Sex sells – faking it in public relations

Women are successful in public relations – UK data shows a 64:36 female:male gender split  in an industry worth £7.5bn.  In particular, young women are attracted to the occupation – dominating specialist degree courses (by 4:1 in my experience) and reflecting the largest demographic group in practice.

The secret of their success is often stated as strong communication and relationship building skills – however Romy Frölich identifies this as a “friendliness trap” which stereotypes women and impacts on their career progression.

Women are aware of this danger – Frölich’s research in Germany found female practitioners distancing themselves from the “PR bunny” or “PR slut” image.  However, graduate student Amanda Wadlow argues women in PR continue to adopt a personality to match the image.

Liz Yeomans has been looking at gender identity in PR by exploring the experience of those working in agencies when managing professional relationships.  She found PR could be considered as involving “emotional labour” whereby feminine traits are exploited in managing relationships with colleagues, clients and the media.  In particular, a culture that focuses on “making the client happy” whilst also maintaining friendly relationships with journalists necessitates practitioners should enact particular emotions, or “prescriptive performances”.

This need to fake emotions involves a schizophrenic approach, whereby the friendly persona needs to be matched to an image of being a “trusted professional consultant”.  So whilst using their sex to satisfy the needs of clients and journalists, PR practitioners seek not to be seen as “fluffy” themselves.

Likewise, in considering the issue of online relationship building, Bridgen sees the blurring of the professional and personal requiring adoption of different personas that flexibly combine the corporate image and “brand me”.  She acknowledges PR practitioners are using emotions in complex ways which can be emotionally satisfying, but also seen as exploitative when not valued by management.  The issue of the “commoditisation of the self” within PR work is raised although the gender impact of work impacting on personal life is not explored in the context of existing challenges for women’s career development.

Seniority and authority are seen to be impacted by reflecting feminine characteristics in Yeomans’ work, resulting in practitioner frustration and anger.  Nevertheless, a liberal feminist perspective would appear to be adopted in believing individual performance will be the important factor in their own career success.

However, maybe a more radical approach is required to change the status quo – as Wrigley wrote in 2002:

Radical feminist perspectives question whether things will ever change until women acknowledge that the structure needs to be dismantled; otherwise, women are fooling themselves into believing things will get better for them in the workplace.

The status quo includes gender salary differentials in PR (first identified by Dozier and Broom in 1979) which continue to be evident in contemporary data.  Many of the same issues remain regarding feminization of PR with debate about a glass ceiling or velvet ghetto joined by observations that women are making a “disappearing act” en route to higher levels of management.

The contrary nature of PR is evident from the initial entry point into PR.  Bowen argues young women are attracted to the occupation by its glamorous image, whilst Andsager et al found preference for female-oriented industries among female PR students, despite believing these were less likely to pay well.  Gender was felt to play a key role in career decisions, despite the professional agenda of most PR degree courses.

What we seem to have created is an occupation which attracts young women who feel their social skills offer them an exciting career – but who then opt out from seeking management roles.

Perhaps they find their “friendliness” is not conducive to promotion, or they experience difficulties in balancing PR’s culture of long-working hours with family life (which could be worsened if use of social media out of hours becomes an expectation of the job), or maybe they have chosen a career path in a female-oriented industry where they face intensive competition for few management positions.

On the other hand, career theory suggests a changing world of work which is less dependent on traditional ladders and technician-management hierarchies for status, reward or success.  Ideas such as boundaryless, protean and entrepreneurial careers would seem well suited to both public relations and the more flexible requirements of women in their working lives.   Likewise, third-wave feminism seems not to have reached within public relations academia or practice, where the contradictions, conflict and irrationality of the occupation could be examined, challenged and embraced.

If a radical approach is to be undertaken that challenges the existing structure of public relations, what is required?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. We need to challenge the reputation of PR as a feminine occupation that suits particular perspectives of female characteristics (relationship building and friendliness);
  2. There needs to be less acceptance of the use of sexuality in PR – specifically in relation to “keeping clients happy” and flirting with journalists when seeking media coverage;
  3. The hierarchical model of work in PR as technician vs managerial needs to be dismantled to create new models of work and success (that better accommodate the needs of all practitioners in balancing home and work lives);
  4. I’d like to see career advice for young practitioners be more gender-neutral and include understanding of new opportunities for managing entrepreneurial and protean careers.
  5. Both academia and practice should reflect on how relationship management goes beyond the personality model to consider psychology, power, ethics, etc and include such understanding in models of practice.
  6. Finally, we need to recognise that “friend” is a nuanced concept (see Judy Gombita’s recent guest post) where there are layers of relationships that build over time, on a foundation of trust.  Like sex, we need to value relationships in PR as neither faked nor sold cheap.
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18 Replies to “Sex sells – faking it in public relations

  1. Krista – thanks for your comment. You seem to have had similar experience at least in the agency world as Liz Yeomans’ study. You also echo Judy’s thoughts in terms of perhaps women being their worst enemy in the ‘sex sells’ arena. However, it is encouraging to see that in another context, there is not the same issue.

    You also raise another issue, which I have again come across in practice and academic studies regarding the fact that despite appearing to be a flexible career, PR seems to demand the same choices of family or management career that is common elsewhere. But I don’t think this is just a female issue having heard many male colleagues also reflect on the compromises required within a senior PR role, particularly if you wish to work at the highest levels in multinational organisations.

  2. Hi Heather–this post gives me a lot to think about and much to reflect upon, given my brief career in PR (both agency and in-house). Let my try to articulate my thoughts here…

    For instance, I can identify with the characterization of the “PR bunny” or the “cheerleader/sorority girl” atmosphere. I felt that behavior was encouraged and even rewarded among the female account execs in my agency experience. As I often didn’t subscribe to the sorority girl behavior, and tried to be treated as more of an adult (I was in my mid-late 20’s at that time) from both my peers within the agency and from our clients, I was seen as coming off as brutish and not a “team player.” I think that also played against me when I tried to be a part of the internal communications team, because the CEO of the agency had never had a serious conversation with me outside of “Bagel Friday.”

    I think as I’ve transitioned to another communications industry (higher education), things seem to have opened up, as there are many women in leadership and management positions in my instituion (including the university presidency).

    But I can see how PR is seen as attractive to young women for its “glamour.” At the same time, I felt pressured as a young woman to have to make choices in order to get ahead into management positions. I would have to choose between having a normal work-life balance and being stuck in the same position or go all-out for the client at all costs and get promoted ahead. And god forbid I have a child– I pretty much decided the agency life was not going to work if I had a family. Which, if you think about it, makes that whole world of work unattainable to women who wish to have a reasonable work-life balance. Family and work are always a positioned as a decision for women, which is what really irks me about any profession, not just PR.

  3. Old soldiers having a reunion are known as boys…. the same goes for female veterans: girls. In fact, as soldiers age, the term old-boy comes to be more and more a mark of respect, and the same goes for old- girl. Indeed, soldiers are always our boys and and our girls whatever age they are!

    Of course, I recognize that calling somebody girl or boy in a professional context can be intended as an insult. But still, I suggest that the use of the words boys and girls to talk respectfully about adults of both sexes is mostly not offensive to either sex.

  4. Heather, even if I was unfamiliar with the majority of sources and research you cited and linked to, the basic concepts of women in PR not advancing overly much in a leadership role does not surprise me. And, to a large extent, I think many females only have themselves to blame.

    For example: embracing, using and promoting the use of “girl” to indicate their gender. The whole concept of “girl power” is rather disturbing to me. You used “women” and “females” interchangeably (and correctly), but if you asked the average female (particularly those from younger generations), likely they would proudly call their colleagues and themselves “girls.”

    I’m a firm believer that “language shapes consciousness,” at least in part. That is why any time I’m called or lumped into a group as a “girl” I’ve taken to asserting, quickly and firmly, that I am an “adult female not a girl.” (If that makes me appears grumpy, so be it.)

    Girls do not become CEOs or chair(men) or even C-suite vice presidents. (Neither do boys, except on the golf course.) For that matter, one reason I argue for gender-free language (whenever a reasonable alternative exists) is that titles should not imply a gender-limitation, either. Why is “chair” still not universally used and accepted as a reasonable alternative? (I will yawn at the first person who responds that a chair is a piece of furniture; language evolves people.)

    Likewise, when it comes to conferences and events, particularly those related to public relations, communication and social media, adult females—who generally comprise 50 per cent or more of the attendees—need to be proactive about voicing their requirement to see and hear at least an equal number of female subject experts on topics before handing over significant coinage. And organizers have to try harder to fulfill these requests.

    I’m tired of the excuse that the right and best people to speak should not be determined by gender quotas. Because it is an excuse. If you do what you’ve always done, things will never change. Well, except that I won’t be attending or promoting your events. But I may very well be pointing out, quite vocally and often, the gender imbalance re: speakers versus anticipated attendees.

    I had a recent discussion on Twitter with a quite pleasant and reasonable man who was raving in a positive fashion to me about the “great girl he had as a social media community manager.” It turns out the colleague was a wife and mother, so I pointed out it was obvious she was actually an adult female, not an under-aged worker. He responded that he was still occasionally referred to as a “young man” (because of his boyish looks). I indicated he was still considered a “man,” not a boy.

    He promised to consider our discussion when referring to his star community manager in future….

    Great post! Plus an interesting experiment, seeing how well “sex sells” in regards to gender-neutral SEO.

    1. Judy – Interesting to see that you raise both liberal and radical feminist issues here with both the individual and the system requiring changes. I agree with you in that respect as we need to both present ourselves in the right way and challenge things in the wider context. I was told at the start of my career that if you behave as a junior, that’s how you’ll be treated and same is true for PR bunnies. I remember having a big issue over a member of staff (manager) in a consultancy where I worked who wore tight blouses and short skirts. It was felt that I was picking on her until the client (male and not at all PC) advised our MD that this woman needed to dress more professionally.

      I wonder with the issue of too few women presenters (and I’ve noticed the same in PR Week special reports etc) whether it is a matter of self-promotion. I’ve always thought that women are generally not as forthcoming as men in putting themselves forward. I recall hearing that men tend to apply for jobs that are above their current competencies and women apply at their current level.

      Great call out of someone using the word “girl” for a qualified female manager. I used to get called the “PR lady” in one company. Although they would have referred to someone as the PR man, I argued that the terminology aligned me with dinner ladies, lollypop ladies (they help children cross the road) and so on and did not present me as a manager. It took time but they did get the message!

    1. Not sure that it is book reviews you’ve been reading Richard!! Sexual capital is interesting to consider in relation to PR – but it doesn’t seem to be translated into economic or other power capital by the young women entering the occupation.

    2. Like all capital “sexual capital” yields returns only when prudently invested. A flagrant spread to all and sundry in the C-suite leads to diminishing returns and eventually devalues the asset.

      1. Hakim’s argument for “erotic capital” seems to be that using your sexuality is a career advantage whilst at the same time claiming most women aren’t looking for “self-realisation in a great career” – see:

        I agree with you Don, that less is more – and I’m not convinced that the PR bunny approach does offer career advantage, although it might net a man I suppose. Ain’t that the Sex in the City Samantha PR stereotype?

      2. Don – thanks for the link via LinkedIn to the review of Hakim’s book at Forbes:

        As I replied to you there, love the term biological exchange rate in the review and in the comments where she writes that she believes there is ‘an element of seduction in all persuasive speech’. Not sure I agree, but interesting to ponder in respect to PR as persuasion.

  5. Heather,
    If your #1 prescription is to be accomplished, then the question of PR’s gender balance in both academe and practice must be addressed. In the U.S., PR is the most gender/age imbalanced professional occupation going. Some 7 in 10 of PRSA’s membership is female. I suspect the same ratio prevails among PR faculty under age 55.

    As for “relationship building and friendliness,” there is a continuing struggle to overcome the perception that the primary task of the PR person is to get along with everyone–from the media to stakeholders to middle-management round pegs who call the shots. Unless and until PR people see themselves as advocates and objective advisors willing to mix it up and express a strong point of view, they will remain on the margins. Perhaps that is where they are most comfortable, but they shouldn’t expect to wield much influence.

    1. Bill – absolutely agree on both points. Bit of a chicken and egg on point #1 but I hate the perception, largely reinforced by women, that what they bring to PR are these soft skills. As with your 2nd point that’s so limiting as women are perfectly capable of both the hard skills and demonstrating the strategic value of the less tangible elements. To focus only on relationships and communication as feminine competencies is so Jane Austen like we aren’t capable of engaging in more robust areas. Excuse me while I have a swoon!

  6. [Harry and Sally discussing orgasms]
    Sally Albright: Most women at one time or another have faked it.
    Harry Burns: Well, they haven’t faked it with me.
    Sally Albright: How do you know?
    Harry Burns: Because I know.
    Sally Albright: Oh. Right. That’s right. I forgot. You’re a man.
    Harry Burns: What was that supposed to mean?
    Sally Albright: Nothing. Its just that all men are sure it never happened to them and all women at one time or other have done it so you do the math.

    1. Paul,

      I resisted the temptation to relate to Harry met Sally or Friends with Benefits, which both came to mind in writing the post. But I will now quote from Working Girl – ie “Today’s junior prick is tomorrow’s partner” and of course the 3rd wave classic “I’ve a head for business and a bod for sin. What’s wrong with that?” which seems to sum up the new expectation for women in PR.

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