I work with a colleague who is smart, funny, has a degree in science, knows how to sell a story angle to the most cynical reporter… and also looks like a fashion model.
Being in technology PR, we often end up at networking events with mostly men, such as when we were responsible for the PR for a venture capital event attended by 650 men and 30 women.
Even though we do our job well, my colleague and I often talk about first impressions and getting over PR stereotypes.
Do you ever get the feeling that, when people find out you’re a PR practitioner, they talk down to you, don’t take you seriously or even start flirting with you?
This type of reaction to PR executives is pretty common, especially if you happen to be a young lady. In heels.
Unfortunately, thanks to how PR execs have been portrayed in mass media, people now have many negative stereotypes about us. Remember Samantha Jones, played by Kim Cattrall of Sex and the City?
A study of TV and film’s portrayal of PR practitioners (Everidge, 2010) concluded that positive and neutral portrayals are beginning to outweigh negative ones. However, they are often still inaccurate.
Common PR Stereotypes
This is the worst stereotype for PR practitioners. According to this stereotype, PR people are downright liars and snake oil salesmen. We spin or make up the “truth.” We make claims without evidence, or contrary to the facts.
Unfortunately in the technology industry, some of this is true. Companies are accused of releasing “vaporware” or hyping products that don’t really exist yet. As a PR practitioner in a world where you often cannot touch things or try it out yourself, it is up to you to really question the validity of a client’s claims, and be able to offer proof points that what they are saying is true. It’s often easy to get caught up in a company’s excitement so make sure and play the devil’s advocate – it helps you be better prepared for your job if you can answer the tough questions that will come your way.
A related stereotype is the “pig in lipstick.” This means PR execs dress up the truth to make it more attractive and palatable than it actually is.
A PR Bunny is someone who’s all fluff and no substance. According to this stereotype, PR work is all about throwing parties, getting dressed up, wining and dining media — and getting paid highly for it. In TV land, they are often named Muffy, Buffy or Tiffany and come from highly privileged families.
In other words, PR doesn’t require any real skills other than manipulating people and looking good.
It’s A Chick’s World
Another stereotype is that PR is a female profession. This is based on fact; the majority of PR practitioners are female.
Unfortunately, although females outnumber males in practicing the profession, there are more males in the area of PR education. Just look at the PR books in Amazon — most of them are authored by males!
In addition, according to the Everidge study, male PR practitioners tend to be portrayed more positively in media than their female counterparts. Females are usually shown in a neutral light.
Help the World Understand PR
Even though media portrayal of our profession may be improving, negative stereotypes persist. And these can affect our relationships with others as well as our work.
How do we break free from these stereotypes?
The answer is to be as professional as possible in our work, and to help the world better understand exactly what it is we do.
- Never lie, fudge the truth, or manipulate statistics.
- Dress professionally – it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.
- Take your job and yourself seriously.
- Educate yourself. Keep yourself informed, not only of your industry, but of current events.
- If you have the chance, teach others about PR.
- Females, don’t shy away from managerial roles.
- If you’re female, write a PR book.
It’s infuriating to be treated like a spin doctor, PR bunny, or dumb PR girl. Channel that anger to educate others about what you really do. Grab every opportunity to let others know what PR work entails, and what business value we bring to our companies and clients.
Have you ever been a victim of a PR stereotype? How did you handle it?
Elena is founder of a technology PR agency that works with startups to billion-dollar companies. She is passionate about helping marketers and small business owners with practical publicity strategies.
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