Should sisters PR it for themselves?

The winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction has just been announced. The proud boast of this prize is that it is the “UK’s only annual book award for fiction written by a woman” and it is judged by a panel of women, so luminary that they need an apostrophe when their names are listed. The award was previously known as the Orange Prize for Fiction – but now is titled after an cream liquor drink created for an international market, popular with females and marketed to “celebrate the spirit of modern womanhood, blah, blah blah“, according to a press release on the website of the parent company, Diageo.

Like most modern “women’s awards”, this one is apparently about championing strong women, raising their profile and lots of other good stuff. Google tells us this – it produces the Inspiration Awards for Women (supporting Breakthrough Breast Cancer), Women of the Future Awards (in association with Shell), Women of the Year (since 1955 – with sponsors including Barclays) and around 237 million other results. This week also saw Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year Awards, which doesn’t seem to have any pretentions about being worthy in the UK, but carries the usual inspirational message in US form.

In contrast, if you search for “men’s awards”, the results are mainly sports or health/grooming/image related awards (my favourite title being the PFA Men’s Players’ Player of the Year). When I type in “inspirational men’s awards”, Google kindly suggests I really mean “inspirational women’s awards” as there are no results for my chosen term.

As the search engine is the source of all knowledge, I ask “why do we need women’s awards?” The Telegraph responds with an article arguing that “women’s business awards are still a necessary event“, whilst a piece in the Guardian (under the heading Women in Leadership) claims they offer a platform, “unrivalled access to role models and mentors” and are better than gender quotas.

There is an implicit view in the awards, their attraction to sponsors and the involvement of high profile, successful (well at least well known) women as judges and often winners, and their SEO/promotional value, that they deliver a public relations benefit to women more broadly and even to wider society. Really? Are these glitzy little trinkets and celebratory events seriously helping to address some of the fundamental issues affecting women in the world today?

For example, just this week, the Guardian reports on a new book called Leftover Women about gender inequality in China. And whilst global news channels are reporting on shocking instances of rape in India, CBC News highlights how men and women protesting against such violence were “blasted by water cannons“. A new UK government poster campaign seeks to increase reports of female genital mutilation in England and Wales.

Of course, there are more serious attempts to recognise women who are behind many of these issue-based campaigns, such as Baroness Doreen Lawrence, who headed the BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Power List in 2013 . However, as an article in Time magazine noted, women have rarely been viewed as having the level of power and influence to be recognised as Person of the Year (known as Man of the Year from 1927-1999).

One reason why I feel this is relevant for public relations is that with over two-thirds of the occupation’s practitioners being women, we have a stake in the game. Not only are we involved in originating, sponsoring and promoting various awards, but we are likely to be engaged in campaigning around issues that affect women. But not just women. Public relations is able to provide a voice for ‘others’, whoever and whatever that may involve.

And when we do represent the dominant voices in society, as a 2011 PR Conversations post by Ira Basen regarding PR pioneer and critic, Chet Burger, contended, we have a responsibility to speak truth to power.

Even if you feel the role of public relations is only advocacy (to steal, tongue-in-cheek, from the last PRC post), this may involve representing many sections of society, including those that are unpopular.

Arguably, women in public relations are no longer operating on planet Mars (although there are still gender inequalities in the field). And, times have changed since the days when females were employed primarily for their ability to connect with other women (as journalists and/or consumers) – although women still tend to dominate in such sectors. Of course, the homophily principle whereby people relate best to people like themselves may direct PR practitioners to favour building careers in areas where their personal identity and interests lie. And, technologies make it ever easier for people to filter around confirmation or rejection bias.

But our challenge is to cut through and ensure we aren’t just talking to those who are like us, or who like us – to make people feel uncomfortable, shake them out of their comfort zones and argue our corner. We have to be able to understand others, recognise where opinions differ and recommend appropriate actions (or suffer the consequences as with the various protest results in the recent European elections).

And if we’re in the business of disruption, this doesn’t mean arguing about how PR needs to better reflect a “millennial-centric culture” (thanks Judy for pointing out Anna Ruth Williams’ article), or championing ‘inspirational’ women. Or focusing on the changes being wrought by social media. Or debating whether or not PR is dead as Robert Phillips contends in seeking to repurpose its business model.

Disruption (apologies for the buzzword) is about engaging in this wonderfully messy and complex world, because without uncertainty, change and deviation from the norm, and the problems or opportunities this creates, there really is no need for public relations. Anything else is simply puff, fluff, and self-congratulatory promotional awards.

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5 Responses to “Should sisters PR it for themselves?”
  1. Toni muzi falconi says:

    Wonderfull, brilliant and counterintuitive as always.

    It is truly amazing for me to see how the two of you ( the other being Judy Gombita, of course) complement each other.

    Both of you are certainly ‘feminists’ , one hardcore and the other subtly ironic and often sarcastic. I should know, having been more than once castigated by both…. In all this, Markus Pirchner the mysterious yet present third party of PRC, watches on, skeptically smiles and makes sure that the machine works. Thank you

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Do you really think Heather is a “hardcore” feminist, Toni? ;-)

      We think more alike than not, but even when we disagree on small concepts, I think we respect the fact that the thoughts and opinions are based on personal experience and reflections.

      Heather and I actually had an email conversation yesterday, when she sent me a notification about the (now-named) “Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.” Although I’m a bit horrified at the “type” of sponsor this prize is now affiliated with, I was actually of the opinion it is a good thing. Why? Because over the years the Orange Prize introduced me to female writers–Canadian and from other places–of which I was previously unaware and whose work I read and enjoyed immensely.

      I pointed out to Heather that although on the surface it might seem too self-conscious to focus a prize on female-written literature, until juries, conference organizers (for speakers) and hiring managers are more “mindful” in their consideration, I don’t really see a women-specific, high-profile and significant cash purse a bad thing. After all, it was only in 2013 that the FIRST FEMALE (Canadian) author, Alice Munro, was awarded the long-standing Nobel Prize for literature…..

      • I’m far too ironic and sarcastic to be hardcore anything! Toni makes Markus seem like a Charlie’s Angels figure as the mysterious man of PRC LOL…

        Anyway, back to the women’s book award – it is interesting that this was known simply as the Orange Prize for Fiction between its launch in 1996 and 2013 when it became a marketing tool for Baileys and overtly labeled as a women’s prize. My argument is that although it may introduce an audience to some female writers, it does so as female writers rather than as writers. And by implication the primary audience for these female writers is likely to be women. I really don’t get how that addresses the issue of a lack of women for other awards, conferences and so on.

        I’d love to say that looking down the list of previous Orange Prize Winners via Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/award/show/90-orange-prize – that these women are household names, getting mainstream readerships and challenging any stereotypes that seem to support the need for a female only award. But I can’t.

        And even when Hilary Mantel won the non-gendered Booker Prize for the 2nd time, reports note that she was the first woman to achieve this, and then that she was the first British writer to do so. This suggests it is more of an achievement for a woman than for a British writer. Why don’t we just note that she was only the third person ever to be a double Booker Prize winner after Australian Peter Carey and African JM Coetzee?

        Of course novel writers may draw on their own experiences for their stories, which may relate in some cases to their gender but is that more common for women than men? Does it make only women suitable writers for women and vice versa. I really don’t think so.

        Indeed, for me the whole point of reading a great novel is how it takes you outside of your own experience and into someone else’s world. And when it’s called fiction – that’s what I’m expecting authors to be able to do themselves. Mantel does that with Thomas Cromwell and Tudor England – it may not be historically accurate but it is a world we can believe in and live a little vicariously.

        There has been a lively debate initiated by reports that the British education secretary Michael Goves has issued guidelines restricting what literature schoolchildren should read here. Regardless of the accuracy of the claims, the nub is about the breadth and scope of the chosen texts. Modern or historical? Popular or lesser known? British or American? Or indeed, why written originally in English language at all? Fiction or poetry? Written for adults, children or young adults? Interestingly no-one seems to have raised whether or not authors should be male or female…

        For me, I hate the default position being that women’s literature is the other to the norm ie literature written by men. Personally, I just want to read things that are interesting and tell great stories. I don’t need to be recommended to women writers specifically – but at the same time, I don’t want to see male writers dominating non-gendered short or long lists unless that is somehow deserved on literary grounds.

        • Judy Gombita says:

          I distinctly remember when the (Canadian) media reported that the prestigious 1997 Orange Prize was won for the first-time by a non-British author, Anne Michaels (for her Fugitive Pieces) that it was the first time I had heard of this Canadian writer. (Edit: Fugitive Pieces was her first novel of a total of two to date. She is more prolific as a published poet.)

          She is definitely not mainstream, as she writes on quite challenging topics. (I have since time also attended a reading by her.) I very much doubt I would have known about her if she didn’t win this “female” prize, Heather.

        • Markus Pirchner says:

          When it comes to Angels, I’m Bosley rather than Charlie ;-)

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