Public relations suffers from a woeful lack of diversity, and the situation’s getting worse…
At the start of my seventh decade, I should be coming into my own in whatever is my chosen media field. That’s what the public relations effort on behalf of oldies generally tells us, at any rate. We baby-boomers are part of a demographic bulge, we’re wealthier and fitter than our forebears, having nicked all the money, free education and inflated property from the generation that will succeed us.
But the truth is that, not only does tomorrow not belong to us, but we’re really only leasing today. Technology is, apparently, a tyranny of the young. Any incremental advance in the wired world can be absorbed intuitively and instantly by the under-30s. Those supple thumbs uploading to Instagram and WhatsApp on mobile devices are, I suppose, why it’s called the digital revolution. We, the analogue generation, are the media pterodactyls watching technology’s meteorite crash into our hitherto perfectly ambient world.
Having returned a decade ago to journalism after my commercial break in comms, I can view my peer group in PR with a degree of objectivity. We’re seeing the slow demise of a mature communications species by the suffocation of a new technological hegemony, like watching wasps in an upturned glass. Or so the advocates of a sort of professional Darwinian determinism would have it.
To explore these issues, I turned to my friend Robert Phillips, who is still in professional rehab after a 25-year career in PR culminating in being Grand Imperial Wizard EMEA – or something like that – at Edelman. (Transparency alert: Robert and I co-founded Jericho Chambers with Christine Armstrong).
Robert, as ever, widens the picture: “The PR industry has long deluded itself about diversity. Representation among BME communities remains poor. Gender balance in senior leadership positions is shocking. The lack of differently abled people within comms teams is woefully apparent.”
Yes, Robbo, but what about we oldies? Ah yes: “And the industry is probably ageist to boot – somehow it neglects those who often have both the experience and war wounds to match. The over-40s either get closed out – especially if they are working mothers – forced out, or booted upstairs where desk jobs and bean-counting seem more important than giving great counsel. No wonder the PR industry has an eternal talent crisis.”
This is existentialist stuff, but doesn’t the same geriatricide face the downstream world of journalism? Let me spend a para or two on the comparison with journalism, as it’s one of the few things I know something about.
Many obituaries have been written for journalism (often by journalists). But to see the demise of the media (manufacturing) as congruent with that of PR (service) is to commit a category error. Some of we oldies are enjoying an evening in the sun in journalism – because while the managements of the new media know all about coding, metrics, platform distribution and programmatic advertising algorithms, they realised quite recently that they know slap all about journalism. So, oddly, there is still a role there for the elderly in content provision and editorship.
I could go further: A neat definition of journalism is telling people what they don’t already know. Another neat definition – particularly if you’re old enough to be past caring – is that public relations is telling people what they already know or don’t want to know. In a world in which the media are atomised and, as they say, everyone is a journalist because of the ubiquity of social media, then the genetic code of PR is going to fall victim to our old friend natural selection. So the late middle-aged of the PR profession are washed up on history’s beach with the broad-faced potoroo and the dodo.
Yes, I know. These observations commit the cardinal sin of confining PR to the traditional role of media relations. This is said to be another kind of category error. As such, I’ll be about as welcome in a new-millennial PR magazine as Katie Hopkins at a Guardian Masterclass. PR is about so much more than young people doing media relations, innit?
But there is an alternative view and it’s this: No it isn’t. I’ve heard a lot over the years on both sides of the PR/journalism fence about how PR is now a sophisticated management consultancy function, multi-faceted (yes, more than two-faced) and really really clever. This is why consultancies have dropped “public relations” or “communications” from their brand names and have stopped using a drawing of a megaphone to illustrate their proficiency at media relations.
If that’s so, then why is almost everyone I meet in it, of any age, obsessed with media, whether mainstream or social? Even the public affairs pros follow the media like they’re dogs on heat. And, call it what you like, that’s a young person’s game.
So, if PR is a young person’s game, it’s time to address two important questions. The first is this: Is PR essentially frivolous? Because frivolity is associated with being young, having fun, doing what you need to do to get on the property ladder. Young people do frivolous things.
And the second question arises as a consequence: Is PR something you grow out of? One might be tempted by the view that those who have made a lot of money out of it tend to go on to do something else, something – well – more grown up.
Perhaps some do. But there are plenty of elder statespeople in PR who seem to thrive on it. I remember a few years ago driving through the south Californian desert in a limo to some conference with Peter (Lord) Chadlington of Shandwick and Huntsworth fame. It was a weird sort of road movie. We talked, he wrote a speech, kicked off his shoes, went to sleep, then woke up as we entered Palm Springs.
“I love doing this,” he said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else, or ever stopping.” He was no spring chicken even then and used to describe himself, as Randolph Churchill said of Gladstone, as “an old man in a hurry.” I expect he still does.
Others seem to get a bit wistful. Tim (Lord) Bell in his autobiography describes being old as “horrible”: “Illness, pain, loss… I’m minded of Mick Jagger in Hyde Park asking if anyone in the audience was older than he was, and only about three of us put up our hands.”
These two occupants of the spin bench of the House of Lords are probably an exception that proves the rule: PR is a young person’s game. And that is what’s so odd for an industry that claims to have come of age and to be at the top table (though I’ve never bought that proposition). You’d think that experience – like being able to remember the secondary banking crisis of 1973 when the banks nearly went to the wall in 2008 – would count for rather more than the ability to top-up an Oyster card, whip about town and stay up all night.
Not that the young do that. When I turned up on the Daily Telegraph in 2008 after a 16-year absence from staff journalism to make my wedge in PR, the first thing that struck me was that those half my age never left the office. Same for young PR people. Does no-one meet other people anymore? If the digital revolution has spawned a generation that only works at screens, then the competitive advantage must be with older folk who develop working relationships.
I suspect that what we’ll find is that digitisation has given us a lost generation, those who like Marshall McLuhan think that the medium is the message and who believe that they shape their technological tools, when in reality those tools are shaping them. I also suspect that the professional markets that they inhabit will demand a substantive response that depends on wisdom and insight rather than just to act as conduits.
In that sense, the first digital generation is not unlike the post-modern secularist generation that was lost to the churches. In both cases there is a generation coming along behind that knows better. For the sake of humanity, as well as the over-40s, we’d better hope there is.
Article by George Pitcher.
George Pitcher was industrial editor of The Observer before co-founding the communications consultancy Luther Pendragon, which he exited in 2005 after a management buyout. He’s also been religion editor of the Daily Telegraph and editor-in-chief of the International Business Times UK, and is chairman of Jericho Chambers. He’s also an Anglican priest.
Originally published in Influence magazine, January 2016.