A focus on skills and evolving trends, as well as the PR profession’s strategic value, remain key to a more effective female presence
A few years ago, I wrote a post for PR Conversations, where I detailed issues faced by Italian women working in PR. With great pleasure, I accepted the invitation from Judy Gombita to provide an updated perspective.
This time, for a more thorough understanding of how the situation might have changed or evolved, I decided to conduct a series of opinion interviews with several Italian female PR practitioners (recognized by name at the end). The result is a lengthy and rich collective point of view, rather than simply my own.
I chose to interview members of Ferpi, because I consider belonging to the largest Italian association of PR professionals a signal of a deeper awareness of the impact of our craft and vocation, in addition to the educational opportunities and current affairs information it offers.
All of the women interviewed are PR practitioners, some at the executive level. All work in high-profile companies or sectors.
Précis about having a second post on Italian women in PR
Are the female challenges for the Italian PR profession detailed three years ago now outdated? One would hope so; however, an article published in August 2014 in the American magazine, The Atlantic, pondered the outsized numbers (and how they related to career trajectory) of women in PR, demonstrating that the debate remains current.
Most of the respondents to my interview questions agreed with that article’s themes. Even those Italian females who stressed that there remains a need to rate a person’s competence and results over the gender imbalance in senior roles, admitted PR women—as well as working women in general—continue to have distinct battles to fight.
Interview subjects believe an ongoing exploration of the subject remains useful to them, especially in regards to:
- key (formal and informal) roles held by Italian women in PR
- today’s biggest challenges
- steps that need to be taken going forward, both as an organized profession or industry and as individuals; and
- stereotypes that persist about women in public relations
Important arguments that emerged from the “collective” interviews was the belief that while more significant and powerful roles for women will in turn provide more value to the PR profession (and the organizations they serve), a better male-female balance and working relationships (in all aspects) between practitioners remains essential.
Working in PR is fulfilling to women, highlighting their skills and value add
For the Italian women I surveyed, a career in public relations was their first choice of occupation. They did not fall into the role as a second-best career option or one that had an easily trod path. Moreover, it certainly was not because they failed to succeed in another sector.
Nor was it the traditional path for those who undertook liberal arts studies; such degrees did not automatically translate to an (easily found) first position in public relations.
On the contrary, subjects stressed the increasing difficulties in setting out on a PR career path in Italy, with accelerated requirements for both traditional and newer skills, plus a business understanding for the different branches of communication. More and more, employers are quite selective and demanding about requirements from the younger generations of aspiring practitioners.
As indicated, these Italian women selected PR as their first career choice. Reasons cited were:
- It is a fulfilling way to make a living.
- PR positions allow these females to express capabilities that come naturally to them.
- (By extension) these inherent talents allow females in PR to bring value to the profession and their organizations.
When asked what they considered “natural” female talents, they cited the following:
- capabilities for listening and mediating
- patience; and
- organizational skills (including multitasking)
There was unanimity in disabusing the widespread stereotype that PR is an easy role that anybody with an extroverted outlook and temperament can handle.
An assertion that digital communications adoption comes easier to women than men
The women interviewed believe that as our profession is constantly evolving, in turn, we must make a commitment to lifelong learning. This is particularly true now that digital channels and thinking are revolutionizing (or at least enhancing and increasing options) in the way communication is carried out.
A necessity to acquire proficiency in technical tools—ones previously unused (perhaps unknown) to public relations practitioners—has caused PR women (and men) to cooperate and work with IT and analytics staff; for example, to work together to develop internal communications systems.
Other strategic areas that relate include interpreting numbers and translating them into meaningful data about reputation, organizational issues, crisis management and so on.
Possessing at least some basic technical skills has become essential as we work towards maintaining informed, relevant and positive relationships with various stakeholders, both internally and externally.
One of my Italian practitioners emphasized the readiness women show towards this perspective, compared to the slower adoption attitudes demonstrated by her male colleagues. She asserted that men appeared more attached to their traditional function as media relations representatives. Several noted that this media relations-possessive attitude preceded the digital advent, and remains in spite of another stereotype of IT being the preserve of men—some might even consider technology a “natural” male talent.
Fewer men employed in PR, yet many still occupy the majority of corner offices
When trying to understand why the number of women far exceeds men in the industry, one reason posited was that the true public relation professional is always behind the scenes, which was believed to be a role the majority of men do not aspire to hold.
Another interesting observation was the belief that some men feel less at ease with positions that lack strategic depth, particularly the power to make decisions. (By contrast, women are more likely to accept a role with understood limitations—such as an expectation to broadcast messages—and work to try and change things within the position and the public-facing engagement and narrative.) In general, too often Italian companies deny PR practitioners strategic management roles; for both women and men, this can be restrictive in an operative sense.
Despite the relativity scarcity of men holding Italian PR positions in general, this does not make it easier for females to climb to the highest positions on the corporate ladder. Many women are trusted with responsibilities in media relations. However, most often the person leading the corporate communications department is male. Perhaps (per the above observations) it is because this senior role can add strategic value to companies. However, far from being specific to PR, the shortage of women in the most-senior roles and responsibilities is a challenge we share with other Italian professionals.
Stepping back: More male PR practitioners bring more value to the profession
The women interviewed were convinced that a larger number of men in the industry would prevent it from being labelled with the not-very-flattering phrase of a “women’s profession” (or a “pink ghetto”). Within common PR parlance, this frequently implies female practitioners spend much of their time participating in high-profile events (such as product-launch dinners and cocktail parties), including being typecast as bubbly and even flirtatious.
As those stereotypes appears to apply less to males, a better balance between men and women would bring value to public relations on the whole, including helping to assert PR strategic importance regardless of who is in the lead roles.
Interview subjects indicated that working in mixed teams, with equally balanced numbers of men and women, results in greater productivity and superior outcomes. In such teams, women reported that they are highly trusted by men, who consider them “frank, direct and reliable.”
Cultural gap, lack of structures and lower salaries
In Italy, a cultural gap continues to exist in our underdeveloped social infrastructures; more-robust ones could help relieve families in regards to care of children and elderly parents. Naturally, this situation impacts female professionals more than male, as hands-on caring still rests mainly on women’s shoulders.
The collective belief is that lower salaries and lack of opportunities for professional growth in Italian public relations relate less to higher numbers of women in PR (a claim cited in other female-dominated professions). Rather, it speaks to the better compensation of PR practitioners in other western countries, primarily because organizations with headquarters elsewhere seem to appreciate better the importance of excellent communications and maintaining good relations with public stakeholders.
Italian companies still have a long way to go.
Advantages to being in a female-dominated profession
Conventional wisdom indicates there is “strength in numbers.” Perhaps female PR professionals could exploit a majority status to create a critical mass and reach goals more easily.
Unfortunately, as a group, women still have to learn how to do this. Associations like Ferpi or related industry groups could provide crucial help to women in achieving this goal. If only women would speak up in these contexts (and organizations) and make their voices heard about what they want and what needs to change.
It is important for women to obtain similar acknowledgements traditionally given to men, while retaining gender-specific differences that are strengths, not limitations.
Perhaps, for maximum benefit, we should focus on the following:
- For competency-based, trained females to understand and appreciate their innate business and communication knowledge and skill set.
- To learn how to assert and brand ourselves as intelligent, skilled and attentive Italian PR practitioners
- Finally, for women to position ourselves in the market by emphasizing (not hiding) unique, value-add qualities agreed on.
Battles still to fight
We agreed many battles remain before Italian women PR can make their professional life more equitable. For one, changes in the work organization, especially in employment timeframes and hours worked are needed urgently to allow women a better quality of life. Few women are lucky enough to enjoy jobs that allow flexibility in hours and staffing.
This is a global challenge, not just an Italian one, involving women and men in various fields of work (not specific to communications). However, PR people can play a leading role in the process and give voice to the cause.
Ours is dynamic and proactive profession, and we benefit from our ubiquity in:
- contributing to the general workplace and local and national discussions
- networking in order to amplify opportunities
- joining associations that lobby for better economic (female-friendly) models; and
- emphasizing the importance of teaching children about gender equality (in schools and in our own homes)
The above relate to the larger organizations. As I detailed three years ago, the lack of a culture of (internal and external) communication in smaller companies is a further obstacle to overcome.
Public relations remains important
Giving authority and carriage to public relations are goals women and men must embrace. The positive outcomes are numerous, such as: marketing it as a profession that attracts more young people; and companies gaining a better understanding about the importance of PR as a management function—and, in return, creating new employment positions to help realize business and communication objectives.
Likely, this is our paramount issue: The importance of public relations in business and society, rather than the fact that the majority of PR professionals are women.
A major challenge we should each embrace is constantly keeping our skill set updated, as well as general trends in the industry. The perception of our field is one where change happens faster than others do—this is a debatable concept.
This challenge involves both women and men. As Ferpi President Patrizia Rutigliano indicated, “There is only one way to fill the gap: never stop increasing one’s competencies and skills to keep one’s work updated.”
A final turf risk for women in PR: recycled male journalists in reinvented roles
With new media growing and traditional media shrinking, let alone economic crises resulting in job losses, the new scenario for journalism and public relations is changing lightening fast and the borders between our traditional roles have become less defined.
In Italy, we note a growing trend regarding male journalists who lost their newspaper jobs; many are recycling (or reinventing) themselves into new positions in public relations.
The risk for Italian PR women relates to the longer history, where it is easier for men to climb the corporate ladder, no matter what was their previous employment and role.
To win (or at least not lose ground) in this newer challenge, women must solidify and relate to management and potential employers their historical and evolving competencies and skills.
There is a lot at stake and not just for women. Public relations should not be viewed (or welcomed) as a refuge for unemployed journalists, but rather as a profession requiring a defined set of skills that go well beyond the ability to write well (although certainly this attribute is necessary).
Helping to prevent women’s employment and competencies base wasting away—thanks to this semi-automatic practice of fraternal cross-sector employment—is a task that should be embraced and undertaken by related associations (such as Ferpi). In turn, such advocacy would automatically promote the value of the profession as a distinct function with a required competency base and skill set for both genders.
Women reaching the summit of senior-level roles should also help other Italian females to aspire to reach similar positions, provided the younger generations possess the necessary experience and evolving skills.
All of the interview subjects agreed that solidarity about a framework and plan of action for women needs improvement, with those in the highest-level jobs committing to help other female Italian practitioners to grow professionally.
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Although all of the interview subjects are Italian women working in public relations, it would be of great interest to all of us to know whether women—and men—in other countries share or disagree with our collective opinions. Please weigh in via the comments section.
Many thanks to Patrizia Rutigliano, Daniela Bellardinelli, Silvia Cerioli, Francesca Concina, Renata Fischetto, Eliana Lanza, Federica Moscheni, Luisa Piazza, Manuela Priolo, Alessandra Veronese, and Roberta Zarpellon. Each of these women generously agreed to my request for an interview; collectively their infinite wisdom and grace played an integral part in the research and final iteration of this post.
Enrica Orecchia is a seasoned Italian public relations practitioner with knowledge and expererice in several areas and sectors. She is currently working as an in-house practitioner in a small-medium enterprise, where she manages all aspects of communication. Since 2012 ,she is a member of Ferpi, the Italian Federation grouping PR professionals.
A former tour leader, translator, teacher and journalist she chose public relations as the profession that best satisfied her thirst for relating and communicating in a variety of ways, as well as a curiosity for everything happening in the world around her.
From 2006 until recently she managed her Italian-language blog, L’officina della comunicazione, writing about communications and PR, with a particular focus on small enterprise issues. She is also the Italian translator for US blogger Steve Pavlina.
Image credit: www.pursebop.com/hermes-kelly-sellier-v-retourne-debate/