A woman of little substance

June 24, 2008

A first-time post here for Nicola Miller, Communications Manger, Thames Valley University. If you’d like to contribute, please do drop me/James a line on Facebook.

This week, the international PR industry gathers for the fifth annual World Public Relations Festival & Conference, being hosted in the UK for the first time. But whilst there will no doubt be plenty of healthy professional debate taking place, what about the global debate that needs to be addressed surrounding the unhealthy image of our profession? I’m talking about the comprehension of public relations beyond its own sector, and the image of its female practitioners in particular.

I know from experience that the practitioner role is taken very seriously by those working in and with us in our industry. But when will the rest of the world, the television-watching one that lies beyond the CIPR’s doors, finally catch on?

Sex and the City has a lot to answer for. Like most viewers of the multi award-winning TV series and now box office smash, I’ve been amused by its characters’ exploits, baffled by their wardrobes and staggered by the number of sexual partners they’ve collectively worked their way through (it’s 95, in case you were wondering). But from a professional viewpoint, I have one ‘Big’ problem with SATC, and it’s not a Mr: It’s Samantha Jones, the PR woman.

Friends think that I ought to be flattered by the show’s portrayal of a strong-minded, sexy female working in the same job as mine and who knows what she wants. But it’s the depiction of this ‘profession’ that makes me want to pull my hair out.

Samantha’s job seems to revolve entirely around casually throwing together every exclusive bash in New York and then attending them with her friends in tow. We all know the reality would be very different. I guarantee Samantha would be found running around backstage at any of her events, trying to keep everything and everyone to a watertight schedule. Just to shatter illusions even further, most of us in PR do not occupy our time planning lovely parties. Events are far more likely to consist of a corporate lunch or two or, if you’re lucky, working on a stand at the occasional conference, which is bound to be on an exciting topic, such as steel production or beekeeping.

Sex and the City is not the first programme to have damaged the reputation of women in PR. Jennifer Saunders did it first, of course, with her satirical portrayal of Edina Monsoon in the brilliantly funny ‘Absolutely Fabulous’. But a big part of the comedy lay in the ‘joke’ that Edina worked in PR, a job with so little substance to it that turning up was optional and when you did, it was an endless round of parties, drinking and the occasional lunch with Lulu. And don’t forget Bridget Jones famously ‘fannying around with the press releases’, to quote Hugh Grant in the film as Daniel Cleaver.

They say ‘sex sells’, but there is a loaded sub-text to the chosen profession of the sexually experienced character of Samantha. She even states in one episode that; “’I’m in PR’ translates as ‘I’m good in bed’”. Would Samantha’s character be as convincing if she were an accountant, or a chef, perhaps? The not-so-subliminal message is that working in PR is suited to women and neither they nor their profession should be taken too seriously. When you consider that SATC sets out to empower its female audience, it’s rather depressing. Even if it were a true depiction, what about the corporate communicators, those working in politics and generally making a difference for their clients or within the organisations where they slave away?

I cannot be alone in cringing at the thought of my mum watching Kim Cattrall play Samantha in SATC, but I recoil at her opinion of what her two daughters do for a living. No wonder she still thinks I’m going to come to my senses one day and ‘get a real, professional job’. I have a profession, just not the fictitious one that the rest of the world sees on screen.

I think it is time for some non-fiction please. The PR industry needs to do more to counter the stereotypical image of PR as an occupation that can be entered without relevant training and education. We need to do a better job at policing the reputation of our own industry.

Ironically, though perhaps not surprisingly, Samantha, Edina and Bridget are doing nothing to damage the appeal of working in public relations. Nothing could be further from the truth, with roughly 48,000 people working in the industry and PR regularly featuring amongst the top three career choices for graduates, many of them female.

Furthermore, a recent salary survey from industry bible PR Week illustrated that a career in public relations can command an increasingly attractive salary with employers set to maintain levels of graduate recruitment levels in this industry.

But why do so many fresh-faced young graduates want to work in PR over most other areas of employment? Should the industry be slapping itself on the back for offering such excellent salaries, working conditions and job satisfaction, or be concerned at the possibility that PR is being viewed as a soft-option, a Mickey Mouse career that can be done by anyone who knows how to hold a conversation and a wine glass simultaneously?

My suspicions that PR is not viewed as a serious profession were aroused when I learned that, across the country, applications to study public relations degrees were down once more this year, according to UCAS figures. Do those planning their careers not consider PR to be a vocation that values or requires the tailored education provided by universities? If you were pursuing a career in anything you perceived to be a true profession, wouldn’t you want to study for the appropriate qualifications in order to practice it?

I hope the delegates at the World Public Relations Conference remember that not all the world views PR as we do. If not, I know of a beekeeping conference they may prefer.

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6 Responses to “A woman of little substance”

  1. Sophie Smith Says:

    My argument would be that Samantha’s character was not defined by her being a PR but by her outgoing, no-holds-barred personality. Was she ever supposed to be a serious depiction of a PRO?

    If we’re looking for examples of television which pokes fun at the roll of PR, how about the BBC’s Absolute Power or even The Thick Of It. The portrayal of Machiavellian spin doctors often seem to fly by the seat of their pants, making terrible judgement calls and still save the day in time for last orders at the bar. But they make excellent entertainment!

    What a can of worms you’re opening if we’re going to discuss television’s inaccurate portrayal of professions within dramas though?! Holby City is much more exciting than any hospital I’ve ever visited, and we all know than the officers of Sun Hill would in reality spend far more time at their desks filling in paperwork.

    Drama does inherently glamourise. If it didn’t then it would probably be pretty boring! For what its worth, I think Samantha is a pretty accurate representation of a certain type of publicist (note I didn’t say PRO or comms professional). One who love flashy launch events and is always walking round with a cocktail in hand. I’ve met my fair share of wannabes who DO make a living from it somehow.

    If the industry needs an image change, then it needs to come from within. Nick Davies’ Flat Earth research suggests we regularly embellish or even lie to journalists to obtain coverage for our clients. I’d say that’s a far more worrying revelation about our profession than the fluffy and pretty harmless Samantha!

    Soph xoxo

  2. Craig McGill Says:

    Just a quick comment for now as this deserves a lengthy response, but on the issue of people entering PR, the reason I’m hearing from people is the same reason people aren’t entering journalism – the pay and perks just don’t measure up to what people want. Also, a lot of places are now under the impression that marketing can cover the PR dimension of clients.

  3. charlie salem Says:

    Nice piece.
    On a more a general note.I am new to this blog / site.
    Could anyone give me details of a website / service i can purchase editorial contacts.We need to alert via a presss release attached to an e mail and follow up by telephone the right editorial types of a story that has appeal to sectors such as classical music / technology / marketing / entertainment features in radio, web, press and TV? My e mail is charlie12@totalise.co.uk. Thanks

  4. James Gilheany Says:

    Google Gorkana and you won’t go far wrong.

  5. Jennifer Says:

    I’ve replied to this over at my blog so I’ll only leave a short response here.

    I completely agree with Sophie Smith. I do not think that TV programmes such as ‘Ab Fab’ and ‘Sex and the City’ are designed to be taken seriously. Most people are intelligent enough to realise that and need to be given a bit more credit!

    I think that people like Alistair Campbell have had much more of a negative impact on perceptions of our profession than a few silly references in Ab Fab.

    Jen 🙂

  6. Michele Says:

    Thank God SATC doesn’t define our profession. As much as I love the show, professionals know this is a TV show and TV character and is a caricature of reality much like CSI, ER or Grey’s Anatomy. If only there were a Dr. McDreamy every time I’ve walked into an ER room in my life.

    PR has always been misunderstood, and as part of the marketing process, considered only free advertising by the clueless client. It is the PR professionals responsibility and challenge to show their client the value in a strategic PR plan. Some of the additional responsibilities of execution as called out in your blog are just part of marketing the PR initiatives; throwing a great party or having to stay in a booth at a trade show waiting for the press to drop by can be some of the less boring activities we have to do to make a plan really work.

    My opinion; Samantha Jones gives the profession a bit of NY glam, bed hopping aside, but then, that’s what the character is about, not her profession, although she has a very hot, glamorous office which again is rarely a reality…and neat! The thrust of the show is not any of their professions other than the fact Carrie is a writer. Remember, this show is based on non-fiction. Single women in the NY dating scene. As an aside, a little grass roots market research of 4 single, dating women in the same age demographic anywhere in the US would probably come up with the same number of men…more than likely, higher.

    A great PR professional can dispel any misconceptions about the profession with a smile, a knowing nod, a wow presentation/proposal and the ability to make it happen.

    Hang in there…and go buy some stiletto’s! Have fun!


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