It’s a widely acknowledged phenomenon (Bernstein) that public relations is dominated by females. This trend has interested me since the day I started my public relations course and noticed the obvious shortage of male students.
My final year dissertation was a good opportunity for me to explore this further. I eventually decided on the question: ‘Why is public relations an attractive career choice for women?’
There seemed to be a lot of research to show that public relations is dominated by women – but there was little or no interpretation as to why this is. So I decided to find out.
Public relations has not always been dominated by women and in 1983 Bates explained how some worried about the impact of an increased number of women in the industry. “If women become a majority in public relations, the practice will be typecast as ‘women’s work’”.
The shift in balance towards women has led to much stereotyping. Frohlich and Peters’ study reveals how “the evolution of a ‘PR bunny’ stereotype adds a negative touch to the image as ‘natural born communicators’”. This negative stereotype surrounds women working in the industry and makes it harder for them to prove themselves through their work.
This is having an unfortunate affect on the public relations industry as explained by Doe: “PR babes whose qualifications lie in their looks rather than their brains…they’re costing companies credibility”.
I wanted to find out if those working in public relations (so-called ‘PR bunnies’) recognised the importance of PR as a profession and not just as an excuse to attend glitzy parties and drink copious amounts of champagne. I had my suspicions that the media may have had an impact on this view of the industry through programmes such as ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ and ‘Sex and the City’. A UKTV Gold blurb about ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ says:
“if you thought PR was all about, champers, parties and free lunches – err…you’d be right. Well if Ab Fab is anything to go by”.
To set about answering my research question I decided to undertake some primary and secondary research. The secondary research supported the assumption that there are more women working in public relations than men (CIPR, 2008) and that there are many more females enrolling on public relations degree courses.
The primary research involved questionnaires and interviews and revealed some interesting observations.
So how do you see public relations? Maybe you view it like one female graduate working for a consultancy, as “communicating, socialising, problem solving and glamour”.
Or maybe you have a more realistic view of PR and the way in which it is portrayed, similar to that of one male respondent working in-house: “I think the general perception of PR is that it is more suited to females and their qualities, especially in terms of networking etc. This is not necessarily the way that PR is, but it is often the perceived view.”
I do not think that public relations has totally moved on from its perceived glamorous image and the need for its workers to be ‘good communicators’. In turn these features of the business are highlighted through the media, forcing people to think a certain way about the industry.
Once people have this stereotype in mind is hard to remove, therefore women believe that they have the personality to suit the industry and are attracted by the more glamorous side of it and tend to disregard the mundane, businesslike aspects of the job.
This stereotype has done some damage to the public relations industry, but with good education – through the evolution of public relations degrees – future generations of PR practitioners will have a more realistic image of the industry before they start out and will be able to articulate this to the general public.
If you, as an undergraduate public relations student, take anything away from this article let it be this quotation by Kate Nicholas:
“I’m sure that anyone who recruits is familiar with the eager-beaver letters from Edina Monsoon wannabes, whose sole concept of PR has been forged by watching reruns of Absolutely Fabulous. These letters invariably include the term ‘creativity’ at least three times and wax lyrical about how much the writer likes ‘working with people’ – a phrase that constitutes career death in PR.”
Bearing this in mind will help change the perception of the public relations industry as it appears that the image being portrayed by the media is incorrect and out of date. It’s not quite as glamorous as they make it out to be, but it’s also more important to the world of business.
Photos by Victoria Louise Crampton
Bates, Don (1983) A Concern: Will Women Inherit the Profession? The Public Relations Journal, 39 (7), 6-8
Bernstein, Jack (1986) Is PR Field Being Hurt By Too Many Women? Advertising Age, 57 (7) 66-67
Chartered Institute of Public Relations (2008) Information about the CIPR and the Public Relations Industry. [Internet] Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Available From: www.cipr.co.uk/News/factfile/index.htm [Accessed 4th February 2008]
Doe, Tamasin (2008) Fashion PR: The Unprofessionals. [Internet] The Independent on Sunday. Available From: www.independent.co.uk/news/media/fashion-pr-the-unprofessionals-506520.html [Accessed 13th January 2008]
Frohlich, Romy and Peters, Sonja (2007) PR Bunnies Caught in the Agency Ghetto? Gender Stereotypes, Organisational Factors, and Women’s Careers in PR Agencies. Journal of Public Relations Research. 19 (3) 229
Nicholas, Kate (2005) That People Person May Be Your Next Boss. [Internet] PR Week. Available From: www.prweek.com/uk/search/article/528545 [Accessed 10th October 2007]
UK TV Gold (2007) Absolutely Fabulous. [Internet] UK TV Gold. Available From: www.uktv.co.uk/gold/item/aid/528040 [Accessed 6th January 2008]