International Women's Day: Succeeding as a woman in PR

International Women’s Day: Succeeding as a woman in PR

To celebrate International Women’s Day, Cision spoke to eight industry-leading women, asking them why they went into PR, if they’ve encountered adversity due to their gender, whether the PR landscape is changing for women and what advice they have for women entering the industry.

Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall, PR and marketing agency owner, founder of #FuturePRoof and president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations for 2018.

Public relations is a great business to work in. I was lucky enough to read French and Media at what is now Leeds Trinity who were early adopters of internships.

As soon as I stepped into agency life I loved it. As an account executive I enjoyed the diversity and challenge of finding creative solutions to client briefs.

Today I’m motivated by working with complex organisations to offer strategic insight and tactical implementation that achieves their objectives and I established my own business for a number of reasons.

Unfortunately, I have had to endure some adversity because I am a woman. Firstly, my salary wasn’t on a par with my male colleagues, despite the same roles and similar qualifications.

Secondly, I felt the opportunity for advancement wasn’t going to happen because a member of the senior management team called me a “ticking time bomb” because I might get pregnant.

Since then, people and time have moved on and I’m confident that attitudes today very different. And who knows, perhaps if I’d been more open about my ambitions to work and have a family, I could have influenced how things were.

I have a heap of examples of adversity as a woman though – you can read them here.

Is the PR landscape changing for women? It certainly feels like a great time to be a woman in public relations. Change is definitely in the air. It’s long overdue but we’ve seen a raft of high profile female appointments to senior roles and there are all kinds of support networks now in place designed to support female talent, such as the Women in PR and PR Week mentoring scheme.

Culturally, we are seeing a huge shift within the world of business where there is finally a recognition that certain behaviours are no longer acceptable. But while the government now requires organisations with more than 250 employees to publish their salary data, this still doesn’t go far enough to close the pay gap.

Businesses should all have to carry out gender and diversity audits and, as per this #FuturePRoof blog, there are steps we can all take to pay the workplace a fairer place to be.

Here are my tips for women entering the industry, based on things that have worked for me and my personal values:

  • Find your own path and choose your own measures of success. For example, I used to be motivated by salary and status, now it’s all about having a fulfilling job that allows me to do great work with great clients and spend family time with my partner and boys.
  • Find solidarity among other like-minded women and hold the line when others need your support. Speak up.
  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. It’s the best way of learning.
  • We’ve all had help at some point in our lives and careers. Pay it back – it feels really good.

Jo-ann Robertson

Jo-ann Robertson, CEO of Ketchum London

I’ve always enjoyed communicating and influencing others. At university I was involved in student politics and spent a year as student president. During this time I devised and executed campaigns locally and nationally.

When I was graduating I knew I wanted to use the same skills, some friends of mine recommended PR and public affairs. I absolutely loved it from day one and never looked back.

I’ve not really encountered adversity because of my gender. There have been times when I have been described as ‘too aggressive’, ‘too ambitious’, ‘too loud’…… things that I don’t believe many men are ever accused of.

But it has been small moments that in all honesty have helped me to grow and develop as both a person and a consultant, so I haven’t let it hold me back, in fact I have tried to use it to my advantage.

We are seeing an increasing number of women in leadership positions across our industry. I am particularly proud that Barri Rafferty was the first global CEO of a top five global agency.

Over 60% of my new London Executive Committee is female and I think seeing a variety of female role-models with different styles and different working patterns allows young women entering the industry to see that leadership is an option and you can do it your own way.

Be confident. Be courageous. Be a force for good for other women.

Laura Sutherland

Laura Sutherland, director of Aura PR and founder of PRFest and the Scottish PR Collective

I actually had no clue what public relations was when I first started out in it over 17 years ago. I fell into it I suppose. When I did get my head around what it was, I really enjoyed the creative side of campaign development and the luxury brands I worked with back then were amazing clients.

In a way, yes, I have encountered adversity because I’m a woman. Sadly, both counts were senior female PR professionals. I think there is less now, but a number of years ago, I felt like it was for their own egos, not letting me grow and develop. I actually used those experiences to shape my own leadership skills – how NOT to act with aspiring practitioners.

I do think 2018 is a big year for women, not just for those in PR, but actually for #womenpower. Across the world women are coming together to help each other and I think it’s brilliant.

Don’t wait for things to happen, make things happen! Up-skill, join a membership organisation such as CIPR or PRCA, get professional and #GetChartered! You need to differentiate yourself from others. If you want the best jobs you need to work for it.

I’d also recommend getting a mentor. If you know of someone who has inspired you, pluck up the courage to ask them. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

If you work independently as a consultant, make sure you schedule time for online and face-to-face networking. You don’t need to feel alone and the solo PR networks are so supportive. It doesn’t matter if you’re returning to work, or if you work on your own and get lonely, there are thousands of people who will have advice for you or have been there before.

Finally, don’t give up on your dreams. PR can be a hard industry to work in and it can be daunting just now, with so many new skills to learn and new tech to know about. If you want it, you’ll get there!

Kirsty Leighton

Kirsty Leighton, founder of Milk and Honey PR

When I was at uni I had a couple of friends already working in PR and they seemed to truly love their jobs. Every day was different, working with different clients; involved in exciting new projects and campaigns and out meeting people (I think they may have also mentioned free lunches more than once).

It sounded brilliant, so I started to look into PR more and more. It took some pushing and shoving to get interviews but I got my break and have loved the last 24 years in the industry.

I chose to work in technology PR in my early days, in hindsight it was rather misogynistic. Trade shows were littered with scantily dressed women and we did actually sack a client for inappropriate behaviour towards a younger, female team member.

Years ago there were very few organisations that would consider ongoing part-time or varied hour contracts. Which meant you had to be around AD level or above to afford to go back to work full time, even if you wanted to. More family friendly leaders has meant this is now almost a thing of the past and I’m delighted to see that it is so much easier for women to come back into the workplace after family leave.

There is still a palpable confidence difference between men and women in this industry. There are a lot of highly capable, ambitious women but I sense they still feel the need to prove themselves. Be confident ladies. Go after what you want, find the champions around you and keep achieving.

Barbara Bates

Barbara Bates, group CEO of Hotwire

I was a television reporter right out of college but I decided I wanted to settle down in the Silicon Valley where I grew up. I looked for jobs where I could leverage my writing skills and I’ve been in marketing and PR ever since.

I’m sure I have experienced adversity because of my gender, but I’ve never really focused on it. I know for sure I’ve been put in situations where I was discriminated against, but I’m too stubborn to let it affect me.

One example was when I worked in the marketing department for a large medical equipment company. I had to meet with the company’s top execs on a regular basis and when someone would eventually ask for a cup of coffee to no one specific, everyone would look at me as I was the only woman. I never got up.

A couple of things have changed and are continuing to change. More women entrepreneurs mean more women are starting their own businesses, their own agencies and, for the first time ever, a woman is at the helm of one of the world’s three largest firms. More boss ladies!

My advice to is to be brave! You are smart enough, good enough, pretty enough, kind enough, brave enough…

Lizzie Earl

Lizzie Earl, founder of Munch PR

I was on a work placement at a boutique agency in Soho and in my first week I landed coverage for a client in Company magazine. Getting to infiltrate the media, something that seemed so sewn up and authoritative, was such a buzz. From that moment, I was hooked.

PR requires such a multifaceted skillset, which I love – intellect, curiosity, attention to detail, creativity, great copywriting and the ability to multi-task and quickly get up to speed.

I’m delighted to say that I haven’t encountered adversity because of my gender – not that I’m aware of, anyway. Thankfully I had two very strong female role models in my life growing up, my mother and grandmother, and so from a young age I’ve always held the belief that I could do anything, being a girl didn’t come into it. I still believe this, it helps make things happen in PR!

Before high school I played in a boys’ football team, so I’ve never perceived any rigid boundaries that I couldn’t cross. We need to empower more young women to believe in themselves and have confidence to go after, and occupy, the space that they feel is right for them. I’m currently exploring a schools’ outreach programme to give more young women the confidence to try careers in the creative industries.

The landscape for women seems to be shifting across many industries, PR included. The awareness around women’s rights in general couldn’t be higher at the moment, which can only be a good thing.

I’ve definitely worked at agencies where there’s been a real sense of support for working mothers, and I do agree that this should be an area of focus. Returnships are a great idea, for example, and the fact that remote working is more common and accepted now must be a help for mothers working on a freelance basis.

I would advise other women in the industry to just be the best you can be: The best colleague, boss, consultant, freelancer, PR, friend and person (this applies to everyone of course). Also, find mentors, both male and female – because it’s important that knowledge and skills are shared across genders.

Ali Gee

Ali Gee, deputy CEO of FleishmanHillard Fishburn

I had some vague notion that I would be good at PR. Truthfully, I’m not sure I really knew what it was, so it was a very naïve notion indeed.

I think men and women encounter adversity throughout their careers. Nobody ever had it easy. I’ve seen a lot of bullying in my time. I’ve worked in some hostile places and back in the day (a very long time ago) when I was at the beginning of my career, it’s fair to say office banter and culture pervaded in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable today. But I don’t think I’ve been held back by being a woman. In truth, I’d say it has helped on numerous occasions.

The landscape is changing for everyone in PR, not just women. The industry is (finally) acutely aware of the need to tackle lack of diversity head-on. And the skill-sets required to be deemed ‘good’ or ‘high performing’ have changed – it’s now important to have specialist skills and leadership involves softer skills than it once did.

But as far as women specifically are concerned, I think businesses are becoming much more active in support of women’s paths to the top. I’m on the Committee for Omniwomen – Omnicom’s initiative to support women’s journeys to leadership – and we invest a huge amount of effort in training, inspiration and guidance in this area.

Focus on being good. That’s what really matters. And use your network – for opportunities, for advice, for enjoyment and for reassurance on the way.

Claire Foster

Claire Foster, vice president of Women in PR and deputy head of news at Direct Line Group

Looking back, my path to PR was decided by a combination of skills, fate and nepotism. I chose marketing as a degree because of two reasons; I was good at (and enjoyed) English and Media at A-Level, and my dad worked in marketing.

During my second year, I studied a module on public relations and asked my dad if he knew anyone at a PR agency that could give me work experience. I spent the Easter holidays working for Jardine PR (ex F1 commentator Tony Jardine’s agency in Kingston) and I was hooked.

When I graduated, I was introduced to Wendy Harrison, MD of HSL, and I applied for a role as a junior account executive at her company.

Now I would not want to do anything else, and I am very aware of how fortunate I am that I had great role models and connections to get my foot in the door. Ironically, this is why I campaign against this selection process as we need diversity in our industry – it can’t just be the ‘lucky ones’ like me.

Adversity is a strong word. I attended a fantastic all-girls grammar school, where we were taught from a young age that we can achieve anything, if not more, than boys can. At HSL, if you worked hard, you were rewarded, and it was as simple as that.

Women in this industry do experience adversity, there is proof of this in the recent sexual harassment survey that Women in PR, the PRCA and PRWeek commissioned. It frustrates me when I hear of anyone experiencing inequality or injustice in a place that they should feel safe.

I have an amazing support network of friends and colleagues, but I know that others are not so auspicious. It is not acceptable and we must work together to change this.

I feel like there is no better time to be a woman. Apart from things that still divide us, like the ‘pink tax’ imposed on women from childhood through to pensions, we have more support from male feminists than ever before.

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, as well as Gender Pay Gap reporting, are catalysts for eradicating intolerable behaviour towards women.

Groups like Women in PR work hard to tackle issues like the female talent pipeline, misrepresentation at board level, and the aversion to negotiating pay and bonuses. I can’t pay back the help that I’ve had, which is why I choose to ‘pay it forward’.

I would advise women in the industry to:

  • Join an advocacy group like Women in PR
  • Find a mentor. I was accepted onto the PRWeek Women in PR mentor scheme in its second year, and my mentor, Gay Collins, at Montfort gave me advice that I follow to this day. Now in its fifth year, the scheme is stronger than ever, and preparing for its launch.
  • Find your cheerleaders and cheer-lead for others, your support can be invaluable and give someone the edge they need
  • Go out to schools and careers evenings and encourage pupils from different backgrounds to join our incredible industry. Better representation makes better business sense
  • Do the right thing – even when no-one is watching
  • Be the role model you wish you had
  • Join a board or a committee – you will gain vital experience
  • Network network and network some more. Although the caveat is to always make sure you listen to the people you meet. Don’t just go somewhere to broadcast and boast
  • Keep learning and sharing best practice – CPD is a must
  • Never give up
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