Single white female on diversity in PR


This is an article by Clare Siobhan Callery.
You could write for Behind the Spin too. Find out how here.

The issue of diversity (or lack of) in the public relations is one is one that has plagued the PR landscape and been the subject of several academic reports. It’s also a subject that’s close to home for me, especially after I blogged about ‘regional accent’s and their place in the world of PR.
I decided to delve deeper into the subject and find out the views of those in the field hold for both regional accents and also ask a few questions about the other controversial topics causing a storm, such as sexism and ‘classism’.
PR as a profession is known to be dominated by white, middle class females with the top positions being held my white, middle class men; and so a pattern begins to form. The lack of diversity has not gone unnoticed though, with much research going into the subject. I’ve had my own experience with the issue when began doing work experience at PR firms. My colleges would deliberately put on ‘Southern accents’ when dealing with clients and when I asked why they used a ‘phone voice’, the reason was that clients preferred this to listening to our regional dialect. People also believed that Southern clients could not understand our accents. While I agree some accents are harder to comprehend then others, I’d never found the Leeds accent particularly perplexing.
I’ll never forget the first time I spoke to a client on the phone in an office of particularly well spoken individuals. I felt all heads turn towards me and felt incredibly embarrassed at not sounding as articulate and clear as my colleges. But soon putting on a phone voice became to norm, although it was evident I would need more practice to perfect the ‘Northern Southern-friendly accent’.
My experience’s made me read more into the issue and I found some news articles that had also uncovered the discrimination against some regional accents. A Guardian article (HYPERLINK) stated that 46% of company directors believe a strong regional accent will be a disadvantage to those seeking success in business; not good news for those of us going into PR, where public speaking and presenting go with the territory. The article also features a lawyer from Yorkshire (my home turf) who felt she needed to get speech classes to change her accent in order to be taken seriously and that her decision has already helped her career. She states “Every accent has stigma attached to it. I don’t want people to think about my accent, I want them to focus on what I am actually saying.”
A social psychologist, Albert Mehrabian, is also quoted in the article saying “38% of a fist impression is based on the way we sound, compared to just 7% on what we say”- another scary fact for the PR practitioner. Surely is if so much focus goes on how we speak, we must improve our accent to the best we can to make sure our message doesn’t get lost in the “ye’s and ‘nay’s” or regional twang?
To further my research I was recommended to contact Anne Gregory, the current Pro-Vice Chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University and Director of Centre of Public Relations Studies, whom I was told has risen up the ranks without losing her native tongue. To speak with Anne I had to organise everything through her assistant, which made me realise just how important she was (and admittedly made me a little nervous about speaking with her). I was expecting Anne’s accent to be incredibly broad Yorkshire, so I was a little surprised when the voice on the other end of the phone was no broader then my own (which probably says something for how others perceive Yorkshire accents to be much broader then the inhabitants themselves). I learned that Anne originally came from Huddersfield and studied at Leeds University. Before becoming an academic, she had a range of PR related jobs from the BBC to Bradford a Bingley. As she explained that there it little stigma attached the accents in academic fields, the majority of her experience with the issue was during her PR career.
Anne was a one of the founding directors at Webber Chandwick in the 1990’s. The PR firm is based in Leeds but the head offices were based in London. She said that people expected the London workers to be the better PR practitioner, but from her experience those in the North were just as good if not better then their Southern counterparts and that the Londoners were often over promoted. Anne thought it was sad that the majority of PR jobs to this day are still London-based, especially before Leeds has developed such a vibrant PR scene due to it being an attractive city and rich in business potential. She believes there is no doubt in her mind that at some stage people have to move to London to further their career as that’s were the best jobs, biggest consultancies and biggest clients  are situated, but that places like Leeds are beginning to catch up. However, certain areas of PR like political and financial still have very little presence outside of London.
When Anne worked in Bradford, both at Bradford and Bingley as head of PR and the University of Bradford as director of communications, she experienced the same distain when it came to dealing with Southern agencies. Over confident PR consultancies believed they were dealing with less well trained and less able staff at Bradford University, and were often patronising. However, once they had met Anne in person or read any of her papers their attitude soon changed. Anne believed there was definitely a negative preconception of Bradford and the Bradford University team due to their location. Whilst working at Bradford and Bingley, she said they were always expected to travel to the South as clients never wanted to come up to the North, and that this then gave Anne a good indication of their attitude and service.
Despite this, Anne doesn’t believe that her accent has held her back in here career progression, but admits that she hasn’t really worked outside Yorkshire. She has felt conscious of her accent at times when other people have picked up on it, but adds that she is still proud of being from Yorkshire. With regards to advice for others, Anne says that it does depend on where you work, and if you do choose to work for a Southern firm then you may end up failing victim to the ‘Southernising tendency’ of the big London firms. At the end of the day, if you are working for a company you represent them which means that your strong regional accent is also representing them and this may not be something the firm wants. If changing your accent is not something you want to do, they you may have to be more picky about where you choose to work (because they may be just as picky when it comes to who is representing them).
Anne pointed out that in terms of a lack of a diversity and discrimination in PR and business, region and accent are not the biggest issue. Other factors do come into play, such as sexism, racism and classism. Being that Anne is a high flying female, I was particularly interested as to whether she has experienced any sexism in her long and prosperous career, especially as the high paying roles in PR are dominated by a male presence. Anne said that sexism is more prevalent in certain sectors where women do have a harsher time, but it is often hard to tell whether the women in the position are just overreacting or reluctant to say anything in case it could affect their future career. As the president of the CIPR in 2004, Anne felt that on a couple of a occasions she was treated differently and there were some situations where she felt things would have been different if she was a man, She didn’t feel like she was over prejudiced against, but there felt that she was symbolic as a Yorkshire women top end job which is a rarity in the male dominated business world.
Anne felt that some PR firms did have their ‘trophy black’ or ‘trophy disabled’ worker to show that they didn’t discriminate. One of the biggest issues in PR diversity is actually the background of the practitioner. Anne believes that coming from a working class background can actually have more of a detrimental affect then any of the usual forms of discrimination. Many PR practitioners are of high social class and are less accepting of those from lower classes. Coming from Huddersfield originally, this is an issue that Anne has had more problems with then sexism or her Yorkshire accent. But as a working class Yorkshire woman, she does now feel comfortable in her own skin. For academics like Anne, these issues are less of a problem as people are just accepted for the work they do, not who they are. When it comes to issues of prejudice she takes them very seriously, but does not take her self serious and feels this is the best way to approach it.
For a final insight into diversity in PR, I decided to get in touch with one of my journalist-come-PR practitioner contacts, Paul Rayment. Hearing how journalists, the people we in PR will be dealing with most of the time, perceive different accents would give me a greater understanding and help me see the issue from another point of view.
Paul, originally from the South, worked in consumer journalism for six years on the northern lifestyle publication ‘The Leeds Guide’. There he liased with PR practitioners up and down the country working on various parts of the magazine. He found that whilst dealing with Southern practitioners in the entertainment sector, though they were as efficient as to be expected from someone at the top of their game, they also came of as pushy and not very personable. Though Paul can’t say if this impression was solely from their accent, it is a preconception that has stuck with him since.
Most of Paul’s journalism work was in the property sector working with Yorkshire based agencies. Here he said the Yorkshire accent was actually advantageous, as Paul felt he had more faith in the practitioners because they sounded local and had more local knowledge. Though they were under the same pressure as their southern entertainment counterparts, they were not as forceful and more pleasant to talk to.
Paul has since moved from journalism to PR working in both the B2B and B2C sectors. His experience with accents in PR is rather interesting. He says that professionals in the Northern agencies did have watered down accents. Whether this was intentional or just a by product of working in the PR industry is unclear. However, the Southern practitioners also changed they way they spoke, to a very well spoken version of their original accents, similar to Received Pronunciation. Paul said it seems that both ends try and ‘southern-up’ their accents, just that if they are already from the South the processes goes one step further.
His words of wisdom for those going into the industry is that most PR practitioners will tend to mirror the accent of the person they are dealing with and in PR you will always be most comfortable when they get the chance to converse with those with a similar accent. Being originally from Essex he felt like he had more banter and more trust when talking to people from the same area.
When it comes to other sexism, Paul has worked with open in high positions who have overcompensated for being female, while he knows of others that have used their sexuality to advance in their career. He also knows that some men, whether clients or journalists, prefer to work with pretty, young blondes, though other men do look down on this practice.
Paul’s final words of wisdom where that race, sexuality and accent do differ from person to person, but from a PR point of view we should be looking at how to make the most of this rather then drawing negatives from it. As PR students we should adopt this way of thinking and rather then expecting to be treated differently, we should seek ways in which to make our identity work in PR. For those of us unwilling to change our accents, this could mean a successful regional based career. For female students worried about how sexism could affect them in the workplace, we should try and follow Anne Gregory’s footsteps a woman who has definitely bucked the trend of men dominating the top positions and never let her gender stand in the way of accomplishment. We are fortunate to be entering a working environment more diverse then it ever has been and ensure that are careers in PR are as successful as we can make them.

The issue of diversity in public relations has plagued the business and has been the subject of several academic studies. It’s also a subject that’s close to home for me, especially after I blogged about regional accents and their place in the world of PR.

I decided to delve deeper into the subject and find out the views of those in the field on regional accents and the other controversial diversity issues such as sexism and ethnicity.

PR is known to be dominated by white, middle class females – but with the top positions being held my white, middle class men.

Lack of diversity

The lack of diversity has not gone unnoticed, with much research going into the subject. I’ve had my own experience with the issue when I began doing work experience at PR firms. I noted how some colleagues would put on southern accents when dealing with clients and I asked why they used this phone voice. The reason given was that clients preferred this to listening to our Yorkshire accents, which they found hard to understand. While I agree some accents are harder to comprehend then others, I’d never found the Leeds accent particularly perplexing.

I’ll never forget the first time I spoke to a client on the phone in an office of particularly well spoken individuals. I felt all heads turn towards me and felt incredibly embarrassed at not sounding as articulate as my colleagues.

Clare Siobhan Callery

Clare Siobhan Callery

But soon putting on a ‘phone voice’ became the norm, although it was evident I would need more practice to perfect the southern-friendly northern accent.

My experiences made me read more into the issue and I found some news articles that revealed the discrimination against some regional accents. A Guardian newspaper article stated that 46% of company directors believe a strong regional accent will be a disadvantage to those seeking success in business – not good news for those of us going into PR, where public speaking and presenting go with the territory.

The article featured a lawyer from Yorkshire (my home turf) who felt she needed to take speech classes to change her accent in order to be taken seriously and that her decision has already helped her career. She is quoted as saying: “Every accent has a stigma attached to it. I don’t want people to think about my accent. I want them to focus on what I am actually saying.”

A social psychologist, Albert Mehrabian, is quoted in the article saying “38% of a first impression is based on the way we sound, compared to just 7% on what we say” – another scary fact for the regional PR practitioner. Surely, if so much focus goes on how we speak we should improve our accents to make sure our message doesn’t get lost in the “yeas and ‘nays” of a regional twang.

Going native

To further my research I contacted Anne Gregory, currently a Pro-Vice Chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University and Director of The Centre for Public Relations Studies.

Professor Anne Gregory

Anne Gregory

I was expecting Anne’s Yorkshire accent to be incredibly thick, so I was a little surprised when the voice on the other end of the phone was no broader then my own. I learned that Anne originally came from Huddersfield and studied at Leeds University. Before becoming an academic, she had a range of PR related jobs from the BBC to Bradford and Bingley. She explained that there is little stigma attached to accents in the academic world, but it was sometimes an issue during her PR career.

Anne was a director at Weber Shandwick. The PR firm has a Leeds office but the headquarters were in London. She said that people expected the London workers to be better PR practitioners, but from her experience those in the north were just as competent.

Anne thought it sad that the majority of PR jobs are still London-based, when regional cities like Leeds have developed such vibrant PR scenes. She believes that at some stage people may have to move to London to further their career as that’s were the best jobs, biggest consultancies and biggest clients  are situated, but that places like Leeds are beginning to catch up. However, certain sectors like political and financial PR still have very little presence outside the capital.

When Anne worked in Bradford, both at Bradford and Bingley and at the University of Bradford, she experienced the same disdain when it came to dealing with southern agencies. Over-confident PR consultancies believed they were dealing with less well trained and less able staff at Bradford University and were often patronising.

She believed there was a negative preconception of Bradford. However, once they had met Anne in person or read any of her papers their attitude soon changed.

Despite this, Anne doesn’t believe that her accent has held her back in here career progression, but admits that she hasn’t really worked outside Yorkshire. She has felt conscious of her accent at times when other people have picked up on it, but adds that she is still proud of being from Yorkshire.

In terms of advice for others, Anne says that it does depend on where you work, and if you do choose to work for a southern firm then you may end up failing victim to the ‘southernising’ tendency of the big London firms. If you are working for a company you represent them which means that your strong regional accent is also representing them and this may not be something the firm wants. If changing your accent is not something you want to do, then you may have to be more selective about where you choose to work.

Diversity and discrimination

Anne pointed out that in terms of a lack of a diversity and discrimination in PR and business, region and accent are not the biggest issue. Other factors do come into play, such as sexism and racism. As a high-flying female, has she experienced any sexism in her long and successful career? As the president of the CIPR in 2004, she felt that on a couple of a occasions she was treated differently and there were some situations where she felt things would have been different if she were a man. She didn’t feel there was prejudice, but felt that as a Yorkshire woman she was a rarity in the male-dominated business world.

One of the biggest issues in PR diversity is actually the background of the practitioner. Anne Gregory believes that coming from a working class background can actually have more of a detrimental affect then any of the usual forms of discrimination.

Many PR practitioners come from affluent backgrounds  and are less accepting of those from lower down the social scale. Coming from Huddersfield, class is an issue that Anne has had more problems with then sexism or her Yorkshire accent. But as a working class Yorkshire woman, she feels comfortable in her own skin. When it comes to issues of prejudice she takes them very seriously, but does not take herself too seriously and feels this is the best way to approach it.

For another perspective on diversity in PR, I decided to get in touch with one of my journalist-come-practitioner contacts, Paul Rayment. Hearing how journalists – the people we in PR will be dealing with most of the time – perceive different accents would give me a greater understanding and help me see the issue from another point of view.

Paul, originally from the south, worked in consumer journalism for six years on the northern lifestyle publication ‘The Leeds Guide’. There he liaised with PR practitioners up and down the country working on various sections of the magazine. He found that whilst dealing with southern practitioners in the entertainment sector, though efficient, they often came over as pushy and not very personable. Though Paul can’t say if this impression was solely from their accent, it is an impression that has stuck.

Most of Paul’s journalism work was in the property sector working with Yorkshire agencies. Here he said the Yorkshire accent was actually advantageous, as Paul felt he had more faith in the practitioners because they sounded local and had local knowledge. Though they were under the same pressure as their southern entertainment counterparts, they were not as forceful and were more pleasant to talk to.

Paul has since moved from journalism to PR, working in both the B2B and B2C sectors.  He says that professionals in the northern agencies do have watered-down accents. Whether this was intentional or just a by-product of working in the PR industry is unclear. However, the southern practitioners also shifted they way they spoke towards Received Pronunciation. Paul said it seems that northerners and southerners both try to upgrade their accents.

PR chameleons

Most PR practitioners will tend to mirror the accent of the person they are dealing with and in PR you will always be most comfortable when in conversation with those with a similar accent. Being  from Essex he felt he had more banter and more trust when talking to people from the same area.

When it comes to sexism, Paul has worked with women in positions of authority who have overcompensated for being female, while he knows of others that have used their sexuality to advance in their career. He also knows that some men, whether clients or journalists, prefer working with pretty, young blondes.

Paul’s words of wisdom were that race, gender and accent do differ from person to person, but from a PR point of view we should be looking at how to make the most of this rather then drawing negatives from it. As PR students we should adopt this way of thinking and we should seek ways in which to make our identity work in PR.

For those of us unwilling to change our accents, this could mean a successful regional career. For female students worried about how sexism could affect them in the workplace, we should try and follow Anne Gregory’s footsteps. We are fortunate to be entering a working environment more diverse then it ever has been.

Clare Siobhan Callery blogs at PR Student

Comments

  1. I’m not sure I can recognise a southern accent. Neither cockney nor estuary are attractive or acceptable (not exactly BBC English). West country accents are southern but sound rural and unsophisticated.

  2. I think that no matter where you are in the country you have a ‘telephone/business’ voice. Everyone wishes to be taken seriously, even the most southern of people with the biggest plums in their mouths put on a telephone voice that is different to their own.

    Something else that springs to mind when reading this article is also the difference in the sex of speakers, especially womens. When listening to other members of the press team on the phone there is a clear definition between the way women converse with ‘journalists’ and the way men do.

    Many of my female colleagues adapt a higher pitch, making themselves sound girly, small and unthreatening when on the phone, whereas male colleagues do not fluctuate in the way that they speak on and off of the phone.

    Why do women do this, I for one am a culprit and have recently attempted to stem the stream of silly girly tones that I blabber down the phone.

    Is it because we feel that we will be treated differently by the journalist if we appear non-threatening and effectively non-authoritive… Any thoughts anyone?

  3. intersting article but I stopped reading it at one point because of spelling / punctuation mistakes….

  4. Thanks for pointing this out, Cat. The spelling and punctuation errors are the editor’s responsibility (he’s normally a stickler for this sort of thing).

    We’re not supposed to be ‘accentist’ – but it’s still acceptable to punctilious about spelling, grammar and punctuation. But for how much longer, I wonder?

  5. I find that when I’m giving class presentations at university or even when I was talking on the phone in my last work placement, I have a similar problem myself – people just don’t want to take my accent seriously. I’m from Huddersfield (West Yorkshire) and believe that no matter where you’re from your opinion should be as valid and important as any one else’s. So why should we be afraid to express it? Our accent should not be discriminated against, it’s apart of who we are and should bring culture and diversity to the organisation.

  6. A fantastic role model for northern women spoke at the final CIPR guest lecture last night. Georgina Mitchell who is head of investment services at Redmayne Bentley, a self confessed “northern lass” who has made quite a name for herself in the media world.

    Georgina said that her northern twang coupled with her ability to simplify complicated jargon in to layman’s terms, went some way to creating her a niche and kept her in high demand as a financial commentator.

    Georgina told us that only 5% of investment service companies have a woman at the helm, however Keith Louden the chief executive of Redmayne Bentley encouraged the females in the audience to think seriously about a career in the financial services, “Some of the brightest talent we have ever had have been ladies, so come and knock on our door!”

    If Georgina is anything to go by then your Morely brogue should not impede your success Claire.

Trackbacks

  1. […] October 1, 2009 in Course Related, Current Events, PR Industry, Student Life, Work Experience, social media, twitter | Tags: accent, batley grammar, clare, clare callery, Clare Siobhan, claresiobhan, leeds, leeds metropolitan, pr student, regional accent, social media, twitter, university, Work Experience, yorkshire A more comprehensive version of this article including other diversity issues is available here […]

  2. […] This post was Twitted by LizBridgen […]

  3. […] Single white female on diversity in PR […]

Leave a comment