers. Did collective decision making inure individual members of the in-house group PR,¬†agency and in-house UK PR teams? Do they claim to have been pressured by¬†the lawyers or corporate executives in determining¬†the response – reflecting the narrative found in industry criticisms of PR responses (including Barr); although these may have been co-operative or collaborative relationships. Or maybe those involved are content with the¬† apologies evident on the company’s¬†Facebook page¬†or can assuage cognitive dissonance by blaming the Daily Mail which has led the media onslaught.

If you are a junior member of the team, however, you may not be privy to what went on behind closed doors, yet it is likely you fielded calls from hostile journalists and read angry comments online. At the least, you were one of the 27,000 global employees likely to have faced comments or questions from family and friends about working for Thomas Cook at a time like this. One wonders whether those tasked with internal communications and media relations were trained and helped to deal with any personal or professional anxieties they may have experienced or just expected to issue prescribed statements.

Ironically, Register and Larkin’s Risk Issues and Crisis Management book from 2008 relates as an example of good practice, how Thomas Cook Holidays handled a fatal coach crash in South Africa in 1999 by focusing “first and foremost on the needs of the victims and survivors of the crash and their families”. This suggests the stress of crisis management can be ameliorated by a value-driven¬†response.

Perhaps the change in approach is cultural. It was only in March this year, that Thomas Cook¬†announced it was using the Exonaut Risk and Incident Manager tool to “manage all forms of risk” including reputational in accordance with the international ISP 31000 standard. Such systems should help in decision making, although they can also focus on impersonal calculations of organisational consequences at the expense of valuing how situations impact real people.

As PR practitioners we need to be able to put ourselves in the position of others, and have empathy for their situations if we believe we play a role in managing an organisation’s reputation. In advocating ethical, moral, value-driven responses as the “conscience of an organisation” and a “buffer” for others, as CIPR President, Sarah Pinch advocates, it is natural that we will face competing pressures.

Earlier this year, the CIPR State of the Profession 2015 report noted “dangerously high levels of workplace stress” among senior managers in PR. At the same time, PRCA and PRWeek revealed research showing a third of the PR industry has “suffered from, or been diagnosed with, mental ill health”.¬† Both studies seem to present stress and mental ill health as problems to be addressed, rather than normal human conditions.

It is positive to see stress and mental well-being being discussed as I called for last October. Further, we need to promote positive coping strategies and normalise rather than stigmatise PR practitioners who experience mental health conditions, or feel the strain of workplace pressures. Let’s discuss drug and alcohol abuse within the occupation as well as depression, OCD, anxiety, phobias, eating disorders, self-harming, compulsive sexual behaviour, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, Alzheimer’s and dementia. After all, PR practitioners are active in campaigning around these various conditions and many more as professional communicators. It is about time we publicly recognised our own experiences and take a lead as an inclusive occupation and community of practice.

I am addressing mental health issues and well-being in updating my chapter on risk, issues and crisis management in the 5th edition of the Public Relations Handbook.  When researching this blog post, I have searched dozens of crisis communications texts and whilst emotional intelligence is sometimes mentioned, consideration of the importance of our own mental-well being is lacking.

Within public relations, crisis management is commonly seen as the pinnacle of professional competence; positioned as a strategic role, carrying heroic connotations not often associated with the occupation. Interestingly, while the names of organisations deemed to have handled a crisis ineffectively face public opprobrium (and a legacy label of bad practice in PR textbooks), individuals involved in the situation may find such experiences are career boosting. Being able to share experiences as confessional lessons learned seem to be appealing to future employers, or for appearances as conference speakers. This suggests that the stress of a crisis situation is a development opportunity within a public relations career; something that makes you stronger.

As I wrote in my original chapter, such simplistic narrative tends to create “a mythology of crisis management and limits the depth of analysis and reflection regarding actual practice concerning managing risk, issues and crisis situations”.

Our modern risk society is one where PR practitioners are operating in a 24:7 dynamic global communications environment which brings with it increasing pressures for us both professionally and personally. If we are to operate effectively within such conditions, we need to be realistic about the impact on our own mental health and recognise the importance of what being human means in doing our job.

Dirty Work on World Mental Health Day

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10 October 2014 is designated as World Mental Health Day Рwith a focus this year on schizophrenia. A serious issue but one that is using a tactic that is arguably one of the most common in the PR Toolkit.

This approach of the awareness day, week, month or year is used for health, environmental and other important issues, as well as to promote fun topics, or as part of a marketing campaign. Do they work? It depends on what the objective may be, but they are undoubtedly an opportunity to focus attention and have a reason to talk with media, stakeholders and the wider public about a subject.

It is an ‘agenda setting’ technique – that can have a strategic purpose, but may also simply clutter up already congested communication channels. Having a goal of ‘awareness’ is only step one on the road to action. Sometimes, awareness is the wrong focus as people are already aware, but are not taking action. In those cases, generating more awareness is unlikely to be as effective as addressing the actual roadblock to change.

I notice that another PR hook on World Mental Health Day is ‘Tea & Talk’ apparently to ‘celebrate’ the day. The ‘key message’ is: Have a natter. Raise money. Change lives. Of course, we live in a world where every cause has to include a stunt and engaging activity – particularly one that provides an opportunity for a selfie photo or video to be uploaded to social media – and, by the way, donate to our cause.

But I worry that this promotional focus comes at the expense of the bigger aim of understanding and action for the core issue. Yes, it is the superficial attention-grabbing element that may lead to someone thinking about something that they were unaware of previously. Increasingly such elements are ephemeral and need more and more effort to stand out among all the other campaigns, causes and creative ideas.

If you wish to have Tea & Talk to raise funds for Mental Health causes, then do so. But please also consider some of the more serious aspects of this issue.

When we read about global issues such as ebola outbreaks, wars and natural disasters, remember these mean individuals and communities have to handle huge psychological impacts alongside physical traumas.

Closer to home, are we mindful of the mental health issues affecting friends, family and colleagues – and how we can help at times of stress? How do our organisations respond to such matters – from bereavement to suicide prevention, employment of those living with mental health conditions, identifying challenges such as depression or other stress-related problems?

And how about looking¬†within the occupation of public relations? Stress is seen as integral in the job – often treated in a fun way (“If you don’t want premature wrinkles or gray hair, run!“) or as a badge of honour – with event co-ordination and PR executive being #5 and #6 on CareerCast’s list of most stressful jobs, an article at Ragan.com advised: “Pour yourself a drink tonight – you deserve it…”

Really?

Are issues raised by stress in any occupation, including PR, not worthy of more serious consideration? What about alcoholism and drug abuse associated with PR’s ‘always busy and happy’ culture? What about panic attacks, anorexia, coping with sexual abuse, or early onset dementia? Do consultancies consider depression and other psychological impacts caused by termination of contracts when client business is taken elsewhere? Or the financial stress of young practitioners or placement students on low pay just to get a foot in the door? Do we even recruit those who have schizophrenia, depression or other mental health conditions on their CV?

When I wrote a post at PR Conversations, Presenting the shadows of public relations, in July, I included in one comment a reference to a paper by Liz Bridgen of DeMontfort University: Public Relations ‚Äď Dirty Work? The argument is that PR often undertakes the kind of activities that are considered unpleasant or socially unacceptable. As such, we could¬†expect that mental health problems for those dealing with society’s underbelly as PR practitioners.

The sociologist, Everett Hughes proposed the concept in his paper: Good People and Dirty Work, published in 1962, and building on a public lecture he’d presented in 1948. In society, certain people do the dirty work of others – we may argue this includes some aspects of public relations, but the concept is more¬†often applied to those employed in mental health services. Sadly, those who have psychological problems¬†may themselves have little option but to undertake low paid, low status, unpopular, “dirty¬†jobs” when they are rejected from other work. Isn’t that alone worth thinking about today?