The public relations industry likes to tout its professionals as the authentic storytellers in the marketing mix. However, we haven’t always walked the talk as an industry.
When I began my career, there was a definite stereotype of what a PR professional looked like and how we behaved. Most were white men and women who graduated from journalism school or were molded by the new PR programs popping up in various community colleges. The industry was dominated by women, while men had a firm grip on the executive ranks.
Most agencies in those days had dress codes, with one multinational famously insisting that women wear pantyhose to work and skirts to all meetings. Junior people were relegated to taking notes and carrying copies of the presentation that were dutifully collated and placed in duotangs. If you were under 30, you dare not speak in a client meeting.
I was lucky to land in a place with a leader who was sometimes authentic to a fault. We used to joke that Media Profile was the place for PR misfits — an agency where non-PR types were encouraged to “fly their freak flag,” thanks to our wonderfully freaky founder Patrick Gossage.
Fast forward to 2020 and the new agency world. We hear about the importance of authenticity everywhere. But what does it mean and how do you foster it?
Lead by example. Don’t be afraid to be open and vulnerable. Tell it like it is. Be honest, apolitical and an active listener. Admit mistakes and what you’ve learned from them.
Mix it up for brainstorms and meetings. Don’t silo your teams and thinking. Sometimes the best ideas come from the most unexpected people.
Maintain professionalism but let people express themselves through their personal experience and style. Clients are likely to be more impressed with what your colleagues say than what designer they’re wearing. And if the latter is true, you may not want them as a client.
Be engaged with employees as individuals. Research suggests that when people are leading with their personal values, they feel a greater sense of wellbeing, lower levels of depression and more engagement at work.
Discourage politics and games. Flatten out your approach to steer people away from managing up and kicking down.
Tap people at all levels to strengthen culture and connections. Ask everyone, no matter their role, how you can help them.
Respect the work–life balance. If you want inspiration, creativity and fresh thinking, then foster a culture that empowers people to achieve it. Personal experiences and skills will often enrich your thinking.
To me, one of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been the blurring of lines between the personal and professional. Kids and pets are creeping into Zoom meetings and people are openly sharing their mental health struggles. I don’t think the work has suffered. In fact, this openness has helped us all stay a little more connected. And that’s authentic.