Super should trump superficial in PR

By Bruno Piscatelli,

There was some disgruntlement in the private members’ clubs. Did the luncheon claret leave a nasty taste in the mouth? What could have led to such harrumphs of disgust?

CIPR’s immediate past president, Sarah Hall, has suggested that PR has a posh problem. Read her piece here.

Quite what they will make of this on the playing fields of Eton is anybody’s guess. And, though I’ve never met her, I believe she’s from ‘the north’ too. You know, proper north. Newcastle way. Not Hertfordshire or Bedfordshire.

Is being posh a problem in PR? Certainly not. It opens doors. Sometimes too many doors. At events, you can sometimes see the Home Counties set recoiling when they are approached by someone with a broad regional accent. The cut-glass tones and immaculate (and invariably expensive) presentation can be a veneer that masks a lack of substance and sincerity. It’s high time this elitism was called out. Kudos to Ms Hall for having the guts to do this.

Where I struggle with the sentiment of Ms Hall’s piece is in relation to public school education. It’s not a particularly shocking revelation that only 6.5 per cent of the UK population received a private education, yet the privately educated account for 31 per cent of the PR population.

That’s not necessarily an indicator that someone is either affluent or even well-educated. I know some products of this system and they are amongst the most lazy and boorish creatures ever to have crossed my path.  Meanwhile, my comprehensive school turned out some proper geniuses. I did not rank amongst them.

I also know parents of middle- and even low-income families who have frankly sacrificed everything to get their children private education, just because they wanted the best for their kids.

The private vs state schooling argument may be slightly disingenuous, but quite a lot of PR – and business more generally – is based on networks and networks come about because you have something that someone else wants or vice versa.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having networks. If there were, LinkedIn would have a real problem for a start. It’s why we share our contact details with others. Don’t be shocked if a recipient of your card gives you a call. My point is that the path to any sort of career success is often helped along by those with influence.  And if you don’t have access to those people, your life is likely to be harder.

For those starting out in their career, the influencers can be parental networks. This raises ethical concerns. Put simply child A, daughter or son of an industry high flyer may get opportunities that probably won’t come easily, if at all, to child B, whose mother works in a chippy and whose father is unemployed.  And it actually doesn’t matter if child A is a lazy boor and child B is a prodigy.

I got burnt once when I was invited to take the child of a ‘influential’ senior executive under my wing for a few days of work experience. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, if you get my drift.  And there it sat, at the hot desk. Grumpy, disinterested, ticking a box to say that work experience had been completed. No interest in PR. There by dint of who his father was, he’ll have something on his CV that others won’t have. And it may not matter in the long run because work experience probably doesn’t matter, but it might just have opened a door later on.

What hope for child B? The latent PR genius doesn’t have those connections. They are consigned to the generic school work experience list. They write blogs, they post videos online, but they can’t afford the latest trends to talk about and they don’t get invited to ‘society’ events.

Their straight As at A-Level won’t get them into the top universities because they are from a secondary school with a sink estate in its catchment area. Social selection exists in academia as this article on The Independent’s website – and many others besides – seems to demonstrate.

It’s easy, when in a position of privilege, to say that the industry should be free to elevate whoever it chooses for glittering careers, but it is easily wooed by top-flight academic institutions on CVs and perhaps the people saying this demonstrate the problem that Sarah Hall has highlighted. Ability sometimes doesn’t matter when really it should. She’s not calling for those who have benefited from the independent school system to be ostracised but she’s trying to get balance in our beloved industry.

Having managed what can only be described as a diva who hailed from a privileged background, I can say she was more focused on her promotion prospects and reaching a certain level of seniority by the age of 30 than she ever was on simply doing a good job day-to-day.

But when someone who really shines comes along, it is a joy to behold. No social barrier should stand in the way of this and certainly no prejudice about their income, background, ethnicity or education. By setting up her charity, Ms Hall clearly aims to break down those barriers.

Let’s get behind her on this.

Bruno Piscatelli London-based comms stalwart.

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Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

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