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.
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.
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.
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.
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